In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, Katherine Jackson has emerged as the most sober member of the Jackson clan—admittedly a low bar—and the one who quietly pulled together the rest of the family and grieved privately.
Shunning the spotlight except for the most extreme situations—such as taking her place at Michael’s side during his 2005 sexual-abuse trial—it’s not surprising that his mother would be the one Michael trusted to take care of his own children.
“I’ve never seen a closer relationship between a 50-year-old man and his mother,” says Randy Phillips, the head of AEG, the concert promoters who had put together Jackson’s comeback concerts. He’d worked with the singer daily in the months leading up to his death and said Jackson’s mother was obviously his closest confidante.
She watched over and tried to protect him until the end. Randy Phillips, the head of AEG, the concert promoters who had put together Jackson's comeback concerts, worked with the singer daily in the months leading up to his death and said Jackson’s mother was obviously his closest confidante.
She was concerned that the London concerts were his first in a dozen years. "She grilled me pretty good,” says Phillips. “She wanted to make sure we weren't taking advantage of him, that he was getting enough rest and not overworking. I've never seen a closer relationship between a 50-year-old man and his mother.”
Born Katherine Scruse in 1930 in Barbour County, Alabama, Katherine Jackson was the daughter of a working-class family, of mixed black, white, and American Indian heritage. When she was 4 and the family settled in East Chicago, she contracted polio, the reason for her noticeable limp. It was also in East Chicago that she met Joe Jackson, an amateur boxer and steel-mill worker who in his spare time played guitar in the Falcons, an R&B group. Rambunctious Joe and quiet Katherine seemed an odd match but they married in 1949, when she was 19, and moved to Gary, Indiana.
Amidst Joe’s well-known failings—the physical abuse of his kids, philandering, and even promoting his new business the day after Michael died—Katherine and their 10 children followed his rules.
Katherine not only watched helplessly as a volatile Joe meted out physical beatings to the children, often for the smallest infractions, but she was herself occasionally his victim. Michael later said that he thought his mother feared her husband, just as he did.
In quiet moments, when Joe was at work, she taught the children the gentler aspects of music, as she sang folk songs and spirituals to them. Michael recalled to a friend years later that he would sing along with her and found quiet solace with his mother. The fear only returned when his father came home at the end of a long shift, the family never sure whether he would be in a mean mood or not.
With his own R&B band unable to even get $20 gigs in local dive bars, Joe became determined to make his five boys into a successful group. In between the frenzied practice sessions and the screaming matches, Katherine would work quietly in the back room sewing their costumes. When the family drove to state fairs throughout the Midwest, she was behind the wheel.
By 1963, when Michael was 4, and the Jackson Five was just starting, Katherine became a Jehovah's Witness, finding refuge in the strict confines of that religion and she raised Michael and all the children in that faith. It meant no smoking, gambling, swearing, or premarital sex. There were no birthday or holiday celebrations (the party Katherine and Joe had in Las Vegas this year for their 60th wedding anniversary was their first).
Part of Michael’s upbringing was to “witness” at stranger’s houses by going door to door to spread the faith. After Michael became famous, he disguised himself by wearing a rubber fat suit to try to fool the neighbors.
Her faith was so strong that when Motown signed the Jackson Five, she shuddered when she heard the lyrics of the 1970 No. 1 hit, "ABC," with its lyrics, “Shake it, shake it, baby.” She didn’t like it that Berry Gordy made Michael lie when he turned 10, insisting he pass himself off only as 8. She disliked both New York and Los Angeles when she visited them for her sons first performances there, finding them dangerous places where the outside world was impossible to keep out.
And Diana Ross, with whom Michael stayed in Los Angeles, scared Katherine. Diana’s glitz, instant taking control of any room she entered, and her doting over Michael, seemed too overbearing.
But as was her way, Katherine kept her misgivings mostly to herself and expressed them not to family members, but some other churchgoers. Instead, she rode the Jackson Five's success as their first four songs hit No. 1.
In 1973, by the time the Jackson Five’s success was petering out at Motown, she mustered the courage to seek a divorce from Joe. She had ignored his philandering until it resulted in the pregnancy of his 26-year-old mistress. But Joe begged and persuaded Katherine to stay. Although they celebrated their 60th anniversary this year, they have lived hundreds of miles apart, with separate lives, for a decade.
A telling moment in Jackson’s relationship with his mother came when Michael told a reporter he felt he had been raised as “a circus animal.” He later apologized to Katherine. “I didn’t mean you,” he told her.
“I know,” she said, hugging him and cradling his head against her chest. “I know all too well.”
Trisha Posner is a journalist and author. This is Not Your Mother’s Menopause was her journey through menopause, hormone-free. Her follow-up was No Hormones, No Fear.