I was on vacation with my family in Iceland when my office called and shared the terrible news of Michael Jackson's passing. My wife and children were with me in the van. We could scarcely believe what we had heard. The children all remembered Michael fondly. He had given them their dog Marshmallow who's is a member of our family till today. My daughter teared up. And while I was heartsick at the news, especially for his three young children, I was not shocked. I dreaded this day and knew it had to come sooner rather than later.
In the two years that I had attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to help Michael repair his life what most frightened me was not that he would be arrested again for child molestation, although he later was. Rather it was that he would die. As I told CNN on April 22, 2004, "My great fear, and why I felt I had to be distanced from Michael ... was that he would not live long. My fear was that Michael's life would be cut short. When you have no ingredients of a healthy life, when you are totally detached from that which is normal, and when you are a super-celebrity you, God forbid, end up like Janis Joplin, like Elvis... Michael is headed in that direction."
I am no prophet and it did not take a rocket scientist to see the impending doom. Michael was a man in tremendous pain and his tragedy was to medicate his pain away rather than addressing its root cause. On many occasions when I visited him he would emerge from his room woozy and clearly sedated. Who were the doctors who were giving him this stuff? Was there no one to save him from himself? Was there no one to intervene?
By the time I met Michael in the Summer of 1999 he was already one of the most famous people in the world. But he seemed lethargic, burned-out, and purposeless. He wanted to consecrate his great fame to helping children but knew he could not due to the 1993 child molestation allegations against him. He was cut off from family and was alienated from the Jehovah's Witnesses Church which had nurtured him. He could barely muster the energy to complete the album he was working on. The only thing that seemed to motivate him was his children, to whom he was exceptionally devoted.
As we grew closer I tried to impress on Michael that his salvation would come not from further concerts or album sales but from reconnecting with loved ones, finding a spiritual anchor, replacing his desire for attention with a hunger for righteous action, and surrounding himself with serious and wise friends. I took him to meet Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate. We lectured at Carnegie Hall together. At Oxford University he delivered a lecture asking all children to forgive their parents if they had been neglectful. On the way down to the University he had called his father Joe to tell him he loved him. All this was significant progress. He came with me to Synagogue and regularly attended Shabbat dinner. He seemed directed and content.
Alas, Michael could not sustain the spiritual effort. He felt that many of the activities I advocated he undertake, like the day he handed out books to parents to read to their children in Newark, New Jersey, was too ordinary for a superstar. He felt he was being demystified. He needed the throngs, he thrived on the adulation of the crowds.
In many ways his tragedy was to mistake attention for love. I will never forget how, when we sat down to record 40 hours of conversations where he would finally reveal himself for a book I authored, he turned to me and said these haunting words, an exact quote: "I am going to say something I have never said before and this is the truth. I have no reason to lie to you and God knows I am telling the truth. I think all my success and fame, and I have wanted it, I have wanted it because I wanted to be loved. That's all. That's the real truth. I wanted people to love me, truly love me, because I never really felt loved. I said I know I have an ability. Maybe if I sharpened my craft, maybe people will love me more. I just wanted to be loved because I think it is very important to be loved and to tell people that you love them and to look in their eyes and say it." One cannot read these words without feeling a tremendous sadness for a soul that was so surrounded with hero-worship but remained so utterly alone. Because Michael substituted attention for love he got fans who loved what he did but he never had true compatriots who loved him for who he was. Perhaps this is why, when so many of his inner circle saw him destroying his life with prescription medication - something he used to treat phantom physical illnesses which were really afflictions of the soul - they allowed him to deteriorate and disintegrate rather than throwing the poison in the garbage.
Michael's death is not just a personal tragedy, it is an American tragedy. Michael's story was the stuff of the American dream. A poor black boy who grows up in Gary, Indiana, and ends up a billionaire entertainer. But we now know how the story ends. Money is not a currency by which we can purchase self-esteem and being recognized on the streets will never replace being loved unconditionally by family and true friends.
I miss Michael, I miss him very much. He was far from a saint. But there was a gentility and nobility of spirit that I found humbling and inspiring in a man so accomplished. My heart bleeds for his children whom he adored and who adored him in turn. I think of Prince and Paris and how attached they were to a father who regularly told me that he knew that when they grew up they would be asked by biographers what kind of father he had been. He wanted them to have only warm memories to share. Alas, the memories will remain incomplete.
I pray for them, I pray for his family. And I pray for America.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and is the author of many best-selling books, including the as yet unpublished In the Soul of Michael Jackson.