By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
This Friday marks one year since the passing of Michael Jackson. His legacy remains highly controversial. On one side there are ardent fans who consider him the central inspiration of their lives. On the other there are strident critics who believe he was hopelessly weird with an unhealthy interest in children. In the middle are those who simply love his music and miss his talent.
The truth about Michael as I knew and understood him was something else entirely. Michael Jackson forever remained the broken boy who yearned for a normal childhood but was thrust reluctantly into a spotlight that slowly became addictive. Immersed in a celebrity culture rife with human corruption, he yearned to be innocent. Starved of affection, he spent his life looking for love but ultimately settled for attention. Surrounded by sycophants who indulged his every unhealthy whim, he longed to find an authentic and spiritual environment. And trapped in a cocoon of incarcerating fame, he craved to consecrate his celebrity to a cause larger than himself.
The tragedy of his life was his failure to achieve these noble aims. Michael knew that G-d had given him a special gift and with it the power — as he often sang — to “‘heal the world, make it a better place.” He understood the responsibility of celebrity and was devastated as his was slowly transformed into notoriety. He hated to be hated and was crushed by the chasm between what he saw as his sincere intentions to do good verses the uncharitable public perception of him as a shallow materialist.
Michael and I became close friends for a period of about two years. We worked together to find a renewed direction for his life and gave several joint lectures together about the importance of parents prioritizing their children. Once, in the midst of the 30 hours of recordings we did together for publication in a book that would allow Michael to speak directly to the public, he revealed how defamatory his celebrity had become. “You get tired and it just wears you down. You can’t go somewhere where they don’t manipulate what you do and say, that bothers me so much, and you are nothing like the person that they write about, nothing. To get called Whacko, that’s not nice. People think something is wrong with you because they make it up. I am nothing like that. I am the opposite of that.”
Polite to a fault, he was a soft and gentle soul who prided himself on being different to other celebrities. Whereas they partied in nightclubs, Michael loved being around ordinary families. Where they put, as Michael said, needles in their arms, he was a vegetarian who wouldn’t be caught dead with a street drug. And where they, as Michael maintained, engaged in tawdry relationships, Michael preferred the company of innocent kids.
What he could not see was that overindulging in medication prescribed by a doctor was just as destructive as a street drug and was motivated by the same celebrity emptiness. He was also oblivious to his own excess when it came to kids. It was one thing to show kindness and friendship to children. It was another thing entirely to invite them into your bed.
I do not for a moment believe Michael was a pedophile. Those who judge him as such forget that the only time he was charged he was utterly acquitted, and it is time for the public to exonerate him as well. But he gave himself license to cross lines of basic propriety that brought him into disrepute and soiled his message about the purity and innocence adults could learn from children. For a man who spent his life trying to educate the public as to the wonders of childhood, this was a monumental failure, and he knew it. The suspicion cast on him by a public whose love he had spent a lifetime cultivating marked the principal sorrow of his life. It would have tragic consequences when he turned increasingly to painkillers to numb the ache.
A year after his death what most haunts me is the knowledge that Michael’s life could so easily have been saved. What Michael needed was not painkillers but counseling, not the numbing of an inner woundedness through drugs but the awakening of an inner conscience through spiritual guidance. He needed a wise voice in his ear guiding him to a mastery of his demons before they consumed him. Any number of people could have rescued Michael from impeding oblivion. Most of all, he craved the love and validation of his father. What emerges most strikingly in our recorded conversations – conversations that Michael knew would be read by a wide audience, perhaps including his parents – was the hurt he felt toward his father on the one hand, and the extreme affection he harbored for him on the other. Michael had many fans, but he played primarily to an audience of one.
But while his life is sadly irretrievable, the lessons to be culled from his life are not. Few were as eloquent in articulating the profound lessons parents could learn from being around their children. Fewer still were more attuned to the lifelong scarring of children who were victims of neglect. I can still hear Michael’s daily admonishments to me to look my children in the eye and tell them I loved them and to never allow a night to go by without reading them a bedtime story.
When first I learned of his death my immediate reaction, I am ashamed to say, was anger. You silly man, I thought. How could you? You knew your children, whom you adored, depended on you. You were the most devoted father. How could you orphan them? You Michael, to whom G-d bequeathed such unequaled talent, just threw it away?
Twelve months later the anger is gone, replaced by a deep sadness. He was an imperfect candle. But his striving to go beyond the caricature he had become and redeem his life by visiting orphanages and hospitals was illuminating. The lyrics of his songs spoke to the human yearning to mend the broken pieces of the human soul and become whole. Whether it was encouraging himself and his fans to be the man looking in the mirror, or healing the world, he wished for his music to inspire people to choose goodness.
A year after his untimely passing it is time to mourn Michael as a man. To remember him not as an entertainer, or to miss him as an international icon — an object without feelings or pain — but as a struggling soul who tried to transform the pain of his broken childhood into an inspirational message about parents cherishing their children. It is time to evaluate Michael his life not in the context of an idol who had much money and fame but as a man who searched for a real home that was not a stage.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of “The Michael Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals His Soul Intimate Conversation,” (Vanguard) and the just-published ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life’ (BasicBooks). He is also host of Shalom in the Home on TLC. Follow him on Twitter @Rabbishmuley.