Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What (Not Who) Killed Michael Jackson

In the media frenzy about finding who to blame for Michael Jackson’s death, I got to thinking about personality development (you know me: “can’t stop till I get enough”) and the influence of our culture on who he became. I remember him as a young child as the lead singer for the Jackson Five in the 1970’s. Seeing those early TV clips now brings back memories of his total enthusiasm for singing and dancing. Hearing his Thriller album again brought back the optimism of the early 1980’s. I was the Director of the Seattle University Child Care Center at the time, and when the kids hesitated to eat their vegetables we used to joyfully sing with them “Eat it, Eat it!” to his song Beat It.

What went wrong for Michael? I think he absorbed some cultural traits that seeped into his personality development and contributed to his death. He was driven. There are many reports of him being an abused child. As with many abused kids, he wanted to be someone else. He created an image of himself and tried to live it in a way that few people can even try. It seemed that he wanted to be what counted in our culture: being white, forever young and forever a star. He fought reality in a way that only a star with millions of dollars can indulge. Instead of learning to live with life’s limits, he went over the top challenging them.

He’s a handsome man on the cover of his Thriller album – reportedly the largest selling album of all time. Soon after that his appearance started to change. His nose. His skin color. It seemed that he was becoming white, although he always denied it and said that his skin suffered from a rare condition.

MTV before Jackson was quite white. Ironically, he is credited with opening it up for black performers. Too bad he couldn’t continue with his success as a handsome African-American man. But if you were in his shoes and had gazillion bucks in this culture, what would you try to do? Especially if you were an abused kid with an image of yourself in the mainstream culture you were trying to fulfill?
Michael never had a childhood. His father pushed him and his siblings to perform, starting out poor in Indiana and ending up with huge wealth in Los Angeles. He was the lead singer of the Jackson Five from at least 6 or 7 years old, if not before. He didn’t seem to have normal playmates of his age, to just hang out with and fool around with. His brothers were older and he was always working and traveling. In a recent interview with Quincy Jones, he was described as a studious performer – always studying what others were doing and trying out new moves. He invented the Moonwalk. (I still have no idea how he did that – going backwards while he appears to be walking forward!) He put dance troupes into rock videos. He seemed to be a perfectionist.

But he also was a man-child. He often dressed in clothes like a character out of a children’s movie, with a fake-military jacket, etc. He spoke in a child’s voice. He created the Neverland Ranch (like Peter Pan) and invited young children to share it with him. He invited them to share his bed too, and went on national TV saying that this was just fine to do. I can imagine him, still a “child” himself, thinking that this was totally innocent. He ran away to Europe and Japan, where he was still a star. For the last decade or so, he was viewed skeptically as a possible child abuser and very eccentric (“Wacko Jacko”) in the U.S.

Jackson died at 50, while working very hard at making a comeback. He created his own title in the 1980’s: The King of Pop. He was going to show the world: This is It! (the title of his tour). He was apparently heavily in debt, from living beyond even his means. He had a reputation as a spender. He seemed to be still driven - trying to fulfill an image of being someone who looked wealthier and more successful than even he was. Now he was going to prove to the world (and himself?) that he was still a star. Apparently, he was so driven and stressed that he couldn’t sleep. He did what only a superstar can apparently do – paid for a sleep treatment that would not have been available to anyone else. If news reports are true, the primary cause of his death may have been an anesthetic which is not a sleep aid and only to be used in hospitals, where its high risks can be carefully managed.
He died trying too hard to get enough – in a culture that seems to always demand more.

[Bill Eddy is an attorney, psychotherapist, and the author of “It’s All YOUR Fault!” 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (2008), available from High Conflict Institute.com.]

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