Society

IN THE GRIP OF PREDATORS

How a feeding frenzy consumed an oh-so-vulnerable Michael Jackson

BARBARA AMIEL June 13 2005
Society

IN THE GRIP OF PREDATORS

How a feeding frenzy consumed an oh-so-vulnerable Michael Jackson

BARBARA AMIEL June 13 2005

IN THE GRIP OF PREDATORS

Society

BARBARA AMIEL

How a feeding frenzy consumed an oh-so-vulnerable Michael Jackson

IN THE 1960S, homosexuals used to cruise at night under the overhang of the old Varsity Stadium in Toronto. Sometimes youths would assemble in the shadows, pushing forward a pretty young boy to parade slowly by them. If an overture was made, the bunch would run out jeering as the “queers” ran into the night, justifying their cruelty with claims that the prey was asking for it by taking the bait. Homosexuals were seen then as “predators” menacing decent men. No one understood that sexual orientation was not a matter

of choice, and if they had understood, it wouldn’t have made much difference. Heterosexuality had a monopoly on respectability.

At the end of last week, the feeding frenzy that consumed Michael Jackson all through his southern California trial was winding down. “Now it’s all up to the jury,” joked Jay Leno, who had appeared as a defence witness at the trial. “Michael Jackson is in the hands of the jury. Which is kind of ironic. This is the first time they’ve ever been in the hands of adults.” Late-night shows had exhausted pretty much every double entendre. Jackson was left like the sunbleached bones of a carcass picked clean by carrion. “He’s looking pretty old and sick,” said one commentator.

That same day, the prosecutor summed up Jackson to the jury in final arguments. “Predators go after the weakest, not the strongest,” he said, citing Jackson’s companionship with young boys. He asked for convictions on four counts of lewd acts on a 13-year-old boy, serving him alcohol and conspiracy to imprison his family. Conviction could mean a prison sentence of up to 20 years, effectively bankrupting the entertainer and ending his career at 46 years of age. Just who, one wondered, was the real predator in this miserable little morality play: Jackson or the many groups feeding off him?

Jackson may or may not be guilty as charged, but that has long been beside the point. Once upon a time in some fairy tale system of jurisprudence, the People could never lose. For Crown attorney or district attorney, all that mattered was arriving at the truth. Even if the accused were acquitted, it would be as much a triumph for the prosecution as a verdict of guilt. What sets this case apart from all those other everyday cases in which there is a suspicion that a crime has been committed and that its perpetrator must be brought to justice is not Jackson’s celebrity or bad plastic surgery or the colourful witnesses and players. The Jackson saga has the fascination—if armchair blood sports are your taste—of watching a prey

animal being fed, jubilantly, piece by piece to his predators.

Jackson’s troubles began in 1993 when his hormones and success were at a peak. During a visit to a local car rental business, its owner called his young stepson to come and meet Jackson. Soon, the 13year-old Jordy Chandler, his mother and sister were spending time at Jackson’s Neverland ranch and enjoying trips in his private plane to hotels where Michael and Jordy shared a bed. The relationship ended when the boy told his therapist of sexual incidents with Jackson and the authorities acted. A criminal investigation was launched with Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon at the helm. Jackson forked out US$25 million to settle, and the boy and his family withdrew all allegations.

Surprisingly, matters remained quiet, publicly at least, for almost 10 years. But Jackson’s career stalled. His new albums sold poorly. In an effort to shore him up, he agreed to an interview with British broadcaster Martin Bashir. The result was broadcast on Britain’s ITV in February 2003. As a 12-year-old named Gavin nuzzled against him, Jackson memorably told Bashir and 17 million viewers why he liked to share his bed at night with children. “It’s very right. It’s very loving,” he said. “That’s what the world needs now.”

The world turned out to be less enthusiastic. The program was rebroadcast on ABC television with exegesis by a solemn Barbara Walters to calm American sensibilities. “As I watched this documentary,” Barbara cautioned viewers while cantering up to a steeplechase of sibilants, “I felt first... sympathy, then... shock and then finally... sadness.”

Shortly after the broadcast, a Los Angeles therapist told authorities that Gavin, who had been fighting cancer, was his patient and had confided about sexual incidents with the entertainer. An investigation by Los Angeles welfare officials quickly followed. Gavin and his mother, (confusingly named Janet Jackson) vehemently denied any such behaviour had taken place, and Jackson was cleared.

WHAT SETS this case apart is not Jackson’s celebrity or bad plastic surgery or the colourful witnesses and players. The Jackson saga has the fascination-if armchair blood sports are your taste-of watching a prey being fed, jubilantly, piece by piece to his predators.

THE TRANSCRIPTS filled up with stories from life’s losers, scraping their memories for smut. In their crosshairs was Michael Jackson, a strange creature almost painful to behold, with his sharply amputated nose, white-painted face and black-hole eyes.

In Santa Barbara County, career district attorney Sneddon smelled blood. This was his last term as DA and his last opportunity to get the singer to trial.

He had been thwarted in his 1993 criminal investigation of Jackson, and this time, he wasn’t about to let any family take Jackson’s money and run.

Magically, after eight weeks of talks with Sneddon, Gavin and his mum changed their stories. Their “loving” relationship with Jackson had now turned “evil.” By November,

Sneddon felt confident enough to book Jackson on suspicion of child molestation.

Seventy officers led by Sneddon searched Neverland and the homes of Jackson’s associates.

Mattresses were torn to bits, laundry bags and drawers emptied of underwear. But there was scant evidence. Sneddon’s search yielded nothing apart from a few mainstream pornographic magazines. The net was cast wider. Jordy Chandler, the 1993 accuser, refused to testify. Many children had slept in Jackson’s bed by his own admission, but most of them, famously Macaulay Culkin, energetically denied any sexual behaviour.

The law enforcement officials and Sneddon sniffed the corners of Jackson’s dissolute world. The son of Jackson’s former maid testified remembering two groping and “tickling” incidents (clothes on), plus one outright grope inside his trousers. The alleged incidents had taken place 14 years ago, and Jackson had paid off his accusers with US$2 million, or roughly US$665,000 per grope. The maid testified that she saw Jackson in his shower with a young boy. One exemployee had seen Jackson lick a boy’s head. Another claimed to have seen him masturbate a child. Others had seen him in bed with children whose underpants were lying next to the bed.

Vigilant staff had spotted the odd erection. The testimony, true or not, came from disgruntled staffers, many of whom had sued Jackson on unrelated matters. What, I thought, actually goes through a person’s mind when they feel compelled to testify that they saw an ex-employer lick a boy’s head?

The world that unfolded in that Santa Barbara courtroom, amidst the town of1,000 sweet-smelling flowers and pastel-painted haciendas, was a revelation. American society was sliced open, down not to the bone but to entrails swollen with half-digested rotting waste.

The transcripts filled up with stories from life’s losers, people on

the fringes, scraping their memories for smut. In their crosshairs was Jackson, a strange creature almost painful to behold, with his sharply amputated nose, white-painted face and black-hole eyes. He sat in court looking like the straw man in The Wizard ofOz, boneless limbs inside his newly respectable suit and his lidless eyes behind clear rectangular glasses; a man of considerable talent, but considerably less intelligence, whose wealth and bizarre pathology rendered him vulnerable and helpless in front of his predators.

His predators are not difficult to identify. They begin with those who all but sell themselves or offer their children up as bait in order to gain material advantage or extort large sums of money. Jackson’s pathology is unquestionably his need for young boys in his bed, whether or not he masturbates or does anything illicit with them. That is his vulnerability, to be first exploited—and then punished.

One can easily see how a welfare mother from an impoverished background might be dazzled by a star like Jackson and try to better her lot and that of her son through him. All that money, after all, spent on the huge estate of Neverland, when simply finding extra money for clothes for growing children is a recurring nightmare and a proper holiday an impossible dream. Why shouldn’t a mother water a friendship if the star takes a liking to her child? The parents of Jordy hadn’t been on welfare, yet they had happily dangled their son in front ofjackson, leaving a 33-year-old man alone with their 13-yearold at night in hotel rooms.

Jackson was not the first “star” that Janet Jackson had encountered, though he was undeniably the richest. She was on familiar terms with a second-tier group of entertainment figures including comedians Chris Tucker, George Lopez and Louise Palanker after enrolling her sons in comedy camp. She had the confidence to contact Jay Leno. Gavin had been introduced to Jackie Chan and taken to see Mike Tyson. His cancer fight had touched them all and, in return, Janet and Gavin had become the recipients of many giftscars, money, cheques.

Janet Jackson was not quite your average American mum. Gavin’s father had a conviction for assaulting Janet. Each parent has accused the other of being abusive to their children. They had been involved in a series of petty thefts from retailers. There were court orders governing access by the father and several social service investigations of the family, as well as allegations of both welfare

AS THE TAPE was played, Michael slumped in his seat. His life seemed as wrecked as his face. Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. Nothing can be as it was.

fraud and accusations of fraudulently obtaining compensation of US$152,000 from J.C. Penney after a fracas with security guards. Such lives are clearly not created exclusively by poverty. Janet Jackson’s answers in court gave a flavour of her approach to life.

Q. You told [a reporter] that several celebrities were doing fundraisers to help pay for Gavin’s chemotherapy, didn’t you?

A. I think what I told her was that they were helping. And to me “help” means sitting by Gavin, feeding him the water—the cantaloupe, things like that. That’s what I meant by help.

Q. Did you ever withdraw money from [Gavin’s] account?

A. Yes. I did.

Q. How much do you think you withdrew?

A. Well, everything that has always been put in.

Q. Was any of that money used for medical expenses?

A. No, there was no need for

medical expenses in the hospital because everything was covered.

It is not hard to envisage just how Janet Jackson might have been “persuaded” to change her view of Jackson’s activities by the DA’s office. She was vulnerable to charges for welfare fraud, negligence of Gavin and more serious charges—possibly even

_ criminal fraud. And ifjanet Jack-

son ever had a notion of going for the big payoff, a conviction of Jackson on any one of the charges laid against him would virtually guarantee it.

The trial wound on. Judge Rodney Melville struggled. Alleged latenight Vaseline deliveries, he ruled with a straight face, would not be admissible. Accounts of alleged erections in the presence of children could be admitted, as was the image of two pairs of wet bathing trunks lying side by side on the restroom floor. Old allegations about Jackson’s behaviour with young boys could be brought up, even though none had ever been proved in court. And finally, the videotape of the police interview with Gavin was admitted, not for its content, the judge stressed, but for the jury to evaluate Gavin’s “demeanour.”

The admission of that tape was a terrible blow to the defence. What on earth did the instruction mean to disregard the content and judge only the boy’s appearance? If it were possible to discern credibility by listening or looking, fraud would become impossible and the performing arts would be dealt a grievous blow. All the same, commentators were struck by the contrast between Gavin’s aggressive manner in the trial and this hesitant shyness on the police video. It seemed to all of them that the videotape showed his “spontaneous” account of the terrible ordeal Jackson’s sexual overtures had caused, and had an authenticity that was hard to deny.

But police tapes are always a dodgy matter. The influence police exert in their role of authority is enormous, and when it is a child or a person of limited mental or moral equilibrium, the balance becomes even more unequal. The reassurance police would give Gavin that he is a victim and whomever he accuses is a bad man is so manipulative that to my mind the evidence that emerges is all but worthless.

As the tape was played, Michael slumped in his seat. His life seemed as wrecked as his face. Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. Indeed, nothing can be as it was for Jackson. His fortune has been decimated. A Jeff Koons sculpture of Jackson with his pet monkey, Bubbles, may have sold for US$5.6 million, but Jackson himself will be lucky to have money for Bubbles’s peanuts. The problem is not only his spending, but what happens when the thousand-eyed monster of legal action in America takes hold.

IN THE ABSENCE of violence, fear and physical coercion, what actual harm has Michael Jackson done? These children have received millions for their moments in his bed. Before they were told it was a crime, they couldn’t wait to get back to Neverland.

Inevitably, the 1RS will reassess Jackson and demand more tax. The Bank of America already has terminated his credit and discounted his loan to an aggressive hedge fund. Insurance companies will balk at paying his legal fees. Neverland, it is said, has been sold already. Jackson’s holdings will shrivel as the recording studios retreat, sponsors disappear, and he is forced to sell good assets at fire-sale prices to keep the enormous juggernaut of lawyers and investigators going. Before guilt or innocence is established, his money will have been divided up by the legal system for the benefit of the legal system and the government. A verdict of innocence would help, but if he is convicted of only the alcohol charge, civil suits will follow where a far lower threshold of proof is required.

But proof of what? Is there really any doubt that he had children in his bed for his pleasure? And what was the damage to them? Child molestation of any sort is not a desirable thing, and I can’t think of any culture that has viewed it so, or even viewed it as a neutral sexual orientation. But in the absence of violence, fear and physical

coercion, in the total absence of penetration, what actual harm has he done? These children have received millions for their moments in his bed. Before they were told it was a crime, they couldn’t wait to get back to Neverland.

Crimes go in and out of fashion, as gays well know. Less than 30 years ago, drunk driving was viewed as naughty, always an offence, but a bit of a joke. Today, drunk driving is akin to premeditated murder. Today, any form of sexuality involving underage persons or disparities of power is looked at in our social ambience with the utmost gravity.

The disparity between Jackson’s mental age and that of his accusers seems not so great. Twelve and 13-year-old boys often giggle together over porn and experiment with their newly discovered sexuality. Jackson’s high falsetto voice may come and go, but his childish behaviour is fixed. He seems stuck somewhere in the emotional landscape of adolescence. Uncannily, he resembles in every detail Peter Shaffer’s notion of Mozart in his film Amadeus. “This man had written his first concerto at the age of four. Did it show? Is talent like that written on the face?” the worshipful and jealous - composer Salieri muses before

meeting Mozart. Then he sees “that giggling, dirty-minded creature crawling on the floor.” Shaffer’s Mozart is a genius in the mindscape of a 12-year-old.

Genius doesn’t justify evil, never has, but in the face of his brilliance, shouldn’t society show just a little more tolerance of Jackson’s peculiarity? What, after all, does one do with an idiosyncratic person of many sexual quirks including a taste for young boys whose own gender, judging by his appearance, gestures and conversation is at best ambiguous? Jackson sits right on the border that separates maleness and femaleness, blackness and whiteness, grown-up and child, and possibly sanity and insanity.

The adults who encountered Jackson as employees or acquaintances quickly summed him up and considered him fair game. They were on safe ground: ultimately his trial illustrated that you are at a great disadvantage in the legal system if you are either below a certain socio-economic level or above it.

So his predators have safely gorged themselves. There is no conceivable way that the disparity between the damage Michael Jackson has caused those children and the amounts he has paid out can be described in any other terms than extortion. Everyone has benefited: those of us in the entertainment business are always hungry for a story, and Jackson has been quite a meal. The prosecutors and police who seek to make their careers out of convicting high-profile defendants have had their glory. Prosecuting crimes is their job, of course, but the social harm Jackson represents and the effort and money spent on prosecuting him are simply not commensurate.

With the exception of the extortionists, none of this is illegitimate or illegal. It is not a crime to be a carrion vulture or scavenger, and the sight of a rich vulnerable person brings out the jackal in a lot of people. I suppose this case simply filled a feeding frenzy of our times. It’s not an edifying spectacle.