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Michael Jackson's Problem: Fame?


Before this week is over, jurors in the Michael Jackson trial could have the case, but those 12 people are hardly the only ones in the country who'll be talking about Michael Jackson. Commentator Jake Halpern is working on a book about fame. He says that all the attention might be part of Michael Jackson's problems.


Michael Jackson is hardly the first star to find his way into a world of trouble. Not only are there many other celebrities in the hot spot, but there is actually a place where they often go for help--psychiatric help, that is; namely, the offices of Dr. Robert Millman. For many years he was the official medical and psychiatric adviser for the commissioner's office of major-league baseball. Basically, he was baseball's chief shrink. In addition to counseling the nation's most troubled pitchers and heavy-hitters, he also counsels actors, politicians and foreign princes. And one of his jobs, as he explains it, is to help them cope with the trauma of being famous.

Dr. Millman has pioneered a theory called acquired situational narcissism, or ASN. According to Dr. Millman, most people with ASN start off with a healthy dose of narcissism, which is then reinforced by a celebrity's associates or entourage. Consider Dr. Millman's dinner conversation scenario. A famous actor goes out with a group of friends and at some point mentions that his toenail has been hurting him. This prompts another person at the table to say, `Hey, most of you guys probably don't know this, but I recently had quadruple bypass surgery.' In response, the actor asks a few questions about how his friend is doing and then--Bam!--goes back to talking about his toenail.

Now in a normal situation, someone might tell the actor to shut up. But because the actor is famous, it's quite possible that no one will say anything, and the conversation will seamlessly revert to a discussion of toenail injuries. After several hundred nights like these, a person with ASN stops paying attention to the thoughts, feelings and lives of those around them. All this doesn't make for a very healthy psyche.

What intrigued me most about the concept of acquired situational narcissism were the situations themselves. I can remember, for example, on my 10th birthday my mother took me to The Russian Tea Room in Midtown Manhattan. There was Johnny Carson sitting in a corner booth with two voluptuous blondes. I stared at him for the next hour or so, and so did pretty much everyone else in the restaurant. That was a situation. Everyone always likes to comment on how warped celebrities are, and perhaps some of them were warped to begin with. But the more likely explanation seems to be that we are the ones who are warping them.

I've seen the pictures of Michael Jackson from the 1970s, back when "I Want You Back" and "ABC" first shot to the top of the charts. And I'll tell you, the kid looked pretty sane to me. Thirty-five years later, much of which has been jam-packed with slobbering attention, the guy is obviously not doing so well. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Michael Jackson apologist. If he's broken the law, he should go to jail like anyone else. And I don't think that fame should count as a mitigating circumstance when it comes to enforcing the law. But I do think that Dr. Millman is on to something.

It's funny because we're all all too willing to embrace other situational conditions, like post-traumatic stress syndrome, as completely legitimate. But for some reason we're more likely to dismiss ideas like acquired situational narcissism as trivial, but we really shouldn't. And as much as I may wonder why Michael Jackson turned out the way he did, I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit to playing some small situational role.

NORRIS: Jake Halpern lives in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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