There is a destructive myth taking hold about Michael Jackson, originated by some of his devotees, perpetuated by many in his entourage and articulated outright by the Rev. Al Sharpton in his eulogy at the Staples Center last July. As Rev. Sharpton put it, looking directly at Michael's orphaned children, "There was nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what he had to deal with it." The myth is that Michael was living a healthy and balanced life at the time of his death and expired only because some careless doctor accidentally murdered him in his sleep with a drug overdose. I have heard more and more people in the media making the same claim, particularly after having seen the This Is It documentary which is now being released. As one radio host put it to me recently, "Michael looks amazing in the documentary. It's clear that he was in excellent physical health and couldn't wait to go out and do his concerts."
The reason this misrepresentation is so destructive is that it would have us believe there is nothing to be learned from Michael's tragic death. It was all a mishap. Michael was loving life, ready for his big comeback, but a capricious mistake cut his life short. This myth demeans the tragedy of Michael's life by robbing him of a redemptive moment. It would have us believe there is nothing that we the living can learn from his untimely death; nothing that a celebrity-obsessed culture can extract from the painful life of one of America's greatest icons. And if this myth is allowed to continue then, dare I say it, Michael died in vain.
Of course nothing could be further from the truth. Health is not determined by the physical alone. There is also mental, emotional and spiritual health. In all these departments Michael was suffering severely. It's not normal to have to take hospital-grade anesthetics to fall asleep, and this even after downing a small trove of anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills. Toward the end of his life Michael was an isolated and lonely figure who had squandered his wealth and was forced to agree to a staggeringly large number of concerts in order to rescue himself from a fate he repeatedly told me he feared, namely, becoming like Sammy Davis Jr., who was forced to degrade himself on late-night talk shows in order to pay his bills.
Michael always believed in the power of mystery. He stated repeatedly that while other stars had destroyed their careers through ubiquitousness, he had remained in the public imagination through scarcity. He highlighted the fact that other artists produced an album a year while he did so only once every few years. He also told me he never agreed to ever be a presenter at an awards show because it would make him too available. There is no way on earth Michael would have agreed to do 50 concerts unless he was absolutely forced to by insurmountable financial pressure.
In The Michael Jackson Tapes, we encounter, for one of the first times, not Michael Jackson the performer but Michael Jackson the man. Michael recorded these tapes for the express purpose of making it available in a book because he was tired of the myth. The book, which contrary to the speculation of some was published for an extremely modest advance and will benefit the "Turn Friday Night into Family Night" initiative, reveals a performer who understood that his heart was not known to a public who judged him very harshly for what they saw as his unethical excess. They did not know the extreme pain he had endured as a child, the loneliness with which he lived as an adult and how much it hurt him that people thought he had improper motives in his relationship with children. While Michael's entourage now say that Michael was positive and happy, Michael himself reveals that he was regularly walking around Encino, California, begging people to simply talk to him. While some of Michael's fans want us to believe that Michael had a lust for life, Michael himself says that he wished to "disappear" and that his greatest fear was growing old and beginning to forget. Michael rued the day when he would be seen as past his prime and therefore unable to command the admiration of the public through his talent.
All this, as well as a broken and lost childhood, is part of the price that Michael paid for fame. He wanted to share with the public the utter emptiness of fame and the importance of family and love. Michael loved being around ordinary families and he dreamed of a life of simple pleasures.
So why are we so afraid to hear his voice?
I suspect it has to do with a culture that is mostly fueled by fame. In a world where nearly every teenager wants to be famous, in a country where reality TV dominates the airwaves and where celebrity magazines rule the newsstands, we simply don't want to hear that it's all one big lie. That the unbridled lust for fame is killing people and that the emperor has no clothes. Fame will never be a proper substitute for love, and talent will never be an acceptable alternative for virtue.
How sad, therefore, that so many who claim to love him now want to rewrite his story to tell us that Michael was so shallow that fortune and fame alone were enough to make him happy. This was never the case.
My book The Michael Jackson Tapes has been greeted with apprehension by some who would like to perpetuate the lie that our celebrities are for the most part healthy. They are not. Very few flourish in fame and a great many do not even survive its effects. Those who do prosper in the limelight do so only if they hold on to what I call the three essentials of fame:
1. A strong religious faith, reminding you at all times that amidst the public's hero worship you are not a deity and are a servant of the one, true G-d.
2. A loving spouse who makes you take out the garbage and otherwise keeps you humble.
3. A cause larger than oneself to which one can consecrate one's celebrity.
Bono is an important case in point. A devout Christian, married to the same wife for 27 years, he has consecrated his fame to the cause of Africa and third-world relief and has not only survived celebrity but has become, deservedly, one of the most admired humans on earth.
Michael aspired to the same. But when he abandoned the Jehovah's Witnesses Church to which he was once exceptionally devoted, went through two divorces, and, most importantly, was prevented from serving his beloved cause of helping the world's children because of multiple allegations against him, he lost much of the anchor in life that kept him grounded.
Those who loved Michael should be true to his memory not by creating a myth of a happy man cut down by a tragic error, but rather as a noble soul who aspired to great humanitarian achievement but whose superstardom served to impede, rather than heal, a desperate and painful loneliness.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. The Michael Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals his Soul in Intimate Conversation was published in September. www.shmuley.com
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