On Michael Jackson: The Cost of Avoidance
The life and death of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, offers us cause for reflection on the tragic consequences of avoiding one’s core issues, and the high price a person pays when he or she tries to evade his or her personal history. Michael Jackson, in this therapist’s opinion, personifies, better than anyone, the dissonance between what John Bradshaw refers to as one’s false self, or persona, and one’s true self.
The media, though it reports on various information about Jackson’s life such as the accusations of abuse as a child, his obsession with constantly changing his physical appearance, his eccentric and reclusive behavior, and the allegations against him of child molestation, do not weave these disparate facts into a coherent, meaningful fabric, instead labeling him as “Wacko Jacko”. Many fans, oblivious to these issues, idealize him based on his musical performance skills as if this offered immunity from either being harmed or harming others; the truth, as usual, lies somewhere between these two extremes.
What we know about abuse is that it is cyclical and intergenerational, continuing from one generation to the next, kept in place by secrecy, denial, and pain. Family members who have been abused tend to deny the abuse because of the overwhelming shame, consuming rage, and the emotional desolation and agony they experience when they attempt to unearth it; perpetrators and enablers (who have often been abused themselves when young) tend to deny the abuse because of their shame and guilt.
When one’s body integrity is violated by abuse at an early age, it causes severe emotional and psychological damage, self-esteem to be annihilated, the ability to attach appropriately and form meaningful relationships to be compromised, and body image and sexuality to become distorted. The violation of one’s self and exploitation of one’s helplessness and dependency destroys one’s ability to trust and inextricably connects bonding and intimacy to being victimized, rendering one isolated and unsupported.
Those of us who have worked with abuse recognize a pattern of symptoms that often are present including: secrecy, denial, minimization, rationalization, sexual acting out, inability to bond and form close, lasting peer relationships, low self-esteem, isolation, distrust/being overly trusting, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, victimizing others, toxic shame, and self-loathing.
Given what we know about the effects of early trauma and the information the media has supplied about Michael Jackson, it seems clear that his life ended with wounds inflicted in childhood and the resultant split between his true self (the healthy intact self predating the abuse) and his false self (erected in an attempt to protect himself against further injury) left unresolved; the accumulated shame, guilt, emotional pain and self-loathing generated by both the guarding of the family secret and its public exposure ultimately becoming too hard to bear.
It is a sad commentary that few people appreciate this real tragedy, rather than the loss of a popular icon, and that the legal system and his family, friends, and medical personnel appear to have colluded, intentionally or not, in the avoidance of Michael Jackson’s core issues. But therapists can see this as confirmation of the tremendous importance of our work that can empower our clients to grapple with and resolve such hard, painful truth because in order to heal the true self, they must receive emotional support and validation of their emotional and psychological trauma. In therapy clients can finally unburden painful secrets and heal the crippling shame that keep the abusive system in place, begin to practice awareness rather than denial, and gain the courage to confront the issues rather than avoid them.