Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 4, No. 5, 2005
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Robert J. Lewis
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In the last issue of Arts & Opinion, Robert J. Lewis, in his editorial Michael Jackson: Manchild in a Promised Land, defends Michael's relationships with children, arguing the latter is himself a child, who, in order to place himself irrevocably above all suspicion, should voluntarily submit to neutering. J. A. Quaytman rejects Lewis' defense, and insists that the adult Michael Jackson is responsible for his actions. Note: On June 13, 2005, the courts found Michael not guilty of the charges brought against him.

Dr. J. A. Quaytman is a licensed clinical psychologist who teaches at California State University. She has worked in the field for over 30 years and has a private practice in northern California. Her specialities include psychological trauma, substance abuse/dependence and family dysfunction.

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By the end of your editorial, Mr. Lewis, Michael Jackson: Manchild in a Promised Land, I found myself muttering at the mischief-maker behind the enticing language. Your initial, sympathetic paragraphs describing the tragedy of this man’s early life, as well as your rather logical assumptions about his defense mechanisms drew me in, as I suspect it would many a reader. But before I knew it, an abyss loomed before me, appearing so abruptly, I could barely stop myself from sliding down its inviting slope into the huge maw. But why should I shudder and step back from endorsing your empathic portrayal of this sad but compelling modern icon? The river of your discourse appeared sufficiently deep, but I began to fear it a deceptive illusion, with jagged and dangerous rocks hidden just beneath its surface. Were you playing the role of l’agent provocateur? If so, you did, indeed, succeed, for I was ‘hooked’ like some trout in the deeper points of that stream’s meandering course.

Your interpretation of Michael Jackson’s behavior as that of a tormented, helpless soul trapped in a permanent childhood was engaging. And your tone, just short of shrill, appropriately exhorted us against employing a double standard of justice for Jackson, an understandable position, given the politics of today. However, you danced dangerously on the precipice of advocating a similar double standard regarding this ‘manchild’s responsibility for his actions -- thus, my uneasiness at your presentation. The questions you touched on, however, continue to provoke controversy in the psychological community and are, perhaps, worthy of mention.

Freud’s axiom, “There is no time in the psyche,” came to mind when you compared Mr. Jackson’s behavior to that of children incapable of hiding their feelings and wishes. Has this teen idol, now well into his adulthood, magically achieved the permanent, personal identity of an eternal child? It’s possible, given the tendency of the psyche to view itself as a timeless entity; and this protective mechanism is universal, if Erikson’s theory is to be embraced. Mr. Jackson’s talents and willingness to enter the heady world of stardom certainly gained him the protection of wealth (and all it can purchase) to construct and maintain this artificial state. However, in a reasonably adjusted personality, the continual presence of the ‘Id’ is balanced with the simultaneous awareness of various life stages, their differing requirements, and the inevitability of aging and death. But the deeper the wounds of childhood, the greater the interruption in the normal development of basic social and cognitive skills, rendering the individual inept in various areas of functioning. And when the basic attachment needs of the child remain unmet into adulthood, the passage of time truly does become distorted. Then the delicate juggling act of balancing these equally essential, but opposing forces fails, and the pieces fall, willy-nilly, to the ground. W. Robert Beavers refers to this anomaly as a “loss of time binding,” and attributes that dysfunction to any number of failures in the family, particularly the parental unit. Indeed, according to the current literature, those of our species who cannot live within the bounds of socially (and often legally) acceptable behavior have a significant level of emotional immaturity. And this is as true for the sexual disorders known as the ‘paraphilias’ as it is for the more obvious forms of aggression.

This immaturity is also commonly connected with a deep terror of rejection and abandonment, and those feelings frequently are expressed in the behaviors described under the rubric of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Those types of behaviors include both an obsessive type of criticism (in a sense, self-rejection) of specific areas of the body, as well as numerous attempts to alter the supposed defects. And you infer many of those symptoms in your description of the numerous surgeries Mr. Jackson has undergone in his quest for his ‘true’ identity. But your ‘tongue in cheek’ suggestion that Mr. Jackson subject himself to being neutered, and that such an act would be Mr. Jackson’s ultimate “confession,” is clearly both outrageous and provocative. Are you advocating ad extremis, some type of rebound to a more reasonable position on the topic?

Nevertheless, the psychological distortions and emotional distress of these types of disorders are treatable in many, but not all, instances, according to current outcome studies. This then begs the question:

Has Mr. Jackson, with all his financial resources, sought the services of a truly experienced therapist with expertise in these areas?

If Mr. Jackson has not sought treatment, perhaps this is due to his belief that it is the world, not he, which has the problem. And, at first blush, your rhetoric implies that you agree with such a conclusion. In the field of psychology, the term, ‘ego syntonic,’ is used to describe symptoms or behaviors which might be unacceptable to society, but which the individual exhibiting them believes are perfectly normal, and does not wish to change. In the case of privileged individuals with this type of profile, they will often surround themselves with sycophants who support the symptom bearer’s distortions for a variety of motives. And such an entourage will often prevent or interrupt treatment for those same symptoms. In cases where childhood abuse or neglect is an underlying factor, it is as if the individual is saying: “I won’t conform to the requirements of an adult world, as the adult world did not recognize and respond to my needs as a child.”

It is also common for such individuals to have a secondary motive, the fear of losing their status, their uniqueness, should they receive treatment. Will they lose their ‘edge’ or the paradoxical appeal their odd appearance or behavior has for the ordinary teen/adult who buys their records and attends their concerts? Is the avoidance of treatment as much dictated by consciously based motivations as it is by some unconscious and terrible trauma? Again, this type of response is indicative of the immaturity of the individual, their need to place their own pleasure above the comfort or even the rights of another. The individual’s fans may also fear the loss of their icon, and the mesmerizing distraction that idol offers them. Of course, I cannot assert that any or all of these potential scenarios are true in Mr. Jackson’s case.

On the flip side, the ‘devil’s advocate’ position argues that Mr. Jackson has the right to maintain any attitudes or behaviors, regardless of their deviation from the norm, as long as he does not infringe on the rights of others. And you clearly point to that right when you cite the court’s “not guilty” verdict in the case of the 11 year old boy whose parents brought charges against Mr. Jackson. Again you urge us to avoid trying this man in the court of public opinion on the basis of his bizarre lifestyle, as he has not been held legally accountable for harming the child in question. But, once more, you also appear to be needling us. Are you giving voice to those individuals who have been seduced by a culture of the abandoned, the abused or the misunderstood -- those souls who for any number of reasons refuse to board the train of the mundane, the average? Are your thoughts those of the everyday citizen hypnotized by such a culture, living vicariously through the lives of those who somehow escape the drudgery, the angst, imposed on us by the threat of sanction? Of course these apparently disparate cultures -- the pedestrian and the bizarre -- have a certain symbiotic need for each other. And we should delight in the lengthy list of artists, musicians, and writers who provide the contrapuntal rhythms, the lush obligatos, behind the frequently mediocre melody of daily existence. These muses enliven our world and prompt us to stretch our range of possibilities. And certainly Mr. Jackson, at least at one point in time, produced some of the most ingenious and compelling music of the pop genre. The artistic segment of our species, albeit a minority, acts as a catalyst for evolutionary change in the psychological, behavioral, spiritual and legal realms of human society. And it is likely that the ability of such outstanding artists to viscerally resonate with their audience is due to a deep acquaintance with psychic pain. Thus, your reference to Tennessee Williams’ stark but eloquent line, “there’s not enough kindness in the world.”

Of course you admire this ‘manchild’s candor, his disarming willingness to place himself in the brutal light of public scrutiny, in contrast with the purposeful obfuscation and duplicity of many a leading cleric or politician. Yes, I agree his behavior is likely the cry of the cheated child, demanding the rest of what he deserved but never received. Mr. Jackson’s vocal tone alone produces an impression of the uncertain sexuality of childhood, not to mention his ranch named Neverland. How plain can it be? But the physical domain he has built, supposedly to seal out the world of the adult he fears, belies his thinly veiled attempts to recruit the attention of the father figure society represents. Mr. Jackson’s candid and apparently innocent disclosures can actually be interpreted as a desperate act to obtain that parental attention, in hopes of finding the unconditional love he seeks. If that is the case, Mr. Jackson is demanding that society, the generic father figure, accept any and all of ‘manchild’s' actions, and any censure on society’s part confirms his sense of complete abandonment. Thus, if true, he would be rejecting any outside attempts to discipline him, despite his unconscious awareness of the necessity of that input for his on-going growth. This all too human, intra-psychic conflict naturally pulls at the unconscious longings in us all.

However, I still squirmed. Isn’t one of the costs of adulthood, with its privileges and perks, the need to both understand and tame the tantrums of the ‘inner child’ (to quote Bradshaw) when it collides with the crises, disappointments or fears from which none of us is exempt? Isn’t this a basic tenet of any society that does not advocate anarchy? Yes, regardless of the truth of the allegations leveled against his father, obviously there were tremendous deficits in Mr. Jackson’s childhood against which he continues to rail. But are you asking us to give him a ‘pass’ (no double entendre intended) because of this? What about the thousands of prisoners currently ‘doing time,’ serving life sentences or even on death row who surely have experienced similar (or worse) deficits -- are we to give them a pass, too? In reality, I suspect that you were presenting us, once again, with the paradox that is a ‘free’ society: democracy, not only has a cost, it produces riddles which stump the most enlightened of sages.

At this juncture I could rant on about the difference between ‘retributive’ and ‘rehabilitative’ justice, that our penal system is geared toward the former, not the latter. But suffice it to say we refuse to spend tax dollars on rehabilitating the immature progeny of poorly prepared parents. Nor do we require training or a license to become parents at this evolutionary point in our society. And I know as I write these words, the faces of Libertarians, Democrats, independents and Republicans are expressing horror at the thought. Nevertheless, we can’t have it both ways. If we wish to uphold civil liberties such as the inalienable right to bear children and construct families without governmental interference, we as a society will bear the burden of those who take on these roles without sufficient insight or the proper emotional equipment. We will continue to have trials about sexual and physical abuse, and those individuals not having a strong financial position or the status of ‘star’ will receive the sternest punishment. For in America, the visual acuity of justice is a function of one’s bank balance. So, despite my sympathy for Michael Jackson’s apparent self-loathing and the source of that injury, he is relatively fortunate when compared with the millions of others in our country who carry similar scars but lack the compensatory advantages of wealth or status.

Perhaps the most disturbing intimation in your discourse is that Mr. Jackson should be regarded as a symbol of the masses oppressed by unreasonable social restrictions, that his symptoms are merely a joyful rebellion to be encouraged in the classic struggle towards equal protection under the law. Certainly, successful role models for individuals from classes ‘outside the pale’ (e.g. racial/religious minorities, women, the LGTB community) are to be applauded as their cause pushes us closer to the ideal of a just society. But the inference in some of your statements was that Mr. Jackson’s admitted practice of sleeping with children was to be understood -- given his “mentality of an 11-year-old,” -- and accepted. Were you, once again, rubbing our noses in the omnipresent drek that is always a by-product of any evolving society? Mr. Jackson is not 11 years old, and him bringing a real child into his bed (or, worse, the child being offered up by a clearly disturbed parent) continues the cycle of abuse. And your obvious sympathy for Mr. Jackson’s perilous childhood seems curiously absent when you casually present his bedroom behavior with the hapless child as that of “two 11 year olds fooling around sexually.” By the very nature of his or her dependent status, a child cannot freely consent to such activity. Children are at the mercy of the adults in their world, some of whom do not protect the minor, despite the presence of laws designed for that purpose. Whether or not the 11 year old boy, the real victim of this dollar driven spectacle, was sexually violated, his psychological search for the ‘self’ will be negatively affected by this tragedy for many years to come. Your apparent zeal in defending the rights of one man frozen in a traumatic childhood, asks us to ignore the impact of his actions on a child of today, unless you are, again, prodding us to wrestle with the conundrum Mr. Jackson’s life presents. If we allow ourselves to be seduced by the pain and genius of this ‘manchild,’ we may seed the ground with yet another generation of perpetual children. Is such an eternal child always innocent by reason of his deprived, painful beginnings? Can he, can we, justify any and all collateral damage scattered in the wake of that blazing comet?

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