By Robert Morast
Randall Sullivan’s Untouchable is a delayed and dutiful response to a brilliant pop star’s perceived identity. This hefty book gets to the heart of the most perplexing mysterious surrounding Michael Jackson’s most perplexing mysteries: what were the sources of his idiosyncrasies and his addiction to plastic surgery, and was this gifted entertainer truly a pedophile? Sullivan also casts Jackson as a victim of his fame; as a target for money-grubbing relatives and opportunists and as a man-child who never truly “grew up.” The author and I spoke recently via email about his book, Jackson’s life, and the iconic musician’s legacy.
RM: In the last ten years of Michael Jackson’s life, his talents and accomplishments were buried by allegations of wrongdoing. While Untouchable isn’t a valentine to the singer, do you think it can restore the reputation, or even change the narrative, of this wonderful entertainer?
RS: I hope so. The portrait of Michael Jackson that I attempted to create was of a profoundly damaged person who struggled to transcend his injured psyche as both a great artist and a good human being. So much of what was portrayed as freakishness during his lifetime—the plastic surgery and the infantilism—I came to understand as being rooted in hopes of recovery and reinvention. A lot of it, I think, was an attempt at self-healing. He tried so hard to fix himself.
RM: For many fans, Katherine Jackson often comes across as the one member of Michael’s family who would do him right; even Michael described her as a saint. But one of the more striking threads woven into your story is of her as a user, someone who was just as likely to ask for Michael’s money as were his brothers or father. It’s a fact that surprised me. Did it surprise you?
RS: The surprise for me was that when I met Katherine, I liked her. Because by then I was well informed about the various ways in which she had joined with the rest of the family to exploit Michael financially. People close to her told me that much of what Katherine did was the result of being bullied by Joe and manipulated by her other children, and I think there’s some truth in that. But it’s also true that Michael was terribly abused as a child, and put into situations no little boy should experience.
I will say that Katherine’s character has mostly shined in the three-plus years since Michael’s death. She’s resisted attempts by others in the family to exploit her son’s legacy and she’s done a good job on behalf of his children.
RM: The one question many readers will want answered is whether Michael Jackson was a pedophile. You’ve stated in other interviews you don’t believe he was, but that you’re not 100 percent certain. Is this going to be Michael’s lasting legacy?
RS: That question was at the center of the book for me. It was the starting and the ending point. I know I’ve angered some of the more extreme fans by failing to state that I’m absolutely certain Michael never had sexual contact with a child. Hearing from the family of the best-known accuser, the one who received that enormous settlement in 1993, planted some seeds of doubt. None of these people had profited from that settlement and only one actually allied himself with it. So I couldn’t simply dismiss them. But I did reach the point, after examining the evidence as thoroughly as I could, where I felt it was so overwhelmingly in Michael’s favor that he was entitled to the benefit of the doubt and to the presumption of innocence that he was forced to live without for the final 15 years of his life. I hope others will agree.
RM: Given how the nature of fame has changed and how Jackson reacted to his prominence in the past, how do you think he would have been received if he became famous in the Internet age? Would he still have become the iconic figure we know today, or would he be just another Justin Bieber?
RS: There won’t be another celebrity entertainer on the order of what Michael was when Thriller came out. The culture is just too fragmented to produce an Elvis Presley or a Michael Jackson. But I think that if someone like Michael were to come along now, that person would certainly be a more significant figure than Justin Bieber. I think the reduced status of celebrity in this time might have benefited someone like Michael. It might have afforded him some protection.
RM: So, there’s been some mild controversy surrounding this book, with some Michael Jackson fans taking issue with what they perceive are attacks against the pop star’s memory. Did you expect the fans to mount this defense, especially since Untouchable so often paints Michael as a victim?
RS: “Mild” hardly does justice to the ferocity of the attacks on me and on the book by a group of Michael’s fans who have appointed themselves as his protectors, and refuse to believe that, for example, he wore a prosthetic nose during the last years of his life. I was warned that something like this might happen but I wasn’t prepared for how ruthless and well organized it would be.…Most of the people who’ve posted attacks of the book on Amazon haven’t read it, as they’ve made clear in various ways.…I’m grateful that there’s been some push back from people who have actually read the book, in particular Tom Mesereau, who was Michael’s defense attorney during the criminal trial, and Dennis Hawk who was Michael’s personal attorney in the last year of his life. They both recognize that this is a very sympathetic portrait of Michael, one they believe could win him a rehearing in the court of public opinion.
RM: What’s the most odd threat/comment you’ve received from a Michael supporter?
RS: I haven’t been threatened with physical violence, though I have been warned that making public appearances in support of the book might be a risk. The strangest thing to me is that these people continue to accuse me of writing things that aren’t actually in the book—for instance that Michael didn’t have vitiligo. There are pages in the book about Michael being diagnosed with vitiligo, the symptoms he suffered and the humiliation it caused him. Yet these people are still claiming I said that Michael didn’t have vitiligo. And that’s just one example.
RM: Ultimately, your book does a good job of remaining objective. However, with so many people seeking to use Jackson for money or borrowed prestige, was it hard to resist becoming defensive of him?
RS: I didn’t feel the need to defend Michael so much as to inspire empathy for his situation, surrounded as he was for nearly his entire life by people who were trying to exploit him in one way or another. My hope was that the compassion readers felt for him might persuade them to look at some of his strange and disturbing behaviors in a more sympathetic light.
Robert Morast is an editor, writer, and repressed punk rocker who lives in Norfolk, VA.