Hunted to death

Barbara Amiel: Where were all of Michael Jackson’s celebrity friends back when he needed them most?

Barbara Amiel

Hunted to deathYou might think little of the adult Michael Jackson but I defy even the most cynical to remain unmoved by the Oct. 18, 1969, video of the Jackson 5 featuring Michael Jackson on the Diana Ross show belting out I’ll Be There. The pint-sized 11-year-old with the huge Afro and eyes to match, a big sweet voice and a determination to outflank Miss Ross in camera position, was already an experienced performer, though his grown-up moves were slightly off-kilter. He could simulate sexuality as he did a pretend ad lib of “look over your shoulder honey” but he was a kid all the same. “You and I must make a pact / We must bring salvation back / Where there is love / I’ll be there” he sung, but you sort of knew he’d “be there” buying an ice cream cone.

Though the song was subsequently recorded by just about every vocalist, it was always Michael’s. The words drifted in and out of his memorial service. Mariah Carey nearly fell out of her gown singing them. And still, in all the analysis following his death, no one actually mentioned the slightly inconvenient fact that no one was “there” for Michael when he really needed it, when it might have been more onerous than simply going to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

If you are famous you’re a target. Jackson, though, became something more: he became blood prey once Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon became convinced Jackson was a child molester. Although the evidence of child molestation was not there, the lengths Sneddon resorted to were extreme and we are unlikely to ever understand the psychopharmocology of Sneddon’s brain that drove him to pursue Jackson unsuccessfully through civil and then criminal charges for 12 years. Perhaps it was nothing more than wanting to win the six successive elections that made him Santa Barbara’s longest-serving DA ever. But from 2003 on, when Sneddon laid criminal charges, Jackson’s lifespan was doomed.

Crimes go in and out of fashion. In 1644, the adulterous 18-year-old Mary Latham was punished by death in Massachusetts colony. Today, you’re all but a Stepford wife if you embrace fidelity. In our time, child molestation is the scarlet letter. To survive a charge of it, more is needed than an acquittal. The combined support of all those celebs at his memorial service organizing the media to investigate Sneddon and his career (which included a number of alleged malicious prosecutions) or to create a JacksonAid fest might have been a start.

For one hold-your-breath moment, I thought CNN’s pretty boy Don Lemon was going to touch on this with Rev. Al Sharpton, who had made some angry remarks about the press on Jackson. “I have to ask you this because I’m a journalist,” Lemon said apologetically, which suggested he wasn’t one in any real sense. Was he actually going to ask where all the celebs had gone during Michael’s tribulations? Turned out, Lemon wanted to know about the arrangements for the private funeral.

After Michael’s death, almost everyone identified themselves as friends, rather like every Frenchman being a member of the Resistance. Unfortunately, between late 2003 and June 25, 2009, their public calendars didn’t include Michael in any substantive way. Where was Oprah when not supporting Obama (whose election Sharpton credited Michael with making possible!). Where was Jane Fonda, who now fondly remembers their times together? Madonna told the world that Michael was one of the greatest artists of all time. I can’t blame anyone for figuring it was too dodgy to speak up when the association might taint one’s own career, but perhaps it would be more seemly now to either regret one’s own silence publicly or keep posthumous laudations private. Where, after all, was Brooke Shields, up there crying on the podium but not having seen him for 18 years? The closest to public support was ABC’s Barbara Walters telling us she felt “sympathy . . . shock . . . then sadness” after viewing the 2003 Martin Bashir interview in which Michael talked about sharing his bed with children. “It’s very loving,” Michael said, a sentiment that sent Sneddon levitating to prosecutor’s paradise and that is currently being annotated by Bashir as expressive of “no wrongdoing by Michael.” Fine, but it was this bed-sharing admission that made it possible to think that perhaps Jackson had molested his underage guests.

Post-memorial service, the bandwagon moved on to Jackson’s intake of prescription medications. His sister says he was murdered by them. Nancy Grace can’t wait for the toxicology report. Dr. Drew Pinsky (author of The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America) looked pretty seduced himself, as he sleekly analyzed Jackson’s medications on her show. True, had Michael not taken massive amounts of narcotics, he might have lived to be 90—and most likely the world would never have had that moonwalking King of Pop, only another good performer. They certainly wouldn’t have had a 50-year-old man preparing for 50 shows more physically demanding than most 30-year-olds could handle. But those pills were more than rockets to keep him going physically.

When you are hunted day and night, when each day you wake up in a surreal landscape where nothing can be ruled out, your bedroom door may be broken down any moment in the name of the law, you cannot know which madwoman, employee or youth will file a suit against you and your hell is the world’s entertainment paradise for more than 16 years, well, there is no way to wake up without medicine. More and more of it if you will demand the impossible of yourself.

Michael was bleeding from a trillion cuts. How much did it cost to handle Helen Harris-Scott’s emotional distress suit? Not a familiar name? Just a US$100-million civil suit started in 2006, dismissed, appealed, reinstated, costs awarded to Harris-Scott and motions still being filed in June 2009. Multiply those suits by a hundred or two, all the depositions, lawyers, invoices, tearing away at Jackson’s equilibrium—never balanced to begin with—lawsuits multiplying like fleas in America where tort law is a pandemic infecting the soul of the country, and the wonder is he kept going at all.

I haven’t a clue about the specifics of his death, but I’m pretty sure what caused it. Not the medicine in syringes and capsules, not even the hunters in black legal robes or the ones carrying cameras. What caused Jackson’s death was an ambition and talent larger than his frail body could handle and a culture that made more living off him than it could ever have made by being “there.”