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A Case of the Much-Too-Famous

Michael Jackson needs adulation, and we give it.

June 08, 2005|Maureen Orth | Maureen Orth's latest report on the Jackson trial will be published today in Vanity Fair. She is the author of "The Importance of Being Famous" (Henry Holt and Co., 2004).

Michael Jackson is surely not sleeping well these nights.

In lieu of having him take the stand at his child-molestation trial in Santa Maria, his attorneys played nearly three hours of outtakes from the infamous Martin Bashir TV documentary, in which a tipsy Jackson revealed that the way he really loves to sleep is onstage under seven spotlights, all on him. Presumably, when the spotlights dim, what's next best is getting an endless string of little boys to share his bed.

The sad truth is that were Jackson any other 46-year-old man with a history of alcohol use and prescription drug abuse, who had a penchant for displaying pornography to minors and a general disregard for the welfare of children, he'd be locked up already, or at least be getting serious psychological treatment.

But we live in a society where Michael Jackson is much too famous and much too entertainingly weird even to be treated for his real illnesses and obsessions. Instead, his "treatment" involves rushing from a caravan of black SUVs into local hospital emergency rooms, where he pretends he does not want to be seen, until the next time he wants to make the media focus on him.

And focus it will. In the American celebrity-industrial complex, 24/7 cable news exists for times and trials like this. Canny pop royalty -- however faded -- knows how to exploit it.

Michael Jackson needs adulation. In fact, his need for it is such that he will dangle his baby over a balcony or dance on the hood of a car right after being arraigned on charges of child molestation -- anything for a fix of blind adoration that can then be rebroadcast endlessly. There is even a clinical name for his grotesque self-love and attendant meltdown. It is called acquired situational narcissism.

Whatever else has been proved at his trial, we now know beyond a reasonable doubt that Jackson evades reality and responsibility -- there is the alcohol, there is the adulation, there is his own victimhood.

Throughout his career, Jackson has used crutches and wheelchairs. During a 2002 civil trial, I observed him hop out of his van and then limp into the courtroom on crutches, heavily supported by his bodyguards. Don't forget that the day he showed up in Santa Maria in his pajamas complaining of back pain was the same day his accuser was to have his say in court. He has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to put voodoo curses on his enemies, and recently he even sought the advice of a conspiracy investigator -- he wants us to believe that the jury deliberations on 10 felony counts are somehow related to his enemies trying to get hold of his catalog of Beatles songs.

After so many years of our collective coddling and his refusal to take responsibility, the sight of star-struck mothers testifying that they had no qualms about delivering their children to his bed, within hours of their meeting him, was more pitiable than infuriating.

In 1993, when Jackson's fame had not yet diminished, and before a $25-million settlement was paid to another molestation accuser, the Los Angeles district attorney's office did not go forward with what legal experts saw as a far stronger case than the current one. The reason, one prosecutor told me, was "we couldn't have just one kid go up against Michael Jackson."

Even in this trial, the mother of the accuser testified that the special team created by the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services for "high-profile" allegations was terrified of being sued by Jackson. The department at one time refused even to hear of the possibility that molestation might have occurred.

The final irony of the trial is that in his long march from fame to infamy -- a distinction our celebrity-besotted culture no longer seems to make -- Jackson may become more famous if he is found guilty.

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