This column originally appeared in OLAM Magazine, a journal of Jewish spirituality. Reprinted here with permission of the editor, David Suissa. To read David Suissa’s reflection on meeting Jackson, click here.
When I look back on my childhood, it is not an idyllic landscape of memories. My relationship with my father was strained, and my childhood was an emotionally difficult time for me. I began performing when I was five years old, and my father - a tough man - pushed my brothers and me hard, from the earliest age, to be the best performers we could be.
Although we all worked hard to perform, he never really complimented me. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he didn’t say anything at all. He seemed intent, above all else, on making us a commercial success. And at that he was more than adept. My father was a managerial genius, and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way he pushed us. He trained me as a showman, and under his guidance I couldn’t miss a step.
Those of you who are familiar with the Jackson Five know that since I began performing at that tender age I haven’t stopped dancing or singing. But while performing and making music undoubtedly remain among my greatest joys, when I was young I wanted more than anything else to be a typical little boy. I wanted to build tree houses, have water balloon fights and play hide-n-seek with my friends. But fate had it otherwise, and all I could do was envy the laughter and playtime that seemed to be going on all around me.
There was no respite from my professional life. But on Sundays I would go “Pioneering”, the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah’s Witnesses do. It was then that I was able to see the magic of other people’s childhood.
Since I was already a celebrity, I had to don a disguise of fat suit, wig, beard and glasses, and we would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door-to-door or making the rounds of shopping malls, distributing our Watchtower magazine. I loved to set foot in all those regular suburban houses and catch sight of the shag rugs and La-Z-Boy armchairs, kids playing Monopoly and grandmas babysitting and all those wonderful, ordinary and starry scenes of everyday life. Many, I know, would argue that these things are no big deal. But to me they were mesmerizing - because they symbolized, to me, a home life that I seemed to be missing.
My father was not openly affectionate with us, but he would show his love in different ways. I remember once when I was about four years old, we were at a little carnival and he picked me up and put me on a pony. It was a tiny gesture, probably something he forgot five minutes later. But because of that one moment, I have this special place in my heart for him. Because that’s how kids are, the little things mean so much to them and for me, that one moment meant everything. It was a gesture that showed his caring, and his love. I only experienced it that one time, but it made me feel really good, about him and the world.
And I have other memories too, of other gestures, however imperfect, that showed his love for us. When I was a kid, I had a real sweet tooth - we all did. I loved eating glazed doughnuts, and my father knew that. So every few weeks I would come downstairs in the morning and there on the kitchen counter was a bag of glazed doughnuts - no note, no explanation, just the doughnuts. It was like a fairy godmother had visited our kitchen. It was like Santa Claus. Sometimes, I would think about staying up late so I could see him leave them there, but as with Santa Claus, I didn’t want to ruin the magic, for fear that he would never do it again.
I think now that my father had to leave the doughnuts secretly at night so that no one would catch him with his guard down. He was scared of human emotion, he didn’t understand it, or know how to deal with it. But, he did know doughnuts.
And when I allow the floodgates to open up, there are other memories that come rushing back, memories of other tiny gestures, however imperfect, that showed that he did what he could.
With hindsight and maturity, I have come to see that even my father’s harshness was a kind of love. An imperfect love, sure, but love nonetheless. He pushed me because he loved me. He pushed me because he wanted me to have more than he EVER had, and he wanted my life to be better than his EVER was.
It has taken me a long time to realize this, but now I feel the resentments of my childhood are finally being put to rest. My bitterness has been replaced by blessing, and in place of my anger, I have found absolution. And with this knowledge, that my father loved his children, I have found peace.