Thursday, July 23, 2009

The soul murder of Michael Jackson and the culture of victim blame


If ye endure chastening,
God dealeth with you as with sons;
for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
But if ye be without chastisement,
whereof all are partakers,
then are ye bastards and not sons.

(Hebrews 12:6-8)

Celebrity gossip and tabloid news have never interested me. After weeks of nonstop Michael Jackson media noise, I made myself a promise to avoid the subject … until this caught my attention:

"How often would he beat you?" Martin asked.
"Too much," Michael revealed.
"Would he only use a belt?" Martin asked.
Covering his face, Michael replied, "Why would you do this to me? No, more than a belt."
"I was scared, so scared that I would regurgitate," he added.
"What would produce that sort of reaction in you?" Martin asked.
"His presence, just seeing him," Michael said.

This dialogue is from a 2003 interview conducted by Martin Bashir. Here is Michael Jackson revealing a stolen childhood when he was the youngest member of the Jackson Five … beatings by strap and metal cord, rehearsals run like military drills, memories of being locked in closets, of being told by his father that his nose is “fat and ugly.” In short, his was a childhood marked by physical and emotional abuse, fear and humiliation, and ultimately trauma.

For years, media focused on Wacko Jacko, the Freak. A leering public witnessed his Dorian Gray transformation from child star to grotesque. Tabloid gossip condemned him with rumors and innuendos, maligned him for his flamboyant self-indulgences, and vilified him long after a jury acquitted him of child molestation charges. The real story of Michael Jackson is not about these sensationalized tabloid accounts but about the long-term consequences of child abuse and our celebrity culture that engages in victim blame. Why should we care about the tragedy of Michael Jackson’s life and his inner struggle?

The eminent child psychologist, Alice Miller, has waged a lifelong crusade against “poisonous pedagogy,” an outmoded parenting style aimed at breaking the will of children and turning them into obedient subjects by means of coercion, manipulation, and cruelty.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” is an example of what Miller calls the burden of inherited wisdom that inflicts strict upbringing upon diabolical offspring for the purpose of forcing submission. Unlike adult survivors of abuse and torture, children do not always recount what has been done to them. Often, they feel shame. Sometimes, their memories contrive to forget their torments or deny or repress them outright. Nevertheless, those memories are preserved inside the victim in excruciating detail … only to emerge later in bizarre, seemingly irrational, or even violent behaviors.

When a cruel upbringing is represented to children as righteous and proper, they will grow into adults who will avenge themselves without qualms by inflicting the same cruel practices on their own children or charges. Society will revere and commend these newly minted authoritarians as upstanding, God-fearing enforcers of the community standard. Thus, sadism is allowed to originate, flourish, and pass from generation to generation under the cover of piety and patriotism and always accomplished with an injunction:

This is for your own good.

In her crusade against cruel childrearing practices, Miller reminds us that it takes time for scientific and social knowledge to gain acceptance, more time to reach those with less schooling or less access to information, and even more time to reach those whose own repressed experiences prevent them from accepting an uncomfortable truth [1].

Seemingly irrational behaviors headlined in tabloids are not irrational when understood as signs and symptoms of abuse and trauma. Why should it surprise us when a “lost child” casts himself as Peter Pan reincarnate, surrounds himself with a Neverland construct of perpetual childhood, and chooses children, no matter how specious and suspect, as peers and playmates … all in an effort to reclaim a stolen childhood?

Why should we be shocked by an addiction to plastic surgery to correct an imagined defect in appearance … and remake the “fat and ugly nose” ridiculed by his father at an age when adolescents are extra sensitive about their physical appearance?

Why should we be surprised by Michael Jackson’s alleged abuse of prescription drugs - craved and consumed in prodigious quantities ostensibly to numb feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem?

Let us avoid the temptation to characterize Michael Jackson in diagnostic terms, which are best left to qualified and licensed mental health practitioners. The inherent dangers of popularizing psycho-speak is simply this: Diagnostic terms are very often misunderstood by laypersons and misused by others whose purpose may be to engage in character assassination.

Abused children are never victimized once. They are victimized repeatedly when the guardians of conformity and public morality dismiss their signs and symptoms as character flaws and target them for ridicule and scorn, thus reducing them to silence. Chris Hedges offers this perspective:

Those who created Jackson’s public persona and turned him into a piece of property … are the agents, publicists, marketing people, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, recording executives, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers and television news personalities who create the vast stage of celebrity for profit (...) The moral nihilism of our culture licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal … which is pretty much the story of Jackson’s life …

As Chris Hedges reminds us, a successful celebrity raking in millions of dollars is a money tree to the legions of media vultures in the food chain. Media is a shallow, fast-moving stream intolerant of our need to pause, analyze, and understand the accelerated grimace of a culture turned monstrous.

The issues raised by Alice Miller have social and historical implications. Violence is learned in the home. Obedience is a condition of beatitude. Sometimes abused and traumatized children reenact their childhoods on the political stage and turn themselves into tyrants or become the adherents, adulators, and henchman of tyrants and lunatic ideologues. Systemic child abuse is the wellspring of injustice, ignorance, and evil in the world. When we finally treat our children with the dignity, love, and nurturing they deserve, only then can we dream of a world free of violence and tyranny.


[1] Alice Miller (2001). The truth will set you free. NY: Basic Books.

Online Resources:

Child abuse and mistreatment - The Alice Miller Official Website.

For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence - This book is available legally online - highly recommended.

The Andrew Vachss Official Website - A lawyer and novelist who writes about child abuse as the root of violence … its cost to individuals and society.

(Cross-posted at The Swash Zone.)

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