You Are Not Alone_Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes (3 page)

BOOK: You Are Not Alone_Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes

Michael’s honest awareness that he was a grown man with a kid’s mind shows in the lyrics: ‘People say I’m strange that way because I love such elementary things … but have you seen my childhood?’ His way of saying, this is the way I’ve been made. This is who I am.

Many people have attempted to look through the window of our childhood, and see past the smears of media coverage and the persona of a pop icon. But I feel that you need to have lived it, and shared it, to truly know and understand it. Because ours was a unique world, as brothers and sisters under the roof of one big family. It was in a small house at 2300 Jackson Street – named after
President Andrew Jackson, not us – that we shared memories, music and a dream. It is here that our stories and his lyrics begin, and where, I hope, a better understanding of just who Michael was can be found.

2300 Jackson Street

we found our voices around the kitchen sink.

It was more assembly line than kitchen sink, the wash-dry-stack-put away ritual after dinner. We divided the chore into weekly shifts as pairs – two children drying, two others putting away, our mother standing in the middle, an apron over her gown, hands deep in soap suds. She always whistled or sang some tune, but the song that first enticed us into joining her was ‘Cotton Fields’, an old slave number by blues musician Lead Belly. This hit resonated with her, for her roots were in Eufaula, Alabama, where she was born Katie Scruse in May 1930.

Her grandparents had been cotton farmers in what was then named ‘the Cotton State’ and her great-grandfather was a slave to an Alabama family called Scruse. This forefather could sing, too – ‘You could hear his voice from church ring out through the valley’ – and so could Papa Prince, her father. She swears that the voice we heard in our kitchen was channelled from her ancestors and developed in a church choir; she was raised a Baptist. Fine voices ran in
the family, we were told. My father’s father, Samuel Jackson, was a teacher and school director who always gave a near-perfect rendition of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ but he also had ‘a beautiful high voice’ that graced a church chorus. Our mother played the clarinet and piano at high school, and Joseph the guitar.

When our parents met in 1949, their individual DNA must have combined to create some kind of super-gene for our musical inheritance. It was no accident of birth, Mother assured us: it was God’s gift. Or, as Michael later put it, ‘the divine union of song and dance.’

We each loved the sound of Mother’s voice. Standing at the sink singing, she was lost in those fields of Alabama, and she sent a shiver down my spine with a voice that was never flat and always on pitch. Her voice singing was like her voice talking: warm, soft and soothing. We began singing at the sink for entertainment when our black-and-white television was sent for repair, and one day I started making harmonies with Mother. I must have been about five, but I was keeping it high and staying on note. She looked down at me, still singing but beaming with surprise. Before she knew it, my brothers, Tito and Jackie, and sister Rebbie had joined the chorus. Michael was a baby, still stumbling into a walk with diapers on, but when the dishes were put away and the surfaces wiped
clean, Mother sat down, cradled him and sang him to sleep. ‘Cotton Fields’ was my vocal initiation and Michael’s lullaby.

Michael in his diapers is my first memory of him. I don’t remember his birth, or Mother walking through the door with him. New arrivals were no big event in our family. I was five when I started changing his diapers. I did what we all did – helping Mother where we could, providing an extra pair of hands for what would become a family of nine children.

Michael was born hyper, with boundless energy and curiosity. If any of us took our eyes off him for a second, he’d have crawled under the table or under the bed. When Mother turned on our excuse for a washing-machine, he jigged and bounced on the spot in time to its vibrations. Changing his mushy diaper on the sofa
was like trying to hold a wet fish – wriggling, kicking and turning. The art of putting on a diaper with safety-pins was a test for any adult, let alone five-year-old me, and more often than not, Rebbie or Jackie came to my rescue. Michael had these extraordinarily long, thin fingers that used to grab my thumb, and he had wide, doe-eyes that said: ‘I’m having fun giving you a hard time, buddy.’ In my eyes, though, he was the kid brother who needed looking after. Caring for one another was instilled in all of us, but I felt protective of him from day one. Maybe it was because all I heard being shouted was ‘Where’s Michael?’ … ‘Is Michael okay?’ … ‘Is Michael changed?’

‘Yes, Mother … We got it … he’s here,’ one of us shouted.

Don’t worry. Michael’s okay. Michael’s okay.


to bathe us as babies in a bucket-sized pan brimming with soapy water. I watched Michael, arms held high and face screwed up, standing inside this tiny chrome ‘bath’, washed with tedious thoroughness from the gaps between his toes to the backs of his ears. We
had to be clean and stay on top of germs. I think this was drilled into us before we could walk or talk. And nothing beat Castile soap, and its coarse lather, for staying clean. Lather up and scrub
. Mother was fastidious about cleanliness, and about everything being neat and looking pristine. Everything didn’t just have to
clean. It – and we – had to

Germs were portrayed as invisible monsters. Germs lead to sickness, we were told. Germs are what other people carry. Germs are in the air, on the street, on the surfaces. We were constantly made to feel we were under threat of invasion. Whenever one of us sneezed or coughed, the castor oil came out: we all got a spoonful to keep infection at bay. I know I speak for Michael, La Toya, Janet and myself in saying that we grew up with an almost neurotic fear of germs, and it’s not hard to understand why.

In the kitchen, before the singing started, came the first elementary lesson: ‘We wash up only with clean water … CLEAN water!’
Then: ‘Use the hottest water your hands can bear, and lots of suds.’ Each plate was squeaked within a layer of its ceramic life. Each glass rinsed and dried, and held up to the light to make sure there was not a single watermark. If one was found, do it again.

After coming in from the street, we had to be virtually decontaminated. The first words out of Mother’s mouth were ‘Have you washed your hands? Go wash your hands.’ If she didn’t hear the tap running within seconds, there was trouble. On mornings before school, the hygiene inspection was always the same: ‘Did you wash your face? Wash your feet? In between your toes? Your elbows?’ Then came the acid test: a cotton swab dipped in alcohol rubbed across the back of the neck. If it turned grey, we weren’t clean enough. ‘Go back and wash yourself properly.’ If we wanted chocolate cake or a cookie, our hands were up for inspection, too. ‘But I washed them earlier!’ I often protested. ‘You been out touching door handles, boy – go wash them again!’

Clothes were never worn two days’ running, and had to be clean and pressed. No one from our family walked into the street with a single crease or stain. By the age of six, we had all learned to pitch in with the laundry. This was all part and parcel of a
order that helped keep so many kids – and potential chaos – in check.

When I joined the UK’s
Big Brother
house in 2007, everyone made fun of how I was always on guard against germs, asking house mates if they had washed their hands before preparing food. My wife, Halima, wasn’t surprised. She calls me a ‘germaphobe’ and I can hardly deny it. To this day, I won’t touch a door handle in a public restroom because I know how many men
wash their hands. I won’t touch the banister on public stairways or escalators. I’ll use a handkerchief or tissue to hold the gas pump trigger when filling the car. I’ll wash down with alcohol a hotel’s TV remote control before using it. I’m alive to cross-contamination from every surface.

Michael was no different. He even worried about other people’s pens when signing autographs, in the days when fans could get close enough. But his neurosis mainly centred on breathing in
airborne germs. People mocked him for wearing surgical masks. There was speculation that he was hiding plastic surgery and I always laughed when I saw an article referencing the mask, saying it was ‘sparking fears about Michael’s health’. Because that was the point: it was all about fear – Michael’s fear that he could get ill. At these times, he will have felt he was coming down with something, or his immune system was low. He was, like me, on guard against germs all his life. At least, that was the origins of his surgical mask wearing and then, after a while, I think it became something of a fashion accessory that allowed him to ‘hide’; a mini shield for a man who wanted to grab whatever fraction of privacy that he could.


Mother was
pregnant. I cannot recall her walking up the street with anything but a waddle, carrying in both hands two bags of shopping or second-hand clothes. Between 1950 and 1966, she produced nine children. That is some feat when measured against her and Joseph’s initial plan: three children maximum.

My sister Rebbie (pronounced Ree-bie) came first, then Jackie (1951), Tito (1953), me (1954), La Toya (1956), Marlon (1957), Michael (1958), Randy (1961) and Janet (1966). We would have been 10 but our other brother, Brandon, died during his twin birth with Marlon. That was why, at Michael’s memorial service in 2009, Marlon said, in his message to Michael: ‘I would like for you to give our brother, my twin brother, Brandon, a hug for me.’ A twin never loses that bond with his other half.

As kids, we received plenty of hugs from Mother. Contrary to the general depiction that we had some form of cold, unhappy childhood, our upbringing was full of love as Mother smothered us with kisses and affection. We still feel the strength of that love today. I was a real mama’s boy – as was Michael – and our worship became a fight between me, him and La Toya as to who occupied the coveted spot by Mother’s side, tight to her legs, gripping her skirt. La Toya did her best to unglue my attachment.

Whenever Mother was out and we brothers fought, we swore her into a pact. ‘Promise you won’t tell, La Toya. Promise!’

‘Promise,’ she said convincingly. ‘I won’t tell!’ As soon as Mother was through the door, the promise was undone with a dramatic confession. ‘Mother, Jermaine’s been fighting.’ We wanted to jack her up because she told on everyone. She always was the quiet observer, collecting her tales to spill later. It didn’t even matter if she made stuff up; she just wanted to win favour with Mother while I was left with extra chores as punishment. But the joke in later years was that I must have won favour more times than most because I was ‘always Mother’s pet,’ says Rebbie.

‘The favoured one!’ Michael said, which was a bit rich because he could do no wrong either.

I didn’t feel like a favourite but if Mother ever over-compensated, it had everything to do with an event that happened when she was pregnant with Michael. Aged about three, I decided it was a good idea to eat a bag of salt and so I was hospitalised with near kidney failure. I remember nothing of this trauma. I was a strong kid, but that illness put me in hospital for three weeks. Mother and Joseph couldn’t afford to visit me every day. When they did, the ward sister told them I had been screaming out my lungs for them. Every time they left, I stood on the bed, wailing. I’m kind of glad I don’t remember the look on Mother’s face as she was forced to walk away. She said it was ‘the most awful feeling.’

Eventually I was allowed home, but that event might explain why I became such a cry-baby and overly clingy, desperate not to be left behind again. On my first day at school, I struggled free of the teacher’s grip and sprinted down the corridor and out of the doors to find Mother. ‘You have to be here, Jermaine … You have to be here,’ she said, with the calmness that made everything okay again. Her compassion is rooted in a devout, unbreakable faith in God and she manages to strike a balance between the aura of a disciple and the authority of a Justice of the Peace. She has her breaking points, of course, but her calm made better any difficult situation.

She suffered for us, in being pregnant for 81 months of her life. She was beautiful, too, from the way she wore her wavy black hair to her pristine gowns, to the perfectly applied scarlet lipstick that left smudges on our cheeks. Mother was sunshine inside 2300 Jackson Street.

The moment she left for her part-time work at Sears department store, we couldn’t wait for her return. I have this warm image of her arriving through the front door, having trudged through the deep snow of an Indiana winter. She stood there, stamping her feet on the mat and shaking her head to dust off the snow. Then Michael – growing into the fastest of the brood – ran up and wrapped his arms around one leg, followed by me, La Toya, Tito and Marlon. Before taking off her coat, she brought out her hands from inside her pockets – and there was our regular treat: two bags of hot Spanish peanuts.

Meanwhile, Jackie and Rebbie prepared the kitchen for Mother to start cooking, waiting for Joseph to come home. We grew up calling him Joseph. Not Father. Or Daddy. Or Papa. Just ‘Joseph’. That was his request. In the interests of respect.


an old woman who lived in a shoe and ‘had so many children, she didn’t know what to do’. In terms of family size and cramped living quarters, it provides the best image of life inside the shoebox of 2300 Jackson Street. Nine children, two parents, two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen and a living room were packed tight into a space about 30 feet wide and no more than 40 feet deep. From the outside, it looks like the kind of a house a child would sketch: a front door with a window either side and a chimney poking out the top. Our home was 1940s build, wood-framed, with a tiled pyramid lid that seemed so thin for a roof that we swore it would blow off during the first tornado. It faces on to Jackson Street on the corner of its T-junction with 23rd Avenue.

At the front, a short path from the sidewalk cut through grass to a black, solid door, which, when slammed, shook the whole house. One step inside and there was the living room – and the
brown sofa-bed where the girls slept – with the kitchen and utility room to the left. Straight ahead was a hallway – about two strides long – leading to the boys’ bedroom on the right, and our parents’ room on the left, adjacent to the back bathroom.

Jackson Street was part of a quiet grid bounded by Interstate-80 to the south and a railroad to the north. Directions to our home were easy because of the landmark we backed on to: Theodore Roosevelt High School and a sports field. Its outer chain-link fence created 23rd Avenue’s dead-end, providing an open view of the running track to the left and, just to the right, a baseball field with bleachers on the far side. Joseph said we were lucky to own our home. Others in the neighbourhood were not so fortunate. For this reason, we never officially classed ourselves as ‘poor’ because the people who lived in the Delaney Projects – across the field on the other side of the high school – were living in government tract housing, which we could see in the distance from our backyard. ‘There is always somebody worse off, no matter how bad things might appear,’ we were told. So, the best way of describing our situation was: not enough money to buy anything new, but we somehow scraped by and survived.

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