In the avalanche of words precipitated by the tragic, untimely death of Michael Jackson, there are two that we have not seen or heard used together: mental illness. Many of his fans would probably consider it a desecration of his memory to suggest that Michael Jackson was mentally ill. Ignorance about diseases of the mind is still rampant, and we routinely overlook the devastating effects of mental illness—even when they are played out before our eyes in the dazzling and colorful lives of international celebrities.
It goes without saying that Michael Jackson was a man of astonishing, mind-boggling talent and creativity—an artist of the first order. By all accounts, he was a gentle, generous, kind-hearted person. He appears to have had deep, decades-long relationships with friends and family. Despite the obvious distortions created by early fame and unimaginable wealth, there was much that seemed right about his life.
Of course, famously, there was also much that was wrong. Perhaps most obvious was the gradual transformation from the handsome, masculine-looking performer he was in his early twenties (a time of life when mental illness often strikes) to the androgynous, child-like creature he had become by 2005, when he was put on trial in California. There was his obsessive fascination and identification with children that led to accusations of impropriety. In the last years of his life, he became reclusive, and there were rumors that he was compulsive about cleanliness.
Clearly, Michael Jackson had a tormented soul, and fame and wealth can’t substitute for happiness. But I’d like to think he escaped, from time to time, from his prison of self-doubts and obsessions. On stage, he certainly looked unfettered and free—blissfully, extravagantly free of all earthly limitations, of gravity even. Through music and motion, he provided millions of others with breath-taking, unforgettable escapism. During those magic minutes when he was performing, I hope that he, too, was able to transcend.