The news came from a Starbucks barista in Miami Beach as she ran up to the counter and screamed, “Michael Jackson is dead!”
Her mother had just heard it on the radio. About two dozen of us in the café responded to the news by flipping out cellphones and checking news sites, Facebook, and Twitter.
“He’s only been taken to the hospital,” said a German tourist, in heavily accented English.
“TMZ says he’s dead,” said a teenage girl, who was crying.
Joe used a whip to ensure that no one strayed off note or flubbed a dance step. And he was especially hard on Michael, chastising him publicly as dumb, ugly, and awkward.
The news of someone famous dying young is always startling. But for me, having spent four years researching and writing a book about the Motown record label— MOTOWN: Music, Money, Sex, and Power—it was somehow not surprising. It felt as if I had been waiting years for the day when this news would arrive. Despite his incredible talent and astonishing achievements, watching Jackson’s life was like being a helpless witness to a train wreck played out in slow motion, knowing that the ending was fatal.
Everyone knows about his record sales numbers with the album Thriller and his invention of the moonwalk. Many can recite a litany of his odd behaviors over the past decade. But the images of Michael burned in my memory are the ones I heard from his friends from the early days, right after Motown impresario Berry Gordy signed the 9-year-old and his four brothers as the Jackson Five in 1969.
“Michael was a strange and lovely child,” recalled Smokey Robinson. “I always saw him as an old soul in the body of a boy.”
What Smokey and the others at Motown didn’t know then was that Michael had been driven by his father, Joe, at a brutal pace for years in order to become a star. Joe tried his hardest to banish the outside world from their household in working-class Gary, Indiana, forbidding all the Jackson children from talking to neighbors and beating them for the slightest infractions. Joe used everything from belts to wire hangers, rulers, and razor straps. Sometimes, the children bore the results to school—bruises or a crusty, bloodied nose. On occasion, some of the boys were knocked unconscious.
Once, 4-year-old Michael went into the bathroom only to discover his 6-year-old sister, La Toya, laying on the tile floor, crying and bloodied, after being beaten by her father because of a poor report card. Michael, terrified that if he said anything he might be beaten, too, just stepped over his sister, washed his hands at the sink, and then returned to the dinner table.
Joe was also merciless with his taunts, particularly directed at the frail and shy Michael. He called the boys sissies for not fighting when he hit them, and often made them feel worthless. At times he seemed to relish terrifying them. Sometimes, he burst out of a closet wielding a kitchen knife and wearing a grotesque latex mask—the louder they screamed, the more uncontrollable his laughter. When he arrived home each day, there was a palpable fear among the children about whether he was in a good mood or not.
Katherine, Michael’s mother, sought solace in becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. She raised Michael and his siblings in that faith, with its bans on smoking, swearing, gambling, homosexuality, premarital sex, fishing, and hunting. No celebrations of birthdays or holidays were allowed.
But an exception to those strictures was made for Joe’s band, composed of his children, with Michael as the lead. He made them practice three to four hours daily. Sometimes he woke them up in the middle of the night for a practice session because he couldn’t sleep. When they started playing publicly, at schools and fairs, and the awards began piling up, Joe still wasn’t satisfied. The post-school practices became so demanding that sometimes Michael collapsed from exhaustion. Joe used a whip to ensure that no one strayed off note or flubbed a dance step. And he was especially hard on Michael, chastising him publicly as dumb, ugly, and awkward.
Michael, years later, told a friend how he had come to hate his father and that he felt he and his brothers had been raised like trained circus animals. Michael’s only moments of peace came backstage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where he crouched in the basement passageways and watched through a crack in the wall as James Brown performed on stage. People remember the skinny little kid mimicking the dance steps, the dips, the bumps, and the outstretched arms for hours. Michael reveled in those wild, untamed moves.
“I don’t know what happened at home before Michael got to Motown,” said Gordy. “But he had a childhood at Motown.”
Yet it was hardly a normal childhood—always in the limelight, a No. 1 hit by the age of 10. No wonder Michael spent a lifetime trying to find that lost childhood.
Neverland, Michael’s private Disneyland, was where he hung out with kids because he related better to them than he did to adults. Later, the sexual charges involving his relationship to several boys closed that world off to him, as well. And the child who had been told repeatedly by his father that he was grotesquely ugly continuously tried to remake his face through plastic surgery and then hid it half the time under a mask.
“The outside world is your enemy,” Joe told the kids early on. Michael tried to find his freedom from Joe’s tyranny in that outside world, but instead found an overwhelming fame that was like a gilded prison. He never broke free from the people wanting a piece of his talent. And in the end, surrounded mostly by sycophants, he had become an in-house court jester for the royal family in the United Arab Emirates.
In the waning years of his career, as in his traumatic youth, there was no one there to help or protect him. Left on his own, Michael Jackson, a tortured soul, seemed almost destined to die young.
Gerald Posner is the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism ( www.posner.com). Posner lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.