de·mon (dē’mən) n.
[Middle English, from Late Latin daemōn, from Latin, spirit, from Greek daimōn, divine power; see dā- in Indo-European roots.
We have heard the stories about the physical abuse Michael Jackson suffered at the hands of his father and his fixation as an adult on living out the childhood he felt deprived of as explanation for his physical transformation and retreat into the fantasy world he created at Neverland. Yet our obsessive interest in the details of Michael Jackson’s life suggests this explanation is fails to sufficiently explain the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson and the relationship between his public and private selves. As I am drafting this post news is post-memorial, the media focus on Michael Jackson has not waned. Each day brings new ‘reports’ regarding Jackson’s physical condition at the time of his death, centering on whether had been abusing a variety of prescription opiates – including Demerol, Percoset, Oxycontin and Vicodin, in what quantities and with the help of which doctors. I’m sure in the weeks and months to come there will be additional sordid details about the last years of MJ’s life – we’ll learn more than we need to know about his physical addictions and psychological torments. In many ways Michael Jackson has been the world’s demon (as defined above) – a persistently tormenting person that forced us to acknowledge his power and pain by zealously and skillfully honing his craft and presenting it to us as a gift – impossible to refuse and once experienced – impossible to forget……..
Michael’s father Joseph Jackson has borne the brunt of personal criticism for having exploited his son in life and in death (his public statements at the BET Awards ceremony and a press conference the next day only served to reinforce that view) while his mother, Katherine Jackson has been consistently deified as the one who loved and supported him the most. In public and private Michael Jackson consistently credited his mother as one of the most important influences in his life – the person he looked to for guidance and entrusted with the care of his children after death. While I believe the criticism of Joseph Jackson is more than justified, it’s interesting that few have looked at the role Katherine Jackson may have played in some of the more tragic aspects of Michael’s life. This post discusses the role that Katherine Jackson’s religious faith played in her son’s life and how it may have contributed to some of the personal demons that plagued him until death.
As a young boy, Michael has said he was afraid of his father, a strong, volatile man with a quick temper and propensity to violence. His mother Katherine is very different – quiet, soft-spoken, willing to listen to him, dry his tears and calm his fears. Katherine Jackson was a strong force throughout Michael Jackson’s life, especially during his formative years and religion was a strong force in hers. When Michael was five years old Katherine Jackson became a Jehovah’s Witness, she was baptized in the faith in 1963. According to Ina Brown, a family friend from their days in Gary, Indiana:
“I don’t ever remember their religion being an issue that was discussed outside the immediate family, I know that Joe wasn’t interested. But Katherine was so fiercely protective of her religion that Joe could never dissuade her from it. She wanted the children all to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that was fine with Joe. . . . Joe liked the religion because it was so strict. He liked it more for its laws than for its spiritualism.”
All of the Jackson children were exposed to the faith but of the sons, Michael was the only one to become serious about the religion along with his sisters Rebbie and LaToya. It is well-known that Michael Jackson was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, but this aspect of his life has received minimal scrutiny, in part I believe, because few understand how important religion was in shaping Michael’s life – both personally and professionally. Michael Jackson was not just raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith – he embraced it wholeheartedly and was a devout member of the sect until he was almost 30 years old.
For those who may not be familiar with the religion – Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) are among the most fundamentalist of Christian religions. It is an apocalyptic faith – they believe in a coming “time of the end’ when the great battle of Armageddon will be fought and only Jehovah’s Witnesses will survive. Their most important duty is to spread the word – giving “witness to their faith in Jehovah” and converting others. No matter what country they reside in JWs will not salute a flag or serve in any armed forces. They consider Christmas and Easter pagan holidays and forbid celebration of birthdays and other holidays. They are instructed to reject blood transfusions. No Witness may work in the direct employment of another religious organization, hold elective governmental office, work in a munitions factory, produce or sell tobacco, engage in certain violent sports such as boxing or wrestling, participate in gambling activities or those involving the commercial exploitation of sex. In addition a Witness can not join a political party, vote for public officials, perform jury duty, attend bull fights, fence, stand for the national anthem, offer toasts, use hallucinogenic drugs, engage in improper sexual relations, participate in certain kinds of dancing or listen to certain types of music.
Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves to be God’s true sheep; all others are goats – consequently, they take great pains to separate themselves from everyone but other Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jackson children were dissuaded from associating with children who were not JWs to avoid the potential for temptation by outside influences. Despite being in show business from the age of seven Michael grew up in an extremely controlled environment where his only “friends” were his siblings – Michael was always shy and reclusive.
Sundays were my day for “Pioneering,” the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah’s Witnesses do. We would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door to door or making the rounds of a shopping mall, distributing our Watchtower magazine. I continued my pioneering work for years and years after my career had been launched.
I would don my disguise of fat suit, wig, beard, and glasses and head off to live in the land of everyday America, visiting shopping plazas and tract homes in the suburbs. I loved to set foot in all those houses and catch sight of the shag rugs and La-Z-Boy armchairs with kids playing Monopoly and grandmas baby-sitting and all those wonderfully ordinary and, to me, magical scenes of life. Many, I know, would argue that these things seem like no big deal. But to me they were positively fascinating.
The funny thing is, no adults ever suspected who this strange bearded man was. But the children, with their extra intuition, knew right away. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I would find myself trailed by eight or nine children by my second round of the shopping mall. They would follow and whisper and giggle, but they wouldn’t reveal my secret to their parents. They were my little aides. Hey, maybe you bought a magazine from me. Now you’re wondering, right?
Sundays were sacred for two other reasons as I was growing up. They were both the day that I attended church and the day that I spent rehearsing my hardest. This may seem against the idea of “rest on the Sabbath,” but it was the most sacred way I could spend my time: developing the talents that God gave me. The best way I can imagine to show my thanks is to make the very most of the gift that God gave me.
Church was a treat in its own right. It was again a chance for me to be “normal.” The church elders treated me the same as they treated everyone else. And they never became annoyed on the days that the back of the church filled with reporters who had discovered my whereabouts. They tried to welcome them in. After all, even reporters are the children of God.
When I was young, my whole family attended church together in Indiana. As we grew older, this became difficult, and my remarkable and truly saintly mother would sometimes end up there on her own. When circumstances made it increasingly complex for me to attend, I was comforted by the belief that God exists in my heart, and in music and in beauty, not only in a building. But I still miss the sense of community that I felt there–I miss the friends and the people who treated me like I was simply one of them. Simply human. Sharing a day with God.
Additional accounts of Michael’s activities as a Jehovah’s Witness:
“True to his religious persuasion as a Jehovah’s Witness, however, on this – as on each of the other three stops on the Jackson tour so far – Michael has ventured into the suburbs to distribute copies of the Watchtower. He is probably the only Jehovah’s Witness to do this in disguise, with a special mouthpiece distorting the famous good looks, and false mustache and slouch hat hiding them, and with a vanload of security guards hovering attentively nearby.” From Michael Jackson: Inside the Dream Machine by Mick Brown, Sunday Times, 5 August 1984.
According to Michael’s voice teacher Seth Riggs, “He was very devoted. He would come in for his lesson and before we got started we would have a prayer and read the Bible. Then there would be another prayer before we actually began the lessons. Sometimes we would get down on our knees.” Louise Gilmore of Thousand Oaks, CA, recalled the day Michael Jackson came to visit during the mid-80s at the height of his Thriller fame:
“It was very odd. At first I thought i was some kind of trick-or-treat gag. A young black man came to my door wearing what was obviously a phony mustache and beard, and a big hat. His face was too smooth for all of that facial hair. He looked like a little bo playing grown-up. He had this soft little voice and looked harmless enough. ‘Can I talk to you for just a moment?’ he said politely. I decided to let him in.
“He sat down and pulled out all of these books and pamphlets from a bag. ‘You should read these,’ he said. He gave me a little speech about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which I paid no attention to, so I can’t tell you what he said. He then had a glass of water, thanked me and went on his way. I didn’t think anything of it, except, ‘My, what a polite little boy.’
“The next day my neighbor said to me, ‘Did Michael Jackson come to your house too?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ When I put two and two together, I almost fainted. I’ve kept the material he gave me as souvenirs. No, I didn’t join the religion.”
Repression + Fear = Paralysis
The messages Michael Jackson received in his youth about sex were decidedly mixed. The message from his mother Katherine was loud and clear. As a Jehovah’s Witnesses she taught Michael that lust – in thought or deed – is sinful. She embraced a literal interpretation of the Biblical proscription set forth at 1 Corinthians 6:9 which states none of the unrighteous – “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind” – would inherit the Kingdom of God. Sex was reserved for marriage and even then certain sexual behavior is considered out of bounds – oral and anal sex are considered perverted sexual practices. Homosexuality is a sin against God. Sex outside of marriage is strictly forbidden. It is a disfellowshipping offense. Disfellowshipping for a JW is equivalent to death. It means you are effectively dead to everyone else in the Jehovah’s Witness community, including your family and friends – they are supposed to shun you. It also means when Armageddon comes, God will destroy you and you will have no hope for resurrection and eternal life.
The message from his father Joe was different. Joe was not a Jehovah’s Witness and while he was strict with his sons in most areas – he took a more lax attitude where sex was concerned. During the early days of the Jacksons singing career – Joe Jackson booked his sons in strip clubs and other dives along the “chittlin’ circuit”. At a very early and tender age, Michael watched as women took off their clothes for money in front of leering men. Young Michael’s show business education began with an age-old less: sex sells. He realized at an early age that if you wanted to get an audience excited, you had to appeal to their prurient side.
When the Jackson 5 reached national fame with Motown, Michael was only 11 years old. In short time he and his brothers were touring around the country to audiences that including thousands of adoring female fans. During these road trips, Michael witnessed sexual liaisons between his brothers and female groupies – they often had sex in the same room where he slept. Sometimes his father would sleep with the young women who showed up after performances eager for a connection with the famous family. Joseph warned his sons not to tell their mother about his secret and no matter how much Michael may have wanted to expose his father, for a Jehovah’s Witness, a father’s word is gospel. A key scripture repeated over and over again is the one admonishing children to honor their father and mother in all things. If a child questions their parent, or fails to submit to their direction, it is viewed as a sin against God, so it creates an atmosphere where its seems best to stay quiet and say nothing. Michael expressed disgust by his father’s behavior and betrayal of his mother but said nothing to her about it – he was torn. Disobey his father and God, or lie to his mother – it was an difficult choice he preferred not to make.
Michael’s guilty conscience may have been eased by the lessons he learned at Motown: a lie isn’t a lie if it helps your career – which is why he was instructed to tell the press he was 9 years old even though he was 11. All of this was contrary to the family’s stated religious beliefs about morality, truthfulness and strict adherence to Bible principles – this continuing hypocrisy served to increase the cognitive dissonance Michael experienced attempting to live a fundamentalist lifestyle in a hedonistic profession. His inner conflict between what he was taught to do to achieve commercial success and what he was taught to believe God wanted him to do had begun. Sex, ambition and performing were all ‘works of the devil’ and yet Michael was immersed in all three.
Another factor contributing to Michael’s aversion to sex and intimacy was his experience of physical contact with Jackson 5 fans. Michael learned to fear the hysteria of the thousands of screaming female fans that descended on him at concerts – pulling at his clothes, his hair, trying to get a piece of him – it scared him and reinforced his mother’s warnings about the dangers of ‘worldly’ (non-JW) people. Michael recounted the following gruesome incident during an interview:
Once at a record store in San Francisco, over a thousand kids showed up, [Michael] said in a hushed tone. “They all pushed forward and broke a window. A big piece of glass fell on top of this girl. And the girl’s throat . . .,” he paused for effect, “was slit.” Michael swiftly ran his index finger across his neck.
“Michael, don’t do that. That’s gross,” his youngest brother Randy, said.
Michael ignored Randy and continued with his story. “She just got slit. And I remember there was blood everywhere. Oh God, so much blood. And she grabbed her throat and was bleeding and everyone just ignored her. Why? Because I was there and they wanted to grab at me and get my autograph.” Michael sighed. “I wonder whatever happened to that girl.”
Michael’s religious training combined with his experience as the object of unwanted sexual attention from fans had given him lots of reasons to fear sex. Numerous reports have been published about attempts by Michael’s brothers and others to set up sexual liaisons for him. According to one account, his brothers once locked him in a room with two prostitutes who were supposed to initiate him, another story has him alone with a young woman his mother had previously set him up with. In each case, Michael resisted temptation – instead of losing his virginity, Michael reportedly took out his Bible and begin witnessing about the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage.
Michael’s first taste of freedom came in 1977 when he was almost twenty and living away from his family in New York while filming The Wiz. Michael found New York City’s social scene appealing, he felt comfortable hanging out with Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli at the sex-and-drugs-fueled Studio 54 which was in its heyday of popularity and decadence. Michael was more an observer than participant in the scene, he was never seen indulging in alcohol or illicit drugs. His lack of female companions combined with his reticence and asceticism led to persistent rumors that he was gay. During a break in a vocal lesson one day, Michael’s voice teacher Seth Riggs said to him, “You know, everybody thinks you’re gay. Michael responded by sharing the following story which is illustrative:
One day a tall, blond, good-looking fellow came up to him and said, “Gee, Michael, I think you’re wonderful. I sure would like to go to bed with you.” Michael looked at him and asked, “When’s the last time you read the Bible?”. The blond man said nothing. Michael continued, “You know, you really should read it, because there is some real information in there about homosexuality.” The man studied Michael for a moment and said, sarcastically, “Sure, I guess if I’d been a girl, it would be different. Then you’d have sex with me.” “No, I wouldn’t,” Michael said. “There are some very direct words on that in the Bible too.”
By the time Michael Jackson was a young adult, he had been trained to live his life a certain way. Over time, he would prove unable to openly break that conformity. According to family members and other associates Michael was afraid of intimate contact with women. The female celebrities he dated – Tatum O’Neal, Brooke Shields and Madonna – all acknowledge there was no sexual contact between them, he just wasn’t interested. He could not allow himself to have homosexual relationships even if he did have feelings for other men – he was too puritanical because of his religious upbringing and too fearful of the consequences of such an admission. Forbearance is a not a characteristic of Jehovah’s Witnesses – any member who does not obey the rules and adhere to the dogma will be disfellowshipped from the church and must be shunned. Michael had no doubt what his mother’s reaction would be. Katherine Jackson once said, “When I first heard the rumors that he was gay, I thought I’d go crazy. He’s my son and I know the truth. He knows the truth too. We both talked about it and cried about it. Michael was very hurt by the rumors. He is not gay. It’s against our religion.”
Almost everyone who was close to Michael Jackson agrees that when he bought the Neverland Ranch and moved away from his parents at age thirty, he was still a virgin.. There’s a strong possibility that he may have died one.
Despite the fact Michael Jackson was a devout Jehovah’s Witness – supporting the church with his time and money his relationship with the church hierarchy was rocky. His growing popularity was causing problems within the religion. On the one hand Michael was a great ambassador for Jehovah’s Witnesses – his popularity brought contributions and credibility to the sect because of his exemplary lifestyle – abstinence from sex, alcohol and drugs. On the other hand his career promoted the types of music, video and fashion that were frowned on by the church as “worldly” and promoting immorality. Things came to a head over the Thriller video. Michael came up with the concept for the Thriller video after watching the horror-fantasy film An American Werewolf in London. He hired its director, John Landis to direct the 14 min video which included special effects combining illusion with reality. In the video Michael is transformed into a monster who dances with a troupe of ghouls newly emerged from their graves. It was a unique and revolutionary concept and approach to music videos that would transform MTV and the music business generally, but to church elders it was viewed as advocating Satanism and the occult. When they confronted him about it – Michael initially refused to repudiate his work. However, when he was threatened with disfellowshipping – spiritual death – if he failed to comply, Michael became very upset. He called his lawyer – John Branca – and ordered him to destroy the master tapes of the video, which had cost more than one million dollars to produce. After days of back and forth, with Michael repeatedly asserting the tapes had to be destroyed – his lawyer came up with a compromise. He suggested that Michael could place a disclaimer at the beginning of the video stating that it did not reflect Michael’s personal or religious convictions. Michael thought this was a great idea and agreed to do so. The disclaimer, [“Due to my strong personal convictions , I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult-Michael Jackson“] viewed by millions of people who watched Thriller on MTV – got Michael a reprieve from the church – at least in the short run. However, the issues surrounding the Thriller video was not the only problem Michael faced with church elders.
Despite the requirement of Jehovah’s Witnesses to shun idolatry of every kind and value good works and ministry over fame and material wealth – a cult of personality had developed around Michael Jackson. This ‘MJ’ cult within the Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to believe Michael Jackson was the archangel Michael described in the Book of Daniel 12:1 as one who will deliver the people fulfilling the prophecy “At that time Michael will stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.”
This development was very troubling as it threatened to undermine control by church hierarchy of official doctrine and scriptural interpretation. They began issuing directives to counter this influence. The October 15 1983, issue of the Watchtower (one of the main JW publications), criticized not only contemporary music but making a cult of personalities. The issue called on all Witnesses to “destroy albums and videos with verbal or visual references to witches, demons or devils,” and discouraged followers from imitating “worldly musicians” in “dress, grooming and speech by wearing T-shirts or jackets that advertise such performers.” In response to a letter asking about Michael Jackson from a conservative Witness who questioned Michael Jackson’s status in the church the leadership of the Watchtower Society (the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society is the official name of Jehovah’s Witnesses) said the following:
“The society has been advised that Michael Jackson is a baptized member of the Christian congregation. However, his being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses should not be constructed by anyone to mean that either the Society or congregation with which he is associated approves or endorses the music that he sings or plays, or all the aspects of his life-style.’ The letter went on to state: “As you are well aware, some individuals who reach the point of dedication and baptism still have worldly habits and ways which characterize the “old personality” (a mischaracterization on their part as Jackson was raised a Jehovah’s Witness) that must be stripped off. These adjustments must continue to be made after baptism, as an individual progresses towards maturity. Christianity should be a way of life and we should not use our Christian freedom as a “blind for badness”. The Society went on to advise: ‘As to the need to avoid music that debases, we refer you to the article that appeared on ……….of the Watchtower. The dangers of pursuing fads and idolizing humans are discussed in the December 8, 1964 issue of Awake! , p, 5-8 and the article on pgs. 309-313 of May 15, 1968 issue of the Watchtower“.
Earlier that same year, Michael was forced to renounce the Thriller video in the May 22 issue of “Awake” (another JW publication). Michael is quoted in the magazine as saying about Thriller, “I realize now it was not a good idea.” “I’ll never do a video like that again. There’s been all kinds of promotional stuff being produced on ‘Thriller’, but I tell them,’No, No, No.’ I don’t want to do anything on ‘Thriller‘. No more ‘Thriller.'” Ultimately, these concessions were not enough to appease church leaders – in the spring of 1987 Watchtower headquarters announced that Michael Jackson was no longer a Jehovah’s Witness – he had been asked to leave. Michael had continued to offend the elders by attending birthday parties (he hosted a small one for his mother in 1984), being photographed sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber (a publicity stunt) and by showing a fascination with stage magic. A press photo of Michael appearing to levitate under a magician’s wand was apparently the last straw leading to a final rift. According to Watchtower rules Michael would have to be shunned by Witness friends and family, including his mother and sisters – rules his family chose to ignore.
In some ways Michael’s separation from the Jehovah’s Witnesses was good thing – it allowed him greater freedom in pursuing his career goals without the constant concern of offending church elders. He started including Thriller again in his concerts and wearing the costumes from the video including a monster mask – his dancing was more daring as he was no longer worried about church criticism of his sexually suggestive movements – all of which appealed to his growing global audience, generating increased record sales, concerts tickets and his personal fortune. Michael Jackson was the most popular and lucrative performer in music history with enough money to indulge his every whim. As part of his new independence Michael moved from the family home in Encino to the 2700 acre ranch he purchased and renamed Neverland Valley. Michael proceeded to create his own version of the Neverland described in his favorite book – Peter Pan – a fantasy world for ‘lost boys” like himself who never wanted to grow up. Michael Jackson saw himself as Peter Pan and hoped one day to portray the character in film………………And much like the author of Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie who was both diminutive and asexual – Michael surrounded himself with children – often sick and/or disabled and gave them free range of his personal wonderland………
I think it’s interesting that the album he made after Thriller – after he’d left the church and moved away from his family was entitled: BAD. In addition to the dramatic changes in his physical appearance between the covers for Thriller and BAD – there was a dramatic change in Michael’s wardrobe, dancing style and character representation in the accompanying music videos. Instead of the relatively discreet clothing he’d worn during the previous years, for BAD Michael is photographed wearing a form-fitting black leather outfit with lots of buckles and zippers. His new persona was more macho, aggressive, snarling and his dance routines had begun to include crotch-grabbing, overtly sexual movements that both shocked and delighted his fans. No longer under the constant scrutiny of the church elders and his mother, Michael was expressing aspects of himself he had up to this point kept hidden. Yet his ability to express them was limited to performing. In his personal life he was still painfully shy, unable to interact normally with adults, preferring the company and activities of children – playing video games, visiting Disneyland, watching movies and having sleepovers. It appeared to most, including his family and associates, that Michael had chosen to inhabit the fantasy world he’d created rather than the real one he lived in. Unfortunately, for Michael what started out as harmless eccentricity over time came to be viewed by the public as weird freakishness and eventually as potentially criminal perversion.
By the time Michael left the church the damage to his psyche had already been done. The combination of childhood abuse, sexual repression, isolation and fundamentalist teachings grounded in fear left him emotionally crippled and fearful of others. The burdens and privileges that came with his great fame and wealth reinforced his fears (it’s not paranoid to think that people are out to get you when your everyday experience is that they are) and enabled him to construct an alternate reality complete with a cast of characters of his choice. On the other hand, I think being a Jehovah’s Witness helped create the phenomenon – Michael Jackson. In addition to the natural talent he possessed and the drive of his father, I think some of the amazing creativity and versatility he demonstrated was rooted in his lifelong struggle to reconcile the conflicting commands of his faith – to live a pure life dedicated to serving God without succumbing to the temptations of materialism and ‘worldly pleasures. As noted by the journalist and essayist Barbara Grazutti Harrison (who penned a chronicle of her experience growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness) the high level of creativity that has been noted in the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses (e.g. Venus & Serena Williams, the Wayans Brothers) may be the result of sexual repression:
“Sexuality rigidly repressed in puberty conduces to a strongly colored fantasy life.” Hence the imagination of very young Witnesses is fueled and fired by the rich imagery of destruction and with which they live. It is not surprising that the tension produced by the clash between force-fed dogmatic certainty and inner confusion and the friction created by the rules of the socially isolated against the world, may be for a time, creative tension.” from Apocalypse Delayed by M. James Penson, page 274.
Yet, significantly, it is often the very creativity and educational curiousity so evident in Witness children and young adults which causes them to leave. As Barbara Grizzuti Harrison noted of her experience: “The tragedy is that creative young Witnesses will not be permitted to explore or fulfill their potential – unless for them the knot [of Witness faith] unravels.
Unraveling while Ascending
In the two decades following Michael’s spiritual separation from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and his physical separation from his family his life moved in two distinctly different trajectories. As mentioned previously Michael remade his new home at Neverland Ranch into his version of Disneyland (his favorite place). He built an amusement park with a carousel and Ferris Wheel, a movie theater and miniature railroad and filled the grounds with wild and exotic animals. His album Thriller had been a tremendous success, setting still unbeaten world records for sales. His videos had transformed the industry and he was now universally known as the King of Pop. He was in a class by himself. Highly competitive, Michael was now in the impossible position where the only one to beat was himself and he became obsessed with the notion that each new album had to outsell the one before, each tour had to be bigger and better; the music videos became more ambitious and consequently more expensive. But the confluence of factors that contributed to Thriller’s success could not be replicated and though his subsequent albums continued to do extremely well, to Michael, it was not good enough. His desire to repeat the success of Thriller kept him from taking new risks as evident in Off the Wall, to some his artistry was being held captive to his drive for commercial success. At the same time, the music he produced during the late 80s and 90s was in many ways more personal and more political than his previous work. Many of his songs, like Leave Me Alone, I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, Privacy and Dirty Diana were musical expressions about his life and how he felt about it.
Michael started taking a more active interest in social issues and causes, which was reflected in both his music and philanthropic activities. Though he was no longer a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, the theocratic teachings he grew up with still shaped his view of the world and his perspective about his purpose in life. While he could no longer serve his God by witnessing about his faith – he could use his music and his money to address some of the social ills of the world. We are the World, Earth Song, Heal the World and Man in the Mirror expressed Michael’s deep commitment to promoting love of children, the earth and global peace. Black or White was his plea for racial harmony.
Michael became a pioneer in charitable fundraising within the entertainment community, setting the standard of generosity for other entertainers, particularly pop stars. Michael’s great wealth enabled him to support his favorite causes financially, he became an active philanthropist and is credited by many for paving the way for the current surge in celebrity giving. He used his celebrity status to raise awareness about important issues that at the time received little public attention like HIV/AIDS and famine relief. Michael used his knowledge of showmanship to great advantage, he understood the power of entertainment to reach people and raise their consciousness. We are the World – the star-studded single dedicated to famine relief raised more than $63 million from record sales, video and related memorabilia. Michael was listed in the 2000 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records record for most charities supported by a pop star – the number was 39. The list of charities he supported demonstrated his concern about children, animals and the environment. It’s estimated over the course of his life Michael contributed more than $300 million to various charitable organizations.
I think that Michael’s developing social consciousness provided him a needed avenue for spiritual expression. If he could no longer be a minister in the church, he could be a minister to the world. He believed it was God’s purpose for him and the reason he’d been given his musical gifts. Michael always credited his composing, singing and dancing to divine inspiration.
Michael with Jesse Jackson on his radio show Keep Hope Alive
Jesse: At what point did you know that you realize you were a show stopper?
Michael: You know when you have a special ability. You don’t realize it because you think everybody else has the same gift that you have. So you don’t realize it. When I used to sing at such a young age, people were so inspired by my singing and they loved it. I didn’t realize why they were clapping or crying or start to scream. I really truly didn’t Jesse. And it just uhm, just later on in life, people would come up to me and say you know do you realize you have a special gift or you have a special talent. I just remember from my mother who is very religious always telling us to always thank God, to thank Jehovah God for your talent, your ability. You know it’s not from, it’s not our doing, and it’s from above. So we were always humbled by people would come with accolades or you know, adulation or whatever it is. You know, it was a beautiful thing.
Of all the issues that concerned him, he was most passionate about issues concerning children. Michael consistently expressed his love and concern for children and the conditions of their lives. The following excerpt from his 1993 interview with Oprah is representative:
Oprah: Well, is this a part of you, we were talking about earlier, the pain of growing up and not being able to experience all the things that kids normally experience and so now you are fulfilling all those fantasies.
Michael: To compensate, yes.
Michael: Yes, it’s very true.
Oprah: Do you think you can ever really recapture it though? Does it feel the same? I mean, I don’t know.
Michael: (laughs) It’s more fun.
Michael: I wouldn’t change the past if I could. I’m enjoying myself.
Oprah: And here we are inside the theatre. I had one too many sugar babies at that candy counter.
Oprah: But the candy is here for all the kids. Pinocchio is here, ET is here. Did you – what’s fascinating to me about you is that obviously you have this child-like aura about you, and I see children with you and they play with you like you are one of them. But, a child did not do ths.
Oprah: A child did not put this together – this is really magnificent.
Michael: Well, thank you. I, I love to do things for children and I try to imitate Jesus – I am not saying I am Jesus, I’m not saying that.
Oprah: Yes, we’re clear on that.
Michael: Right, I’m trying to imitate Jesus in the fact that he said to be like children, to love children, to be as pure as children and to make yourself as innocent and to see the world through eyes of wonderment and the whole magical quality of it all – and I love that. And we’ll have like a hundred bald headed children, they all have cancer and they’re all running around…
Michael: …and they are enjoying themselves and it makes me cry happy tears that I was able to do this for them, you know?
Michael: Makes me so pleased inside.
Oprah: Well, when I came here to, um, about a month ago to shoot a commercial with you promoting tonight’s event, one of the things that really impressed me the most – I hope you guys are getting shots of this. I don’t know if you are, if all the cameras are on us, but – oh there are other cameras – is that there are, built inside the walls here – beds – beds for some of these sick children who come. And what I realized when I saw this is you have to be a person who really cares about children to build it into your architecture.
Michael: Yes, yes. We have children that come who are – intravenously – they are very sick, bedridden…
Oprah: They can’t sit up.
Michael: Right. They can’t sit up, and these beds, they are hospital beds. You push a button you go up or you go down and they are able to watch. We have a magic show, we show the current films, there’s cartoons, anything you know, anything so they can escape to that world of magic that they don’t have a chance to experience, the world I was deprived of when I was little.
Oprah: Now let me ask you this. You know I believe everything happens in people’s lives for a reason. Do you think that had you not missed a lot of, uh, the life and fun and fantasy of childhood that you would be so in touch with children today. Would you relate to them as you do?
Michael: I probably would, but not as much. That’s why I wouldn’t change a thing.
Michael: Because I am happy with the way things are and my caring for young people and everything.
Later in the interview Oprah questioned him about his spirituality and purpose:
Oprah: Are you very spiritual?
Michael: In what sense?
Oprah: I mean, do you, do you meditate? Do you understand that there’s someting bigger than yourself at work here?
Michael: I believe in God, absolutely, absolutely, very much.
Oprah: Uh-huh. And I believe everybody comes to the world for a reason. I think, um, most of us spend our lives trying to figure out what the purpose of our being here is. What do you think yours is?
Michael: My purpose?
Michael: Oh boy. I think um, to give in the best way I can through song and through dance and through music. I mean, I am committed to my art. I believe that all art has as it’s ultimate goal the union between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. I believe that to be the reason for the very existence of art.
Michael: And um, I feel I was chosen as an instrument to just give music and love and harmony to the world. To children of all ages, and um, adults and teenagers.
Michael’s preference for associating with children was initially rooted in his lack of trust. “I’m a very sensitive person,” Michael had admitted. “A person with very vulnerable feelings. My best friends in the whole world are children and animals. They’re the one who tell the truth and love you openly and without reservation. Adults have learned how to hide their feelings and their emotions. They can lie. They will smile to your face and say bad things behind your back. Children haven’t learned those things yet, and they can’t hurt you.”
Michael’s unqualified trust in the innocence and veracity of children proved to be misplaced. HIs reputation for surrounding himself with children would come back to haunt him when the parents of one of the young boys he’d befriended accused him of molestation. The events that followed these accusations combined with a host of factors to accelerate the unraveling of Michael’s carefully constructed world as he lost the ability to maintain a zone of privacy, causing him to make decisions that were ultimately self-destructive.
Michael had taught himself at an early age how to withdraw into himself – even in a room full of people. But what may have started as a defense mechanism to cope with the pressure of constant scrutiny – took on a life of its own. His eccentricities were exploited in service of the image machine – constantly repackaged and marketed to ever eager tabloid junkies, looking for their next fix of yellow journalism. Michael was initially a willing partner in accepting the brand as a modern P.T. Barnum. He wanted to have the greatest show on earth. But there’s a big difference between putting on the greatest show on earth and being the greatest sideshow.
The details of the case of Jordan Chandler, the teen Michael was accused of molesting have been well-publicized and needs no recounting. Michael steadfastly maintained his innocence but ultimately agreed to settle the case out of court for a considerable sum of money. What’s important here is the psychological impact of the experience on Michael Jackson. In addition to the public humiliation of being accused of the worse of crimes – particularly for someone who was an avowed lover of children – he was investigated by the local police, who came to his home with a search warrant looking for evidence and required he submit to a police photographer who took nude pictures of him, including his buttocks and genitals. For someone who was known to be terminally shy and inhibited this had to be incredibly traumatic. Michael’s fantasy world had been invaded in the worse way, he’d been subjected to indignities to his pride and person, but worse of all, his love for children was portrayed as something sinful and shameful. His money and prestige was unable to protect him – in fact, it was because of his fame the public was interested and they weren’t going to go away.
Even if a person wasn’t a regular drug user, these events might drive one to drugs or alcohol. In Michael’s case he was already there. Despite his religious beliefs against using mind-altering drugs Michael had developed a dependency to pain killers he began taking after he burned his scalp while filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984. For a person who had lived with a great deal of psychic pain for a long time, finding something that relieved it (even temporarily) along with any physical pain must have been a great thing. As with many people, what started out as a medicinal aid becomes a dependency and eventually a full-blown addiction. By the mid-1990s Michael had developed a serious problem with drugs.
Having a drug problem for anyone is a difficult thing to manage. The incentive to keep using is very strong, not just for the relief, but to avoid the discomfort that comes with withdrawal if one is chemically dependent. It’s even harder for the wealthy and the famous. With money comes power, the power to have people around who will give you what you want, when you want it whether it’s good for you or not. With fame comes the constant need to maintain an image – to project an illusion of who you are and how you’re doing – regardless of it’s relationship to reality. The pressure on Michael Jackson on a good day was intense, on a bad one, almost unbearable. Drugs can make the unbearable, bearable………..and so it goes.
The U.S. has the highest consumption of illegal drugs in the world, the rate of prescription drug abuse exceeds that of illegal drugs and is truly the ‘hidden drug epidemic’. I don’t think it’s surprising that Michael Jackson developed an addiction to opiates. The demands and pressures of his career combined with his personal conflicts and isolation was a recipe for potential substance abuse. Without the fear of detection and sanction by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and/or his mother, Michael had few boundaries to constrain his excesses – which in addition to drugs eventually included extravagant spending and repeated plastic surgery.
Regarding the plastic surgery – Many colleagues and friends have said that Michael Jackson began changing his nose because he didn’t want to look like his father Joseph. This following passage from – Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness (pg. 220-222) recounting an interview the author conducted at the Jackson home with the family in August, 1978 gives credibility to those claims:
In the middle of the interview, the good-natured ribbing among the brothers turned nasty when someone brought up the subject of nicknames.
“Mike has a nickname, ” Jackie mentioned. “It’s a real good one.”
Michael’s smiling face suddenly turned dead serious, “Don’t Jackie”, he warned. He looked away.
“We call him. . . ”
“Please you guys!” Michael pleaded.
“Big Nose,” Jackie continued, oblivious to Michael’s embarrassment. The brothers laughed amongst themselves. Michael’s face became flushed.
“Yeah, Big Nose,” Marlon repeated, grinning. “We call him Big Nose. Marlon reached over and punched Michael in the arm playfully. “What’s happenin’, Big Nose?”
But Michael was not laughing. He seemed to curl up inside himself. The others ignored him, continuing their game until Michael seemed close to tears. He would hardly say anything the rest of the afternoon. “That ain’t funny guys,” Tito said.
Later in the day came this exchange with Joseph Jackson:
“And speaking of Michael, Marlon told me about what happened. You’re not gonna write that part about Michael’s nickname, are you? [Joe] asked.
I told him I wasn’t certain how I would handle it.
“He doesn’t like that nickname they gave him. Liver Lips.”
“Liver Lips? They told me his nickname is Big Nose.”
“Oh, yeah,” Joe said. “That boy’s so sensitive about his nose. Do you see anything wrong with his nose?”
I shook my head. “No not at all.”
“Me neither,” Joe said. “But that’s all he ever talks about. His damn nose. Threatened to have it fixed. What can he do with it?” Joe looked perplexed. “I told him I’d break his face if he ever had it fixed.” He laughed. “You don’t fix something that ain’t broke. He’s got a great nose. It looks like mine.”
Michael’s sensitivity about the size of his nose may not have originated with his brother’s playful ribbing. Below is a copy of a publicity photograph of Michael in his early teens. If you compare it to another photo of Michael at home taken during the same period, it’s clear that in the publicity photo his nose was retouched. Michael, who probably signed copies of the photos for his many fans may have internalized this not so subtle critique of his physical appearance. Michael’s sensitivity about his appearance was exacerbated by a severe case of acne that made him ashamed to go out in public. “I seemed to have a pimple for every oil gland,” he recalled. Onstage, makeup hid the condition, but offstage it was obvious. Reporters commented to each other about it and fans would be shocked when they met him up close. Michael could barely stand the humiliation. “I became subconsciously scarred by this,” he confessed. “I got very shy and became embarrassed to meet people. The effect on me was so bad that it messed up my whole personality.” Michael was convinced he was not a good-looking young man.
A year later, in 1979, Michael reportedly tripped during a dance routine, falling on his face and breaking his nose. As a result of this accident, Michael had his first rhinoplasty – he was 21. When the bandages came off, Michael liked what he saw……….enough to do it again and again….
‘Nuf said . . . . . . . . . .
The downward trajectory that began with the Jordan Chandler sex abuse case reached free fall in the aftermath of Michael’s disastrous televised interview with Martin Bashir in 2003 where he showed himself to be seriously out-of-touch with reality and incapable of understanding why the public would find it suspect that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with inviting young boys into his bedroom and his bed. Michael had taught himself at an early age how to withdraw into his own world- even in a room full of people. But what may have started as a defense mechanism to cope with the pressure of constant scrutiny – took on a life of its own. His eccentricities were exploited in service of the image machine – constantly repackaged and marketed to ever eager tabloid junkies, looking for their next fix of yellow journalism. Michael was initially a willing partner in accepting the brand as a modern P.T. Barnum. He wanted to have the greatest show on earth. But there’s a big difference between putting on the greatest show on earth and being the greatest show. In the decade between these events Michael had married twice – first to Elvis Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie – a marriage viewed by most as an attempt to rehabilitate his tattered public image. The marriage lasted barely 18 months as Michael was incapable of maintaining the pretense of being in love with his new wife. His second marriage to Debbie Rowe, a nurse who worked for his dermatologist, caught the world by surprise. It was soon evident that this marriage had a specific purpose – to produce children for Michael. Debbie gave birth to Michael’s first son and daughter in the course of their few years together – children that looked suspiciously Caucasian – leading to suspicions that he was not their biological father. After their divorce he had a third child – another boy – this time by a surrogate mother who also does not look like he is of African descent.
It seems that being a father was very good for Michael. It was something he always wanted and by all accounts he was an attentive and loving father. Unfortunately, a bizarre incident in which Michael was filmed dangling his third child – then 9 months old – over the balcony of his hotel room in Germany caused an international furor and resulted in serious questions regarding his fitness as a parent. In reviewing the tape of the incident and his subsequent interview with Martin Bashir the next day, it seems to me that Michael was most likely under the influence of some substance at the time of these events. Either way, his comments and behavior as documented by Bashir, didn’t bode well for him or his children.
One extremely damaging consequence of the Bashir documentary – ironically titled: Living with Michael Jackson – was that it encouraged the Santa Barbara County DA Tom Sneddon to investigate Jackson for possible sexual improprieties with children. It didn’t take long for Sneddon to find a family – among the dozens Michael had befriended – to say their child had been molested by him. And given Michael’s now fixed image as a bizarre and freakish person of questionable sexuality – people were more than ready to believe it.
Michael Jackson’s criminal trial for child molestation in the spring of 2005 was an international media spectacle. Day after day, mainstream and tabloid journalists recounted every sordid detail about Michael’s habits and lifestyle. Though he prevailed in the case – his attorneys easily demolished the prosecution’s flimsy case – his reputation and his spirit were destroyed. The procession of young men the prosecutors paraded before the jury who told of their close friendship with Michael Jackson confirmed his public image as not the Christ-like Peter Pan he portrayed himself, but instead as either a pathetic man-child perpetually suspended in the Neverland of arrested development or a perverted Pied Piper who would use his fame and child-like innocence to seduce young boys into his bed.
The trial took a physical and emotional toll on Michael Jackson. You could literally track the change as his appearance and demeanor steadily deteriorated as the trial progressed. Each day, he looked smaller and more fragile. Like millions of his supporters I prayed for his acquittal in part because I didn’t believe he could survive imprisonment.
When the trial was over Michael declared he would never live at Neverland again – it was spoiled for him now. Where do you go when your private fantasyland has been corrupted by the reality of scandal? You find a new wonderland – for Michael Jackson, it was in Bahrain, where he moved after the trial. Only now, though he had become accustomed to living like a king – he could no longer maintain he lavish lifestyle. Years of bad financial management had left him in serious debt, he was now reduced to being the pet celebrity to the court of Bahrain’s royal family. Rumors circulated that he had converted to Islam and was building a mosque but as late as 2007, when asked his thoughts about the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, he answered as a Jehovah’s Witness would, saying:
“To tell the truth, I don’t follow that stuff. We were raised to not – we don’t look to man to fix the problems of the world, we don’t. They can’t do it. That’s how I see it. It’s beyond us. . . . . . We’re all in God’s hands. I think that man has to take that into consideration.”
With no new stories about Michael’s supposedly lurid sex life, media focus now turned to his shaky finances. Contrary to oft-repeated claims that his financial problems were caused by a habit of profligate spending (as demonstrated in the Bashir documentary) closer examination suggests that his greatest financial problems were the result of bad advice he received from the group of predatory and unscrupulous advisors that surrounded him. A 2006 New York Times article included the following about Jackson’s financial situation:
“I think that Michael never had any concept of fiscal responsibility, or logical fiscal responsibility. He was an individual that had been overindulged by those that represented him or worked for him for all of his life,” said Alvin Malnik, a former financial adviser to Mr. Jackson and a former lawyer for Meyer Lansky, the late mob kingpin. “There was no planning in terms of allocations of how much he should spend. As a businessman, you can forecast your spending for the next six months to a year. For Michael, it was whatever he wanted at the time he wanted.
Others close to Mr. Jackson say that the performer’s finances have not deteriorated simply because he is a big spender. They say that until the early 1990’s, he paid relatively close attention to his accounting and kept an eye on the cash that flowed through his business and creative ventures. After that, they say, Mr. Jackson became overly enamored of something that ensnares wealthy people of all stripes: bad advice.
The leading drain on Mr. Jackson’s ample resources may have been monumentally unwise investments that apparently produced equally colossal losses. Mr. Malnik estimates that some of Mr. Jackson’s advisers squandered $50 million on deals that never panned out — what he describes as amusement-park ideas and “bizarre, global kinds of computerized Marvel comic-book characters bigger than life.” Mr. Malnik said that he had loaned Mr. Jackson $7 million, part of which was used to settle various lawsuits related to deals gone awry.
It would not surprise me to learn that many of Michael’s financial advisors and assorted hanger-ons enabled his continuing drug addiction. In any event the years after 2005 were sad and lonely ones for Michael Jackson – at least that’s how it appeared from a distance. The first sign that he might be coming back was the interview he gave to Ebony Magazine in late 2007 commemorating the 25th anniversary of Thriller. The interview is not particularly newsworthy except for a few issues which have greater significance in hindsight. Michael used the interview to address some rumors that had been recently circulating about him:
- That he was secretly married to his children’s governess. – False
- That he was planning a world tour with his sister Janet. – False. Michael told Ebony that he did not want to do a major tour and he didn’t see himself growing old, on the road for the next 20 years, saying, “I don’t care about long tours …. I wish [James Brown] could have slowed down and relaxed and enjoyed his hard work.”
- That he was addicted to alcohol and painkillers and required an intervention by his family. Michael had his family respond to this allegation. In an open letter, his mother Katherine, along with Jermaine, Marlon, Tito and Jackie issued the following statement: “We categorically deny planning, participating in, or having any knowledge of any kind of intervention whatsoever. We strongly believe these sources and ‘others’ no matter who they are, are making these defamatory, inaccurate and untrue claims for monetary reasons.”
Ironically, one of the ‘others’ they may have been referring to was Michael’s sister Janet who was reportedly distraught about her brother’s condition. She refused to sign on to the public statement issued by her mother and brothers denying Michael’s drug problem. I can’t help but think the consistent pattern demonstrated by the Jackson family of preserving their image over the truth wasn’t helpful to Michael as a child; became increasing problematic as an adult; and downright destructive in his later life. Let’s hope they’ve learned enough to not repeat the pattern with Michael’s children…………….
I close with two quotes from Michael Jackson in his own words. The first is from an interview he gave in 1983 at the height of his career, when he was still a practicing Jehovah’s Witness:
1983 Interview with Sylvia Sidney – The Guardian, U.K.
To what extent has [Michael’s] belief in divinity influenced [your] life?
“I believe in God. We all do. We like to be straight, don’t go crazy or anything. Not to the point of losing our perspective on life, of what you are and who you are. A lot of entertainers, they make money and they spend the rest of their life celebrating that one goal they reached, and with that celebration comes the drugs and the liquor and the alcohol. And then they try to straighten up and they say, ‘Who am I? Where am I? What happened?’ And they lost themselves, and they’re broken. You have to be careful and have some kind of discipline.”
Michael had no way of knowing he was foreshadowing his own future. The second quote is from Michael’s only known major public speech. It was delivered at Oxford University in March 2001 on behalf of his work for Heal The Kids.
It’s not possible to replicate the speech here in it’s entirety but I would urge people to read it – it’s an incredible eloquent exposition of Michael’s view regarding the importance of childhood and the role of parents in preserving it. He may or may not have had help from a speechwriter, but there are aspects of the speech that are too personal to have been written by anyone else. In it he discusses his relationship with his father and how becoming a parent has affected his view of that relationship – it also includes a plea for forgiveness – of self and of others.
You probably weren’t surprised to hear that I did not have an idyllic childhood. The strain and tension that exists in my relationship with my own father is well documented. My father is a tough man and he pushed my brothers and me hard, from the earliest age, to be the best performers we could be.
He had great difficulty showing affection. He never really told me he loved me. And he never really complimented me either. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he told me it was a lousy show.
He seemed intent, above all else, on making us a commercial success. And at that he was more than adept. My father was a managerial genius and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way that he pushed us. He trained me as a showman and under his guidance I couldn’t miss a step.
But what I really wanted was a Dad. I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that. He never said I love you while looking me straight in the eye, he never played a game with me. He never gave me a piggyback ride, he never threw a pillow at me, or a water balloon.
But I remember once when I was about four years old, there was a little carnival and he picked me up and put me on a pony. It was a tiny gesture, probably something he forgot five minutes later. But because of that moment I have this special place in my heart for him. Because that’s how kids are, the little things mean so much to them and for me, that one moment meant everything. I only experienced it that one time, but it made me feel really good, about him and the world.
But now I am a father myself, and one day I was thinking about my own children, Prince and Paris and how I wanted them to think of me when they grow up. To be sure, I would like them to remember how I always wanted them with me wherever I went, how I always tried to put them before everything else. But there are also challenges in their lives. Because my kids are stalked by paparazzi, they can’t always go to a park or a movie with me.
So what if they grow older and resent me, and how my choices impacted their youth? Why weren’t we given an average childhood like all the other kids, they might ask? And at that moment I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt. That they will say to themselves: “Our daddy did the best he could, given the unique circumstances that he faced. He may not have been perfect, but he was a warm and decent man, who tried to give us all the love in the world.”
I hope that they will always focus on the positive things, on the sacrifices I willingly made for them, and not criticize the things they had to give up, or the errors I’ve made, and will certainly continue to make, in raising them. For we have all been someone’s child, and we know that despite the very best of plans and efforts, mistakes will always occur. That’s just being human.
And when I think about this, of how I hope that my children will not judge me unkindly, and will forgive my shortcomings, I am forced to think of my own father and despite my earlier denials, I am forced to admit that me must have loved me. He did love me, and I know that.
There were little things that showed it. When I was a kid I had a real sweet tooth – we all did. My favorite food was glazed doughnuts and my father knew that. So every few weeks I would come downstairs in the morning and there on the kitchen counter was a bag of glazed doughnuts – no note, no explanation – just the doughnuts. It was like Santa Claus.
Sometimes I would think about staying up late at night, so I could see him leave them there, but just like with Santa Claus, I didn’t want to ruin the magic for fear that he would never do it again. My father had to leave them secretly at night, so as no one might catch him with his guard down. He was scared of human emotion, he didn’t understand it or know how to deal with it. But he did know doughnuts.
And when I allow the floodgates to open up, there are other memories that come rushing back, memories of other tiny gestures, however imperfect, that showed that he did what he could. So tonight, rather than focusing on what my father didn’t do, I want to focus on all the things he did do and on his own personal challenges. I want to stop judging him.
I have begun to see that even my father’s harshness was a kind of love, an imperfect love, to be sure, but love nonetheless. He pushed me because he loved me. Because he wanted no man ever to look down at his offspring.
And now with time, rather than bitterness, I feel blessing. In the place of anger, I have found absolution. And in the place of revenge I have found reconciliation. And my initial fury has slowly given way to forgiveness.
Almost a decade ago, I founded a charity called Heal the World. The title was something I felt inside me. Little did I know, as Shmuley later pointed out, that those two words form the cornerstone of Old Testament prophecy. Do I really believe that we can heal this world, that is riddled with war and genocide, even today? And do I really think that we can heal our children, the same children who can enter their schools with guns and hatred and shoot down their classmates, like they did at Columbine? Or children who can beat a defenseless toddler to death, like the tragic story of Jamie Bulger? Of course I do, or I wouldn’t be here tonight.
But it all begins with forgiveness, because to heal the world, we first have to heal ourselves. And to heal the kids, we first have to heal the child within, each and every one of us. As an adult, and as a parent, I realize that I cannot be a whole human being, nor a parent capable of unconditional love, until I put to rest the ghosts of my own childhood.
And that’s what I’m asking all of us to do tonight. Live up to the fifth of the Ten Commandments. Honour your parents by not judging them. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
That is why I want to forgive my father and to stop judging him. I want to forgive my father, because I want a father, and this is the only one that I’ve got. I want the weight of my past lifted from my shoulders and I want to be free to step into a new relationship with my father, for the rest of my life, unhindered by the goblins of the past.
In a world filled with hate, we must still dare to hope. In a world filled with anger, we must still dare to comfort. In a world filled with despair, we must still dare to dream. And in a world filled with distrust, we must still dare to believe.
To all of you tonight who feel let down by your parents, I ask you to let down your disappointment. To all of you tonight who feel cheated by your fathers or mothers, I ask you not to cheat yourself further. And to all of you who wish to push your parents away, I ask you to extend you hand to them instead. I am asking you, I am asking myself, to give our parents the gift of unconditional love, so that they too may learn how to love from us, their children. So that love will finally be restored to a desolate and lonely world.
Shmuley once mentioned to me an ancient Biblical prophecy which says that a new world and a new time would come, when “the hearts of the parents would be restored through the hearts of their children”. My friends, we are that world, we are those children.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Tonight, be strong. Beyond being strong, rise to the greatest challenge of all – to restore that broken covenant. We must all overcome whatever crippling effects our childhoods may have had on our lives and in the words of Jesse Jackson, forgive each other, redeem each other and move on.
From this day forward, may a new song be heard.
Let that new song be the sound of children laughing.
Let that new song be the sound of children playing.
Let that new song be the sound of children singing.
And let that new song be the sound of parents listening.
Together, let us create a symphony of hearts, marveling at the miracle of our children and basking in the beauty of love.
Let us heal the world and blight its pain.
And may we all make beautiful music together.
REST IN PEACE MICHAEL, THANK YOU FOR THE LOVE YOU SHARED IN LIFE…………….YOUR BATTLE IS OVER, BUT OURS CONTINUES……………………….