La Toya Jackson’s La Toya
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Welcome to the second and final installment of a two-part La Toya Jackson series here at Silly Show-Biz Book Club, where we’re too stubborn to let the muted response to the first installment keep us from plunging madly ahead into the dark, cavernous depths of Jackson’s fractured psyche one more time. Released in 1992, La Toya is essentially the same book as Starting Over, La Toya’s second memoir, published in 2011. Both books are about a meek, abused, and devout young woman overcoming horrendous physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a demonic manager with the help of an of an oft-maligned and misunderstood but ultimately righteous father figure. And yet La Toya is also Starting Over’s antithesis.
The dynamic is the same in both books, but the roles of hero and villain are reversed. Starting Over was all about how the love and support of father/manager Joseph Jackson allowed La Toya to finally overcome the vicious abuse and domination of parasitic manager/husband Jack Gordon. La Toya, in sharp contrast, is all about how the love and support of Jack Gordon allowed her to finally overcame the vicious domination and abuse she endured at the hands of parasitic father/manager Joseph Jackson. The tones, however, are radically different. A resigned sadness and overwhelming sense of world-weary resignation define Starting Over, but La Toya is filled with anger and rage that spills out messily in all directions, implicating just about everyone La Toya comes into contact with besides the unimpeachable Gordon.
Jackson mostly directs that rage toward her father. There are passages throughout the book when Michael and La Toya visit other children and are literally dumbstruck to discover fathers who treat their children with warmth and affection. The Jacksons had been beaten down, literally and figuratively, to such an extent that the idea that a father might treat his children with kindness and compassion rather than abuse and intimidation became literally unthinkable. It blew their minds. La Toya and Michael were so sheltered—from the good as well as bad things in life—that the only frame of reference for relationships came from their own parents. They learned that daddies were mean, abusive, and never around, and mothers were passive, meek, and loving, albeit not in a way that prevents horrific abuse.
La Toya grew up under the ominous shadow of her father’s constant rages and rampant infidelities. Joseph didn’t just have other women; he had another family. To add insult to injury, he doted on his second, illegitimate family while treating his nine children by Katherine Jackson with contempt and abuse. La Toya is withering in its depiction not just of Joseph, but of everyone in the family. She writes that her brothers’ wives all hated her because she was so perfect that they couldn’t help but suffer by comparison. She writes, ominously, that Jermaine was more and more like their father every day and bitchily dismissed Thriller as garbage he could easily trump with his superior solo work. (In Starting Over, Jermaine is her white knight; here he’s history’s second-greatest monster.) She writes of older brother Jackie Jackson conducting an eight-year affair with Paula Abdul in full view of Jackie’s less-than-overjoyed wife, and fierce moralist Jermaine introducing the Jackson clan to his secret illegitimate family.
Then there’s mom. The conventional wisdom holds up Katherine Jackson as a pillar of strength and support in the face of her husband’s abuse. La Toya paints a much different picture here. The Katherine Jackson of La Toya can be loving and kind, but also vicious, backstabbing, conniving, controlling, and petty. Oh, and also she’s apparently a vicious anti-Semite, if La Toya is to be believed. La Toya writes, “The depth of mother’s loathing was expressed in one of her oft-repeated opinions: ‘There’s one mistake Hitler made in his life—he didn’t kill all those Jews. He left too many damn Jews on this earth, and they multiplied,’” to which Joseph usually added an amen: “Those damn Jews.”
Passages like that lend credence to La Toya’s contention that she wrote La Toya under duress and didn’t mean any of the hurtful, true things she wrote in it. It was all Jack Gordon’s doing, she now claims, and there are indeed moments throughout when the author seems to experience a complete break from reality and enter into a crazed realm of paranoid fantasy.
Did La Toya exaggerate or distort? Of course. All writers do. But I suspect that the bulk of La Toya is true, or at least rooted in fact. So how is La Toya able to live with herself and her family in light of all the ugliness that has spilled forth into the public eye? How can her family live with the sordid revelations of the book? The answer has to do with dual repression and denial: La Toya pretends that La Toya is a complete fabrication instead of an ugly mishmash of truth, lies, shameless gossip, and clumsy sincerity, and in return the Jackson family gets to pretend that La Toya hasn’t exposed the ugliness within their souls to the general public. I imagine far too many families operate that way.
Michael emerges as the book’s most complicated, contradictory, and fleshed-out character, a larger-than-life genius whose childlike exterior masked considerable business savvy. La Toya writes that whenever he entered the office of a business associate for the first time he engaged in what he called “rambling”: furtively digging through their drawers and files for incriminating documents or items. For Michael, it was important to have the upper hand from the beginning. When one of Michael and La Toya’s grandparents died, Michael even insisted on “rambling” through the home of the deceased before relatives could snap up all the valuables themselves.
When it comes to eccentricities, Michael has nothing on Phil Spector, who developed a brief but intense fascination with La Toya and attempted to court her the only way he knew how: by professing a desire to work with her, then keeping her against her will at his creepy haunted house of a mansion. La Toya is apparently something of a freak magnet: Mike Tyson nursed a massive crush on her as well.
The bad vibes and ill will of the profoundly dysfunctional Jackson family were only inflamed by La Toya’s paranoia and Gordon’s genius at manipulating her emotions. It’s one thing to feel ostracized, judged, and shamed. Rightly or wrongly, La Toya Jackson was ostracized, judged, and shamed by her family for appearing nude in Playboy. But in her paranoid delusions, La Toya was convinced her family was intent on kidnapping her and her mother was hell-bent on stabbing her to death with a knife.
Mental illness pushed the drama of life inside the Jackson family into a florid, grotesquely over-the-top melodrama that pitted the underdog team of La Toya Jackson and Jack Gordon against the powerful show-business institution known as the Jacksons. La Toya is not alone in her paranoia. It seems to be one of the family’s defining traits, and with good reason: Reflecting on her brother’s famed distrust of the press, La Toya writes, “[Michael] used to give interviews freely, until one national news weekly distorted a comment of his. Michael said he wanted to visit starving children overseas and help them. But the reporter misquoted him in such a way that he seemed to be saying he would enjoy watching them starve to death.” That’s a pretty big misquote. Then again, I can see how an ambiguous statement like “I want to visit and help starving children overseas” can be misinterpreted as “I derive ghoulish enjoyment from the suffering of luckless urchins around the world. Nothing would please me, a modern-day Vlad the Impaler, more than the thought of a worldwide epidemic of children dying of starvation.”
In La Toya, the world is a grim and terrifying place. It’s a nest of vipers and parasites, an ugly realm of fevered competition and widespread emotional and physical abuse. It might not quite be a realm where rich and pampered superstars derive sick pleasure from the starvation of children, but it’s an ugly world all the same. La Toya ends on a wobbly up note, with La Toya and her able associate Jack Gordon taking the reins of her career and blasting off on their own path, but history has taught us that this happy ending, like most in show-business, is nothing but a lie.