Readings — From the July 2019 issue

Lost Boy

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From the introduction to a forthcoming edition of her book On Michael Jackson, which was first published by Pantheon in 2006.

In the first year of the twenty-first century my American editor and I sat in a restaurant talking about Michael Jackson. We hailed his uncanny brilliance and mourned it too—thirty years of making music, dance, film; crisscrossing styles, genres, types, and tropes; confounding cultural codes. We brooded over the rumors and scandals that were turning him into an object of derision, even revulsion. We wanted, we said, to give him his due “before” (my editor’s words) “he self-­destructs . . . before he’s destroyed,” my editor qualified, “and self-destructs.”

Events moved too quickly: I couldn’t finish the book before he was arrested for sexual abuse in 2003. Jackson was indicted in 2004; he was found not guilty in 2005; he was found dead of a drug overdose in 2009.

And now, ten years after that death, he holds dominion over us all once more. In the quiet, somber documentary Leaving Neverland, two young men in their thirties look into a camera and describe the childhood years in which they had sex with Michael Jackson. They use that flat phrase, “had sex,” so I will, too. They describe, almost wonderingly, how much they loved him, even worshipped him. They make us understand how often and how much sexual abuse depends on a child’s looking up to a powerful adult: trusting, needing, maybe loving that adult. Molestation and abuse are harsh, unambiguous words, but we can’t fully understand them unless we understand that they are often inseparable from the lures and ambiguities of seduction. These feelings get all mixed up in a child’s mind and body. So we must not separate the acts and the aura of seduction from the acts and aura of abuse. Michael Jackson was a cultural deity. And of course these boys were thrilled to be in his presence—millions of people twice, thrice, and four times their age were thrilled to be in his presence, if only via computer screens, concert stadiums, and memorabilia. Imagine meeting Michael Jackson face-to-face. Imagine being the child whom a god chooses as his favorite.

Michael Jackson, one of the twentieth century’s greatest—most exhilarating, innovative, and influential—popular artists, was first accused of sexually abusing Jordan Chandler in 1993. Jackson was thirty-five years old. A financial settlement was agreed upon. Ten years later, in 2003, Jackson was arrested and charged with sexually molesting another boy, Gavin Arvizo. The fifteen-week trial that began on ­February 28, 2005, was an immersive and clamorous multimedia spectacle. Everything Jackson owned, from his penis to his art collection, was examined and photographed by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. Reports on their findings, some official, some leaked, went global. The trial was televised daily with frenetic commentary. Eighteen months and twenty-one days after his arrest, Michael Joseph Jackson was found not guilty of all charges.

But legal innocence is a far cry from public exoneration. He’d been disgraced. He was in debt. He made people squeamish. His record sales wavered and dipped. Nothing was beyond the shadow of any sort of doubt. Supporters insisted that the financial settlements were his only way to avoid further exploitation by families eager for money and willing to put up with notoriety. Doubters and opponents pointed out that surely more investigation was needed: after all, there had been previous accusations, multiple rumors, and Jackson’s unabashed admission that he shared his bed with boys. He couldn’t be tried again. The case moved to the court of public opinion.

And he moved about like exiled royalty—Bahrain, Las Vegas—plagued by debt, dependent on the hospitality of royals and moguls. He became an iconic figure in celebrity scandal-­and-downfall narratives. There was the male sexual-downfall narrative, which stretched across the twentieth century from Fatty Arbuckle to Roman Polanski, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry to Pete Townshend. There was the drugs-and-disfigurement narrative, represented by Elvis Presley and by every aging woman star mocked for addiction problems and plastic surgeries. Jackson was all but expunged from journalism’s official narratives of pop innovation and glory.

When I wrote my book, I was grieving for Michael Jackson the artist. The uncanny little boy; the charismatic, slightly mournful young man; the shape-shifting child-man-woman-­cyborg-extraterrestrial. The cultural polyglot who studied—mastered, gloried in—so many styles and traditions, one to whom no form of popular music and dance was alien.

I was grieving and I was confounded, even obsessed. Michael’s acts and actions were like hieroglyphics we kept trying to decipher. We—for I was a fan, too—wanted him to explain himself in a way that could restore our trust. Child stars make us believe we understand them, that there’s mutual trust between us. We were baffled by our collective memory of Michael the loving, lovable child who was now shutting himself off from us.

I grew angry, too. He didn’t want us to understand him; he wanted us to love him unconditionally. He was going to keep lying about his facial surgeries, keep pretending not to be angry at his father, stay sealed inside that sweetness­-and-light persona of his. All of which would harm his ability to keep making good and great art. His expense of spirit in a waste of shame, I called it, meaning the expense of his talent in a waste of psychological and sociological torment. Now I also mean the expense of spirit—his psyche—in a waste of sexual shame.

I was relieved, I was grateful, when he died. He can get it all back with his art now, I thought. We can glory in that. And we did. Death restored his reputation as an artist. In the years that followed his grisly 2009 passing—the drug overdose, the frantic attempts at C.P.R., the corpse in the body bag, the autopsy details—there was a Michael Jackson renaissance. Pop, jazz, and hip-hop musicians adapted and sampled his songs; two generations of dancers recycled and recharged his moves. Multiple ways of reading his art sprang up and flourished. Academics began reading him through deconstruction, postcolonial, and queer theory; performance, gender, and cultural studies. He became the avatar of a transracial, transgender, and trans-­species world. And this made me happy.

But now, Leaving Neverland has placed new demands on us. When a Shakespearean tragedy ends, the stage is littered with dead bodies and a calm authority figure surveys them, pledging to record the horror and end the chaos. On the world stage of Michael Jackson’s life, the bodies belong to young boys, the order-­restoring figure is Neverland director Dan Reed, and, in an eerie doubling effect, two of the boys have returned as young men to tell their own stories.

Am I chagrined and shamed that when I wrote my book I couldn’t push myself to acknowledge that this damaged man was almost certainly a sexual predator? Of course I am. As a critic I’m invested in believing I’m not in the grip of naïveté or denial. I tell myself that at least I wasn’t alone. A lawyer friend observed recently that in the Eighties and Nineties the sexual abuse of children was still (his words) a black hole in the culture’s consciousness. That black hole had a fierce gravitational pull: we circled around it, but we did not peer down it to deepen our knowledge of its social reach and psychological intricacies. We confined ourselves to certain plots and narratives. There were the Catholic Church narratives—interestingly, the Eighties and Nineties saw the first revelations of systemic abuse in the church. There were the plots and subplots of popular detective shows such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The plots and subplots of certain movies, such as Mystic River and Precious, were still some years off. The crises that have created #MeToo and similar movements show how little we knew and how little we chose to know about . . . what’s the range of words? Sexual harassment, exploitation, molestation, assault, and abuse, across all divisions of class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and age. We know that few of the victims, perpetrators, or complicit bystanders are famous. The famous ones can turn the story into a public tragedy that stirs our pity and terror. But no catharsis is available.

What happens now? In print, online, face-to-face, we talk through what we feel, ask what we should do. Some people say we need to “cancel” Jackson, stop listening to him, stop watching him for a time. Some radio stations and streaming services have done just that. Fashion houses have pulled designs bearing his image or (too obviously) his influence; statues have been removed in several European countries. But these are short-term actions. And some of them are shamelessly hypocritical. There’s a push to have Jackson removed from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If that standard of sexual exploitation and abuse were justly applied, the Hall’s membership—most of it male and swaggeringly heterosexual—would be decimated.

These are short-term quarrels and controversies. In the meantime, Wade Robson and James Safechuck have sued the Michael Jackson estate, and in retaliation the estate has denounced them and sued HBO for a potential $100 million. I find myself rooting for these young men to win any legal and financial recompense they possibly can. Such recompense is usually the only form of public justice available to sexual abuse victims. And there are cases still pending, all centered on powerful men who have sexually exploited and abused the far less powerful, usually girls and young women. How will the law and the public deal with these?

Finally, there are long-term cultural questions that plague us, questions about the relation between art and life. Usually, these questions take the form of: Can we, should we separate the life from the work? And how would we do this? Can we grapple with these questions and not hide behind old-school simplifications such as:

1. We must not separate them because history has shown that the art will inevitably reflect the corruptions of the life. (This is usually followed by a list of the ethnical and political ills such art can wreak on society.)

2. We must separate them because art is on the side of freedom; it offers beauties and pleasures that transcend the confines of moral disapproval. (This is usually followed by a list of major artists who have lived their lives as fascists, Nazis, misogynists, or white supremacists while producing major art.)

Art versus life is too simple. Are we talking about our personal opinions and judgments of the art and the life? Or do we mean judgments, actions, and opinions shaped by social systems, by law, politics, and history? We need the intelligence and the will to make these distinctions—in ourselves, not just in the art we choose. What makes us love or hate an artist? What makes us love and hate an artist, feel pleasure and unease, confusion and bliss all at once? What private needs and longings do we each bring to the work we love? When the dark materials of a life pervade, even taint the work, does that mean we must cast it off? It might mean that, but it might also mean that we fight for the parts of it that matter to us. We gather our resources in all their plenitude and variety: intellectual, emotional, moral; aesthetic, ethnical, political. And we use them to analyze and demystify the work, to probe its clashes and contradictions, and to feel its power without being at its mercy. No evasions, no simplifications. The task is to read the art and the life fully as they wind and unwind around each other, changing shape and direction.

I  saw Leaving Neverland three weeks ago. I haven’t listened to or watched Michael Jackson since. By the time you read this, though, I suspect I will have come back to the work. It’s hard for me to imagine a lifelong renunciation; it’s equally hard to know what I’ll make of performances I’ve loved for decades. The little prodigy who made his television debut at age eleven, commanding the stage in a wide-brimmed purple hat. The Motown twenty-fifth anniversary television special where, glittering in silver, black, and white—a dervish and a dandy—he performed “Billie Jean” and moonwalked us into another galaxy. The dance solo in “Black or White” where, on streets, sidewalks, and finally atop a car, he emits primal screams, shatters windows marked by racist graffiti and unfurls an astounding combination of African, break, and tap dance? Remembering them, I ask myself, Who better understood the lure of oppositions in a performer? He was fragile and feral, percussive and sinuous, vulnerable and imperious. We can’t erase what his art gave us.

As for his life, we’ve long seen how charming and generous he could be. Now we’ve also seen how calculating, selfish, and gripped by demons he was. We can’t erase or unknow that. We can only accept it, acknowledge what it stirs in us—despair, grief, anger, compassion—and try to turn it into wisdom.

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