Will the Tragedy of Michael Jackson's Life Be Inherited By His Kids?


To me, the most arresting image of Michael Jackson was President George H.W. Bush citing him as a role model for young black men. It was 1990 and Jackson was at the height of his fame. "Man in the Mirror" had been released two years earlier. Jackson had not yet gone into full white-face disguise, but the handsome little brown boy of his first album had long since entered the bizarro phase of rhinestone gloves. I wondered then what on earth about Jackson could ever be a role model for anyone. Musical savant though he was, Jackson was, almost from the beginning, a tragic figure -- so obviously trapped in that mirror, forever reflecting what others wanted him to be.

In the wake of his death, many have hailed his "crossover appeal." There is no doubt that his musical acumen led to the integration of MTV; but that "appeal" had a more sinister undertone. If Elvis was "the White Negro," so Michael fashioned himself into "the Negro Caucasian." He literally erased himself before our eyes, his nose slowly disappearing, his skin fading to ghostly pallor, his voice growing higher and whispier, his body evaporating to a dry husk of barely a hundred pounds at the time of his death. It was hard not to be fascinated by him as he molted through all possible confusions of gender, race and sexuality. But his transgressivity was more than just theater; he mimed a narrative of constant paradox and infinite suffering.

By now the stories of that suffering are well documented: Jackson's body was scarred from the abuse that his father, Joe, a former boxer, administered to him when he was a small child. Marlon, Michael's brother, wrote of one particularly chilling incident: his father held Michael upside down by one leg while punching him repeatedly. There are the stories of his father creeping in through his bedroom window at night wearing a fright mask -- apparently to teach him not to leave the window open. Joe Jackson has denied ever beating any of his children, though he freely admits "whipping" them with straps and belts. According to him, "You beat someone using a stick."

And so it can be no wonder that Michael Jackson grew up to resemble a walking talking fright mask, playing with the putty of bodies, of youth, of childhood, of kindness, of trauma, of forgiveness.  Even his trial for child molestation was a paragon of sadness, as Jackson characterized taking children into his bed as providing safety, comfort, cuddles -- his bed figured as shelter from, not the site of, violation. 

If that much is not a mystery, what does remain inexplicable is the absence of social, ethical or legal limit to the excesses of Jackson family life.  Michael Jackson was addicted to so many painkillers that one Los Angeles pharmacy recently sued him for back payments totaling $100,000 -- or ten months of prescriptions at $10,000 a month.   It leaves one to wonder who the medical professionals were behind this kind of mind-boggling malpractice.  Who, for that matter, were the medical professionals who performed so many plastic surgeries on him that his nose ultimately collapsed into his skull?   Doctors are ruled by an ethical obligation to “do no harm.”  Medicine is a practice, not a commodity funhouse filled with new noses and chins and feel-good opiates to be issued upon demand, like goodies from a Pez dispenser.

Fortunately, the question of medical complicity in Jackson's death is beginning to percolate in the media. Perhaps, too, the children's custody will be more closely scrutinized.   For if Michael Jackson's suffering is at an end, not so for his children.  It is extremely troubling to learn that Michael Jackson's mother, Katharine -- and therefore her depraved husband, Joe -- has temporary custody of them.  How sad it was to see Joe Jackson's disjointed, weirdly self-promoting, unnervingly narcissistic interview at the Black Entertainment Awards three days after his son's demise, an occasion he used to push his nascent record company. 

But in the longer term, the question of Michael Jackson's children is challenging in other ways.  Their conception was accomplished in very much the same spirit as his demand for plastic surgery or painkillers: as a made-to-order, cash-on-the-barrelhead commercial transaction.  Apparently, Jackson is not biologically related to any of the three children;  he is too phobic about touch to have actually had intercourse with either of his two wives.  Nor did he supply the sperm for any of the three.  Even the women who gestated them carried anonymously donated eggs fertilized by anonymously donated sperm.  (Anonymous but for race, apparently -- the children were all crafted to be “white” enough to match Jackson's artfully devised if pathetically alienated image of himself.) Deborah Rowe, the surrogate who carried Jackson's eldest two children to term, describes being inseminated “like a horse”; she then received something on the order of nine million dollars to give up any claim or connection to them.  And on the birth certificate of Jackson's youngest child, the space for “mother” is marked “none.”

It's hard to imagine that Jackson would have been found fit if he had attempted to adopt children.  If not, it is interesting to contemplate the eugenic ends to which in vitro fertilization and surrogate birth are being put these days, often as a kind of end run around the formal inspection of the adoption process.  And how much more common will the purchase of “the perfect child” become when bioengineering for specific physical traits becomes easier and less costly?  It's not a new problem -- “colorism” (or preference for lighter skin as a way of finding social acceptance) is an old problem within the African American community.  And of course, choosing trophy spouses is a cruder version of the same game.  Nevertheless, it does seem troubling that the law of sales is the about only context for debating this rapidly developing area. One wonders if we ought not think harder about the degree to which a free-market for eugenics is enabled by easy-payment contract clauses conferring parenthood through the immaculate conception of biotechnology.

Jackson's fame and fortune ensured that he had few barriers in the pursuit of whatever whimsical fancy seized him. He became a more brilliant and frightening version of the Mad Hatter than even Tim Burton could conjure. And with that power, Jackson arranged for the bringing-to-life of three innocent souls whose racial embodiment pantomimed all that he could never be.  There is something horrifying that in the wake of his demise, his ignorant brutish father will be delivered of three blond, blue-eyed grandchildren, the perfectly rendered apotheosis of Michael's final crossing-over.

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