To me, the most arresting image of Michael Jackson was President George H.W. Bush citing him as a role model for young black men. It was 1990 and Jackson was at the height of his fame. “Man in the Mirror” had been released two years earlier. Jackson had not yet gone into full white-face disguise, but the handsome little brown boy of his first album had long since entered the bizarro phase of rhinestone gloves. I wondered then what on earth about Jackson could ever be a role model for anyone. Musical savant though he was, Jackson was, almost from the beginning, a tragic figure–so obviously trapped in that mirror, forever reflecting what others wanted him to be.
In the wake of his death, many have hailed his “crossover appeal.” There is no doubt that his musical acumen led to the integration of MTV; but that “appeal” had a more sinister undertone. If Elvis was “the White Negro,” so Michael fashioned himself into “the Negro Caucasian.” He literally erased himself before our eyes, his nose slowly disappearing, his skin fading to ghostly pallor, his voice growing higher and whispier, his body evaporating to a dry husk of barely a hundred pounds at the time of his death. It was hard not to be fascinated by him as he molted through all possible confusions of gender, race and sexuality. But his transgressivity was more than just theater; he mimed a narrative of constant paradox and infinite suffering.
By now the stories of that suffering are well documented: Jackson’s body was scarred from the abuse that his father, Joe, a former boxer, administered to him when he was a small child. Marlon, Michael’s brother, wrote of one particularly chilling incident: his father held Michael upside down by one leg while punching him repeatedly. There are the stories of his father creeping in through his bedroom window at night wearing a fright mask–apparently to teach him not to leave the window open. Joe Jackson has denied ever beating any of his children, though he freely admits “whipping” them with straps and belts. According to him, “You beat someone using a stick.”
No wonder Jackson grew up to resemble a walking, talking fright mask, playing with the putty of bodies, of childhood, of kindness, of trauma, of forgiveness. What remains inexplicable, however, is the absence of social, ethical or legal limit to the excesses of Jackson family life. Michael was addicted to so many painkillers that in 2007 one pharmacy sued him for back payments totaling $100,000–thirteen months of prescriptions at nearly $10,000 a month. Who were the medical professionals behind this kind of mind-boggling malpractice? Who were the surgeons who performed so many plastic surgeries on him that his nose collapsed into his skull? Doctors are ruled by an ethical obligation to “do no harm.” Medicine is a practice, not a commodity fun house filled with new noses and chins and feel-good opiates to be issued like goodies from a Pez dispenser.