Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
In the subtitle for his memoir This Is It!, Dr. Conrad Murray, the man best-known for being convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his patient Michael Jackson, does something audacious. By subtitling his insult to the public’s intelligence The Secret Lives Of Dr. Conrad Murray And Michael Jackson, Murray gives himself first billing over Michael Jackson, who some may remember as one of the greatest and most successful entertainers of all time.
There is nothing accidental about that billing. Reading This Is It!, you get the sense that Murray would be fine cutting Jackson out of the narrative entirely but realized his book would sell more copies if it did something other than nominate its disgraced author for sainthood. It’s safe to say that the only reason anyone would wade through the ugly forest of typos, factual errors, misspellings, sentence fragments, and self-aggrandizement that constitutes This Is It! would be to learn more about Michael Jackson. Yet Murray finds himself more fascinating than his former patient and keeps pushing Jackson out of the way so that he can stand front and center, the Christ-like hero of his tale, not merely a player in someone else’s epic American journey.
Murray has a two-part agenda. He wants to establish that he was completely blameless not just in the death of Michael Jackson but also in everything he’s ever done. If he cheated on his wife, it was because she wasn’t affectionate and available enough for him. If he experienced serious money problems despite making a fortune, it’s because he’s overly generous. If he didn’t realize that Jackson, a gaunt, 136-pound man who insisted on sleeping 15 hours a day, had serious drug problems, that’s only because his one flaw (and also his greatest strength) is his credulousness. So if Jackson said everything was peachy keen, healthwise, it was certainly not his place as Jackson’s richly compensated personal doctor to doubt him.
Murray’s secondary goal is to establish that Conrad Murray is a hero, a self-made man who rose from poverty and abandonment to become one of our country’s greatest and most respected physicians. He portrays himself as a man who saved lives on a daily basis and was worshipped by his patients, colleagues, and friends alike. Murray doesn’t just want to be respected; he wants to be adored.
How arrogant is Murray? He writes about helping to treat Mother Teresa primarily as an excuse to pat himself on the back for his own selflessness and humility. He doesn’t seem to grasp that bragging about what a wonderful human being you are is actually the antithesis of being selfless and humble. Yet the book is nevertheless full of passages like the following:
However my most magnanimous and noble patient is also deceased. She was the world-renowned quintessential nun who is now a saint: Mother Theresa. I loved the way I dedicated my services to her, it was totally selfless because when I agreed to serve her, I literally had no idea then that she was widely known… Giving of myself to an unknown stranger for no compensation is why I love this memory so much, and it came to be. I still feel the love and fulfillment in my heart. The feeling will last forever. The story highlights my willingness to help others with no preconditions, only my love, altruism and humility, to always give unconditionally.
So there you have it, folks: Murray treasures his experiences treating an ailing Mother Teresa because they were marked by the selfless altruism of a great philanthropist and humanitarian, a true saint in the flesh: Dr. Conrad Murray. This is far from the only instance that Murray gives himself credit for being God’s gift both to humanity and the lovely ladies. Elsewhere he litters the book with bold statements like the following:
I have great compassion for others and possess a huge social conscience.
We all have characteristics that define who we are as men and women, for me the traits that bind me in general are my selflessness and altruism.
I supposed I had a well-earned reputation for dating young, beautiful women. I was meticulous about my personal style, with my trademark tailored Hugo Boss suits, and I was often spotted driving around town in one of my many branded automobiles accompanied by a beautiful model in the front seat.
The many passages in This Is It! where Murray speaks lovingly of his greatness might lead you to think that Murray might be conceited, but you would be wrong. Late in the book Murray writes, “Although I am not known to give myself kudos; my wonderful friend Stacey wrote this letter,” which is followed, of course, by a lengthy, multipage letter once again running down the accomplishments Murray has already covered to an exhausting degree.
Murray sure impressed Jackson, who found in the towering doctor with the lilting accent a loving and patient father figure. Murray brags that he provided medical services for Jackson and his family for free, only asking to be reimbursed for his expenses. The doctor was so honest, among his myriad other virtues, that when Jackson over-reimbursed Murray by five dollars, he made sure to return the excess money, something that made an indelible impression on Jackson.
In Murray’s telling, he wasn’t just a man who provided medical services and tended to Jackson’s calloused feet with tender foot massages and pedicures, something Murray is sure to note was far beneath his stature as one of the world’s greatest doctors, but that he did all the same. No, in Murray’s telling, he’s also Jackson’s best and only friend and confidante. It is to Murray that Jackson bares his darkest secrets, though it’s hard to tell whether Jackson’s confessions are real or the product of a rapidly disintegrating mind.
Jackson tells Murray that he doesn’t have a skin disease at all, but has been lightening his skin in a deliberate attempt to be white. Jackson tells Murray that he’s afraid that his family will murder him if he does not do what they say and participate in a Jackson 5 reunion. He volunteers that Berry Gordy and his own family were so obsessed with ensuring that the young Jackson’s voice didn’t break too early that they gave him injections to try to postpone the onset of puberty for as long as possible.
Murray’s portrait of Jackson is vulgar and sad, difficult to believe, and endlessly self-serving. Murray is convinced his friend and employer is not a homosexual pedophile but notes that Jackson told him of his wishes to marry a 13-year-old girl he was obsessed with, and if that didn’t work out, a very young Emma Watson. He also notes that Jackson spoke of wanting a brain transplant so he wouldn’t experience traumatic memories anymore, and was a habitual bed-wetter who kept his addiction to Demerol a secret from Murray, who was a teetotaler who hated drugs and alcohol.
Jackson sees the world as a duplicitous realm full of sharks, parasites, and predators. He tells Murray that he was sexually assaulted by his Jewish doctors, who also tried to steal his money, a charge Jackson levels here against pretty much everyone in his life other than Murray, the only man he could trust and a man who would never betray him. At one point he rages to Murray, “‘I don’t care. Not another fucking Jewish doctor will touch me. All they’ve done over the years is to suck me dry of money and screw me up. Doctor Conrad could you make me a promise, don’t ever let this relationship become sexual as the other doctors have all repeatedly done to me.’”
That’s a very strong, provocative accusation to make, particularly given the crumbling state of Jackson’s mind at the time, but then This Is It! is as cavalier, messy, and problematic legally as it is in every other aspect. It throws out explosive revelation after explosive revelation, then leaves it to the reader to determine which have merit, if any, and which are the ravings of a drug-addicted man-child in the midst of a downward spiral.
Eventually Murray signs on to be Jackson’s personal physician for his big comeback run. Murray is so bonded to Jackson that he’s willing to work for a mere $250,000 a month, despite knowing he could make even more from his incredibly successful private practice. Then that tiny 250,000 figure is reduced to an even more unconscionable $150,000 a month, yet Murray reluctantly worked for starvation wages just so he could continue to occupy a position of power over one of the most beloved performers of all time.
Things further deteriorated until that awful day when Murray was unable to put a jittery and anxious Jackson to sleep and the legendary performer ended up dying of a drug overdose. Murray writes of “heroically trying to resuscitate Michael,” which suggests that he seems to believe he really went above and beyond in trying to keep his only patient from dying.
He had one patient and was to be paid $150,000 a month for his services, yet Jackson died on Murray’s watch, when Murray was supposed to be protecting him. It wasn’t heroic for Murray to try to resuscitate Jackson: It was literally his job, and his moral, legal, and professional obligation. Yet it’s fascinating, if not surprising, that Murray gives himself an awful lot of credit for not looking at Jackson’s emaciated, soon-to-be-dead body and thinking, “Eh, looks like my only client just died. Sucks to be him, I guess. Just say no, right? I wonder what’s on TV,” before wandering away.
A less awful man might write about the events involving the seemingly preventable death of one of the world’s most beloved entertainers with some degree of taste. Instead we’re treated to profanity-laced outbursts like “These fucking men [the paramedics who tried to revive Jackson unsuccessfully] were stupid assholes, not accomplishing a fuck, and here I was more qualified than any of them, even the ER physicians at UCLA, and I was not allowed to do shit.”
Murray seems to see Jackson’s death (which he repeatedly refers to as a “mishap,” which is just a tad more serious than dismissing it as a “fuckup”) primarily as something bad that happened to him. Murray spends much of the second half of the book angrily presenting his legal defense to readers in incredibly dry and technical ways.
These passages can be pretty awful, but Murray’s frothing, incoherent rage liven things up, as when he fantasizes of the lawyers prosecuting him:
However, I’d assure you what is most likely guaranteed for [prosecutor] Mr Walgren and his associates are… a place in hell… with fans and buckets of water to fight the heat, when they become legendary members of the fire responsive brigade in hell, which is sponsored under the auspices of their brother “Lucifer the devil.”
I can assure you that that statement makes no more sense in context than it does outside of it. Yet despite what Murray unconvincingly depicts as a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy to frame and then falsely convict him in what he delusionally calls the trial of the century, he still enjoyed scattered moments when the universe acknowledged his innate goodness. In a suspiciously tidy bit of closure, Murray writes that Jackson’s daughter told this to him, immediately after her father’s death:
“Doctor Conrad my daddy died today but I wanted you to know that you did everything you could to save him, the fact that you were there if it was meant for him to live you would have saved him, I know that. My daddy always said you were the best, and I know there was nothing more you could have done to make a difference. I wanted you to know that.”
Murray sees this as evidence of Jackson speaking through his daughter from beyond the grave. Later, this paragon of humility and selflessness draws comfort from knowing that Christ suffered the same kind of unrelenting, cruel, and malicious persecution that Murray did, yet persevered.
This Is It! is the kind of book I love to write about for this column. Because Murray clearly did not work with a ghostwriter or an editor, it provides a fascinating extended glimpse into the mind and psyche of a crazed narcissist. It’s an accidentally compelling depiction of an out-of-control egomaniac incapable of accepting responsibility for anything he’s done yet overflowing with rage at others. It is a book that should never have been written, both on moral and creative grounds, let alone read, written about, and analyzed. I hate-read it with the awful joy that comes with discovering something so fascinatingly terrible, so preposterous, and so utterly insane that you must share it with the world.
So here I am sharing the strange experience of reading the Thriller-Killer’s odious ode to himself in hopes that you stay the hell away from this toxic tome. Think of me as the trash-culture equivalent of a royal taster; only in this case, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job unless I’ve discovered the literary equivalent of fatal poison and died accordingly.
This Is It! is literary poison with no antidote. Yet I happily consumed it all the same, delighting in Murray’s ripe and ridiculous abuse of the English language, which alternately recalls Borat, Ben Carson, and Tommy Wiseau. “To begin with, let’s say the results of my trial sucked and stunk as much as a sack of putrid, rotting meat,” is a typically, uh, flavorful passage that doubles as a description of the book itself. This Is It! sucked and stunk as much as a sack of putrid, rotting meat, but thankfully it sucks and stinks in a way that’s morbidly fascinating, albeit never in the manner Murray intended.