Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What if Michael had written the book?

Once upon a time, I was a staff writer and editor for Detroit's Michigan Chronicle. And during those days, LaToya Jackson penned a book called, "Growing Up in the Jackson Family." This was during the days when she was struggling for stardom and Michael's star seemed to be fading into absurdity. The book alleged that she and her siblings were abused by their father Joe and people decried her as a liar. My thoughts on the topic were a little bit different. The following is a re-print of that editorial. What do you think?

What if Michael had written the book?
By Stefanie P. Worth
Re-printed with permission of the Michigan Chronicle

I have been a fan of Michael Jackson’s since the Five’s first days. I can recall penning the words of “I’ll Be There” on primary ruled paper to Sterling Harris, my second grade crush. Years later I continued to follow the successes and supposed doings of the Jackson clan.

From Janet on “Good Times” to Randy’s near-crippling auto accident to Rebbie’s single solo success and Janet's climb to rival Michael’s stardom. I watched as the brothers six went their separate ways — Jermaine’s lukewarm fame, Jackie’s violent breakup with his wife and Michael’s downward spiral into eccentricity.

Eccentricity? At 30? Why would the boy who had everything go weird? Doing so made him favorite tabloid fodder of the ‘80s — feeding our human morbid curiosity, drawing speculation into what happened along the way to make him become as odd as he has. Sad to say, despite his unquestionable musical genius, the “thriller” has been reduced to ridicule in many gossip circles.

Now comes LaToya, on the heels of several failed recording ventures and a scandalous Playboy pictorial with “Growing Up in the Jackson Family,” her novel account of childhood life in the famous brood.

Girlfriend has taken much flack since the release of her book. Though I’m in the process of reading it, I am as yet undecided on the book’s contents. First of all, none of us but the Jacksons grew up as Jacksons. So what really went on behind their four walls we are not privy to say. If LaToya is lying, then as I say, that’s between her and God. But secondly, if there is an iota of truth to what she discloses about the abuse and molestation, then Joe Jackson — rich, powerful, highly-revered and all — needs to have his behind in jail.

I think part of the reason the public outcry has been so against LaToya is that she has not achieved the success her brothers and Janet have — and we all know how long she’s been trying. But people disclose family skeletons all the time, celebrities and everyday folks alike, to the tune of great public empathy. Maya Angelou did it in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Was she scorned for the revelation? Perhaps we have allowed the Jackson mystique to cloud our judgment and render them infallible. Nobody deserves that burden.

News of fallen child stars fill the media these days. These now adult used-to-be’s recall the difficulties they encountered when they were no longer cute and couldn’t find work. Imagine what LaToya and Rebbie must have felt being the only two untalented children in a superstar family. The public is also much more aware of the sleezy side of life in childhood stardom. It’s no more peaches and cream for them than it is for adults trying to make it in the cut throat world of show biz.

One point LaToya emphasizes is their father’s dislike of his oldest son (for whatever reason). Jackie, she says, took the brunt of Joe Jackson’s abuse well into his early 20s. Most of us are familiar with the reports of abuse leveled at Jackie several years ago resulting in the dissolution of his marriage. The divorce was equipped with court-ordered injunctions keeping him away from the wife he battered and their children. Don’t psychologists say that abuse is cyclical? Could there be a link?

Janet’s Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis-produced “Control” album, and title video were widely touted as being autobiographical — a fact to which she even admits. Remember her marriage to James DeBarge which insiders report was destroyed because her parents disapproved? There are even sadder rumors about the destruction involved floating around DeBarge’s hometown of Flint. Since when is a financially independent 18-year-old still expected to bow to the beck and call of her parents? According to LaToya, when it’s a Jackson.

Then there is my dear, dear Michael. You say you think homeboy has some problems, eh? Animals in the backyard...gloved hand...pinched nose...Bubbles.... Ever stop to wonder what could have pushed him over the edge (if indeed that’s where he’s dangling)? Could Michael’s altered personality be a wealthy version of multiple personality disorder — generally brought on by childhood sexual trauma? Maybe, maybe not.

Well, I didn't grow up with those 11 people anymore than you did, so I, too, can do no more than speculate. But I’ve followed the Jacksons for years and these are not the first allegations of abuse to air about “Papa Joe.” I feel that enough questions have been raised over the years to merit some serious thought. He did for his family what most of us only dream of. But who knows what he did to get there and at whose and what expense.

LaToya alleges that the family abuse was a well-known secret in Motown’s halls. (Much like the now confessed to Ross-Gordy romance that resulted in Diana’s first child). The public has been known to ignore the grim realities of star life to protect images in the past. I’m just saying maybe it happened with the Jacksons, too. I could indeed be wrong, but the fact that LaToya is the family media hound should not overrule the reality that serious crime and sickness could lie beyond that famous doorstep.

Old folks say what’s done in the dark will be brought to the light. So maybe she just hit the switch. I’ll bet that if Michael had penned this tell-all tale he would have been besieged with public sympathy. The masses would exclaim with a sigh of relief, “So that’s what happened.”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Wrapped in life

Yesterday, I’m watching hour after hour of Michael Jackson news coverage and I’m listening to reporters ask people to sum up their experiences with MJ or thoughts of his music in snappy sound bites. Can you do that for a life like his?

Maybe it’s because I just finished writing the synopsis for my latest novel, that the whole wrap up thing seemed so glaring to me yesterday. I know what my story’s about – all the pieces in the plot, who does what and why. But it’s such a struggle to squeeze 400 pages into two. Yet we do it. In fact, we authors manage to scrunch an entire novel into a single 10-second pitch line that makes the story easy-to-grasp for potential readers.

So, I sit back from the news coverage and get to thinking about my pitch line for life with Michael Jackson and landed on “Got to be There.” From the time I was small, I’ve regarded that tune and its lyrics with starry-eyed wonder. The idea of needing someone’s nearness is not unique; people sing about that stuff all the time. But it’s the way Michael sang it. And beyond the throes of love, “Got To Be There” epitomizes the way I view life as a whole. I hate the thought of missing out on experiences and interactions or opportunities to dream and grow. I want to be here to take it all in.

All of it. Always. As in forever.

Now, we know that isn’t possible, is it? That’s where my deep-seated denial comes in. I shudder when I hear phrases like “tomorrow’s not promised” or “the present is a gift.” I know they are so true, but the implication – well, the reality – is that they mean one day there won’t be a next day. No more phone calls to the kids/grandkids/great-grandkids. No chit-chat with friends and family. No treks to the store or church. No volunteering. No news. No flower garden. No sunshine or rain. Heaven, I do pray, but none of the little things that make this world what it is.

Maybe 50 years from now I’ll be tired and I’ll be ready for thoughts of final rest. But not today. So, this morning when I awoke and confirmed that Michael Jackson really had passed on, I had to wonder if he was ready. Did the King of Pop have a clue yesterday morning that there would be no more music after that day?

I wrote a poem about my grandmother some years ago; about how three days before she died, a cousin said he saw her dancing in the kitchen. Laughing, free, really enjoying herself. Mind you, Grandma Mary was saved and sanctified and she absolutely did not dance. But after we heard that story, we thought maybe she knew death was on its way and she was ready. I compared it to “trying out her wings-to-be.” The idea that she was ready for the trip brought comfort in the aftermath of her sudden and difficult departure.

Michael’s death brings a familiar though not familial sadness. I never thought about the King of Pop not being here. My “got to be there” assumption was that he’d always be here. But none of us get to stay on the charts forever.

Now I am left with the startling reality of a life not too many years younger than Mike’s. I reflect on reports that say his children are inconsolable. I consider my kids. I reflect on reports that say he was in ill health. I consider my own health. I reflect on his genius, how his gift changed the world. I consider my own dreams. I reflect on how the world changed him. And I consider the good and bad of this life we live.

While I’d rather not think about it, there’s no sense missing the reminder in all this that we get many moments, yet just one life.

I am really going to miss Michael Jackson. Every news clip I’ve heard that attempts to edit his life into a tidy sound bite has represented a different perspective of his world. Between spliced chunks of stowed-away quotes, studio moments, laughter and sadness, illumination spills forth in smiles and silences. As much as I’ve enjoyed trying to sum up my own MJ memories, I can no more easily pare his life into 25 words than I can my novels. I’m no MJ, but I hope my life won’t fit within the confines of a nice, neat sound bite bow either. I’ll take that as evidence that I was there for my life.

Peace to you and yours, Michael.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Reading to not make changes

The galleys for Holiday Brides arrived yesterday. They come via email and -- this being my third set -- I now have this ritual of checking the ink cartridge, adjusting the print settings, and readying a stack of fresh paper to feed into the machine as it spits forth the laid out pages for me to proof.

It's a little nerve-wracking, the whole "read and don't make any 'unnecessary' changes" thing. Don't publishers know we're writers and constantly improving our prose is what fuels our existence??? Then again, I'm sure that's why the guideline is in place. *sigh*

So, my only real to-do this weekend is to re-read HeavenSent.com (a/k/a Brenna and Evan's story) and make sure what's on the pages-to-be matches what I submitted. I quit last night after two chapters. The back and forth was making my head spin. . .and I got distracted by VH1's "Black to the Future." My bad.

I'll do better tonight. When the June 16th deadline to return these galleys rolls around, I so need to back into my WIP. Deep, deep back.

On that note, wish me few typos, missing words, or lost chunks of plot!