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The 'Ick' Factor: Villains, Veils and Vision | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

The 'Ick' Factor: Villains, Veils and Vision

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According to The Onion of some weeks ago, Michael Jackson died years ago and was replaced by an alien body snatcher whose presence at Neverland can be documented by the faint but distinct flapping of invisible leathery wings. It captured something, that description, a pervasive sentiment that there is something peculiarly otherworldly about this trial. More recently, I heard commentators on NPR's On the Media describe the trial as one that has not gotten the kind of attention that other celebrity debacles have commanded. Unlike Scott Peterson or O.J. Simpson, People magazine has given almost no cover status to the Jackson case. He doesn't fit the "narrative," apparently. The narrative requires a victim who can play the role of innocence aggrieved and a defendant who can embody pure villainy. While Jackson's trial is appalling, it is not the stuff of ordinary tabloid catharsis; as one commentator put it, this is just plain "icky."

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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The precise nature of "ick" went undefined. But it undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that while there's plenty of underage sex, it's allegedly of the homosexual persuasion, which tends to send your average reporter into paroxysms of anxiety. There's a race card bandied about, usually good for some fun, but no one's quite sure which race that might be. There's untold wealth but not a bit of it spent on things most grownups would covet. And while there's an abundance of graft and greed and shady dealing, it sullies every soul within fifty miles of the courthouse; there's just no one to root for.

This exceptionalism, however, disguises the degree to which there is a narrative norm at the core of this. Not just a story of pedophilia, which surely makes it so particularly hard to ponder, but also a plot line that merges P.T. Barnum and Count Dracula. The very strangeness of the trial marks an aversion from seeing, an awkwardness about naming, a hesitation to judge. It is an odd reaction, given the moral temperament of the times; it is a departure from the no-holds-barred rhetoric of good versus evil, of innocence and guilt.

Michael Jackson's narrative is not a simple one that fits onto the front page of something like the New York Post. Rather, there is a maze of narratives all running in quite complex and opposite directions. First of all, the allegations are not that different from the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. Much like (if also utterly different from) a priest, Jackson has spent his life cloaked in a certain reverence, accorded a degree of trust and hero worship that looks blind and foolish to those of us beyond the ring of enchantment. There's the tangled narrative of Jackson's sexuality: People have speculated that he is gay; his marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and at least one of the mothers of his children were generally met with leering cynicism. But whether he is gay or straight somehow seems to miss the point when it comes to the kind of pedophilia with which he is charged: I'm no expert, but it seems to me that he hasn't grown up enough to have an adult sexual identity; he seems stuck at some stage of prepubescence, when life was just one big happy pajama party. I am intrigued by the extent to which Jackson's behavior has suggested the need for psychiatric intervention for a very long time. I wonder that no one in his personal or professional life has insisted on it.

I am intrigued, too, that Jackson's projected childishness has been so engaging to the public, over a period of decades, rather than tragic or troubling. Not so very long ago he was held up as a model for young black men. The first President Bush had him to the White House. His song "Man in the Mirror" was used to urge self-respect, even though Jackson had the face of a carved jack-o'-lantern even then. There has been great public ambivalence about holding him to adult standards in any sphere, not just his sexual behavior; one wonders if the arrested development of his masculinity may have been somehow comforting to the culture at large. He's a kind of castrato black man-child, presumptively not a sexual predator, the un-O.J., iconically and pathologically immature. Indeed, his peculiar surgical agelessness makes it hard to look at him and wake from the delusion. Even his eerie whiteness has not so much cross-raced him as made him look like he's wearing a mask: His unearthly pale face, delicate as a geisha's yet these days with a jarringly dark stubble of beard; his big-man hands insistently huge and an ugly surprise, contrasting with the innocence of his voice and bizarrely captivating moon-colored face. That he is a full-grown man of nearly 50--a composer, a choreographer and a businessman of considerable acumen--remains almost invisible.

Finally, of course, there's the narrative of those around Jackson: greedy celebrity hounds, shady parents, nutty caretakers, troubled older boys (a category of victim whose credibility is more vexed than that of younger girls) and assorted hangers-on, not one of whom hasn't stolen some knickknack from Jackson's home in order to sell it off on eBay. However pathological Jackson's identity may be, the jury will have to decide if it's not also entirely possible that he was set up by a Dickensian procession of liars and ne'er-do-wells.

The media try to follow all this, but they sense the powerful magical quicksand in this one. The crosscurrents are confusing and treacherous, the going murky. Jackson performs whiteness, disembodies blackness. He performs femininity while disembodying masculinity. He performs childishness while disembodying his adultness. At the center is this extreme redundancy of disembodiment. We know the trial of such a one can only end badly. Michael Jackson convicted and sent to a real prison with genuine beefcake? Michael Jackson acquitted and going back to raise his veiled, shadowy, got-to-be-damaged brood? Am I the only one who feels that he needs another kind of institution? Is there not a Betty Ford clinic for the sexually traumatized, where Michael Jackson and Courtney Love and Paris Hilton and all Hollywood's lost boys and girls can find solace and grieve for their ruined childhoods and finally, perhaps, grow up?

But I guess there's not a script for that.

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