In 2006, Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times writer and critic Margo Jefferson wrote one of the defining analyses of Michael Jackson. On Michael Jackson was a slim volume of cultural criticism, not a comprehensive biography by any means, and yet it provided singular insight into the space Michael occupied within our culture, as Jefferson attempted to understand Michael — both the man and the artist — through the prisms of celebrity culture and child stardom, race and gender, victimhood and abuse.
Today, she sees the book as incomplete. While the final chapter is devoted to the 2003–2005 sexual-abuse case against Jackson, Jefferson, like so many of us at the time, stops short of declaring Jackson’s unequivocal guilt. He was, after all, cleared of those charges in court. Still, the book is an impressive attempt to grapple with the many contradictions that define Jackson’s legacy. “What do we see [when we look at Michael Jackson]?” she writes on the book’s final page. “A man who wants to be androgynous and beyond race? An artist of genius who has given us acute excitement and pleasure? A willful celebrity who wants everything his way, yet insists that everyone love him unconditionally? A man driven to shed his identity, while denying what pains him? Our man in the mirror? Or a creature we no longer wish to acknowledge?”
These questions become even more difficult to answer after the the release of the new HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, in which two men detail years of alleged abuse by Jackson. If we believe Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s accounts of Jackson emotionally manipulating and sexually abusing them as children for many years, he is more of a monster than any of us could have fathomed. Jefferson does believe Robson and Safechuck — it’s hard not to — and the documentary left her devastated, struggling to process the extent of the pain that Jackson caused. At the same time, she doesn’t think a wholesale “ban” of Michael Jackson is something that could or should happen. She knows that one day she’ll listen to his music again. So where does that leave her, and us? Two days after she watched Leaving Neverland, we talked to Jefferson about understanding Michael Jackson in light and shadow — and what she’d do differently if she was writing the book today.
There is a passage in your book where you talk about the “private culture” that kids create for themselves out of their preoccupations and obsessions. Michael, who didn’t really have a childhood, defined his adult persona by trying to reclaim his lost youth — for example, his obsession with Peter Pan and Neverland. How do you wrestle with what we now know to be the dark side of that private mythology?
As it was written, the idea of a “private culture” almost has an aura of innocence — like the movie you watch over and over, or any kind of fandom or obsession. Now that passage also suggests things that are more ominous or more threatening. What one must contend with now is how pieces of what you could call a private culture — the things that attract you, that compel you, that upset you, that you cannot resist, that lure you, that are mysterious, that have some hold over you, the fascinating, the terrifying — how those things coalesce and get turned into very particular behaviors that you need to enact with other people who do not have the same choice or power.
What’s the first thing you thought after you saw the film?
I was stricken. The force of those two men just talking and talking as if in some ways they were still under a spell. And this idea that if you were in Michael Jackson’s immediate aura, especially if you were a child, it was a whole universe. There were absolutely no boundaries — by which I don’t just mean his behavior, I mean his power: You worship me, and I can and will do anything and everything. I remember Wade Robson saying that he used to watch the videos and was so smitten that he started putting Michael Jackson posters up in his room, and soon he would wake up and Michael Jackson was the whole world. And then he met him and that was the whole world. I was really quite overwhelmed by that.
It wasn’t a given [at the time] that Michael Jackson was guilty of all of the very specific acts that it appears he is guilty of, but it was all so possible all of the time, wasn’t it?
Everything that we knew. “Yes I’ve shared my bed with kids. Yes I love children.” Even the protestation “I would never harm a child.” There were all of these signs and signifiers that people like me saw, we took it in. And yes, we didn’t have proof, but there was some sort of point of denial.
When I think back on my book, I certainly say he’s very damaged and that he clearly can’t quite distinguish between adult and childhood behavior, and that it is all strange. I think what’s missing is my saying in that last chapter: “alright, what if he is guilty? Where do we start, what do we think next? Where do our thoughts and feelings go?”
There were multiple boys and men who came forward with detailed stories of him abusing them in the past. What’s different about these accounts?
Well, he’s dead, and that gives accusers a space. Yes they’re still going to be criticized, they’re still going to be debated, but it does give them an emotional and psychic and social space that they simply did not have when he was alive. I think it also matters hugely that this is not a sleazy, fly by night film made by some director we’ve never heard of in our lives. This is serious haute bourgeois mainstream stuff. Sundance, HBO. And I think having Oprah as the woman who frames it for us — she is an interpreter and commentator on many aspects of our culture who has really focused on sexual abuse.
You wrote in the book about the sort of shadow version of Michael that comes out in some of his videos.
Yes. He remains an incredible artist and great performers reveal truths. What did D. H. Lawrence say? Trust the tale, not the teller.
It seems like this film really couldn’t have existed until the #MeToo movement. Had #MeToo already got you thinking differently about Michael’s legacy?
I wasn’t focusing that much attention on it because I was so involved in thinking about the women, but when I thought about it, yeah. If I had that chapter to write again, I would need to have written it differently. I couldn’t allow myself not to face up to that possibility and reckon with it in the light of #MeToo.
And you’re writing a new introduction to the book now?
Yes, for a couple of European editions. It’s difficult because it’s all painful. It’s all excruciating. When you’re writing you just have to keep thinking on it, which means you’re analyzing it, you’re evaluating it, but you’re also feeling it, you’re emotionally projecting yourself into it. So I spent a lot of time analyzing it emotionally, projecting myself into the psyche of Michael; I interpreted being inside his head and being inside his life.
And now the documentary made us all do that in terms of Safechuck and Robson. I’m experiencing a great deal of thought and feeling having to do with children and all the ways in different power structures that they can be abused, exploited, seduced, all of the above.
So much of your book was about the abuse that children suffer, especially child stars.
Absolutely, yes. We hear Michael say “I had no childhood” and probably this week we’re going “Ahhh okay. Well look who he took it away from.” But it’s also true. He didn’t. And he had a terrible father. You look at that family and it’s a pretty dysfunctional wreck.
Were there any specific details or anecdotes within the film that really surprised you?
It was kind of a procedural, wasn’t it? The evidence kept unfolding detail by detail, and it was the details that did not allow me any escape hatch. I mentioned to you Wade Robson had the posters all over and the claustrophobia of being in Michael’s kingdom, all the little secret rooms within rooms. It’s the other side of all those fairy tales and Disney fantasies. The sorcerer is doing very bad things in his power.
We’ve all heard the stories of [how] Michael plays and eats popcorn and the ice cream machine and the giggling and how he could talk to children as if he was a child, all of that we knew, but here we saw the way that led so manipulatively and effortlessly to all the sexual particulars. So we saw that state of enchantment that [Robson and Safechuck] retained — because he was an enchanter — and the bafflement and the lore and this need and love of him, and the need to keep winning his love and his fabled ability to generate love and to seem to display it, and also to need it, but wholly on his own terms. There was also that sense of an omnipotent ruler, which has more to do with celebrity culture than we want to acknowledge — he was at the top top top top top of the heap. So the omnipotence within the private sphere of his life could be almost total.
He was revered as such a God in a way that I think doesn’t quite exist anymore. I’ve been shocked at the vitriol coming from some of his diehard fans.
You know it’s very ugly. I’m shocked but not surprised. Because they really have been maniacal all along. Whenever I give talks, there is always someone who will stand up and angrily say “You have suggested things about him that you have not proved. And I really doubt your credentials as a critic and as a journalist.” There is always at least one person.
I don’t understand how a fan could watch a film like this and—
But you do. Think about all the wives who stand by the husbands who has been accused of gross sexual exploitation and they appear at the press conferences. Think of Mrs. Brett Kavanaugh.
But these people don’t know Michael, they’ve never met him.
In some ways that’s easier. He was the most famous and beloved figure for a long time in global pop culture. That requires from the fans — and I think it is scarier than we want to admit — a degree of ideological cultlike worship that is really unsettling if we think of the power of mass culture. And maybe it is cultlike and maybe there’s something particular in American culture [that leads to it].
And talking about that cultlike hold that Michael had on people, let’s talk about the mothers in the film.
There was this strange kind of almost chipper detachment, as if their role was to be these pleasant stage mothers who know how to talk nicely about the progress of their child’s career. It was a level of emotional unavailability that was shocking to me. We overuse the word narcissist, but we all know something about stage parents, the combination of selfishness and self absorption that can go into being a parent who is not just carrying this kid around to audition after audition and sitting in the dark and being a little left behind in the dressing room, but who is getting a whole new social life themselves.
Michael was a way for these mothers to have upward mobility. It was like going to Oz. He was creating a whole new life for a time for these families, and they were as enraptured as their children were. He would come to their houses. I thought of all the visiting priests in the Catholic church; you come to the house, you make them feel particularly special because the leading person in the community is blessing your house. He could make them feel like their lives were valuable on their own level while also promising to elevate them to another level entirely, and that encourages complicity. But really somewhere they know: however charming Michael makes me feel I am, this would not be happening if my son weren’t dancing for him and with him.
So if he is guilty — what do we do with the music? What do we do with Michael Jackson?
There are two aspects. One is what kind of restitution is needed. If it’s financial, that’s fine by me, but is that sufficient? I just don’t believe the art should be quote “banned” forever. But if banning, let’s say, R. Kelly’s work for a certain amount of time from the radio, is a way of getting money from his estate, to help give those girls and young women some kind of settlement, that’s absolutely fine with me. I feel the same way about the Jackson estate.
As for what we do with the music — that “we” splits into just millions of people, doesn’t it? There’s no one way to answer that. I got an email from an editor who just said in passing “My God, I’ve loved him all my life. I still do. Would I feel comfortable buying his videos or even his music around my 8 or 9-year-old child? Right now, no.” We’re all sifting through that.
The larger question with every one of these artists is how do we simultaneously keep in our heads and hearts this information and this material and at the same time continue to respond as we feel their art justifies. Those two processes aren’t mutually exclusive at all. And it’s going to keep happening so we need to start finding language and feelings as well as practical, legal ways of coping with it.
What about for you personally? After I watched the documentary, I did a little experiment and listened to some of his music. I wanted to interrogate the feeling that it evoked in me.
It says something to me that I have not yet run that experiment on myself. I really am still processing. Just the force and the heartbreak of that documentary. I spent a lot of time [while writing the book] being stricken by Michael Jackson’s anguish; right now I’m thinking about these two young men. I’m thinking about them as children too. But I know perfectly well that I’m not going to stop playing or watching his music. Though it’s going to have shadows around it, absolutely.
In terms of how this might change our relationship to the music, do you think that we can or should metabolize the songs from when he was a kid differently than the ones from the time in question?
Can you? I certainly can. Let’s say I pull out my old Jackson 5 number — that is going to function like nostalgia. When you enter the universe — the old movies, the old music, old clothes — it is possible to close down everything but the intensity of pleasure and sentimentality that nostalgia brings. And they’re great artifacts, so I imagine that they may be easier to metabolize than the songs that really appear to be gesturing to the man in the mirror.
But that can also backfire on some days. The innocence and nostalgia can also, on some days, make you kind of sick. You think “Ah this is what he once was. This is what he could have been.” Maybe if you’re me you’re even thinking “This is when he was rising above the ways in which he was being victimized to become a wonderful little artist.” And then that kind of breaks your heart. Then you listen to the songs we now know he was making while he had moved from the prey into the predator phase, and it’s a whole set of very contradictory feelings. We can’t be ashamed if some of those songs can still generate the excitement, the pleasure, the sensations that they used to. We just cannot use those feelings to exclude what we now know and the reckoning we have to make.
And it’s not possible, whatever artist we’re talking about, to say “Oh well, you know, it’s the art and the artist’s life are just completely, completely separate.” You can maybe judge them separately in your head, but they always have something to do with each other.
Do you think that you and other people who wrote about and wrestled with Michael’s legacy were in denial? Do you think that deep down, you knew?
For myself, I don’t think it’s quite either or in that way. I think it was on some level, an intellectualized denial, by which I mean I constructed and accepted a series of interpretations that certainly allowed for strange and inappropriate behavior but I stopped [at a point]. I closed the door on saying to myself “Wait a minute. It really could have gone to those levels that absolutely must be called abuse.”
And it seems like we needed to hear Robson and Safechuck say it in their own words.
It really, really does. And that also kind of gets to one of the hearts of the conundrum about sexual abuse. Unless there’s a third-party witnessing it, the victims are at the mercy of what people choose to believe. Did you hear R. Kelly with Gayle King?
Yeah, oh my gosh.
I’ve never seen anything like it. “What people have to do is teach me not to be so generous,” I think he said. But then I thought, well, okay he’s repulsive, but is that so different in terms of its absolute detachment from reality and its narcissism from what Michael said? It’s more repulsive to me stylistically but it’s not so different: They’re out to get me, it’s a plot, my only crime is that I love children. And that’s the usual language [predators use], we’re now learning. That’s the usual language.