bill whitfield

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Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard on Michael’s compassion for the homeless (From Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in his Final Days

Javon: One night, we were driving home from the Strip, and there was this on-ramp for the freeway that we had to pass to get back to the house. We were s topped at a red light by this ramp, and right off the road there was a homeless man and woman. They were arguing with each other about something. The man was sitting and the woman was standing with a sign; it’s the kind of thing you see all the time out here, people with signs that say “Homeless, Please Help.” Vegas is a hard town. You get caught up in gambling and all that? It’ll ruin you.

Bill: Mr. Jackson saw these people and said, “Why are these people out there?” “Those are homeless people, sir.” He was like, “Really? Wow.” He told Javon to pull over. We pulled over to the curb and we just watched for a minute. Mr. Jackson saw all the other cars passing by and he asked, “Why isn’t anybody helping them? Why isn’t anybody stopping?” Then he said to Javon, “Call the woman over to the car.” Javon rolled down his window, waved her over. When she got to the car, Mr. Jackson rolled his window down just a little bit and said, “What’s your name?” “Amanda,” she said. They talked for a bit. He wanted to know her story. He asked her where she was from, where’s her family at. She said she used to be a dancer, a showgirl. Then I heard him reaching around in the backseat for something. I heard the sound of paper. He was pulling out money. He pulled out three-one hundred dollar bills, gave them to her and said, ‘Here. Take this.“ She was floored. She was almost crying, saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." 

Javon: After he gave her the money, she backed up a few steps and I started to drive off. The guy that had been sitting near her got up, came over to her, and tried to snatch the money away. She pulled back, but he kept trying to grab it from her and they started fighting again. She started yelling, "No! This is mine!” Mr. Jackson saw that and said, “No, no, no! Javon, stop the car. Pull back over.” I pulled back over, he leaned back out of the window and called the man over this time, saying “Don’t do that! Here, I’ve got something for you too.” He pulled out another three hundred dollars and gave it to the man. The lady started crying, like she’d been saved. 

Bill: He told them to use the money for food. “Get something nourishing,” he said. “Don’t get any drugs.” “No, sir!” they said. “No, sir!” They were both gushing with thank-yous and God-bless-yous when all of a sudden the man stopped and looked in the car window and said, “Are you Michael Jackson?” “No. No, I’m not.” I turned to the backseat. “Are you ready to go, sir?” “Yea, I’m ready,” he said. And we pulled off. As we were driving, Mr. Jackson said, “Are there a lot of people like that in Vegas?” “Yeah,” I said. “There are parts of Vegas where a lot of homeless people live.” “Really? Can we go there?” I hesitated for a moment. “You want to go there tonight, sir? Tonight wouldn’t be a good time.” “No, no,” he said. “We can go another day. I just want to see." The bad part of Vegas is on the north side, Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, over by Cashman Field. When he mentioned going there, I was hoping he’d forget about it. Sometimes when he made unusual requests, things I knew weren’t feasible or just weren’t a good idea, I’d wait a bit before following up, to see if he’d drop it. Sometimes he would. If he reminded me again, I knew he was very serious. This time, he remembered. A couple of days later, he came to me and said, "When are we going to go to that side of town?” “What side of town is that, sir?” “Where the homeless people are.” “We can go there today.” “Okay, let’s go.” So we took him to the other side of town, about twenty minutes from the house. We headed north up Main Street, and all of these people were out. You could hear in his voice that he was shocked that all of these people out here were homeless. He couldn’t believe it. “It’s just amazing,” he said. “This country is so rich and these people are poor and living on the street.” He asked Javon to pull over, so we pulled over. I was a little antsy. I wasn’t cool pulling over in a nice car with all these people around. We sat there on the side of the road for a bit. Then Mr. Jackson said, “I want to give them something.” I thought he meant he wanted to get out of the car. I said, “I don’t think it’d be a good idea to go out there, sir.” He said, “No, no, no. I’ll pass it out of the window.” He cracked the window and started waving people over. He had a fanny pack he was wearing. He opened it up and the whole thing was stuffed full of cash. They would come to the window and he would pass out a hundred-dollar bill through the crack in the window to each one. One thing I noticed was that he was trying to catch the attention of the women. He wanted to make sure they were the ones who got the money. He was like. “Come here. No, no, no. You. You come here.” A lot of men got money too, but I could hear him singling the women out of the crown, calling them forward. People started lining up outside his window, like it was an ATM. 

Javon: He gave away so much he ran out, and he got upset wit himself. He was saying he should have brought more. We started to see another side of him, his compassion for others, and it was kind of amazing. There was no media out there, no cameras. There was only a crack in the window, so no one could tell that it was him. It was just something that he wanted to do.

After seeing a homeless man and woman arguing in the street, Michael told us to pull over. We pulled over to the curb and we just watched for a minute. Mr Jackson saw all the other cars passing by, and he asked, “Why isn’t anybody helping them? Why isn’t anybody stopping?” Then he said to Javon, “Call the woman over to the car.”

Javon rolled down the window, waved her over. When she got to the car, Mr Jackson rolled his window down just a little bit and said, “What’s your name?”

“Amanda,” she said.

They talked for a bit. He wanted to know her story. He asked her where she was from, where’s her family at. She said she used to be a dancer, a showgirl. Then I heard him reaching around in the backseat for something. I heard the sound of paper. He was pulling out money. He pulled out three one hundred dollar bills, gave them to her and said, “Here. Take This.”

She was floored. She was almost crying, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

After he gave her the money, she backed up a few steps and I started to drive off. The guy that had been sitting near her got up, came over to her and tried to snatch the money away. She pulled back, but he kept trying to grab it from her and they started fighting again. She started yelling, “No! This is mine!”

Mr Jackson saw that and said, “No, no, no! Javon, stop the car. Pull back over.”

I pulled back over, he leaned back out of the window and called the man over this time, saying, “Don’t do that! Here, I’ve got something for you too.” He pulled out another three hundred dollars and gave it to the man. The lady started crying, like she’d been saved.

He told them to use the money for food. “Get something nourishing,” he said. “Don’t get any drugs.”

“No, sir!” they said. “No, sir!” They were both gushing with thank yous and God bless yous, when all of a sudden the man stopped and looked in the car window and said, “Are you Michael Jackson?”

“No. No, I’m not.”

As we were driving away, Mr Jackson asked us if there were a lot of people like that in the area, and after hearing that there were parts of Vegas where many homeless people lived, he asked us if we could drive there. “You want to get there tonight, sir? Tonight wouldn’t be a good time.” “No, no,” he said. “We can go another day. I just want to see.”

When he mentioned going there, I was hoping he’d forget about it. Sometimes when he made unusual requests, things I knew weren’t feasible or just weren’t a good idea, I’d wait a bit before following up, to see if he’d drop it. Sometimes he would. This time, he remembered. A couple of days later he came up to me and said, “When are we going to that side of town?”

“What side of town is that, sir?”

“Where the homeless people are.”

“We can go there today.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

We headed up Main street, and all of these people were out. You could hear in his voice that he was shocked that all of these people were homeless. “It’s just amazing,” he said. “This country is so rich and these people are poor and living on the street.”

He asked Javon to pull over, so we pulled over. I was a little antsy. I wasn’t cool pulling over in a nice car with all these people around. We sat there on the side of the road for a bit. Then Mr Jackson said, “I want to give them something.”

I thought he meant he wanted to get out of the car and I said, “I don’t think it’d be a good idea to go out there, sir.”

He said, “No, no, no. I’ll pass it out of the window.”

He cracked the window open and started waving people over. He had a fanny pack he was wearing. He opened it up and the whole thing was stuffed full of cash. They would come to the window and he would pass out a hundred dollar bill through the crack in the window to each one. One thing I noticed was that he was trying to catch the attention of the women. He wanted to make sure that they were the ones who got the money. He was like, “Come here. No, no, no. You. You come here.” A lot of men got money too, but I could hear him singling the women out of the crowd, calling them forward. People started lining up outside his window, like it was an ATM.

He gave away so much he ran out, and he got upset with himself. He was saying he should have brought more. We started to see another side of him, his compassion for others, and it was kind of amazing. There was no media out there, no cameras. There was only a crack in the window, so no one could tell it was him. It was just something he wanted to do.

After that, we went and handed out food to the homeless a number of times. He’d say, “Me and the kids are not going to eat this. Let’s take this down and give it away.” One time, he wanted the kids to come with us and see it, so we brought them along.

—  Michael Jackson’s bodyguards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, “Protecting Michael Jackson,” 2006-2009
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Bill Whitfield: ..there was one memory that kept running through my mind, a conversation I’d had with Grace back at the Monte Cristo house when I first started working there. She and I were in the garage. I was putting together some of the security equipment, and Grace was at the little workstation she’d set up. Mr Jackson had told her to try and get in touch with somebody.

She was getting frustrated and she said, The boss wants me to get in touch with this person, and I keep leaving messages, but nobody’s calling me back. It’s like he forgets sometimes that people don’t want anything to do with him after all this mess.I said, ”What mess? What are you talking about?“ 

The trial,“ she said. ” Since the trial, a lot of people just don’t call back anymore.“

She was giving me the heads up, filling me in on how things worked, like she often did. She started telling me about the days right after the trial was over. ”After he was acquitted,“ she said, ”we had a party at Neverland for him to celebrate, and nobody came.

Nobody?“

A few people,“ she said, ”but not many“.

She said they’d put together a guest list of all these friends and people Mr. Jackson had worked with over the years. They invited close to three hundred people. Maybe fifty showed up. And a lot of people who did come were people that worked for him. People that worked the grounds at Neverland. People from his lawyer’s office. People who were paid to be there. Everyone else called and said they couldn’t make it or they had other things planned.

And he knew,“ Grace said, ”He knew why they didn’t come. People called him and told that they loved him and that they were praying for him, but very few people would go public and say that they believed him. A lot of people act like his friends but not they’re not really his friends. If he’s not making money, they’re not really around.

Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days

I just want my kids to have a better life than me. I never want them to go through what I had to go through. How would you guys feel if your kids asked you for something and you had to send someone out to get it? I appreciate what you guys do for my kids, but I’m their father. I should be the one doing those things, but I can’t just get in the car and go. There are so many things I can’t do for them because those people out there won’t let me. You have no idea how that feels. You really don’t. I just wanna live my life with my kids.
—  Michael Jackson to bodyguard Bill Whitfield
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Once Kanye saw Mr. Jackson, he was the one who was starstruck. He started gushing. “Oh my God, Mr. Jackson, it’s such a pleasure and an honor to meet you. You just don’t know. I’m your biggest fan. I love you so much.” The whole time, Kanye was like a kid in a candy store. I’ve never seen somebody be so humble. To see him that way was surreal. Everybody knows that Kanye can be very arrogant, and here he was, just amazed to be in the same room as Mr. Jackson.“

- Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, Remember The Time.

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According to the bodyguards Jackson devoted much of his time to his children, holding lavish birthdays.

“He would go all out,” said Whitfield. “We would decorate and hire clowns, but there were no other children there.

"He loved being with the kids. They were like four siblings and they were pretty much all that each other knew. He was a great dad, you would hear ‘I love you’ so much. But it was sometimes sad to see that it was just the four of them, it wasn’t like there were family and friends around, just sometimes his mom.

Sometimes he would come with us and the kids to a park with child swings, and he would have to sit in the car because if he got out there would be chaos. That was really hard for a father to watch them having fun and not be able to be with them.”

Beard said: “He just wanted to turn off that fame. He told me 'I just want to be able to walk into a bar and have a beer. I want to go to the grocery store with the kids.’ He was just fighting to be normal.”

Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard

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 "At one point he spun around and his pants ripped in the back, and he just turned around and ripped it again and damn near ripped his pants off. Everbody was cheering him on. He went into full performance mode…“ ― Bill Whitfield

Any time we went to the movies, he insisted on bringing spray butter and hot sauce for the popcorn. Had to have them. Would not start the movie without them. Sometimes we’d get to the theater and I’d be thinking that Javon had brought the spray butter and hot sauce, and Javon was thinking that I’d brought the spray butter and hot sauce. When we realized our mistake, one of us would have to run to the store to pick them up. Sometimes we’d have the managers hold up the movie until we could get the spray butter and hot sauce safely delivered.

I don’t care what anybody says about Michael Jackson trying to act like or turn himself into a white man. Anybody who insists on taking his own spray butter and hot sauce to a movie theater? That man is black, ghetto and hood.
—  Bill Whitfield, MJ’s head of security 2006-2009

“Michael Jackson had an effect on people. It’s hard to describe. Once he let people in, they started feeling possessive of him. Like, He’s mine! People didn’t do it on purpose; he brought it out of them because he was bigger than life. He’s calling them personally, giving them leeway to dictate certain stuff, and they start to feel like, Okay, he trusts me. They see how vulnerable and hurt he is. They see all these other people trying to use him and take advantage of him. So they start to think, If I’m the one in control, I’ll make sure he’s okay.

So once he lets someone in, pretty soon they’re starting to speak on his behalf, as opposed to letting him make his own decisions. They know if they do it, they won’t get that much flak, because they know Mr. Jackson doesn’t question things. They start to feel like they’re in control, but to keep that control, they’ve got to manipulate everybody else that’s trying to get at Mr. Jackson. So they’re spreading lies about this person or telling Mr. Jackson not to trust that person.

It wasn’t necessarily that those other people were bad people. There was just a force that dictated a lot of this madness. But the way it was around Mr. Jackson, nobody trusting anybody, so much money and power in play, it just sucked you into all this drama. ” Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard - former MJ staffers

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“One time, we were driving and Blanket started to say something, and Mr. Jackson kinda shushed him. The kids kept giggling and Mr. Jackson kept going, ‘Shhh! No, I didn’t! No, I didn’t!’ Blanket said, 'Yes, you did, Daddy. You said that Bill looked like..’ 'Shhh! ’
So now I was curious. I said, 'Bill looks like what?’ I looked in the rearview mirror. Blanket and Mr. Jackson were both staring at each other like, Who’s gonna tell him?
Blanket looked at me and said, 'Bill, Daddy says you look like the Thing!”
“The Thing? What’s the Thing?’
'You know,’ Blanket said, 'the guy from the Fantastic Four! Daddy said you look like the Thing from the Fantastic Four.’
And I was like, Wow. Okay. The brother’s got jokes. Then Blanket said, 'And Javon looks like Frozone from The Incredibles!’
We all had a good laugh about it."   Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard - MJ’s bodiguards

Michael goes to Walmart incognito when he was staying in Virginia. They get suspicious as his face was covered, cops were called and people were curious who that person is. Bodyguards say ‘It’s Prince’ to the cops and people around and they leave. Michael asks them what happened when they are in the car and they say we told that you were Prince. Michael laughs and say 'No wonder they left us alone.’
—  Javon Beard and Bill Whitfield - former MJ staffers
As we drove back to the house, everyone was being real quiet in the backseat. Then Blanket looked up at his daddy and said, ‘Daddy, can we go back to the other house? Can we go back to Neverland?’ Mr. Jackson shook his head and said, 'No. We can’t ever go back there. That place has been contaminated by evil.’
—  Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard - MJ’s bodyguards in book “Remember the Time”
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The men were also privy to Jackson’s dalliances with women, the most prominent of whom was an eastern European who was referred to by the code name ‘Friend’.

During a spell living in Virginia, Whitfield was told to pick up a Tiffany’s bracelet for 'Friend’ on the way to get her from the airport.

He said: “Seeing him prepare for this person, we knew she must be special. We took him to meet her at a restaurant and they hung out together on the back seat of the car. They were having a good time like any guy and girl.

"She had an eastern European accent and dark brown curly hair. He liked women with curly hair. We would be on the street driving and he would point out certain women and say 'She’s cute, what do you think?’.

There was also another girl called 'Flower’. Once she came to stay but she had to stay in a hotel room for a week because one of the children was sick and he stayed home." 

In a rare book shop in Los Angeles he spontaneously offered the owner $100,000 for his entire stock.


We had to get two trucks and bring them back to Las Vegas where he was living. I set up shelves and put up all the books and he was just so happy to have this library.


That’s something people don’t know about him, reading was something he did more than anything else. When he was walking around the house if he didn’t have one of the rare books he would be carrying a Bible. TV was not his thing.’

—  Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard
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The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity

Five years after his death, we’ve done little to locate the man beneath the tabloid caricature.
by Tanner Colby

It was a beautiful summer day. I was sitting in my office in my apartment in Brooklyn next to an open window when the headlines started to come in over Facebook. One or two at first, then a flood. Pretty soon I was clicking over to iTunes, pulling out songs that I hadn’t listened to for a very long time. I played them on a loop for the rest of the afternoon. To judge from the passing cars and the open windows down the block, everyone else was doing the same.

We all remember where we were five years ago when we got the news that Michael Jackson had died, killed by a fatal dose of some obscure hospital-grade anesthetic the singer used to cope with his chronic insomnia. Yet for all the global outpouring of nostalgia and affection, none of us really knew the man we were grieving for. To the general public, especially in his later years, Jackson had become an abstraction, not a person at all but a tabloid cartoon: “Wacko Jacko.” All the hastily written obituaries tied themselves in knots trying to extract a tasteful remembrance from a media narrative that had devolved into constant speculation about his plastic surgery, gossip about his eccentric behavior, and, unavoidably, the did-he-or-didn’t-he allegations of child abuse that engulfed and finally destroyed his reputation. Every gushing bit of praise came with an asterisk firmly affixed. At best, we mourned the precocious, youthful, still-brown boy who’d become such a tragic, broken man. We didn’t mourn the man.

When it comes to Jackson’s story today, we’re still doing our best to compartmentalize. We put “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” in one box and put his personal life in another box and try our best not to think about it too much. Two years ago I was forced to reconcile that split. Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, two men who’d served as Jackson’s personal security team for the last two and a half years of his life, approached me and asked if I’d help them write a book about Jackson’s final days, a time spent alone with his family behind the gated walls of a rented Las Vegas mansion, away from the glare of the spotlight. You can’t write a good biography of an abstraction. You have to excavate the human being from the mythology and misinformation built up over the decades. Empathy is the tool required above all others, and empathy is the quality that’s missing from virtually everything ever written about Michael Jackson. We glorify him or we vilify him or we pity him or we take his changing appearance and we use it as fodder for theories about race and gender—the highbrow equivalent of the objectification you’ll find in the tabloids. We do all of this, but we do not attempt to understand him.

Jackson would take midnight trips to Barnes & Noble and drop $5,000 on books in a single spree.

The idea of Michael Jackson as a human being remains a radical notion. But during the process of writing the book, that is how I came to know him. Through Bill’s and Javon’s eyes, I got to see the everyday person: Jackson helping his kids with their homework, Jackson grabbing a basketball and corralling his bodyguards for a game of HORSE in the driveway. The eccentric behavior was still eccentric, of course, but seeing it in context, a lot of it actually made sense; I gained a better understanding of why he made the choices he made.

As for the allegations of abuse, once I really started digging into them, what surprised me was not just that the allegations are unfounded, but that they are so obviously unfounded. The first claim, made against him in 1993, was debunked by a thorough piece of investigative reporting in GQ. The second claim, made a decade later, was soundly rejected by 12 reasonable jurors as being without merit. These facts are available to anyone with five minutes and an Internet connection. Yet the questions about his innocence persist. The “Wacko Jacko” stories haven’t gone away.

The reason they haven’t is because Jackson was different. His actions were outside the norm. People need a context, a framework, in which to understand him. Humans are storytellers. It is our nature to shape facts into a narrative. Jackson’s narrative, driven by the tabloids and adopted by nearly everyone, was that of a boy genius who morphed into a weirdo and a freak and possibly a criminal. That’s the only story we know, and to date no satisfactory counternarrative has emerged to replace it. The allegations against him have long been proved false, but they haven’t been replaced by a more compelling truth. And that’s the problem. Absent a new truth, people remain free to say whatever they want about him. Depending on what day of the week it is, Jackson is either a serial pedophile or a virginal man-child—or, somehow, both.

Michael Jackson deserves a more honest accounting of his life. He deserves to have his story told properly. As we look back on his death at the five-year mark, we would do well to reconsider everything we think we know about him. Take, for example, one of the most mocked statements that Jackson ever made: “I am Peter Pan,” a declaration that came during the disastrous 2003 Martin Bashir documentary Living With Michael Jackson. When Jackson said that he was Peter Pan, Bashir took it as an opportunity to portray the singer as if he were a mental patient on national television, and the world mostly took it to mean that Jackson fancied himself a whimsical sprite, prancing around Neverland in green tights, sprinkling fairy dust everywhere—that guy had to be guilty of something.

To his record company Jackson was a product. To his family he was a meal ticket.

But that’s a misconception based on our own cartoonish understanding of both Jackson and Peter Pan. Michael Jackson was, among other things, a smart and voracious reader. He’d take midnight trips to Barnes & Noble and drop $5,000 on books in a single spree. History, art, science, religion, philosophy—he’d sit alone in his house devouring everything he could get his hands on. (If you were a chronic insomniac too famous to leave your own house, you’d read a lot, too.) And the source of Jackson’s Peter Pan obsession was not just Disney’s 1953 animated film, but also J.M. Barrie’s original play and book, vintage editions of which Jackson collected for his library.

In Barrie’s original telling, Peter Pan is a very different creature. Unable to grow up, he is trapped in an eternal present. He lives without consequence. He has no memory, and therefore no understanding of how his actions affect others, meaning he can never truly connect or empathize with anyone. He is alone. It’s no accident that Pan’s home, Neverland, is an island cut off from reality. Taken at its most literal, Neverland is a place where you can never land, never rest. It is the same frenetic, make-believe battle of pirates and Indians played out over and over again.

Peter Pan, like so many great children’s stories, is a dark and morbid piece of work. What do we mean when we say someone has “lost” a child? We mean that the child is dead. That’s what the Lost Boys are, children’s souls snatched from the prams of London, waylaid on their journey from this world to the next. And Pan’s outfit is not, in fact, a pair of snappy green tights. It’s a tunic “clad in skeleton leaves.” The symbolism is hard to miss. Neverland, the Lost Boys, Pan himself, they all represent a kind of death, because while it might seem fun and idyllic to remain a child forever, to never grow up is to already be dead. And even though Pan presents himself as a carefree, swashbuckling adventurer, late at night, once the games are over, he is plagued by nightmares, dreams that are “more painful than the dreams of other boys,” dreams that make him wail “piteously.” But the source of Pan’s nocturnal torment is a mystery; no one understands what causes it, and no one can make it go away.

When Michael Jackson told us that he was Peter Pan, I don’t think he was telling us that he wanted to be a cartoon. The tragedy of the false allegations against him is that they obscured the very real problems we should have been paying attention to. During his trial, a stream of witnesses testified that Jackson had never done anything inappropriate to them. That they were just friends. I would argue that Jackson’s relationships with children, far from being scandalous, are actually quite boring. Unusual at first glance, yes, but ultimately nothing more than movie nights and trips to amusement parks and other mundane goings-on. Jackson’s relationships with children are more notable for what they tell us about his relationships with adults, or the lack thereof. That’s what’s truly interesting about the man.

From the time he was 10 years old, Jackson was indentured to the entertainment industry. Almost every relationship he knew was transactional. To his record company he was a product. To his family he was a meal ticket. Almost everyone in his orbit was drawing a paycheck, and when the paychecks stopped, they often stopped coming around. “I’ve met a lot of people in my life,” Jackson once said, “and very few are real, real friends. I can probably count them on one hand.” And by the end even those people, the Elizabeth Taylors and the Chris Tuckers, were only around in a superficial way, dropping by for a few hours here and there. As Bill and Javon aptly put it, “There were plenty of people coming through Michael Jackson’s life, but there was nobody in his life.”

Jackson bears some responsibility for his own isolation. As a result of a lifetime of being used, he himself was incapable of the kind of reciprocal sharing and trust that meaningful relationships necessarily entail. The man bemoaned his solitude in song after song, yet he was notorious for icing the very relationships he desperately wanted. Jackson could be unfailingly kind and generous to people, but that ostensible sweetness masked a deeper inability to relate. He’d grown up as the center of his own universe, in a world where everyone catered to him. When relationships grew messy or demanding, he would just shut them down. By the time he moved to Vegas, Jackson had distanced himself from all of his famous siblings. (Yes, even Janet.) Jackson’s two marriages, to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, are also good examples. Like everything else in Jackson’s life, those relationships were the subject of endless and generally tasteless speculation. But we needn’t speculate about the nature of the marriages to note the one obvious thing about them: They didn’t last very long. Even if they were the arrangements people alleged them to be, they weren’t even successful on that level.

Maybe the guy on TV calling himself Peter Pan wasn’t the crazy one.

Jackson took refuge in the world of children because it was the only place he felt safe. Children, he often said, “don’t want anything from you.” In fact, outside of the recording studio, only three relationships served as constants in Jackson’s world: his relationship with his mother, his relationship with his fans, and his relationship with children. These relationships all share one thing in common: They’re easy. A mother’s love is unconditional. The devotion of a fan, even more so. And who among us is immune to the wide-eyed adoration of a child? These types of love, though a joy to receive, require little effort. They don’t challenge the recipient. And eventually, they become debilitating. Too much mothering and too much hero-worship stranded Jackson right where he was, left him unwilling and unable to change.

It’s admirable that Jackson’s hard-core fans never rushed to judge him the way the general public did, but the adoration of fans and children alone cannot fill the role of a spouse or a partner or true friend. Those are the relationships that force us to be our best selves. In all the obsession over whom Michael Jackson slept with, rarely have we stopped to ask: Whom did Michael Jackson connect with? Whom did Michael Jackson love with a mature and rigorous kind of love, and who ever gave Michael Jackson that kind of love in return? No one. Once the stage lights dimmed, he was amazingly, astoundingly alone—and not just alone, but utterly lacking in the possibility of ever being otherwise.

The one bright spot in Jackson’s final days was his three children. He was the best and most loving father he knew how to be. But he was also, by his own admission, an incomplete father. He couldn’t do all the things a father is supposed to do. There were moments in their lives that he was unable to share, things that the rest of us would take for granted. Driving past a public park in Virginia one time, the kids spied a playground and begged their father to stop and come and play with them. But Jackson couldn’t risk being photographed with his own children, exposing their identities to the paparazzi. So he waited in the car, watching from behind tinted windows as the bodyguards took the kids across the street to enjoy the moment that should have been his. That problem was only going to get worse as they grew older. What was going to happen when those kids grew too old for masks and code names? What was going to happen when, like all adolescents, they began to reject the world Jackson had made for them?

Peter Pan does not have a happy ending, at least not for Pan himself. The Darling children grow homesick, and they beg Peter to fly them home, which he does. The children return to their nursery, their overjoyed parents rush in to hug them tight and welcome them back, and Pan is left outside, looking in, unable to share in the family’s warm embrace. “He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know,” Barrie wrote, “but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.”

Ecstasies innumerable, yet denied the simple joys of being human. Seems a pretty astute description of life inside Jackson’s gilded cage. Maybe the guy on TV calling himself Peter Pan wasn’t the crazy one. The biggest difference I can see between Michael Jackson and Peter Pan was that Pan had no memory of what caused the nightmares that afflicted him. Jackson knew all too well why he couldn’t sleep at night, which is why he looked to the syringe and the pill bottle to try and make it to morning.

Michael Jackson made a lot of unhealthy choices in an effort to cope with the burdens he carried, but we shouldn’t judge those choices without a diligent and sincere effort to understand why he made them. Last year the late King of Pop topped Forbes’ list of highest-earning celebrities, easily besting his closest living competitor, Madonna, by a good $35 million. That feat was made possible by a massive overhaul of his debt-ridden estate, which has been transformed into a wildly profitable, billion-dollar enterprise. If that much effort can be made to refurbish his professional legacy, it would be a crime if we did any less for his personal one. Michael Jackson ought to have his story reconsidered. The man led an extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult life. He deserves an epitaph that doesn’t have an asterisk next to it.