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We Mourn Michael Jackson So Deeply Because of his Demons

Op Ed by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman
July 16, 2009

The public reaction to the death of Michael Jackson has been nothing short of astonishing. The world has been consumed with interest and awash in emotion.

Why the intensity of the reaction? Yes, Jackson was one of the world's greatest entertainers - who left a huge mark on pop culture. Before our eyes, over the decades, we watched him age and change and rise and fall.

But he was not an important historical figure in the mold of John F. Kennedy or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And when other famous artists and entertainers die under more usual circumstances, our collective grief is more subdued and short-lived.

Yet this is not the first time that such events have enthralled the nation. Elvis Presley was enshrined as an American icon when he died at age 42 from complications of drug abuse. Other examples include Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain and Judy Garland.

To this day they remain emotional touchstones for people of different generations.

Why do we become so strongly attached to these figures and so overcome with grief at their untimely deaths? It's about more than the iconic nature of the entertainment they produced. It's about more than how different they were from you and me.

I think it is precisely because of their very human, relatable vulnerabilities. We were witness not just to their talent and fame, but also to their foibles, demons and personal struggles. They were publicly marked as people with psychological problems, the "walking wounded." And we could identify with them.

It is this contrast between their fame and celebrity on one hand and their failure and weakness to contend with their psychological problems on the other that rivets our attention and emotionally binds them to us.

Our society is averse to recognizing mental illness, even today, when we have extensive knowledge of the scientific basis of these disorders. By conservative estimates, 20% of the population suffers from a mental disorder, including alcohol and drug abuse. If one in every five people will have a serious mental disorder in their lifetime, then many if not most families will include a loved one with such a condition, often undetected and untreated.

Maybe some of our grief for, and connection with, Michael Jackson stems from what we see in our own families or in our own lives - a recognition of the private pain that many families have kept to themselves or suppressed.

In that sense, this emotional experience may be more than just that of adoring and grieving fans acting out their feelings before a hypervigilant media. It may be an expression of empathy for someone who symbolized the travails that so many of us experience in varying degrees.

In this way Michael Jackson's death has had a powerful and cathartic effect on us. A man who brought so much enjoyment and happiness to others in life may be playing a therapeutic role in death as well.

Lieberman is chairman and Lieber Professor of Schizophrenia Research in the Department of Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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