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Michael Jackson – A Tragic Hero
It is the tragedy of modern times. A young man is born with incredible talent and promise, and then achieves unimaginable success early in his life. A glorious future is predicted, but instead his life is a series of increasingly strange behaviors and events, culminating in his untimely death. Michael Jackson is called the “Prince of Pop”, but he should be known as the tragic hero of our time.
Who was he really? Michael Jackson, paradoxically, was both the most public and the most private personality in the last half century; the man everyone in the world knows about, but few, if any, really know. He guarded his privacy cruelly; sometimes she goes to extreme and even bizarre steps to hide her appearance and that of her children. He was there, but he wasn’t, and now he really isn’t there.
His tragic story began more than 50 years ago. According to many accounts, he was severely beaten and verbally abused as a young child, and was ridiculed by his father for the size of his nose and the color of his skin. At a very young age he and his brothers became world famous, but he stood out as a star. Fame is never an entirely positive thing for a young person: it pushes a false, public persona onto an unformed personality and confuses the young person about their true identity.
The combination of early childhood trauma and very early fame is like nitro plus glycerin: very explosive. MJ never had a chance to discover who he was as a normal young person. He was a Teenage Heartlob; Music Sensation, Shining Star. These personalities laid on the highest abuses are like a magnificent mansion standing on a fragile foundation. Inevitably, everything must come crashing down.
There were early signs that things were not right. He didn’t date like a regular guy, but he had hard-to-define relationships with other famous people. Some were much younger and some much older. For most people, we could say, “This partner is right for them” or “This partner is completely wrong for them,” but for MJ, no partner seemed to be right for him. In fact, his sexuality was as confusing as his choice of companions.
Then there was plastic surgery. The pictures taken after his first nose job showed a good-looking young man, but the second one made him look too nice. Up until then he had appeared to be a normal, if thin, young man, but after the second operation he became increasingly androgynous in appearance.
After multiple surgeries, it was obvious there was a serious problem. His face looked disfigured. According to some reports, the tip of his nose was destroyed by too many surgeries and he had to wear a prosthesis. It was almost a relief when he came out wearing the mask he often wore.
His eyes were no better. They seemed to bulge under his over-prominent brow; lined with heavy black liner and unnaturally long lashes. His bright red, feminine lips were stretched and drawn like a middle-aged woman who had one too many bad facelifts. This handsome young man has turned into someone terrifyingly deformed.
The most confusing thing was the color of his skin. Growing up, he had the typical features of an attractive African-American male. However, as the years passed, he faded and lost all evidence of his African ancestry. There was a cruel joke going around that implied he started out black and turned white. No one who was not in the know could visually connect the young Michael Jackson with the man he later became.
Beyond the point where he became grotesque, his face still continued to change. He may have been working in a futile attempt to repair damage caused by previous surgeries, or he may have a condition known as “body dysmorphic disorder,” in which someone falsely believes that one or more parts of their body are unacceptable and need to be changed. From one public appearance to another, he looked different, changed. No one knew what to expect. His face was a work in progress, never finished, and perhaps this was the most appropriate metaphor for his identity.
Despite his ever-changing face, he was instantly recognizable. Long frame, military inspired jackets and skinny pants. Aviator glasses and long hair. At one point, one glove. And yet his personal identity seemed so unstable. He engaged in numerous compulsive behaviors. In addition to the constant change in his appearance, there was also his excessive spending, disordered eating pattern, multiple substance abuse, and his pattern of being around young boys.
He was accused of many bad deeds, and he was acquitted of some of the charges against him. One lawsuit was settled out of court for possibly millions of dollars. There is no way of knowing if he was guilty of anything more than reckless choices. Whatever behaviors he actually had, all of his compulsions could be considered the result of early and ongoing childhood trauma.
Some people said he had issues with race, which he vehemently denied, claiming he was proud of his heritage. Then it was confusing when he adopted three white children. He claimed his two older children as his, but the genetics of that would be so small as to be practically impossible. He was briefly married on two occasions, and both wives were also white. This could all be a coincidence, but it makes us wonder if he hated his father so much that he tried to erase everything about himself that might be similar to this abusive and rejecting paternal role model.
Sometimes MJ did wonderful things, like “We Are the World”. Sometimes he did horrible things, like dangling a baby over a balcony in front of a group of reporters. He sometimes did inexplicable things, like trying to buy the remains of John Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” who suffered from a disfiguring condition called neurofibromatosis. It’s chilling to think that he wants to own the bones of a man who was seen as a physical freak and who tragically died quite young.
MJ bought a ranch and named it “Neverland”. He seemed obsessed with the symbols of eternal childhood. People with early and severe trauma often have difficulty growing up and seeing themselves as full-fledged adults. They tend to remain childish in their appearance and attitude and naïve about how the real world works. They cling to their past, hoping to create the happy, loving childhood they never had. Is that what Michael Jackson did with his zoo and merry-go-round? Is this why he, like Peter Pan, surrounded himself with his group of “lost boys?”
Recently it seemed to stabilize somewhat. He allowed his children to be seen in public without masks and veils. He settled comfortably into his role as a doting father and his legal troubles were behind him. He embarked on a large series of concerts and diligently practiced for the performances. His death came as a huge shock to many people, but perhaps not to all. After all, there was still a fantastic mansion tottering precariously on weak foundations.
It was recently discovered that MJ has such a severe sleep disorder that he used general anesthesia to sleep. The doctor who administered this anesthesia outside of a proper hospital setting has a lot to answer for.
Apparently, the temptation of unethical behavior was too great for plastic surgeons, family doctors and many other health professionals involved in MJ. They put their desire for personal gain, whether in the form of money, power or access to stardom, before what is good for them. Perhaps they were so in awe of his greatness that they simply could not refuse his inappropriate and dangerous demands, even when they should have
He was in numerous dysfunctional, symbiotic relationships with people who were supposed to be looking out for him, but who instead exploited or subjugated him. Paradoxically, the fact that he had as much money and power as he did allowed anyone around him to become the catalyst for his self-destructive behavior.
It is possible that like many survivors of childhood abuse who struggle with deep ambivalence and denial about their past, MJ refused the help he was offered. However, unlike most people, he had the ability to thoroughly isolate himself from the very individuals who might insist on distancing himself from the toxic factors in his presence and getting real help for his problems.
We may never know why he did all the wonderful, horrible and inexplicable things he did, and therein lies the greatest tragedy. It is clear that many people loved him, but no one seems to have been able to address his emotional wounds or help him receive the therapy necessary to deal with his early trauma. If only there had been someone in his life who knew the truth about his past and had the courage and wisdom to take a stand; maybe his life could have been saved.
(C) Marcia Sirota MD
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