WASHINGTON - The sad tale of Michael Jackson will be retold a few thousand times more as autopsy reports and estate details emerge.
Meanwhile, the presumed verdict is that Jackson died of prescription drugs. On CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" on Thursday, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, said Jackson's death was a wake-up call to the country about prescription drugs.
Maybe. Maybe not. We all know that abusing prescription drugs - taking them for purposes other than prescribed - is bad for our health. Potentially deadly, in fact.
Regardless, people choose to abuse drugs (or smoke cigarettes or drink booze) for a variety of reasons.
But drugs aren't really what killed Jackson, are they? They may have led to the stopping of his heart, but Jackson's death spiral began decades ago.
You could see it in his face.
Michael Jackson's identity crisis wasn't subtle. There could hardly be a more vivid physical manifestation of a human being's chaotic psyche than Jackson's ever-changing visage. Imagine trying so hard to become whole - however one imagines one's complete self - that you subjected your face to multiple transfigurations until you are hardly recognizable as the person you once were.
Fame and the spiritual poverty of lost childhood are what killed Michael Jackson.
It seemed inappropriate to air these thoughts before the memorial service. It's still too soon - and probably irrelevant - to focus on Jackson's attraction to other people's children. New York Rep. Peter King's declaration after Jackson's death that the pop star was a "lowlife" and a "pervert" not only offended many Americans, it served no useful purpose. An online poll conducted by HCD Research, using the MediaCurves.com Web site, found that 60 percent of participants felt King went too far and 57 percent didn't agree with his statements.
Otherwise, King's blunt-instrument analysis fell far short of insight into the truly tragic dimension of Jackson's life. Like the face Jackson tried to fashion around some ideal image, his search for that lost part of himself found expression in his Neverland Ranch.
For a man whose musical genius was unconstrained by gravity, Jackson's personal search bordered on the banal. Peter Pan?
The lost boy in Jackson seemed to grow younger with age. And though interviews through the years suggested that he understood what ailed him, he wasn't able to approach a grown-up remedy. Perhaps having all the money you could ever dream of - and the worship of millions of people - meant not ever having to grow up. But a man who isn't an adult is doomed to pain - and Jackson's was excruciating to witness.
Rather than receive the therapy he so desperately needed, he projected his needs onto real children and apparently sought to repair himself through them. His sometimes odd relationships with children - including his defense of sleeping with little boys - always will be a postscript on any appraisals of his immense talent.
Whether Jackson's good works - not just his artistry but his charity - outweighed his peculiarities will be measured elsewhere. Meanwhile, his life - more than his death - is a wake-up call, but not about prescription drug abuse.
Whatever killed Michael Jackson was merely an instrument of self-destruction. The real disease was his own wracked soul that pivoted between a drive to push himself to preternatural levels and an almost fetal recoil from the demands of adoration.
The message I suspect even Jackson would hope we get is that children need a childhood, not fame. They need two loving parents, not material things.
Jackson's life is a testament to genius, yes, but also to a culture best characterized by misplaced priorities. The loss of innocence and our obsession with fame and celebrity are the real plagues, for which drug abuse and other pathologies are but symptoms.
By all accounts, Jackson was painfully empathic toward children's suffering and, apparently, sought his own relief in their company. Unfortunately, there was no shortage of peers. Millions of lost boys and girls are wandering in the neverland of instant gratification unbuffered by responsible adults. Most won't meet such dramatic ends. Few can afford to indulge their inner child for long or to subsidize the extreme expressions that Jackson underwrote.
But the afflictions of loneliness and delayed maturity born of inadequate nurturing are the same for many. Until we cure those, prescription drug abuse is the least of our problems.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Reach her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2009 The Washington Post Writers Group