You Are Your Story - Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons - Book Review

 

Sexuality & Culture

BOOK REVIEW

Pega Ren

I don’t know anyone who didn’t have an opinion about Michael Jackson, and felt righteously entitled to it. I had one, too, but mine was less rabid than most people’s.

I thought he was inappropriate in many ways and found that lack of grace undermining my enjoyment of his music. I was forever confused, for instance, about why a song denying paternity (Billy Jean) would become such a rampant hit when its message was so misogynistic and anti-child, especially coming from a singer who so publicly proclaimed his love of children. And what was with all the crotch grabbing?

I am in no way a prude, but his presentations struck me as somehow out of sync with his music. But then, Michael Jackson didn’t need my approval and when I would ask other, more ardent fans their view of what I saw as oddities, they discounted my objections and opined that I lacked musical appreciation. Michael’s performances were brilliant, they explained, and I lacked the insight to appreciate them.

When the news broke about the lawsuits against Michael and the attention he paid to young boys, everyone seemed to have an opinion again. I was aghast to hear otherwise logical and rational thinkers vehemently support his innocence, based solely on their rationale that Michael ‘‘loved’’ children and pedophiles hurt kids, ergo Michael did not molest those boys.

It became clear to me that pedophilia was a subject so fraught with fear and ignorance that most people preferred fact-free opinion. I realized what danger this puts us all in.

When Carl Tom’s book became available, a scholarly, evidence-based biography of Michael and his ‘special friends,’ I leapt at the chance to read it. Not only would Dangerous Liaisons reveal Michael Jackson’s story, it would inform me about who

pedophiles really are. At least that was my hope.

I was not disappointed.

At first I wondered why a publisher would touch a book on such an inflammatory subject. Yes, I wanted to read it, but I am a sexologist who sometimes works with minor attracted clients. Surely people like me do not form a large enough demographic to catalyze a print run.

We can add to this small group, however, anyone who works professionally with children. Teachers, counselors, recreation leaders, all interested in keeping their charges safe from abuse, would greatly benefit from the information contained within these pages. Fearing the wolf in the woods does not make our passage through the forest safer; we must know how to identify and resist true predators and stop worrying about shadows and ghostly noises.

Real harm comes to children from grownups who intentionally hurt them. They look the same as those, like Michael Jackson, who are genuinely fond of young people and also have socially disapproved (but non-coercive) sexual attractions.

Complicated and hard to bear as this distinction can be, if we are to protect our children, we need to know the difference.

Given that statement, this book could almost be pitched as a safety handbook for parents. Perhaps those Jackson fans who were uninterested in hearing any besmirching of their star’s reputation would not buy this book, but most people do want to know what really went on during that famous but untelevised trial, really do wonder what those boys’ parents must have been thinking in sending their children off for sleepovers at Neverland. Toms’s book offers answers to those questions and more, without finger-pointing or making judgments. If Michael Jackson’s fans want to know what was really going on, and still want to maintain their image of him as a kind lover of children, this is the book for them.

Dangerous Liaisons reveal Michael Jackson’s story, it would inform me about who pedophiles really are. At least that was my hope.

I was not disappointed.

At first I wondered why a publisher would touch a book on such an inflammatory subject. Yes, I wanted to read it, but I am a sexologist who sometimes works with minor attracted clients. Surely people like me do not form a large enough demographic to catalyze a print run.

We can add to this small group, however, anyone who works professionally with children. Teachers, counselors, recreation leaders, all interested in keeping their charges safe from abuse, would greatly benefit from the information contained within these pages. Fearing the wolf in the woods does not make our passage through the forest safer; we must know how to identify and resist true predators and stop worrying about shadows and ghostly noises.

Real harm comes to children from grownups who intentionally hurt them. They look the same as those, like Michael Jackson, who are genuinely fond of young people and also have socially disapproved (but non-coercive) sexual attractions.

Complicated and hard to bear as this distinction can be, if we are to protect our children, we need to know the difference.

Given that statement, this book could almost be pitched as a safety handbook for parents.

Perhaps those Jackson fans who were uninterested in hearing any besmirching of their star’s reputation would not buy this book, but most people do want to know what really went on during that famous but untelevised trial, really do wonder what those boys’ parents must have been thinking in sending their children off for sleepovers at Neverland. Toms’s book offers answers to those questions and more, without finger-pointing or making judgments. If Michael Jackson’s fans want to know what was really going on, and still want to maintain their image of him as a kind lover of children, this is the book for them.

Surely, too, anyone with a curiosity about the social phenomenon that is pop music and Hollywood and particularly Michael Jackson would have good reason to buy this book. From the comfort of our armchairs Toms offers us ringside seats as

Michael’s love affairs (and business affairs) careen along a high roller path that would seem a fairy tale if it were not so very true. Readable and organized, the book gives us ‘ordinary Joes’ a glimpse into how someone we view as very unlike us lives. What we learn in the bargain is how alike we can be in our needs and vulnerabilities.

Dangerous Liaisons is not an easy read for several reasons. It is an ambitious tome, over 600 pages with no relief of photographs. Toms was exhaustive in his research about Jackson. He distilled thousands of pages of court testimony and reams of headline news accounts into a still-ambitious examination of Michael’s life. I queried the author’s use of tabloid sources, but he addressed it rationally:

The more wildly speculative, gossipy and in some cases downright fabricated yarns spun about Michael. Falsehoods have not been confined to the tabloid press, far from it, and I place no absolute reliance on any single source, including sworn legal testimony. It is equally unwise, I suggest, to be totally disdainful of a story just because it originated with The Sun or TV’s Fox News, or even with The National Enquirer or Globe. In the era of the Chandler allegations the British tabloids, especially The Sun and Today, led the way in breaking many Jackson stories that have stood the test of time, becoming very well substantiated as the years have passed. While it is true that a prodigious amount of colourful nonsense has been put out, not least by Michael’s own publicists, there is remarkably little to suggest stories have been baselessly concocted by the media on his contacts with boys. Had they been he could always have sued, but he showed little inclination to do so. In the British courts, especially, where the libel laws are strict, Michael could very profitably have followed the well-trodden trail taken by the likes of Elton John to protect his reputation; his reluctance may be thought to speak for itself (page 7).

Marry to this the fact that the subject matter is inflammatory. Those who resist thinking about difficult topics will have a hard time with Toms’s meticulous and well-documented reporting of the events surrounding Michael Jackson’s involvement with boys.

That being said, I found it hard to put the book down once I had started. I read it on planes, in bed in the evenings, waiting in offices, despite its heft. Toms’s style is conversational, engaging, and inviting. It read almost like a mystery story in parts;

I couldn’t wait to find out how the next part would evolve.

The book begins with an accounting of the events leading to Michael’s being accused in the case surrounding Jordie Chandler. Interestingly, the whistle-blower was not a traumatized child, nor a horrified mother, but a father angry that his son was interested in spending more time with the star than with him and feeling powerless in a custody dispute. Did Michael Jackson pay the Chandlers to drop their suit against him? Of course he did, but with the ‘‘victim’’ Jordie refusing to testify against his beloved friend (‘‘Jordie never personally wanted to see Michael punished for what took place. It was a loving relationship and it pained him to see his idol brought low.’’ P. 52), and his mother having supported the relationship all along, the hapless father was left sputtering and impotent with no further recourse.

Perhaps Jordie Chandler was the only boy? Not so. Toms devotes a full chapter to

lineup of Michael’s boys (always boys). And none of these chaps ever complained of being mistreated or abused in any way. In fact, they all recall their time with Michael as thrilling, playful, and fun. Later, when Michael does find himself in court, some of those boys testify about how well he treated them. There is no doubt, however, that sex play occurred with at least some of Michael’s ‘boyfriends.’ What did not appear to have happened was anything coercive. Though legally unable to give informed consent, they were willing participants.

Age and circumstance may have contributed to the lack of alarm in what would ordinarily have been seen as bizarre relationships. Michael was, after all, Michael Jackson, and ‘‘his young friends were generally in mid- to late-childhood, most of them in the years just before puberty. His attachment to them was highly physical, with lots of hugging and kissing, and in several cases the intimacy of a shared bed.’’

(P. 116) Perhaps young boys have not yet been sensitized to the homophobia and fear of pedophiles that their parents have. Without calls of distress from their children, mom and pop may have seen no reason to suspect wrongdoing or to intervene.

Still, it is odd, isn’t it, that parents would send their children off to spend even one night for a sleepover with a grown man? Could this have happened anywhere, with anyone, were it not The King of Pop? Likely not.

Then again, Toms posits a logical argument. ‘‘As adults, we are inclined these days to work ourselves into a terrible moral panic over ‘abuse’, when what we are talking about may be a trivial matter to the children themselves. This does a disservice to children in two ways: (1) it devalues the concept of abuse. It falsely puts sexual assault (forced or coerced sexual activity) on the same level as gentle and desired touching, which need be no more traumatic than the contact children have with their own underwear; (2) insofar as they are learning about adult values, children can come to feel harmed and abused years after a friendship they had regarded positively at the time.’’ (Page 135)

We know from the Rind study that not all adult/child sexual encounters are viewed as harmful or even negative. Toms spends a chapter introducing a study from the Netherlands (not Neverland!) by Dr Theo Sandfort that asked the question,

‘‘Can a boy experience sex with an adult positively?’’ At least in that sex-positive country, the answer was ‘yes’. In fact, ‘‘The older partner was, for all of the boys, one person for whom they had many positive feelings and few negative ones.’’ (Page 166)

But Michael didn’t live in the Netherlands. He lived in America, where homophobia is still considered a family value and where pedophiles are our most hated of sexual deviants. There are few who view adult/child liaisons with the benign oversight of the parents in Sandfort’s study. Americans see pedophiles only as those wretched predators humiliated and degraded on TV’s sting operations, responding to police-generated ads to appear at an unsupervised 13-year-old’s home for vodka tonics and a little hanky panky. Or perhaps the pedophile is a trench coat clad old man, hovering near a playground, awaiting the opportunity to snatch unsuspecting toddlers from swings before spiriting them away to horrible fates.

We have no middle ground when it comes to the term ‘pedophile’. Certainly

Michael Jackson’s fans could not reconcile that their beloved singer could be one of those! Michael knew this, and used his vast fortune to tip the scales in his favour, another American tradition.

Nevertheless, eventually Michael’s disregard for prudence caught up with him, and there was a trial. The last third or so of Toms’s book witnesses this event in detail. Despite copious testimony, Michael is found not guilty on all counts, and the crowds cheer his ‘‘innocence’’ outside the courthouse.

But it is a hollow victory. Michael, broken, fled—to various countries, unfinished projects, and drugs, eventually his undoing. Toms’s book ‘‘began with Michael’s tragic sudden death.’’ (Page 542) It is a tribute to his excellent literary skill that he did not dwell on this single feature, nor whitewash his telling of Michael’s tale. His is an unrepentant examination of Michael Jackson as a lover of music and little boys, a tortured man tightly bound by a brutal paternalistic family upbringing and unforgiving religious teachings. He had nowhere to put his desires in an acceptable outlet and so he escaped to Neverland, figuratively and literally.

By the end of the story, we know how well Toms knew Michael Jackson, and we know he is ‘‘soft’’ on the subject of adult/child love. Toms is a pseudonym, optimistically unnecessary but certainly understandable, although he does identify himself in the book if you look for it. He’s published and academically accepted by sexologists as a colleague and an expert on pedophilia.

Nevertheless, regardless of how exhaustively or academically we talk about

pedophilia, (man/boy love, minor attracted adults), it makes us uncomfortable. This book brings up feelings. How we feel about our heroes and about our designated perverts, and the quandary we are placed in when they may be one in the same person. We are reminded of the universality of diversity and the fact that we are all just flawed human beings.

Still, this is a book about Michael Jackson and his love of boys. It is a difficult book to read for that reason, so accustomed are we to feeling safe, believing that there are bogeymen out there who can be clearly identified. Toms shows us that we must be careful to identify our culprits accurately, a much more difficult job than simply signing up with the mob.

Toms’s priorities are clear:

Michael’s close friendship with so many boys, including being regular bedfellows with quite a few of them, puts beyond serious argument the fact that he was compulsively attracted to boys and invites examination of how such contacts impact upon the youngsters themselves (page 109).

Then he delivers the research. We get a one/two punch with Sandfort and then

Rind, Tromovitch and Bauserman’s supporting meta-analysis from 1998. By the time we’re through that chapter, we’re approaching the remainder of Michael’s story from a different perspective than we began. It can be unnerving.

It hurts to lose the innocence of simple knowledge. Complicated investigation into complex issues makes us think about how vulnerable we can be, and how farreaching our mistakes can be. I know a lot more now about nuances I didn’t even know existed before I opened this book. It was hard to read in places, and sometimes I just had to lay the book on my chest and think.

Isn’t that, in the final analysis, the mark of a really good book?

P. Ren

Private Practice, Vancouver, BC, Canada

e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

URL: www.smartsextalk.com

 

 

 

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