Have You Seen My Childhood?
Joie: This past weekend, Willa and I met up in Las Vegas to take in the Cirque du Soleil IMMORTAL show and, while we were there we couldn’t help thinking about Michael’s children, each of us for our own reasons. The kids were on my mind because they had made headlines recently when they saw the show, and Willa was thinking about them because Vegas is where Martin Bashir met them and filmed them for his infamous “documentary.” And before going to Vegas, we had already decided that we wanted to talk about Michael’s ideas about childhood for our Christmas post – it just seemed fitting somehow. So this week, since we were already thinking about children, and Michael’s children in particular, we wanted to share our thoughts on the subject.
Willa: This is a really hard topic for us, though, because it is so very important to both of us to respect his children’s privacy. At the same time, childhood – and his own lost childhood, in particular – was a very important issue for him, and we can gain insights into what childhood means to him through his role as a parent. So this week we’re kind of walking a tightrope and trying to talk about this in a way that lets us elucidate some of these ideas without being too personal or invasive.
Joie: That’s so funny, Willa. You said we’re walking on a tightrope and all I can picture is you and me and three baby elephants up on a tightrope, attempting to dance with each other! I just love that image; how cute! But, in all seriousness, it is very important to respect their privacy for many reasons. Mostly because that’s what Michael would have wanted.
Willa: So I don’t want to go too much into personal matters, but there’s a scene in Martin Bashir’s documentary where he tells us we’re going to meet Michael Jackson’s children, and to be honest, as soon as I heard that I just dreaded the idea. I was streaming the interview in on YouTube, and I actually clicked the Pause button so I could get some water and prepare myself for it. From what we see of Bashir in the documentary, he is incredibly judgmental (that ceiling is “tacky,” that vase is too expensive, your lips look “very different” from when you were younger, and on and on). He can’t seem to observe anything without judging it, often in rather superficial ways, so you know what this meeting is going to be like. He’s going to pass judgment on these young children (you’re so pretty and handsome, your hair is so blond, you don’t look much like your daddy) and they’re going to feel self-conscious and awkward and weird, and I just dreaded it. I hate it when kids are put in uncomfortable situations like that, and to be honest, I was disappointed in Michael Jackson for allowing it. I thought it was a really bad decision.
Joie: I was disappointed in him too, for the entire “documentary.” I just don’t understand how he could have been so taken in by that sleaze bag and allowed him such access to his life, to his children…. it just turns my stomach now when I think about how it all played out and, of course, what that whole association with Bashir eventually led to.
Willa: The whole documentary is really hard to watch, and if I hadn’t been writing the book and felt like I needed to watch it, I wouldn’t have made it through – especially when Bashir announces he’s going to film his children. I really had to step away for a minute then. So I went and drank some water, came back to my computer, clicked the Play button, and watched with trepidation as Bashir met Michael Jackson’s two older children, who were about 3 and 4 years old at the time.
But it didn’t turn out at all the way I expected. There was a surprise: the children were wearing masks. Bashir says to Prince, “That’s a really great mask” (a value judgment, of course – Bashir is so judgmental) and Prince replies in an excited voice, “It’s a butterfly!” and they have this discussion about Prince’s mask. To me, what’s most striking about this scene is that Prince seems perfectly comfortable talking to Bashir. He doesn’t seem embarrassed or self-conscious at all because Bashir isn’t passing judgments on him and his appearance, but on the mask he’s wearing. I watched that scene and thought, Michael Jackson was the wisest parent those kids could possibly have had for the very public life they were born into.
A lot of commentators have been talking about how centered and grounded his children are, typically adding that celebrity kids are rarely as well-adjusted as they are. And it seems obvious to me that this strong sense of self didn’t happen by accident. Rather, they had a thoughtful father who knew what it was like to grow up in a white hot spotlight, and he protected them as best he could. And I personally think those masks were one of the kindest things he ever did for his kids. Those masks protected their identities from kidnappers, but even more importantly, they protected their psyches from the intrusive comments of insensitive people like Martin Bashir.
Joie: You know, Willa, I am so happy you brought that up because this is something that I have felt for a very long time. The general public – and the media for sure – always tried to make that such a weird, bizarre thing. Some even went so far as to call it cruel of Michael to force his children to wear masks or veils over their faces in public.
Willa: Though his kids have said they thought it was fun, and enjoyed trying out different masks.
Joie: That’s true, they did find it fun when they were little. But to me it was always the smartest, most compassionate thing he ever could have done for them. You mentioned that the masks protected the children’s identities from kidnappers – and that was the explanation originally given by both Michael and Debbie when the children were very young. But knowing that Michael usually had a very sane and logical reason for every perceived crazy thing he did, I always suspected there was more to it than that.
In essence, Michael was completely aware that his children were in danger of living their lives in a fishbowl like he did, simply because he was their father. So in order to give them some tiny semblance of normalcy, he covered their faces when they went out in public with him. And this was a brilliant move because whenever the children ventured out in public without him – which they frequently did with the nanny – they didn’t wear masks. There was no need to because no one knew they were his children! Michael understood that it would be difficult for the paparazzi to stalk his kids if they didn’t know what his kids looked like, so he made sure that they didn’t! And everyone got so caught up in the “bizarre” way these children were being raised and they questioned Michael’s parenting abilities. But meanwhile, no one ever saw a snapshot of Prince or Paris on the cover of some tabloid when they were little, did they? I mean, did the world really need to know what 3-year-old Suri Cruise was wearing or who Shilo Jolie-Pitt played with on her playdate? Give me a break! There was a certain brilliance to Michael’s madness when it came to protecting his children’s privacy and I thought it was an amazingly smart thing to do. It wasn’t until people began paying attention to the nanny and watching for her to be out with her charges that pics of their faces began to trickle out, and even then it was sporadic at best.
And I love what you said about commentators taking note of how grounded and centered Michael’s children are and I agree with you completely. That doesn’t happen by accident. Children have to be taught how to be respectful and polite and Michael really did that. Since his death, we’ve heard report after report from various people about how truly unspoiled Prince, Paris and Blanket are and that says a great deal about Michael’s parenting skills. You know, in his book, Frank Cascio talks a lot about how Michael went out of his way to be a ‘hands on’ father and raise his children right – even, at times, sending the nanny away in order to take care of them all on his own. It was obviously very important to him.
Willa: I agree. He approached parenthood in a very considered and thoughtful way, just as he approached most things he did. You know, Michael Jackson had an incredibly expressive voice with an amazing range and timbre and texture, but there are other singers with beautiful voices. He was also a wonderful dancer who inspired a whole generation of young dancers, but again, there are other dancers who can move their bodies somewhat the way he moved his. He was an innovative and intelligent filmmaker, but while others may not have the same vision he had, there are other intelligent, innovative filmmakers.
But for me, what sets Michael Jackson apart from every other artist is his tremendous empathy for those without a voice (and as Julie commented several weeks ago, “Children have always been the most voiceless and marginalized human beings in every culture around the world”) and his immense emotional intelligence. He could touch an audience in ways no one else could because he had deep psychological insights into the workings of the human heart and mind. And we see this emotional intelligence in the thoughtful way he raised his children.
I’m going to go off on a tangent for a minute, but I think it’s important. There was a French psychoanalyst and theorist named Jacques Lacan who developed a new model of human psychological development. His ideas are pretty complicated and I’m not a Lacan scholar by any means, but as I understand it, one aspect of his model is that our personalities are formed by a series of losses.
The first is the loss of the mother, or other primary caregiver. When we’re first born, our world is undifferentiated, without borders or boundaries. We don’t know that we are a person – we don’t know where “I” as a person ends and “you” as a person begin – we simply experience the world as a fog of sensory inputs: I’m warm, I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m fed, I’m wet, I’m dry, I’m content, I’m discontent. Except there is no “I” – just sensation.
Gradually the infant becomes aware that his or her mother is a separate being, a separate entity. That’s a profound moment in the child’s development and helps initiate the infant’s sense of identity. But it’s also a huge loss because if your mother is separate from you, that also means she can go away and leave you. So this loss creates anxiety as well as identity.
The second big loss is the loss of a unified sense of self, though it’s complicated since the sense of self is still being formed. But as I understand it, Lacan suggests that around 6 to 18 months of age, a baby first enters the mirror stage. This mirror can be a literal mirror or it can be the gaze of the mother or father or caregiver, but in many different subtle ways, babies this age become aware of themselves as reflected in mirrors and in the faces and minds of those around them, and this creates tremendous joy as well as anxiety, and a different level of consciousness.
This process begins in infancy and extends throughout our lives to some degree, and Lacan suggests that the “gaze” and our awareness of how we appear to other people is very significant in our psychological development. My son is 13, and I can see a new self-consciousness in him that wasn’t there when he was younger. A friend his age was always a very confident little girl, but now she’s going through an awkward phase where she’s painfully self-conscious. In fact, it seems that a lot of the gawkiness of teenagers isn’t just their changing bodies but their growing awareness that other people are looking at them. It’s like they are developing a double consciousness – a growing sense of how others see them as compared to how they see and experience themselves. As with the loss of the mother, this loss of a unified sense of self is very painful, but it’s a loss that helps create identity as well as anxiety.
Joie: That’s all very interesting, Willa. And it certainly explains that awkward stage we all go through as pre-teens and teenagers. I remember my own young-adulthood and how difficult that time was. I was all legs and arms back then and not exactly part of the ‘in’ crowd. Yikes! And it makes me think about Michael and how difficult that time was for him too with his acne. He said that during that time in his life he actually stopped looking in mirrors because he hated the way he looked. But if we look at this according to Lacan’s model, Michael probably also hated the way he felt others saw him, not just the way he saw himself. I know that for me, this was certainly the case.
Willa: Oh boy, Joie, I know what you mean about “all legs and arms.” My mom actually started calling me “Grace” for a while because I could hardly walk across a room without tripping over my own feet, and I went from being one of the best gymnasts on my gymnastics team to one of the worst. There’s a reason Olympic gymnasts tend to be 12 years old. I just couldn’t seem to keep track of all these long arms and legs I was suddenly supposed to use. And imagine what it must have been like for Michael Jackson, to have to sing and dance on stage with all those people watching his every move. Talk about being hyper aware of a public “gaze” – he was the object of worldwide attention at a terribly self-conscious life stage. That had to be an incredibly difficult time for him, on many different levels.
So I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately, especially in terms of Lacan’s ideas of the “gaze” and the huge impact it has on our sense of self, because I think for child stars like Michael Jackson or Elizabeth Taylor or Shirley Temple or Emmanuel Lewis or Liza Minnelli or Jane Fonda or Tatum O’Neal or Brooke Shields or Sean Lennon or Macaulay Culkin or a lot of the child stars Michael Jackson befriended over his life, this process happens far too quickly and far too intensely, and it’s extremely painful. Child stars don’t just see themselves reflected in mirrors but on movie screens and tabloid photos – not just reflected in the eyes of parents and grandparents who love them, but also in the eyes of snarky critics who may dislike them or audiences who may grow tired of them and turn against them.
Macaulay Culkin talked about the pressures of being a child star in an interview about his close relationship with Michael Jackson:
“I can describe our friendship and I can explain Michael’s bond with children, but no matter what I say, you can never understand. Unless you have been through what Michael and I have been through, you just can’t comprehend what it’s like… We understood each other because we’ve both been there.”
I think this intense pressure and intense awareness of the public “gaze” is a large part of what Michael Jackson was talking about when he said he lost his childhood. It’s not just that he didn’t have time to play, but that to some degree he lost his ability to play – to experience life in a carefree way without constantly wondering what other people thought of him – and once you become self-conscious like that, you can never truly shake it. It’s a one-way street, and child stars are forced to experience it too early and too intensely. Remember, Michael Jackson began performing at 5 and had a Motown contract by 10, and Motown groomed him and his brothers very thoroughly, telling them to always act properly because the public was always watching them, and drilling them with lessons on how to speak and dress and behave so the public would perceive them in a positive way and like them.
As an adult Michael Jackson said he loved being with children because they didn’t judge him, either positively or negatively. They just accepted him and played with him, and he could lose that painful self-awareness for a time. When he was with children, he could regain some approximation of that experience of childhood that he lost way too soon. And I think he fiercely tried to protect his children from losing their childhoods the same way he lost his.
Joie: I think you’re right; he did try extremely hard to give his children the carefree childhood he missed out on, and that process of self-awareness does happen way too quickly and too harshly for child stars.
You know, Paris has been in the news a lot the past two weeks because it’s been announced that she’s landed her first film role in a movie called Lundon’s Bridge and the Three Keys. And every time I post a new piece of news to the MJFC website about it, I can’t help but think about Michael and wonder how he would feel about his only little girl, his baby that he tried so hard to protect from the harshness of the entertainment industry, suddenly stepping so blindly into that spotlight at such a young age. I know that he would be so proud of all of her accomplishments; but I also think that part of him would just cringe at the thought.
Willa: I know what you mean, Joie, though I remember he specifically said at some point that he wouldn’t push his children to become performers, but if it were something they wanted to do, he would let them. It’s always so difficult as parents to find that balance between protecting your kids and supporting them as they stretch themselves and try new things. You hate to see them get hurt, but if you never let them run the risk of failure, then they’ll never learn what they’re truly capable of and they’ll never reach their full potential. So you have to let children push themselves to the limits of what they can do – and maybe push too far and fail sometimes – but you also want to protect them and do everything you can to help them succeed. It’s just a constant negotiation. And I imagine it’s all the more difficult with celebrity children because their successes and failures are so public, and the stakes so much higher.
Joie: Yes, that was during his interview with Barbara Walters right after the death of Princess Diana that he made that comment. And he also said during that interview that he would make very certain that his children understood exactly what they were in for if they decided to go down that road. Only he’s not here anymore to help guide them and advise them and that thought just makes me very sad for so many reasons.
But, I understand what you’re saying about it being a constant negotiation. I’ve never raised children but, I can imagine how your heart would simply bleed for them as you watched them work and strive and struggle toward some goal, whatever that goal may be. And Paris is such a beautiful girl and she seems like a very smart, very capable young lady to me. And she appears to have inherited her Daddy’s charisma and charm so, I’m sure she’ll do very well. And again, I know Michael would be incredibly proud of her.