Stranger than Fiction
Learning more about the real Michael Jackson.
by Kit van Cleave
Probably the most controversial book of 2012 came out right at the end of the year. Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson, praised by critics and readers, is also loudly hated by hardcore fans of the singer (see comments on Amazon). Whether one admired Jackson or not, the new book by former Rolling Stone contributing editor Randall Sullivan is riveting.
It’s filled with many details I’d never heard or read in the press, and helped clear up some lingering mysteries. Why was Michael so strange? Was he a pedophile? What motivated him to change his skin color and face? Did the remaining Jacksons really kidnap matriarch Katherine after Michael’s death, and hold her in an Arizona motel room with no cell phone or TV?
Joe Jackson, patriarch of the Jackson clan, was an autoworker in Gary, Indiana, as his sons were growing up. Determined to build them into a stage act, he bullied, beat, and terrorized them for years until they became the Jackson Five, with top-of-chart hits. Michael was the youngest member of the group, and from the beginning his was the shining talent.
His beloved mother, Katherine, did nothing to stop the abuse that marked Michael’s childhood. This violence taught him two lessons: he could escape reality through work, and he never wanted to be anything like his father or ever be under his control again.
Sullivan points out that the Jackson Five played many different venues in their early years, some of them sordid. He tells of Michael, barely into his teens, sharing a bed with his older brothers while they had noisy sex with groupies right next to him. His father was a womanizer as well, despite Katherine being a committed Jehovah’s Witness.
Diana Ross and Barry Gordy taught Michael to lie, first about his age and then about other details, saying this was perfectly okay in the entertainment world. He would continue to lie about personal details for the rest of his life, such as the number of cosmetic procedures he’d had, and his choice of boy bedmates. This early lesson from his two mentors might have also begun a blurring of reality for the young singer.
His first step as a young adult was to break with the Five and go solo. The Thriller and Bad albums not only shaped American music in the 1980s, but made the once-poor youngster a millionaire with real power in the entertainment business. But as we all know, what may seem like enormous luck, talent, or destiny can also create disaster for a young artist. It certainly did for Michael.
He quickly learned how to ignore and avoid his family; he hired his own attorneys and signed contracts that he later cancelled, all because he could. He spent money as if he had an endless supply—and sometimes continued to spend even when the supply ran out. Mostly, he learned he could get away with any act he wanted to.
But then, as Sullivan points out, he was first accused of molesting young boys by a man who could see the financial value in suing the singer. Jackson was encouraged by his lawyers to settle this case for some twenty million dollars, which he later said was the worst decision he ever made. The second, more famous pedophilia suit was initiated by a family that, as the trial proved, had a long history of questionable behavior.
Sullivan covers this trial from start to finish, repeatedly pointing out that the media ignored defense evidence because it wasn’t as exciting as the accusations against Jackson. When it was all over and Michael was acquitted, few people other than his hardcore fans believed he was innocent.
Sullivan’s book concludes in a tone that is quite sympathetic to Jackson. Having read all 776 pages, I had to agree with him; at the end, Michael is like Eliza crossing the ice with the bloodhounds baying at her behind—hunted, desperate, and dying.
Update: On Inauguration Day, January 21, 2013, the New York Times ran an extensive story (“Swarming a Book Online”) about Jackson fans attempting to discredit Sullivan and Untouchable.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.