Death of the Puer—Michael Jackson and Child Development

Manet Dead MatadorMany of us are talking about Michael Jackson this week, lamenting the talented kid that he was, and the quasi-freak that he became, and now grieving the passing of an icon and an era. 

In “Sympathy for the Devil,” Mick Jagger sings, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ when after all it was you and me.”  The same may be said of Michael Jackson, with his brilliant talent, wounded self (or lack thereof) and tragic demise in the glare of our electronic eye. 

Michael Jackson was my peer; we grew up together—he on TV and me watching him on TV.  He sparkled when I was eleven, he dazzled when I was twenty-something, he got weird when I was thirty-something and he got even weirder when I was forty-something.  Now at fifty, it’s over.

Perhaps he was destined to be a kid forever; maybe he was cursed with it.  The further he got chronologically from being a child, the harder it was for him to exist in his Portrait of Dorian Grey body.  Maybe it wasn’t becoming Diana Ross that he was seeking with all those surgeries, perhaps it was the quest for the eternal child that he was after.  And since the boy or girl in us must metaphorically die in order for us to become our authentic selves as men and women, Michael Jackson may have been sentenced to death by the impossibility of being believable as a fifty-year-old boy.

The Latin term for the eternal child is Puer Aeternus, which is also a book, and definitive exploration of this archetype, by Marie Louise Von Franz.  The classic Puer is Peter Pan, and it is fitting that Michael Jackson’s estate was called “Neverland.”  What we may not readily see is that our culture tells us not to grow up, and then punishes us for it. 

Part of our fear and fascination may be that if Michael Jackson isn’t around to hold our inner macabre Puer for us, then it might just end up back on ourselves.  In a sense, the spectacle of Michael Jackson is a mirror for us as a culture.  If we see him as the “other,” we refuse to recognize, and integrate, the pathetic part of us all that would twist, bend and conform to what others want us to be, in an unconscious and pathetic bid to get love.  Michael Jackson was an abused kid, who tried to please and entertain us.  What he became was what we collectively asked him to become—a tragic hero, and now we lament his tragic death (like the beautiful dead matador in Manet’s painting).

If we are to be better parents, individually and collectively, we need to take a closer look at what we are really asking our kids to be?  For the way our kids are (be it oppositional, addicted, entitled… or splendid, responsible and appreciative), may constitute our best feedback on what we are unconsciously asking them to be.  This extends collectively to reality TV, media circuses and the like—of course, if we stopped watching freak shows, they would stop being produced, but we can’t look away from the tragic accident until we have seen that we are the victim in that mangled car.

To reference Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard, is America ready for her close-up?  If we are to truly honor the spirit of Michael Jackson, we might think of him as our collective child, the one who was so gifted and, despite being given every material thing (or perhaps partly because of it) could not quite grow up.  Then maybe we will thank him for carrying so much of our collective load, and promise to try not to do that to any more of our children.  So let’s not judge Michael Jackson, there but for the grace of God go every one of us (in both his brilliance and his pain). 

To reference another great Billy Wilder film, Some Like It Hot, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “Death of the Puer—Michael Jackson and Child Development”

  1. aa Says:

    A spot-on comment. Who didn’t feel their own heart aching the moment he died, for him, for ourselves and for our children. A poignant illustration of the need to hold our children, let them be children and allow them to approach the world at their own speed.

  2. Bill Judkins Says:

    Bruce,
    I seem to remember you doing a pretty mean “moonwalk: at your
    Thompson Strret apartment circa 1983!

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