More Than a Monster

In a scene from the acclaimed 1999 film Three Kings, Iraqi soldiers capture valiant American soldier Troy Barlow, as played by Mark Wahlberg. They tie him up, and threaten and brutalize him, but he heroically stares them down -- until one of his captors asks, in silkily accented English, "What is the deal with Michael Jackson?"

Barlow, of course, is taken aback: "What?" And it's easy to see why he was confused. Michael Jackson is one of America's most fascinating -- and perplexing -- public figures. The video for 1982's "Thriller," in which he morphs from a clean-cut young hunk into a slavering werewolf, set a precedent for MJ'S increasingly terrifying transformation.

No longer a full-fledged pop superstar, Jackson is now remembered by the American public as a death-mask creature who danced atop a truck while being charged with multiple counts of child molestation. Dismissive conclusions, like "He had no childhood" or "He's a monster," are the refrains that most of us feel comfortable with.

Perhaps that's why only a handful of biographers have attempted to tackle Michael Jackson as the subject of a serious work, despite the fact that he is one of the most important, influential pop stars of the 20th century. To do justice to the mess that is Wacko Jacko, one must cover -- among other topics -- racism, sexuality, the media, child abuse and capitalism.

So I was excited to check out the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times critic Margo Jefferson's recently released essay collection, On Michael Jackson (Pantheon, 2006). Finally, a writer might give this gifted musician -- and troubled man -- the thoughtful analysis he deserves.

Wisely, Jefferson does not attempt to chronicle MJ's life in a traditionally linear sense. Most of the general details have sunk into the public consciousness anyway: Jackson's abusive father and timid, nurturing mother; the blinding success of Thriller and the havoc that followed. Instead, Jefferson's book is organized into five essays, most of which focus on a particular aspect of Jackson's work. "Freaks" examines MJ's similarities to men like P.T. Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey fame) and Walt Disney, plus the creatures they showcased. "Home" analyzes Jackson's family, specifically, his mother Katherine's attempts to win her sons' affection (to both herself and her religion). "Star Child" ruminates on the "kiddie performer" phenomenon and the sexual precocity of songs like the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back." "Alone of All His Race, Alone of All Her Sex" discusses MJ's racial and sexual hybridization: the origins of his androgynous modes of dress and dance, and the "Uncle-Tomming of Motown."

Jefferson's final essay, "The Trial," is the only one that doesn't refer to Michael's performances, and in it Jefferson reaches a blunt but not entirely surprising conclusion: that Michael Jackson has a critical mental illness.

In the hubbub surrounding Jackson's trial, in which he was portrayed respectively as a martyr, a victim or a monster, few have come to this conclusion with greater honesty and compassion. More often, it's stated as "That @!* craaaaaaaaazy," and usually followed by laughter.

Last year, Jackson was charged with ten counts of child abduction, performing lewd acts on a child and administering alcohol to encourage child molestation. His various circus performances -- and the performances of the media -- before, during and after the trial made it hard to concentrate on the bare facts that child molestation is wrong and possibly humanity's cruelest crime. As AlterNet's Monica Mehta wrote after Jackson's trial ended, child molesters are widely considered the lowest of the low -- even in prison, where they're separated from other convicts and often killed by fellow inmates.

But in "The Trial," Jefferson reminds us to avoid idealizing children as innocent, sexless angels. She doesn't portray Jackson's accuser as a seducer. Instead, she argues that Michael Jackson does not exploit children; rather, he falls in love with them and they with him, because he relates to them so well. This condition, defined as a "state of ecstasy and frenzied emotion in relation to the unattainable, sometimes used in reference to pedophilia," is called nympholepsy. While Jefferson never directly names the disease she believes Michael Jackson has, she does say that nympholepsy is only one of a barrage of psychological disorders that Jackson might have -- all induced by childhood trauma or emotional deprivation.

Mental illness doesn't excuse someone's criminal actions, of course. But it's not a crime on its own accord, and it's astonishing that a thoughtful discussion of Jackson's probable sickness never entered his legal case at all. Both the defense and the prosecution enlisted psychiatrists whose diagnoses refuted each other. The question of mental illness was relegated to bloggers, who, under the shield of anonymity, debated it the way plastic surgeons idly debated MJ's ever-whitening skin.

Jackson is clearly sick. But his talent is immeasurable, and it makes a strange kind of sense that his sickness is larger than life, too. Like Marilyn Monroe or Madonna, he has surpassed superstardom, and maybe, as On Michael Jackson reminds us, his tortured face epitomizes the problems of America itself.

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