Saturday, March 9, 2019

Never[land] meet your heroes.

One of the few personal traits I'm proud of is that I've always had a firm grounding in reality. Oh sure, I sat with a friend poring over Beatles magazines and fantasizing that I would marry Paul McCartney someday, but I was nine years old.

I really don't have any other recollection of celebrity-chasing. I have gone to a few book signings, but they were people like Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet (well before the sex abuse claims against him came out), Garrison Keillor (again -- decades before he was disappeared for touching a woman's back), Jodi Picoult (no allegations against her that I'm aware of, and before she became a regular on the New York Times bestseller list), former Mets Manager Davey Johnson, baseball announcer Tim McCarver, and Phil Lesh (at which Mr. Brilliant was fangirling a lot more than I was). But I have never felt that I "knew" these people.

Oh sure, there are celebrities that I've thought might be cool to hang out with, but I've never felt I really knew any of them. The very fact that they are celebrities means that they have a public persona that may or may not resemble their real personalities, no matter how many interviews they allowed Barbara Walters or Morley Safer or, yes, even the Queen of Self-Revelation, Oprah.

The closest I've come to rubbing elbows with celebrities is the time I was an usher at the Drama League Awards, where my function was to point guests to the correct room. What struck me that day was that except for John Lithgow, who is as massive as you'd expect, and Jeff Goldblum, who was an absolute prince of a fellow with the three women attending an unrelated conference at the same hotel, just how much SMALLER these people were than you'd expect; small people with extraordinarily large heads, for some reason. The biggest surprise to me was Frances Sternhagen, who made a late-life career playing imposing WASP matrons. You may know her as "Trey's mother" in Sex and the City. In real life, Sternhagen is about my height (which is less than five feet tall). The colors of the world may only seem real when you viddy them on the screen, but despite what Gloria Swanson said in Sunset Boulevard, in reality the movies got big but the stars are small.

If you watched all of the documentary Leaving Neverland this week and stayed to watch the discussion with Wade Robson and James Safechuck afterward (yeah, it was moderated by Oprah, but people DO listen to her), and you came away NOT believing that these two men were telling the truth, then I would say that you are refusing to distinguish between artist and person, between image and person.

Perhaps it's easier for me to believe these two men because I have zero investment in the Mythos of Michael Jackson. I was never a fan. Yes, he was a charismatic entertainer, but there have been plenty of those. I don't toss around the word "genius" lightly. And I sure as hell know that what I see on a stage or in a music video or even a concert has nothing to do with who the person is when he gets off the stage.

With Jackson, it's not even like he was trying to hide anything. The endless parade of prepubescent boys, traded in for a younger one once they reached their teens. The hand-holding. The media calling these boys Jackson's "travel companions." The theme park of a "ranch" that couldn't have drawn in more little boys if its driveways and walkways had been painted in Krazy Glue. All of it as if it were perfectly normal, as if EVERY adult male in his 30s and 40s decks out his house like a kiddie park and walks around holding hands with boys that are not his. The media were so focused on his increasingly grotesque appearance that they didn't even seem to notice what was going on in plain sight.

Everyone enabled him. He was a cash cow to so many people. There was too much money to be made off of Michael Incorporated to look at his personal proclivities. Then add in a celebrity culture in which ordinary people long to be touched by what they perceive as greatness to the point that they're essentially pimping out their sons just so they can hang out with a star. What do you end up with? You end up with James Safechuck's tormented countenance and shaking hands as he finally feels courageous enough to face the demons that the star everyone thought just "loved children" put there.

I don't see Michael Jackson as a monster. It was clear from very early on that he himself was severely damaged by his childhood. I don't know if he was sexually, emotionally, or physically abused, but that he was put out there on stage and expected to use his charisma to support his entire family and even enable the less talented among them to have show business careers constitutes abuse. No, he was not a monster. But he was someone who had the resources to buy the ersatz childhood that the Neverland Ranch and boys like Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and others brought him. They were easy marks because their parents became starstruck and indulged their sons' and their own fandom to an extreme that they don't even understand anymore. They were in thrall to Michael Jackson and now that the curtain has fallen, and the spell is broken, they can't even explain it.

So why don't people like Macauley Culkin and Corey Feldman come forward about him? Perhaps it's because he DIDN'T abuse them. Why not? Because what did he have to offer two young stars in their own right that they didn't already have or could easily get? He didn't have the leverage with them that he did with two unknown kids whose "show business careers" only existed in the reflected light of Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson was a sick, tragic man and clearly his maturity development was stunted. The world wanted him to remain that cute kid on the Ed Sullivan Show forever. As part of the Jackson 5, while he looked like a little kid onstage, offstage he wasn't allowed to be one. And when the puberty monster hit, his emotional development stopped.  As a young adult, he was able to use his money to create the childhood he'd missed, even as people like Quincy Jones and others were able to create an image that could loosely pass for a reasonable facsimile of evolution into something perhaps having some of the aspects of an adult performer.

Jackson didn't abuse everyone he came in contact with any more than a rapist rapes every woman he sees. But no matter how tragic Michael Jackson may have been, no matter how much he cried in the corner at the thought of his favorite boys being away from him, no matter how lonely he was, no matter how much money he had or made for others, no matter how much people may have enjoyed his records, his videos, and his concerts, the fact remains that Michael Jackson ruined the lives of Wade Robson and James Safechuck and probably others who are not yet ready to come forward. No amount of talent, or your enjoyment of it, mitigates that fact.  And for the men he abused, his musical legacy does nothing to change that.