Historically, schools, religious institutions, and the military have performed the job of socializing young men and women. In the future, though, we will increasingly look to reality television to give children and washed-up celebrities the valuable job skills they’ll need to succeed in life. Take La Toya Jackson. Before she enrolled in Reality School University, she was, by her own admission, an unusually naïve woman unschooled in the ways of the world. But after enrolling in Armed And Famous and Celebrity Apprentice, she acquired the financial and procedural know-how to tackle the biggest case of her career: solving the murder of Michael Jackson. (Cue dramatic music.)
La Toya Jackson was raised, as she details in the memoir Starting Over, like a fairy-tale princess. It was drilled into her at an early age that her job in life was to smile, look pretty, wave, and sing and dance whenever Papa Joe Jackson cracked the whip. Everything else was left to the servants. The idea that people might lie to her was inconceivable. She assumed that everyone was as godly as her. She was a bright-eyed Pollyanna in a scary and uncertain world. It could be argued, and I will argue it here, that Papa Joe cultivated an air of helplessness around his children so that they would be easier to control. In La Toya’s mind, however, Joe kept his children sheltered from the outside world to protect them from predators and parasites who would exploit them and their fame. La Toya doesn’t seem to realize that Joe was the biggest parasite of them all.
As recounted in Starting Over, La Toya was so breathtakingly naive that when a friend and business associate of the Jackson family named Jack Gordon asked her out for lunch and told her to bring money, she brought a thousand dollars and slid it to him under the table. Gordon wasn’t asking for a loan or an investment. He was simply ballsy enough to flat-out ask for money from someone he barely knew, and La Toya was too naive to realize that you don’t have to give someone money just because they ask for it.
La Toya kept bringing thousands of dollars to their lunches, and Gordon waged a long and successful campaign to win over the Jacksons. La Toya eventually switched managers from her father to Gordon, and then married him in 1989, substituting one glowering, controlling, physically abusive father figure for another. Gordon beat La Toya relentlessly, stole her money, and kept her a prisoner in a gilded cage.
Gordon had a background in brothels; he was literally a pimp intent on prostituting La Toya’s modest talents for every last penny. He arranged a lucrative Playboy photo shoot, and La Toya was so naive that when she showed up on the set, the first question she asked was where they were keeping all the nightgowns she’d be modeling. According to the book, La Toya had no idea she’d been asked to pose naked. As a devout Jehovah’s Witness, she was never even allowed to look at a Playboy, let alone be its star attraction.
Gordon just kept on pushing. Every time La Toya felt she’d reached a new low, a trapdoor opened and she plummeted even further. Playboy at least had prestige. It’s where classy women exposed their vaginas. Gordon’s next few business ventures were on the seedier side. He famously had La Toya pimp a psychic-advice hotline in which she promised to spill Jackson family secrets. She hosted something called Exotic Club Tour. She shot a second Playboy spread and, as part of a multimedia assault, a Playboy home video while she was at it. (In a much less sordid but equally brazen move, Gordon tried to transform La Toya from a generic R&B never-was to a country crooner with the ill-fated 1994 album From Nashville To You. I would love to read more about these seamy endeavors, but La Toya glides right past them because they don’t fit the two themes of the book: overcoming her dead ex-husband and manager’s abuse and seeking justice for Michael Jackson.)
When La Toya compares Gordon to Satan, she’s not waxing hyperbolic. She claims that she flew to Israel to deliver a press conference loudly proclaiming Michael Jackson’s innocence when he was accused of sexual abuse in 1993, only to discover that the speech Gordon had given her to read instead loudly condemned her brother as a pedophile. Why didn’t La Toya just stick to her original sentiments? By that point, she’d been brainwashed, manipulated, abused, and confused to such an extent that she was perhaps incapable of free will.
La Toya finally mustered up the courage to leave her svengali after he tried to pressure her into fucking four dudes on camera for a multimillion-dollar payday. Upon leaving him, she had to start from scratch, her reputation in ruins. Then something happened. That something was 9/11. La Toya writes in Starting Over:
My grief and uncertainty made me feel the need to connect with others, and I found myself on several of my siblings’ websites. This was the first time I had gone to any of these pages, but something told me to see what the fans were saying in this moment of communal grief. I was surprised to find the same message, again and again: “What happened to La Toya? We haven’t heard from her in years! Is she still alive? She needs to write a 9/11 song.”
There was a lot of confusion, fighting, and uncertainty following the attacks on the Twin Towers before a cultural consensus formed that La Toya Jackson must write a message song in the vein of her 1985 track “Just Say No,” a track many hold responsible for single-handedly winning the drug war.
La Toya’s heartfelt tribute, “Free The World,” paid rich artistic dividends. She writes, “From the moment I completed this song, I know I had accomplished something special. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Access Hollywood used it as the soundtrack to some of its 9/11 footage from then on, and finally I felt that I was able to give back in the best way I know how.”
After La Toya leaves Jack Gordon, the focus of the book shifts from her triumph over adversity to her relationship with a brother she literally considers the next best thing to God. La Toya and Michael were so close as kids that the family nicknamed them The Twins, but by the time Michael retreated into isolation, she saw him at most every couple of years. During a particularly tragicomic section of the book, the Jackson family decides to stage an intervention to save Michael. They can’t get into his home, so one of them has to jimmy open a window. When they finally do reach Michael, he assures them that everything is just swell and he has no substance-abuse problems before sending them on their merry way.
It would be hard to imagine a worse intervention, but La Toya doesn’t seem riddled with guilt that she and her family failed Michael at a crucial juncture; she just seems pleased to have had a pleasant visit with Michael. La Toya writes without a shred of self-consciousness or irony that within the Jackson family they have an ironclad policy of never dealing with emotions or conflict. To La Toya, this poisonous, soul-crushing repression is an eminently reasonable price to pay to avoid unpleasantness in all its forms. That’s a very Midwestern state of mind: Swallow your anger and rage and die of a heart attack at 52.
After Michael died, La Toya used the investigative skills she picked up on Armed And Famous and the financial know-how she acquired as a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice to discern a vast conspiracy to eliminate Michael Jackson because he was worth more to them dead than alive. As a detective, La Toya Jackson is a little like Columbo, only instead of acting oblivious, absent-minded, and dense to throw suspects off guard, she genuinely is oblivious, absent-minded, and dense. So her evolution from helpless woman-child to gumshoe feels appropriately ridiculous. Did corporations like AEG and Sony stand to benefit from Jackson’s death? Of course. But Jackson was also a longtime drug addict who’d been risking death for years. If his business and personal affairs were out of order, that may have been because he’d hired his nanny to manage him and he was out of his mind on heavy-duty pills.
For all its unintentional comedy, Starting Over is ultimately a sad book about a hopelessly damaged woman who has struggled and failed to establish an identity for herself outside the outsized shadow of her famous family. La Toya seems to think she’s truly found herself in her mid-50s as a conspiracy theorist and truth-seeker. She ends the book by vowing to track down the people behind Michael’s death. La Toya’s heart is pure and her intentions good, but I think O.J. Simpson has a better chance of tracking down the fabled “real killers” of his late ex-wife from inside prison than La Toya does of finding Michael’s killers on the outside.