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Michael on the Couch

Michael Jackson wanted to look different, to be different, to go back to his unhappy childhood and relive it and try to make things better. The difference between him and ordinary neurotics is that he could.

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It is a late Monday afternoon, the unseasonably benign weather has suddenly turned cold, winter jabbing us in the ribs, and I am sitting in my shrink’s office, talking about Michael Jackson’s recent arrest on child-molestation charges. All that raving pathology thrust once again into the glare of the headlines, his face caught in that creepy, deer-in-the-headlights mug shot, and everyone looking on, snickering and ogling, horrified and fascinated at the same time. That mixture of fame and fragility always seems to bring on the wolves.

I find myself feeling protective on his wounded, weird behalf—or, perhaps, on my own wounded, weird behalf. I am discussing how vulnerable he is, how skinless. I say I don’t believe—on the instinctive level where we all make such assessments all the time—that he is a pedophile, and that he strikes me as presexual. Which is not to say that he’s transcendently sane, like, say, Mr. Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver (although one might argue that Jackson is more like the Beaver himself, which is to say that if television were reality and Beaver Cleaver didn’t have to grow up, things might never have gone so awry). When the shrink nods, I don’t know whether to interpret his nod as a sign of assent or simply an indication that he is listening to me as I dedicate my 50 minutes to the analysis of Michael Jackson by proxy. I wonder aloud whether Jackson has ever sought psychiatric help: What exactly is wrong with him, in clinical terms?

I talk about him as though he were an invisible sidekick, representing the parts of me that I have learned to hide—the infantile wishes and regressive longings that swim under the surface of adult life. Only in Jackson’s case, he has been hiding in plain sight for years, what with the wigs, the false lashes, the makeup, the shades, the Halloween getups, the parasol, the surgical masks. Peekaboo, I see you. He puts me in mind of a children’s book my daughter used to love when she was very little, a book that began “Jesse Bear, Jesse Bear, what will you wear, what will you wear in the morning?” I always paused right before “morning,” and she would always fill the word in, wobbling over the “r” in “morning” so that it came out maw-ning. I think part of the allure of Jesse Bear was that it seemed as though he could begin all new again every day. Simply by deciding what kind of clothes he wanted to wear, he could decide whom he wanted to be. If only it were that simple.

In watching Jackson’s increasingly Houdini-like efforts to break out of the prison of who he inexorably is, we see the painful no-exit dilemma we are all stuck with as chronologically finished products— grown-ups by any other name. On the one hand, Jackson’s increasingly bizarre efforts to crawl out of his own skin reveal what we have suspected all along—that personal identity is an imperfect construct, one that is wobbly and full of glitches. Its center is fragile, and in psychological extremis often as not begins to show fissures. As we’ve watched Jackson’s combination of self-destructive and self-fetishizing impulses play out, what has been no less vividly exposed are the limitations of a given identity—even in these cosmetically transformational, “anything is possible” times. The cultural Zeitgeist of personal omnipotence—epitomized by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s trajectory from a humble Austrian background to the governorship of California—makes it easy to forget that the delicate construction we call a “self” is not an infinitely malleable object.

For those of us who harbor a special fondness for the young Michael Jackson, who remember him as an impossibly animated little boy who made frequent guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, performing as the pint-size lead singer in the perennially cheerful family musical group known as the Jackson 5, the distance he has so clearly wanted to put between himself and his origins is especially disconcerting. He was a human jumping bean with a well-behaved Afro, a heartbreakingly open smile, a huge voice, and a precocious ability to convey grown-up emotions. But what demons had we failed to pick up as we watched him, in black and white, from our living rooms, some of us already in pajamas—demons so extravagant that they required a desperate pilgrimage from one mutation to the next? What legacy of family disrepair had been hidden behind the smooth television presentation of that improbably polished crooner who should, by all rights, have only recently graduated from listening to bedtime stories?

There is something about Michael Jackson that reminds me of those plastic replicas of the male and female body we all saw at some point during our formative years (as the Wonder Bread commercials called them). These see-through models, in which the organs are on display—the brain, the heart, the kidneys—were meant to help us understand how humans worked from a scientific, biological perspective. Unmappable terrain like the emotions didn’t show up, of course, which left us in the dark about something that was at least as important to us as where our gall bladders were located. In some sense, Jackson is a flesh-and-blood version of those models, only this time the area on display is the whole submerged terrain of the psyche. He represents in his one tortured and talented being every conflict of identity imaginable—beginning with race and gender—on the most astonishingly primordial level.

He is, in a way, a psychiatrist’s diagnostic dream—or nightmare. If you were to throw the book at Jackson—the psychiatric Bible known as the DSM-IV—most of it would stick. He is, one might conjecture, an Axis II borderline (borderline being one of those catchall terms that are used to describe people whose problems lie somewhere on the continuum between garden-variety neurosis and blood-curdling psychosis) who suffers from body dysmorphic disorder (a relatively newly diagnosed psychic ailment that means that one is preoccupied with an imagined defect—that you continue, say, to experience a consuming hatred for your nose even after you’ve had it reshaped to look like Marilyn Monroe’s); gender-identity diffusion; and some variant of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). And that’s just for starters. One imagines he has sought therapeutic help, like the former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who looked to a New Age therapist—a Svengali of sorts—to overhaul his psyche, one dominating father replacing another. Then again, Jackson’s might well be the plight of the VIP therapy patient, essentially untouchable except through his handlers. “I doubt that therapy would have helped him,” observes Glen Gabbard, a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine and editor of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, “because he created an environment with unremitting narcissistic mirroring so that he wouldn’t be sufficiently motivated to explore his inner world in a therapeutic process.”

In other words, welcome to Neverland. Given enough immunization in the form of wealth and celebrity, a person is free to relieve the tormenting pressures of his or her fantasy world in the sort of floridly eccentric, boundary-violating ways that would never be tolerated from people in more ordinary circumstances, who are subject to more stringent societal constrictions (or, as may be the case, safeguards). What Jackson’s decades of freaky behavior with the gloves and the pet chimp and the dangling of a baby over a balcony—not to mention the transformation of his face from that of a black man to a grotesque parody of a white woman’s—speak to is the near-absolute convergence of an individual symptomology and a cultural pathology in which age and maturity are the enemy.

Would Michael Jackson be where he is today—would he be Wacko Jacko, as the Brit tabloids have nicknamed him—if someone had read aloud from Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny as he drifted off to sleep instead of “training” him (Jackson has referred to his steelworker father, seemingly unironically, as a great trainer) to perform on command? Whether his father abused him or merely subjected him to harsh discipline, it is clear that Jackson was yanked out of his childhood well before he had finished growing up. Shades of the prison-house—to borrow a phrase from one of the great poets of childhood, William Wordsworth—closed too early upon this particular growing boy from Gary, Indiana. If nostalgia is often bittersweet, nostalgia for what you didn’t have must create enormous pain. And for people who have never had a childhood, being a grown-up isn’t where the glamour is.

Now all Michael Jackson wants to do, at the age of 45, is to stop time and refind that vanished childhood, replay the trauma and make it turn out differently. I can’t say I’ve ever believed he’s much interested in anything other than having affectionate sleepover dates with these 12-year-old boys, if only because he seems to be too confused on a core level of gender-identity to be recognizably erotic in his functioning. “This is about pregenital longing,” says Gabbard. “You can definitely have regressive longing without violating boundaries.” On the documentary about him that was watched by 27 million people when it appeared ten months ago, Jackson explained his feelings on the issue in his strangled, wispy voice, which made perfect sense from a 9-year-old’s perspective: “Why can’t you share your bed? The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone.” Still, I’m not sure how much room our culture allows for a 45-year-old man to snuggle up with a 12-year-old boy. Does our imagination of what love can be stretch far enough to include an admittedly exaggerated romance with the concept of childhood itself?

Meanwhile, what we have before us is a drama of damage, handed on down the generations, as it always is. Depending on whether you see Jackson as unjustly hounded or as a nutjob who’s gotten away with pedophilia, he is either a little boy lost, preyed on by scheming and foul-minded adults—or a scheming, foul-minded adult preying on little boys lost. The truth is undoubtedly more ambiguous than either of those scenarios, as it usually is. For to the extent that we all live on primal as well as socialized levels, being an artist requires that one live on a more primal level than other people. That Jackson has greater access to the outlandish desires of his unconscious—and in the process to ours—can hardly be in doubt. That he has far greater license to flamboyantly act out these desires than we do—whether it be a wish to have alabaster skin, or to be feminine, or an eternal boy-child in a world of boy-children, or, again, some impossible mix-and-match incarnation of everything on the verge of becoming everything else—is what endangers him and, paradoxically, saves us. “Oh, mama, mama see me, I’m a pop star,” Cat Stevens used to wail like a hyped-up kid back in the seventies, when Michael still had his old nose and shade of skin, before Neverland clanged its gates shut around him. Not long after, Stevens saw the light and renounced the permanently juvenile pop-star life. Sadly, Jackson is still trapped in his lonely playground.


Related:

  • Archive: “Cover Story
  • From the Nov 8, 2003 issue of New York
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