Commentary: Jackson was a study in privilege and tragedy

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. KRT

You are one of the biggest stars there has ever been, a star so big the mere sight of you causes hysteria and stampedes, a star so big, other stars turn into gushing fanboys when they meet you.

And there comes a night — another in a long series — when you cannot get to sleep, when you lie abed like any workaday shlub, eyes wide open, mind wide awake, held hostage by the relentless ticking of the clock.

But you are not a workaday shlub. You are a star, source of light and heat earthlings look up to see. One of the perks is that you have a doctor at your beck and call, so you ask him for something to put you to sleep.

Unfortunately, what he gives you doesn't work. He gives you something else, but that doesn't do it, either. After five tries, you're still awake.

And all through that long night, you are asking for, pleading for, demanding something you've used before, something much stronger. Finally, late in the morning, the doctor caves in. He adds the drug to your IV. And it works, all too well.

That, according to court documents released this week, is how Michael Jackson died.

Now, the physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, faces the very real possibility of prosecution for manslaughter. According to the documents, he told police he administered propofol — a powerful anesthetic typically used only in a hospital under the supervision of an anesthesiologist — despite the fact that he had already given the singer three other sedatives five times over six hours, and despite the fact that he suspected Jackson was developing an addiction to the drug.

I will leave it to others to assess Murray's culpability in Jackson's death. I'm more interested in Jackson's. Because if the narrative suggests negligence on the part of the doctor, what does it say about the patient?

Here in the world of workaday shlubs, after all, it's hard enough to imagine a doctor making a house call, much less having one on site from whom you could demand a favored drug. Of course, Michael Jackson left that world a long time ago; he became internationally famous when he was 11.

And his was a particularly isolating fame. In the first place, it was of an intensity that made even the semblance of ordinary life impossible. In the second place, it struck when he was a child, i.e., before he was fully formed, so that he never knew himself any other way, had almost literally no experience with what most of us would call normal.

And then he became more famous, still.

The trouble with fame is that it induces awe and the person who regards you with awe is unlikely to tell you what you don't want to hear. So the tale those court papers tell is hardly surprising.

Long before he died, Jackson's life was a cautionary tale of what can happen when you become too big for anyone to tell you no.

You think he would have driven his finances into the ground if there'd been someone who could say, No, Michael, you don't need another golden cherub or portrait of you as medieval king?

You think he would have done such violence to his features if there'd been someone who could say, No, Michael, don't carve your nose down until it looks like it belongs on some Disney princess?

You think he would have made himself an object of ridicule if there'd been someone who could say, No, Michael, you should not allow children into your bed, no matter how innocent you think it is?

And do you think he'd be dead if his doctor had said, No, Michael, I'm not giving you what you want?

We celebrate fame because it liberates us from restrictions that apply to others.

But the moral of this story is that there are some restrictions from which we ought never be freed.

When you're too big to be told no, you're too big. And ultimately, that's Michael Jackson's ineffable tragedy. He died from an overdose of yes.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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