Friday, April 20 , 2018, 10:34 am | Fair 61º


Russell Collins: Michael Jackson — What Went Wrong?

The pop icon's strange, tragic life proves that the human psyche can take only so much

When I was 15, I went to a Beatles concert at Shea Stadium. You couldn’t hear the music, and the Beatles were like four tiny, gyrating ants on a stage that must have been a quarter-mile away from our seats. But the crowd, oh man! Thundering, hysterical, ranting, fainting, 56,000 kids, teenage girls mostly, screaming for Paul McCartney and John Lennon. A “poor huge freaked teeny beast” was how Tom Wolfe later described a Beatles crowd. What must it be like, I thought enviously in my awed and insecure teenage boy brain, to be at the center of this?

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

I don’t think the rest of us can begin to understand the experience of being at the center of an adoring universe. It may be an archetypal human fantasy, rooted in the infantile drive to be the absolute center of our mother’s universe in the first helpless months and years of life. But imagine if it weren’t just a fantasy. What if it was happening to you? What if, unlike the Beatles who were in their 20s by the time they gave the concert at Shea, you were 10 or even 6 when you first experienced it. Then, what if it happened repeatedly throughout all your childhood years — years when your brain was developing and your adult personality was being formed?

What if, in the intervals between those peak experiences of being screamed at by tens of thousands of adoring fans, you were screamed at by a rageful parent, mocked ruthlessly for your appearance or the size of your nose, and punished violently for any failure to execute your performance flawlessly? Who would you grow up to be?

In a childhood filled with experiences such as these, you might find a plausible psychological explanation for the strange, tragic life of Michael Jackson.

Body dysmorphic disorder. Chronic anxiety. Panic attacks. Suicidality. Depression. Substance abuse. Most of the problems, in other words, that the media reports tell us plagued Jackson during his long and troubled career.

Of those, the most discussed but least understood is body dysmorphic disorder. BDD is a psychiatric diagnosis that applies to people who see their image in the mirror as unattractive, ugly, even deformed. It usually begins in adolescence. It strikes mostly men, although it may figure into the diagnosis of anorexia, which is found in much higher frequency among women. Any effort to convince the person suffering from BDD that his or her appearance is normal falls on deaf ears — whether it comes from family, friends or a mental health professional.

BDD is characterized by obsessive attention to appearance, which can include parting and reparting the hair, compulsive picking at imaginary skin blemishes, wearing makeup to bed (which Jackson was said to have done) or incessantly checking his or her appearance in the mirror. It also can include attempts to change one’s appearance through surgery or self-mutilation. Jackson is reported to have undergone as many 30 cosmetic surgeries, which transformed him over the years from a fairly average-looking child into the mannequin-like figure seen in the sheriff’s mug shots from his 2003 Santa Barbara arrest. BDD turned Jackson’s distorted perceptions of his ugliness into reality.

We know some things about this disorder that we didn’t know a few years ago because recent advances in brain scan technology allow us to monitor blood flow in the brain. Researchers at UCLA recently used this imaging capability to trace the neurological cause of BDD to the visual processing centers of the brain. In BDD patients, this processing looks very different from that of normal test subjects. Imagine looking at a picture of a face (or your own face in the mirror) and being able to focus only on the parts — the nose, the lips, a pimple on your chin — rather than seeing them in the context of the overall appearance of your face. That seems to be the experience of BDD patients as they look in the mirror, as an impaired visual processing mechanism returns a distorted reflection.

But the biology is only part of the story. Katharine Phillips, director of perhaps the largest research project on BDD so far, estimates that one in 100 people in the general population, but a much higher percentage of students, may suffer from BDD. It is now thought to be related to obsessive compulsive disorder, and many of the same treatment methods — from antidepressant medication to specialized forms of therapy — are being used with some success to fight it. Many of the other complications in Jackson’s life — his reclusiveness, panic attacks, the self-described perfectionism, drug addictions — now also can be seen as possibly related to OCD.

What struck me in Phillips’ descriptions of her BDD patients’ lives was the abject loneliness they felt — isolation and hopelessness so deep that many of them contemplated suicide. This is particularly ironic given Jackson’s huge popularity. He is often reported to have lived a life of deep personal loneliness in the center of a whirlwind of media and fan attention.

There is another aspect of Jackson’s story that conveys a lesson about parenting, child development and human nature. In a 2003 documentary aired on ABC, Jackson talked of a childhood filled with traumatic incidents, any one of which might leave a child painfully scarred. His fear of his father, Joe Jackson’s, critical rage was deep enough that he vomited in anticipation of seeing him.

Joe had a habit of supervising the boys’ rehearsals with a belt in his hand, which he used often with painful and terrifying effect. And he constantly ridiculed Jackson’s appearance, particularly his nose. In addition, Jackson described the serious acne he suffered as a teenager and the exposure on the road to the sexual encounters of his brothers with female fans — an experience that could be traumatizing for child of 7 or 8. The incidents that Jackson related could easily be stressful enough to cause changes in brain development — and cause pathology such as BDD, panic, anxiety, etc.

Add to that the shock and awe of being the target of that megaton blast of teen adulation I saw at the Beatles concert. I can only say that the human psyche — biological, social, psychological, spiritual, or however you want to think of it — just wasn’t designed to take that kind of pounding at such a tender age. I think of the anxiety or fearful obsessions of my therapy clients or friends — or even my own irrational fears.

Most of us grew up in much calmer circumstances and still struggle with demons. I can only look on with amazement at the resilience of a figure like Jackson — idiosyncratic and strange as he was — who lived as long and achieved as much as he did.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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