In Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie described the bed that the ‘rampageous’ boys made for themselves in their magical primitive home in Neverland: ‘It filled nearly half the room and all the boys slept in it, lying like sardines in a tin.’ Today, the sleeping arrangements at a modern version of this fantastic place have led to one of the most explosive prosecutions in recent criminal history. The singer Michael Jackson, who so loves the Peter Pan story that he named his own Californian ranch ‘Neverland’, is awaiting trial on charges of molesting a 12-year-old boy, Gavin Arvizo, who has cancer, and of using an ‘intoxicating agent’ to facilitate sexual contact.
The case is due to come to court this month, and the outlook is bleak for Jackson. So deep is his predicament that he has had to pay the extraordinary sum of $3 million in bail, while he has also been forced to surrender his passport to the police, which could prevent a planned trip to Britain this coming week to promote his latest CD.
According to the prosecution team, the evidence against Jackson is overwhelming. As well as the testimony of Gavin Arvizo, who claims that Jackson nicknamed him ‘Rubba’ because he liked their bodies to rub together, there are said to be dozens of ‘very explicit’ love letters and poems from Jackson to the boy. Prosecutors are also reported to have tracked down two other boys, one from El Salvador and the other from South America, who have alleged abuse by Jackson. The latest criminal charges hardly come as a surprise. For more than a decade, Jackson has been tainted by rumours of his sexual perversions. In 1993, he reached an out-of-court settlement, worth about $25 million, with the family of Jordy Chandler, another boy who accused Jackson of inappropriate behaviour. In a statement to police, Chandler claimed that Jackson sometimes shared both his bath and his bed, hugging and kissing him.
Even his most passionate supporters cannot deny that Jackson is an eccentric, even a weird, character; is, indeed, Wacko Jacko. Years of gruesome plastic surgery have transformed the beaming black child into a strange, pale-faced, wide-eyed figure, looking like a cross between an anorexic teenage girl and an extra in a Hammer Horror film. Jackson has stated that he changed his appearance because he wanted to avoid any resemblance to his cruel father. Yet his transformation into an androgynous white man surely reflects a deeper, more perverse form of sexual and racial self-loathing. Reclusive, neurotic and unbalanced, he seems unable to cope with the realities of adult life or the responsibilities of fatherhood; in a notorious incident in November 2002, he dangled his infant son over a balcony at a hotel in Germany.
Yet eccentricity does not necessarily imply guilt. Personally, I have the gravest doubts about the charges made against Jackson. Not only are the motives of his accusers open to suspicion, but also Jackson’s behaviour does not match that of a predatory, duplicitous child-abuser. The present case arose out of the television documentary made about Jackson by Martin Bashir. Broadcast in February 2003, this programme featured Gavin Arvizo, who was filmed leaning his head on Jackson’s shoulder while he talked of his devotion to the pop star — hardly the behaviour of someone living in terror of abuse. Indeed, Gavin’s mother, Janet Ventura, was so furious at the way Bashir hinted at Jackson’s impropriety that she made a formal complaint to the Independent Television Commission, arguing that Bashir’s programme was ‘a complete distortion of the truth about Michael Jackson as I know and admire him. At no time has Gavin ever been treated with anything other than love, respect and the deepest kindness by Michael Jackson.’ She stressed that Jackson had helped her son in his battle with cancer through ‘his constant support, both practical and emotional’.
Those words will return to haunt Ms Ventura in court, for she is now one of the star witnesses for the prosecution against Jackson. She claims to be acting from a spirit of outrage, but others say that she is acting out of spite because Jackson would no longer give her financial support. Over the years, he has showered her with gifts, including a car and an apartment for a boyfriend, but earlier this year, when he told her that ‘the free ride is over’, she is alleged to have turned against him. Witnesses at Neverland state that they saw Janet Ventura, ‘high on crack’, arguing with Jackson and making verbal threats to go to ‘the tabloids and tell them some stories if you don’t take care of me’. Some might see Jackson’s supposed generosity as nothing more than hush money to cover up abuse. Yet if he was succumbing to such pressures, why would he suddenly stop paying?
Intriguingly, this picture of a grasping woman bent on revenge is supported by Janet Ventura’s estranged husband, David Arvizo, who says that his ex-wife was obsessed with becoming a celebrity and was only ‘interested in money and herself’. It has also been pointed out that Janet Ventura previously made allegations at the supermarket J.C. Penney, claiming to have been battered and sexually assaulted by security guards. She won $144,000 in an out-of-court settlement. During her divorce battle, she also accused her husband of abusing their children. For this purpose, she is said to have written out scripts for the children so that they would back up her testimony in court.
Ms Ventura and her son Gavin may indeed now be telling the truth, though it seems odd that they should have so radically changed their story in less than a year. Celebrities are uniquely vulnerable to allegations from disgruntled ex-employees and acquaintances, who seek wealth or fame. Prince Charles, the TV presenter John Leslie and the cricketer Geoff Boycott are just three examples of famous men who have recently been subject to vicious, unfounded campaigns by disturbed or money-grabbing individuals.
In Michael Jackson’s case, the fact that he has been so open about his childlike fondness for the company of young boys is surely a mark in his favour. A man who had something to hide would hardly proclaim in a TV interview, as Jackson did on 26 December, ‘What’s wrong with sharing your bed?’ Jackson’s stance of outraged innocence might be an act, but equally it might reflect the real personality of someone who has never embraced adulthood. ‘All children, except one, grow up,’ runs the opening line of Barrie’s Peter Pan. Jungian psychologists have written of the Puer Aeternus, the Eternal Youth, a certain type of man, often naive, affectionate and creative, who remains in permanent adolescence because of a childhood trauma. In writing of the Puer Aeternus, the American poet Robert Bly speaks of the ‘flying people who do not inhabit their own bodies well and are open to terrible shocks of abandonment; they are unable to accept limitations and are averse to a certain boring quality native to human life.’ Jackson, who was regularly beaten by his tyrannical father, fits perfectly this description.
In our cynical age, we are unable to accept any concept of innocent love between adult and youth because we have sexualised childhood to such an extreme. This is one of the great paradoxes of our age. On the one hand, we are hysterical about the idea of paedophilia, promoting constant scares about widespread abuse and the dangers of strangers. Parents today are even warned against filming school plays for fear that the images might be used by paedophiles, while no teacher dare touch a child in the playground. On the other hand, children are now treated as sexualised beings — boys of nine are given condoms by health clinics and the age of consent i s treated as a joke. Girls as young as seven are encouraged to dress provocatively and mouth the words of explicit pop songs. It is one telling indicator of this mood that in the new film of Peter Pan the girl Wendy is said to have ‘a hidden kiss, in the right-hand corner of her mouth’. But in Barrie’s 1911 original, those words applied to Wendy’s mother, the middle-aged Mrs Darling.
Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain, who both platonically adored young girls, would today be in the dock for their tastes. Carroll loved to photograph prepubescent girls, preferably without clothes, while Twain’s secretary once said that his employer’s ‘first interest, when he goes to a new place, is to find little girls’. Yet there is no evidence that they ever came near to abusing any children (though in our more cynical age it is widely assumed that there was a sexual element to their inclinations). They inhabited a world where innocence still existed, where restraint and morality were living concepts. For all the hysteria about child abuse in today’s world, children are far more vulnerable to real predators — as the case of Ian Huntley shows — and to the corrupting influence of teen magazines. Jackson may turn out to be an abuser. But the refusal to believe in the possibility of his innocence shows how morally degraded our society has become.