As the trial of Michael Jackson opens, I have begun to have my doubts about the prosecution’s case – or, at least, about the way it has started. And I say that because I was startled to discover that I was there at what might be called the opening dinner.
To be sure, my questioning of the prosecution can be a product of cognitive dissonance. I once cared for Mr. Jackson deeply and believed he might help sensitize the world to the preciousness of childhood. If the prosecution is correct, then I am a dupe. Did Mr. Jackson fool me utterly? Was my own brittle ego too enamored of the light of his celebrity? Or is it the boy’s family who is lying?
To be in the orbit of a superstar is to be subject to an indescribably strong gravitational pull – especially when he identifies you to the world as a source of wisdom – from which one extricates oneself only with difficulty. I finally broke free of our friendship in April 2001 when I saw that Michael no longer heeded my advice to rescue his deteriorating existence, and indeed was severely irritated by my constant criticism of his indolence and self-absorption.
I have since been a strong and consistent critic of Mr. Jackson’s reckless and egocentric behavior, and especially his public confession of the deeply immoral practice of sharing his bed with children not his own. But I have simultaneously said that, having shared an intense friendship with him, I saw nothing that would lead me to believe he is a molester. And when one is possessed of possible exculpatory evidence as to a man’s possible innocence, then one has a moral obligation to share the information in question.
News accounts of the opening statement by the prosecutor, Thomas Sneddon, said Mr. Sneddon had maintained that Michael Jackson invited his accuser and his family to his Neverland Valley Ranch in August 2000 and that the first night, at dinner, he asked the boy to ask his mother if he could spend the night in Michael’s bedroom. Later, according to Mr. Sneddon, Michael, together with his employee Frank Tyson, showed the accuser and his brother pornographic photos from the Internet.
All this may be true, but if it is, then I have to be ashamed at my own blindness. I was there at Neverland, as Michael’s guest, to celebrate his 42nd birthday. I was there when he first greeted the boy and his family outside his home at Neverland, and I was at the dinner that night together with my family. This was my first visit to Neverland, and Michael was intent on making a favorable impression on me. Would he really have begun showing the boy pornographic materials while I was staying there on the premises? If he did, that means he had complete contempt for me and our friendship was a sham. And if he really did respect me, as I believed at the time, then it would be inconceivable for him to have taken such risks in my presence.
Frank Tyson has also been named as an unindicted co-conspirator who allegedly participated in showing the kids pornography on that first night. I know Frank extremely well. He served as Michael’s closest confidant and personal aide. I liked Frank very much and tried to play a role as something of a mentor to him, feeling as I did that he was a young man with good intentions, adrift in the chaotic and frenzied life of Michael Jackson. He was in his early 20s when I first met him, and I would regularly instruct him about the need to remain firmly connected to God, go to church (he was from a Catholic family), put his own parents and siblings before his relationship with Michael, and most of all, to protect Michael from himself.
One of my main points to Frank was to ensure that Michael was never alone with children, given the 1993 allegations against him, and Frank, caring deeply about Michael and being around him constantly, promised me to always be present when Michael was with children. Perhaps that is why he was there that first night when Michael’s accuser and his brother were in Michael’s bedroom.
The idea that Mr. Tyson threatened the family with harm should they testify against Michael likewise causes me great anguish. Frank was always well-mannered and went to great lengths to be the counterbalance to Michael’s narcissism. From my knowledge of Frank Tyson, he couldn’t hurt a fly, and I continue to remain in touch with him, from a distance, trying to make sure his life does not go down the terrible route that Michael’s did, being destroyed by the vacuous and unprincipled world of celebrity and fame.
Frank, who came to run Michael’s career even while he lacked the skills to do so, made many incredibly misguided choices for Michael’s professional future, and politely but resolutely fought me in my attempts to get Michael to normalize his life and start acting like an everyday citizen. Frank believed Michael becoming “ordinary” would harm the public’s fascination with him. But Frank was never malicious, and I never once even saw him lose his temper. I pray that these allegations are not true.
Whatever really happened that night at Neverland – whether Michael showed the children pornography or whether, as the defense contends, the boys found it of their own – what is clear is that Michael Jackson had shockingly bad judgment in stupidly inviting two boys to stay in his room, after all the allegations with which he had already been faced.
As a superstar possessed of a self-destructive streak who has always been allowed to play by his own rules, Michael had clearly lost a sense of right and wrong.
In his defense, and without excusing his behavior, I would say that it is possible to surmise that Michael sees himself as a boy who can look at girlie magazines with other boys, as school kids do, because he views himself as a juvenile rather than a grown man.
But Michael Jackson is not a boy. He is a grown man. And before the law, he will be judged as an adult who is expected to know the difference between acceptable and non-acceptable behavior. Which is why, I continue to believe, the best thing for Michael would be to plead guilty to the lesser charges in the case, such as giving wine to minors, if he can avoid jail time and enter into a deal with the prosecutor, perhaps to enter a rehabilitation clinic where he would be immersed in psychological and spiritual renewal and repair his broken life. But I would not recommend a plea unless, of course, the facts warrant it.
In any event, I believe Mr. Sneddon has a weak case. The boy’s family does not strike me as very credible, and I certainly had the feeling, given my brief exposure to the boy’s mother, that she was overly solicitous of Michael. It is also true, from my recollection, that the children, as the defense maintains, were wild and unruly (but then many kids are).
It is in Mr. Sneddon’s interest to get rid of this case, just as it is for Michael, who, even if he is vindicated, still returns to a life bereft of any semblance of dignity, financial security or credibility. And by plea-bargaining the case, Michael and Tom Sneddon would save our entire country from that terribly strong celebrity orbit.