Code Switch
6:35 am
Wed June 25, 2014

Michael Jackson, We Barely Knew You

Originally published on Wed June 25, 2014 7:08 am

Just as there are those who seek to drag Mr. Jackson's name through the mud, there are those who insist that he was a saint, an angelic figure to be put on a pedestal. He was neither. Michael Jackson was, like all of us, a complicated human being. -- "Remember The Time: Protecting Michael Jackson In His Final Days"

When my Code Switch cousins called me over and handed this book to me — telling me my whole Michael Jackson fan-life was preparing me for THIS book and this moment — I shifted to major side-eye mode. My fandom had prepared me for a Thriller or Smooth Criminal dance-off in the NPR newsroom, not a book by two former security guards for Michael Jackson. You Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'?

So, I didn't push this to the top of my reading list. Not until Sunday, when I finally had a good chunk of time to sit down with the book and discovered ... I liked it. I was mad that I had to put it down Monday morning and come to work.

The story begins in December 2006, when Michael and his three kids, Prince, Paris and Blanket, return to the States after a long stint in Bahrain, and settle in Las Vegas for several months.

Two security guards — Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard — are assigned to protect him and, as you read along, it's obvious that they are fans and great admirers of the King of Pop. But still, their account (I should note here that they partnered with author Tanner Colby to write the book) of the day-to-day job of providing security for Michael Jackson is a fascinating peek at his sad and, honestly, depressing life:

  • Michael insisted that his family members make appointments to see him, with the exception of his mom, who could come and go as she pleased. (Leave Me Alone!)
  • Even though he was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, he celebrated Christmas because he wanted the kids to have the experience.
  • Younger brother Randy Jackson rammed the security gate with his car because Michael wouldn't see him, and then cussed everybody out and refused to leave for hours until dad Joe Jackson came over and made him leave. (Who's Bad?)
  • The kids wore masks when they were with him so that they wouldn't be recognized, which would allow them to be able to go out without him at other times with no masks and be "normal."
  • Michael's business and financial affairs were messy, and he distrusted everyone around him. (Human Nature?)
  • He refused to go back to his Neverland Ranch (which is still "frozen in time," apparently).
  • The isolation. Michael had few friends. He didn't get calls from people just wanting to shoot the bull or inquire about his day. (You Are Not Alone)
  • Because things would often get so out of control when he was spotted in public, he was rarely able to enter hotels or businesses through lobbies or the front door, or even during business hours, which means he was always escorted through these dark and dirty tunnels, and back elevators. (Ain't No Sunshine, indeed.)

This book is not what I expected. In fact, some of the lyrics from "Destiny," one of Michael's songs when he was still singing with his brothers, come to mind:

If it's the rich life, I don't want it
Happiness ain't always material things
I want destiny
It's the place for me
Give me the simple life
I'm getting away from here
Let me be me, c'mon let me feel free

Remember The Time describes a lonely man whose life — and the lives of his children — was severely limited because of his fame. I don't know if all of these stories are true but, even if just some of these things happened, it's more than many of us may ever have known (or even wanted to know) about the Man in the Mirror.

Tanya Ballard Brown is an editor for NPR.org who often sings Michael Jackson songs at her desk. Loudly. You can reach out to her on Facebook, Google+, Tumblr and Twitter.

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