Culture

Michael Jackson's Parallels to Judy Garland

In the wake of Michael Jackson's death, I've found myself returning to the interview I did with Lorna Luft for my current book, The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us. She spoke poignantly and honestly about her mother, Judy Garland—THE fame that came so early, the prescription drugs that also came early, and the people around her who cared more about her fame than her health. The parallels between Judy's life and Michael's are haunting.

Like Michael Jackson, Judy Garland began performing as a child. Her talent was indisputable, a God-given gift that propelled her out of any kind of normal childhood and into a world of adults who knew her value and knew how to market her.

Lorna told me that by the time Judy was a teenager, the cycle of pills had begun. Pills to keep her weight down, pills to help her sleep. They were provided by the studios and sanctioned by her mother, who saw her daughter as a commodity, a paycheck. It was, in the end, what killed her.

While we still don't know the complete autopsy findings on Michael Jackson, the flood of stories coming out about his dependency on prescription drugs can't be ignored. Uri Geller, a friend of Michael's, says the people around Jackson kept supplying him with medications— doctors, handlers, people who needed to protect their investment.

The iconic nature of both Michael Jackson's and Judy Garland's careers puts them in rarified air. This is not just gossip-magazine fame. This is not ordinary people who stumbled into a hefty paycheck on a reality show and squeeze out every last drop from their 15 minutes in the spotlight.

Those who are born with a towering talent, something that can't be contained or even understood, never have a chance at a normal life. The world grabs onto them early and can't get enough. The demands are daunting, the crowds are huge, the spotlight is blinding. There is little or no opportunity to grow slowly and organically into a knowledge of who can be trusted and who should be avoided.

One of the most heartbreaking parts in Lorna's chapter is her recollection of her own efforts, as a young girl, to keep her mother from overdosing: "It was my responsibility as a kid to regulate her pills. I remember sitting in hotel rooms, opening capsules, emptying out the drugs, and filling the capsules with sugar. I was taught to never, ever call an ambulance no matter what happened. I was to call my father or someone else—NEVER an ambulance because it would get into the press."

Therein lies the biggest danger of a life lived in so much brightness, with so many eyes watching—the fragility of a human being gets overlooked, even disregarded. Artists—true artists who arrive on this earth bearing gifts that make the rest of us stand in awe—often don't have tough skins and well-honed survival skills. They don't have the stamina of warriors, they have the souls of poets. And that makes them easy prey.

There will always be doctors ready to write prescriptions for stars whose unearthly talent has placed them in a category all their own. There will always be managers, agents, investors who care more about the image than the human being. And when all the elements come together in a perfect storm of greed and mishandling, the rest of us will again grieve the passing of an artist whose work will endure for generations.

Hopefully, some stories will end differently because someone will intervene, speak up sooner, reach through the glare of the spotlight and rescue a person who, while born with a talent that eclipses the sun, is still flesh and blood, is still just a human being who wants to create, and trust, and live.

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