Michael Jackson stayed at the Santa Maria courtroom just long enough to hear he was not guilty of child molestation. Then the boy who may never be a man got back into his SUV and went back to his netherworld of Neverland. Everyone knows he still has a vast emptiness that could not be filled from his years leading the Jackson Five, the 26 million sales of his album ''Thriller," and his ownership of several hundred Beatles songs.
''While performing and making music undoubtedly remain as some of my greatest joys, when I was young I wanted more than anything else to be a typical little boy," Jackson said in 2001 at Oxford University. ''I wanted to build tree houses, have water balloon fights, and play hide-and-seek with my friends. But fate had it otherwise."
To many, Jackson is one of the planet's longest running jokes, beginning 21 years ago in the ''Head and Smolders" incident when fireworks set his processed hair on fire during the filming of a soda commercial. It continued with his physical transformation from handsome black boy to faux white. As charges of molestation swirled in the last decade, late-night television comedians, including trial witness Jay Leno, had a field day. After the verdict, Leno said the big news was that Jackson was not guilty. The bad news was that Jackson was going to Disneyland.
As bizarre as Jackson is, the jokes may be a cover for the fact that all of us see a tiny piece of us in him. Not the child abuse part, I hope, but the hole in the soul. If we were to look at him another way, it turns out this 46-year-old prodigy is merely the outlier, a warning for what can happen if we deprive children of their childhoods.
In Jackson's case, the blame is widely assigned to an obsessed, abusive father. Despite the support of his father, Joe, at the trial, Jackson said in his Oxford speech that his father ''seemed intent, above all else, on making us a commercial success. But what I really wanted was a dad. I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that."
It is easy to scoff at Jackson's self-pity as staged. But we seem to worry all the time about robbing today's children of their childhoods. We assault prepubescent kids with marketing for oversexualized clothing, mean-spirited entertainment, high divorce rates, standardized test scores, workaholic parents, and a media that scare parents to death with reports on violence. In many communities, the concept of unscripted play and the act of letting kids go out the door to jump rope or play football has disappeared. Childhood has become either a soccer car-pool or sedentary confinement before the TV or computer.
For all of the ''Wacko-Jacko" headlines in tabloids, Jackson's acquittal happens to come only a week after a survey published in Archives of General Psychiatry found that 46 percent of Americans experience an emotional disorder during their lives and 26 percent suffered a serious disorder in just the last year. The survey of nearly 9,300 randomly selected people, conducted by researchers from several universities, including Harvard, Michigan, Columbia, UCLA, Pittsburgh, and the National Institute of Mental Health, found that 50 percent of mental illness cases occur by the age of 14.
Some psychiatrists scoff that one out of every two Americans will suffer a mental disorder. But survey leader Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School told The New York Times, ''If I told you that 99 percent of Americans have had a physical illness, you wouldn't blink an eye." Kessler went on to tell the Globe, ''Mental disorders are really the most important chronic conditions of youth in America. Sadly, they very seldom come to the attention of the treatment system unless they're very severe."
Despite a decline in the stigma of mental illness, it is still only a minority of Americans who seek treatment. When a similar survey was done in 1994, just 25 percent of Americans with a mental disorder sought treatment in a given year. Now it is 41 percent. But less than a third of people who seek treatment think their care is adequate.
There is a piece of Michael Jackson in all of that, from the child who spent every waking moment imitating James Brown to squirreling himself away in a fairyland to barely avoiding prison at age 46. Now that he is free, one can hope he finally gets help. It is also a moment for us to remember that what our children really want is us.
© 2005 Boston Globe