When former Rolling Stone senior editor Sullivan (The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions, 2004, etc.) was commissioned to write about the circumstances surrounding Michael Jackson’s shocking death in 2009, the author quickly grasped that only a book would do the bizarre story justice.
Rather than write a standard rags-to-riches celebrity bio, which the Jackson family’s humble origins might actually have warranted, Sullivan begins in the months after Jackson’s 2003 trial for sexual abuse of a child. This, it turns out, is as good a starting point as any to look back on Jackson’s “strange life” (as the subtitle puts it), his career, his legal travails, his marriages and fatherhood, and more importantly, his fascinatingly enigmatic character. As he details Jackson’s late-life sojourns with his three children to Dubai, Ireland, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Sullivan also flashes back, in a couple of perfectly paced sections, to the child-molestation allegations in 1993 and 2003. He reveals a man who was not the pedophilic, transgendered, transracial freak the media thought he was, but a highly intelligent and sensitive perfectionist, more self-aware—and ashamed—of his surgically altered looks than the public ever knew. Sullivan’s choices do less justice to Jackson’s rise, his early life, and the development of his musical and dancing genius. While he admirably explicates the criminal case against the doctor who administered the potent pharmaceutical mix that killed Jackson, the author wastes too much time and detail on the soap-operatic legal battles of Jackson’s avaricious survivors and hangers-on.
Few of the supporting players come off smelling like roses, but Sullivan’s sensitive portrait of his main subject is a good start toward explaining and rehabilitating a lonely genius who was poorly understood in his lifetime.