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The boy who never grew up: Michael Jackson, 1958-2009

by Roger Ebert

Michael Jackson was so gifted, so lonely, so confused, so sad. He lost happiness somewhere in his childhood, and spent his life trying to go back there and find it. When he played the Scarecrow in "The Wiz" (1978), I think that is how he felt, and Oz was where he wanted to live. It was his most truly autobiographical role. He could understand a character who felt stuffed with straw, but could wonderfully sing and dance, and could cheer up the little girl Dorothy.

We have all spent years in the morbid psychoanalysis of this strange man-child. Now that he has died we will hear it all repeated again: The great fame from an early age, the gold records, the world tours, the needy friendships, the painful childhood, Neverland, the eccentric behavior, plastic surgery, charges of child molestation, the fortunes won and lost, the generosity, the secrecy, the inexplicable marriage to Elvis's daughter, the disguises, the puzzling sexuality, the jokes, and on and on.

I never met him. My wife Chaz did, a long time ago when she was part of a dance troupe that opened some shows for the Jackson Five. What she remembers is that he was -- a kid. Talented, hard-working, but not like other kids. That's what he was, and that's what he remained. His father Joseph was known even then as a hard-driving taskmaster, and was later described by family members as physically and mentally abusive, beating the child, once holding him by a leg and banging his head on the floor. Michael confided to Oprah that sometimes he would vomit at the sight of the man.

Families are important to everyone, and to African-Americans they are the center of the universe. A census is maintained that radiates out to great-nieces and nephews, distant cousins, former spouses, honorary relatives, all the generations. Communication is maintained, birthdays remembered, occasions celebrated. Important above all are parents and grandparents. Family was a support system from a time when slave-owning America refused to recognize black families. Family was the rock.

Michael Jackson doesn't seem to have had that rock. His father seems to have driven him to create an alternate universe for himself, in which somewhere, over the rainbow, he could have another childhood. He named his ranch Neverland, after the magical land where Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, enacted his fantasies with the Lost Boys. I wonder if we ever really understood how central that vision was to Jackson, or how literally he tried to create it.

I have no idea whether Michael abused the children he "adopted." It is possible those relationships were without sex; he seemed frozen at a time before puberty. Whether he touched them criminally or not, it is easy to see what he sought: To create, with and for these Lost Boys, a Neverland where they could imagine together the childhood he never had.

Mixed with that was perhaps a lifelong feeling of inadequacy, burned in by the cruelty of his father. That might help explain the compulsive plastic surgery, the relentless rehearsal, the exhausting tours, the purchase of expensive toys, the giving of gifts.

The scene everyone remembers from "The Wiz" is Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion dancing and singing down the Yellow Brick Road. They were off to see the Wizard, and a wonderful Wizard he was, because of the wonderful things he does.

In the story, the Wizard is a lonely little man hiding behind a curtain, using his power to create a wonderland. Now Michael Jackson will never be able to tell us what he was hiding behind his curtain. But because of his music, we danced and sang.

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