Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson and John Lennon: on great male artists and the truth about custodial fathers

As was the case when I first learned of the death of John Lennon, I have been in a state of shock over the sudden death of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. I grew up enjoying the music of the Beatles, of John, Paul, George, and Ringo as solo artists, and also the pop hits of the Jackson Five and Michael's awesome and utterly stunning solo career. My life is better for all their music being in it. "Ben" is such a beautiful song, and Michael's vocals in it are so rich with emotion.

My condolences to Michael Jackson's family, to the children's nanny, Grace Rwaranda, and especially to his children. Jackson is survived by three children: a son, Michael Joseph Jackson Junior (also known as "Prince") born in 1997; a daughter, Paris Michael Katherine Jackson born in 1998; and Prince Michael Jackson II (also known as Blanket) born in 2002.

Grace reportedly worked for Michael for approximately twenty years, starting long before his children entered this world. By many accounts, she has been the primary caregiver to all three children. Some would argue that Michael was the primary caregiver, and I understand this assessment, and don't want to minimize the degree to which Michael did raise his own children. I have no idea what kind of father he was, but by the accounts I found online, he was a caring and strict parent.

I would hope that, should Ms. Rwaranda wish to continue to raise Michael's three children, and should they wish to be raised by her, she be given the legal right to do so. Other than she, those likely to take custody of them are Michael's mother, Katherine, who I've heard is not in great health, Debbie Rowe, the biological mother of his first two children, and possibly also former child actor, now acupuncturist, Mark Lester, who lives in his home country of England.

Despite rumors, Grace was not planning to marry Michael. In fact, public records show that Grace Sanyu Rwaramba married Stacey M. Adair in Las Vegas on Feb. 26, 1995.

I hope that whoever decides the future of those three children's lives keeps in mind who they are most bonded to, and who has shown them the most love and hands-on care in their young lives. The 50-year-old pop icon was the father of two boys and a daughter. Jackson's first son Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., known as Prince, was born in 1997. His daughter, Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, was born in 1998. In 2002 Jackson welcomed Prince Michael Jackson II, also known as Blanket, into the family.

I grew up hearing what a fabulous "house-husband" John Lennon was, doting on little Sean, born on John's 35th birthday, only to hear later that he spent more time in bed, high on heroin, than he did actually tending to Sean or baking bread. (This portrait of him zoned out alone in his bedroom is not Sean's version of reality, nor Yoko's. And how the hell would I know?)

There are rumors about Michael's serious addiction to prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Demerol, the use of which may have begun after injuries that left him in great pain. (His cardiologist, Dr. Conrad Murray, should be charged with both murder and malpractice, in my opinion, for reportedly injecting him with what became a lethal dose of Demerol.) If the number of parents who were opiate addicts was truly known, including, of course, in white suburbia, I think many people would be shocked. So saying Michael was dealing with an opiate addiction is saying something about his capacities to parent well, but it doesn't say something that doesn't also apply to all other substance abusing parents, including, of course alcoholic parents. It's for his children to come to their own conclusions, in time, about what kind of father he was.

John and Michael have been promoted in the public as primary parents for some time. It is well-known, and well-reported by son Julian that John was anything but a good father. He was at best absentee, both as father and husband, during the years he was busy being a Beatle. Those like me who are Beatles fans can forgive him, but Julian has his own feelings to sort out. I can't imagine how painful it may have been for Julian to be so neglected by John generally, to then see John staying at home with little Sean.

Unlike John in the 1960s, Michael's music career was not at its peak during the time he had his children, in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. Presumably he had more time to spend with his children. This approximates John's later life, as John put up the guitar and the music career while he stayed at home at the Dakota in NYC with Sean and Yoko. She effectively attended to the substantial Lennon-Ono business from her office. Clearly one of the reasons she is misogynistically despised by some is because she didn't take the role of "mother-as-primary parent".

One of things I do and many people I know do, is to idealise their fathers, or otherwise hold them up as remarkable, or "not as flawed" as they actually were. This country I was born in does this on a grand scale. The U.S. does this by honoring "The Founding Fathers" many of whom were slave-owners and slave-rapists. I remember programs on television such as "Father Knows Best". Patriphilia, on both secular and religious levels, is compulsory in the U.S., as it is in many patriarchies. Women are written out of history, both as great public figures and as mothers. Women being primary parents are taken for granted, given one day a year to be honored, and are generally exploited and mistreated by an individualistic capitalist society that should be raising children with far more community support. African American women, other Black women, and other women of color, historically and presently, have had a double burden: caring both for their own children, if they have any, and caring for wealthy white people's children. I am aware of one white woman who was raised primarily by a Black woman, the family nanny. She was far closer to her than to her own mother.

So it is not just the treatment of children by custodial fathers that needs to be carefully assessed. The profeminist questions that occur to me at the moment are: who does the assessing, to what extent do the grossly sexist and racist double standards in terms of what is considered "good parenting" factor into such assessments, and to what extent do fathers use custody battles to hurt their ex-wives or ex-girlfriends? I know one woman who was sued by her male ex for custody of their two children. She was a superb parent--one of the best I've ever known. He was, by anyone's account, not a good parent. He was pissed at his ex-wife and wanted to hurt her very deeply; he knew that one way to accomplish this would be to try and take their children from her. (He lost the custody battle, thank goodness for her and the children.)

With John being a white man and Michael a Black man, dominant cultural expectations differ. So too because they are fathers not mothers. The largest child-care burden, as noted, historically, has been on women of color. The least burden is on men, across race and class, but with men with inherited wealth, they don't have the excuse of having to work out of the home.

To what extent were John and Michael exceptional? They were not as exceptional as we might be led to believe. First, many men raise children, gay and heterosexual men. Of course the tedious burden and occasional joys of child-rearing fall to women, and the stats must bear out that most children are raised primarily by women. We do know drug abuse was reportedly present during both of the periods of their lives in which they were primary parents, and this, if nothing else, doesn't make them any sort of role model for fathers or parents generally. What we also know is that John and Michael's fathers were far from exceptional. John's was absentee, and Michael's was severely abusive, both physically and verbally. Michael was terrified of him.

While John got to have a childhood, scarred by his father's disappearance and his mother's tragic death, Michael didn't have a childhood in any positive sense that I understand that term. He was an extraordinarily talented money-earner for his father from before the age of ten. He was a grossly exploited child. What is less commonly known is that he was also witness to "adult" material that no child should be exposed to. As a boy he was brought into strip clubs and was made to share hotel rooms with his older brothers who had sex with women while he tried to sleep. I consider both those realities forms of child sexual abuse.

In part due to him not having an emotionally safe childhood, Michael Jackson has been called the boy who never grew up. But he did grow up, and made adult choices to engage with children who were not his own in ways that are at least in poor judgment, and at worst serial sexual abuse of minors. I loved Michael Jackson's talent. I wanted to, and want to this day to believe he never harmed a child.

Many speculate about whether or not Michael was a child molester. I obviously don't know the complete answer to that, but have come to the conclusion, based only on what I've heard Michael say, that at the very least he has shown terribly poor judgment when it comes to being around boys who were not his own, in the very private depths of his enormous home. What he has admitted to doing, for me, is a form of child abuse. The extent to which that abuse was sexual has not been proven in court, which means little about what actually has occurred.

But living in a white supremacist state, where African Americans--women and men--are frequently held out as "the poster people" for all that is wrong in the U.S., it is rather disgusting to me that in the dominant pop-cultural imagination when we think of a batterer we think of Mike Tyson and Ike Turner (depending on what generation we are), when we think of a rapist we may conjure Chris Brown or Miles Davis (again, depending on our age), when we think of spousal murder we think of O.J. Simpson, when we think of a sexual harasser we think of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and when we think of child molester we think of Michael Jackson. How convenient for all the white male perpetrators of those and many other atrocities that only Black faces come to white Amerikkka's mind when various "crimes" are listed. To all the women harmed by famous or not famous men, by male musical artists or men who aren't artistic in any way, my heart goes out to you. For the record, I believe that Anita Hill, Tina Turner, Robin Givens, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Rhianna were harmed by the men accused of harming them. In some cases the men have admitted it.

But, as one member of the racially oppressive class, the only batterer/murderers of women, sexual harassers of women, and child molesters of boys and girls I have ever known have been white heterosexual men. So I, for one, wish we'd find some white male figures to replace those listed above as "the" exemplars of said crimes.

Michael Jackson had a very difficult and lonely life, made especially so by ways his wealth and power enabled him to isolate himself on a very grand scale, including on Neverland Ranch. I am sick of all the Michael Jackson jokes, including the ones I have told. I won't tell another one.

Today, I remain sad at the passing of a great artist: songwriter and composer, singer, and the best dancer, in my opinion, since Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers.

For more, see here, and here, as well as the classic video below, which thrilled me along with millions of others who watched it the first time it aired on TV.