Focus: From Bad to worse

Despite the efforts of his friends to save him from terminal weirdness, Michael Jackson appears to be doing all he can to draw his extraordinary career to a pitiful end. Andrew Gumbel reports
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The Independent US

Among the puffed-up opinion-peddlers, pop psychologists and "friends" who sprang up like jungle weeds as the latest Michael Jackson child molestation case erupted last week, perhaps the most intriguing was a media-savvy rabbi called Shmuley Boteach, the man who tried - and failed - to make the famously eccentric pop idol acceptable in polite company.

A few years ago, Rabbi Boteach was dropping Jackson's name at every possible opportunity to promote books with quirky titles such as Kosher Sex and Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments. But he also helped Jackson to set up his Heal the Kids charity - a response, in part, to the earlier round of child molestation accusations in 1993 and 1994 - and coaxed the reclusive superstar into making his tear-choked appearance at the Oxford Union.

There was also another dimension to the relationship. As the rabbi wrote on Friday - the day after Jackson was handcuffed and booked at the Santa Barbara county jail for "lewd and lascivious behaviour with a minor" - he spent from 1999 to 2001 trying to help him to find "the basic ingredients of a healthy life", especially in his dealings with children. To regain a modicum of credibility as an advocate of child welfare, Boteach told his friend, he had to make sure he was never alone with children who were not his. He should surround himself with respected child and education experts and lecture "at serious rather than sensationalist events".

Boteach introduced Jackson to the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres and child development expert Stanley Greenspan. But Jacko's taste for this sort of rarefied company was limited. He stopped listening to the rabbi's counsel that he needed "dignity rather than celebrity".

"Shmuley, you want to make Michael normal," Jackson's manager finally berated him. "What you don't understand is that he's famous because he's not normal."

That sentiment has certainly been borne out by the events of the past five days, from the moment sheriff's deputies were first reported to be swarming over every inch of Jackson's Neverland ranch in California's Santa Ynez Valley, to the bizarre aftermath of the arrest when Jackson, out on $3m (£1.8m) bail, was followed for two hours by a hungry pack of news media buzzards apparently reliving the O J Simpson dash down the San Diego Freeway in 1994.

"Not normal" does not begin to describe the manner in which a deeply odd human being was hauled into custody to be accused of a profoundly disturbing crime, the molestation of a 12-year-old boy. The boy - who may or may not be the recovering cancer victim portrayed in Martin Bashir's startling documentary aired in the spring - was, like an unknown number of others like him, invited to stay at the ranch, served milk and cookies at bedtime and then joined beneath the sheets by Uncle Michael himself. That is not in dispute, whether or not sexual contact took place.

"Not normal" is also an altogether inadequate description of the police mug shot taken of Jackson and beamed around the world with variations on the caption "Moon Walk to Perp Walk". The face, believed by one of his former plastic surgeons to have undergone at least 50 cosmetic operations (Jackson himself admits to just two), looked so other-worldly and so blank, despite the carefully applied lipstick and black eyeliner, that it could have been the embalmed visage of a dead man.

It is tantalising, and perhaps not entirely implausible, to think that Rabbi Boteach was fighting as recently as two years ago to rescue Jackson from the brink of terminal weirdness. Equally, it is not implausible to lay the blame for his failure on the very cult of celebrity that is now consigning Jackson and his story to an exquisitely painful form of tabloid hell.

Perhaps the crunch moment came when Martin Bashir first approached Jackson about making his documentary. Rabbi Boteach advised him to accept an invitation to speak at Harvard instead, but was ignored. The Bashir film, which must have seemed such a tempting vehicle for relaunching his flagging singing career, was in fact the beginning of his undoing because of the startling frankness with which he discussed his bedtime habits with his young guests.

"Why can't you share your bed?" Jackson asked in the film. "The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone. It's a beautiful thing. It's very right; it's very loving. Because what's wrong with sharing a love?"

Even before the film was broadcast, it had revived memories of the scandal of 10 years ago, when 13-year-old Jordy Chandler testified in a court affidavit that Jackson had initiated a protracted but unwanted sexual relationship. Chandler's descriptions of discolourations around Jackson's genitals prompted prosecutors to order Jackson to submit to a series of naked photographs, which, according to the lead detective on the case, corroborated the boy's story. The case never came to trial, however, because Jackson - who denied all wrong-doing, then as now - settled a parallel civil suit for an undisclosed multi-million-dollar figure, and Chandler decided not to testify further.

This time around, the Bashir film alone prompted feminist lawyers and social workers to demand an investigation into Jackson's behaviour around children, including his own three. It was only last November that Jackson dangled his five-month-old son Prince Michael II from the fourth-floor balcony of a Berlin hotel, an episode he later characterised as a "terrible mistake".

The film also apparently caused the 12-year-old boy at the centre of the new allegations to be teased badly enough by his schoolmates to warrant psychotherapy.

According to unconfirmed news reports based on leaks from the prosecution, the therapist learned enough about what had gone on at Neverland to file a formal sex abuse report with the district attorney's office. The raid and the arrest warrant were a direct consequence.

A trial seems inevitable, not least because the law has changed since 1993 - as a direct consequence of the Jordy Chandler case - and prosecutors now have the power to postpone civil suits until criminal proceedings have been exhausted. Offering money in the hope that a witness will retract or go away is no longer an option. The case is increasingly being seen as a showdown between Jackson and the Santa Barbara district attorney, Tom Sneddon, who who worked on the Chandler case and appears to be itching to nail his man this time around. To child psychologists and sex abuse experts, seeing the issue through the narrow prism of the criminal justice system is a pity, however, both for the participants and for the good of public education.

"This has been so poorly discussed," said Sara Kershnar from the San Francisco group Generation Five, which campaigns to examine and overcome the causes of child abuse. "Could we not look at what these children need, why it is that they are turning to Michael Jackson in the first place? Who exactly [is] at fault here?"