I crashed a honeymoon when I was eight. It was the summer of 1984. My mom and stepdad took me to Sauble Beach, Ontario to celebrate their nuptials with them. In the daytime, I played in the waves of Lake Huron, built sandcastles and befriended seagulls while my parents tanned. Other families barbecued and frat boys played Frisbee nearby. The water wasn’t that deep and there was otherwise nothing to be afraid of. Nighttime at our rented cabin was a different story.
On either the first or second night of our stay, a clock kept falling off the wall no matter how many times we put it back up. Same thing with the toilet seat that kept slamming down. It couldn’t have been because the cabin was built on sand and was probably tilted, or because that’s what toilet seats do. It had to be demons, my mom told me; they swirled through the drafty shack all night, angry that we were Jehovah’s Witnesses, determined to convince us of the superiority of evil. My mom sat on my bed and hugged me until morning. She prayed for deliverance and called God’s name. Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah. I know she was trying to protect me. We left the cabin early, sleepless and before our rental was up, and drove back home to Montreal.
To some, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are known as the people who stand inside metro stations with literature carts, telling strangers they can live forever in a Paradise earth. Or they’re the neighbours who don’t vote because they believe that Armageddon—when Jehovah and his son Jesus will literally kill billions of non-JWs, leaving their bodies to rot in the street—will come any day and make elections obsolete. To others, they’re the patients in hospitals who refuse blood transfusions, or the people who can be heard singing inside Kingdom Halls and during summer conventions at stadiums. To most, they’re the ever-smiling Christians who don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays because they’re considered pagan. Or those who don’t send their kids to university because they would be better served by studying the Watchtower, the flagship magazine of the Watch Tower Society, the group that controls all Witness life and is the sole source for what it calls the truth.
But few outsiders know how keenly aware the JWs are of their own persecution, how they see it as irrefutable evidence that they’re on the right path. Whenever a country’s government bans their preaching work or shutters their Kingdom Halls, the group says, See! They wouldn’t do that if we didn’t have the truth. When the apparent persecution takes a more paranormal slant—when it feels like unseen forces are trying to scare them away from Jehovah, like that night in the cabin at Sauble Beach—they believe that the Devil and his gang of demons are behind it. It’s difficult to explain the logic, and not even the JWs have bothered to work out the details.
Because of all this, the Watch Tower Society constantly warned us not to view the occult as harmless fun, the way it is often portrayed in pop culture. I heard of members getting in trouble for using Ouija boards and otherwise participating in séances, which were reportedly dangerous because they put you in direct contact with demons. On Halloween, we turned off our lights so we wouldn’t be harassed by goblins and witches seeking candy. I wasn’t allowed to eat Lucky Charms cereal because shooting stars, green clovers and horseshoes were “magically delicious,” and Witnesses view any form of magic as being inspired by the Devil and antithetical to worshipping Jehovah. The result of this hyperawareness of the occult is that the JWs can appear to be obsessed with it.
The more we were exposed to these surreal beliefs, the more normal they felt. Sometime in 1983, a rumour crept from Kingdom Hall to Kingdom Hall: one Sunday at a Jehovah’s Witness meeting—we weren’t sure exactly where—a stuffed Smurf allegedly slithered out of a child’s lap, shouted obscenities and walked out of the building. I didn’t know how this rumour started or how far it spread, but there were suddenly reports that the little blue devils jumped off wallpaper, danced on curtains and bit kids in their sleep.
The Watchtower magazine told us to destroy anything that showed evidence of possession. Throwing Smurfs into the garbage wasn’t enough to make them stop. You had to burn them or rip out the stuffing. I had a Smurfs sing-along record that skipped. It couldn’t have had anything to do with the quarter-sized hole in it. I watched, both horrified and grateful, as my uncle smashed my record in the backyard with a rock. (Around that time, my aunt heard footsteps in the basement of their house and realized the problem was a crystal candy bowl she had inherited from a witchy relative. The story goes that when my uncle tried to smash it, it wouldn’t leave his hand.)
Maybe the Witnesses were jealous: the Smurfs live in an exclusive paradise, the kind of intentional community that the JWs dream of. But decades later, I would discover that the Smurf hysteria may not have begun with JWs after all. The fear potentially stemmed from a report about a juvenile gang called “the Smurfs” in Houston, Texas who, that same year, allegedly assaulted students in bathrooms and murdered a principal. That story turned out to be fabricated—just another extension of Satanic Panic.
Fear of Satan has always existed in some form or other, but it was brewing in the American consciousness in a new way in the 1960s, around when the Manson Family murdered at least eight people and Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan. By the 1970s, The Exorcist had entered the public imagination. Later, in the 1980s, the conservative governments of Mulroney, Reagan and Thatcher were in place and the panic was in full swing.
Police, teachers, parents, therapists and the Christian fundamentalists among them created a Stranger Danger whisper network that took off. Suddenly, anyone unfamiliar was a threat to children. It was easier to panic about a stranger when a Satanic element was involved. Killer clowns with demonic smiles such as American serial killer John Wayne Gacy had left a lasting impression; long after he was locked up, many other clowns became suspect due to the release of Stephen King’s It. On Unsolved Mysteries, Robert Stack emerged from the shadows in a trench coat and morgue-like pancake makeup to remind viewers that the spirits were out to get suburban American kids.
In 1983—the year Smurf rumours invaded my Kingdom Hall—the panic ramped up even further. Devil worshippers had supposedly organized to torture and sexually abuse kids at McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. According to one account, the claims included flushing toddlers down toilets (a physical improbability). The border between the United States and Canada was clearly porous to demons because not long after, in rural Saskatchewan, the Martensville Nightmare unfolded, where over a dozen people were charged with ritualized sexual abuse of children and running a Satanic cult called The Brotherhood of the Ram. In the end, neither the California nor the Saskatchewan account turned out to be true. They were both extreme examples of well-intentioned people falling for the vilest outcomes that proponents of sex-abuse-in-daycares hysteria said were possible.
Where did all this leave me? I was in a group that seemed to believe its panics were entirely original, and who used them to keep members afraid so they would stick around for Jehovah’s protection. “Beware of Music that Debases!” screamed a 1983 Watchtower headline, jumping on the bandwagon of Christian groups worried about sex and demons in rock and metal, even though Witnesses themselves would soon be responsible for producing a significant chunk of that music.
When the article “Epidemic of Homosexuals” came out that same year, I was too young to understand that it meant I could become the feared one, a victim of the cruel shunning policy that contradicts the group’s caring public face. I didn’t know how easily I could be betrayed by the adults I trusted, and I wasn’t supposed to know. We were taught to fear our own minds and “reject the goal of independent thinking,” lest we become wise to the Society’s cult-like manipulations.
So, in darkness I continued. Not a single time during the eighteen years I was a member—before I would disobey and trigger my own personal Armageddon—did anyone tell me to watch out for Jehovah and everything being done in that strange ghost’s name.
It was the warning I needed most.
It was embarrassing to be a Jehovah’s Witness at school. I drew unwanted attention for not celebrating my birthday, and I was called into the principal’s office for refusing to do Valentine’s Day arts and crafts. I was the only Witness that teachers and fellow students knew, so they asked me a million questions.
I’m not sure if they knew that Michael Jackson was the most famous Witness to moonwalk the earth. His religious background was usually a footnote. I remember a spiral notebook I used for homework that featured Jackson on the cover in a banana-yellow cashmere sweater. He smiled at me conspiratorially. We shared something that no one else at school did: our fucked-up religion. It’s a powerful feeling to be allied with one of the biggest names on the planet that way—even if my religion got me strange looks.
Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t supposed to take jobs that place them in the limelight because that would be taking attention away from Jehovah. But once JW stars like Jackson achieved a measure of fame, they entered—unofficially—a category of Witness that was slightly beyond the rules. Maybe their fame could help raise awareness for our message. (We were competing with Scientologists and Mormons for superstars, after all.) When we read about the Archangel Michael in the Book of Daniel, and how this Son of God would save humanity, I’m sure some of us read MJ into the text.
Still, the degree to which a famous Jehovah’s Witness could rely on their special status was limited. In the 1983 music video Thriller, Jackson’s werecat eyes, fangs and claws protrude. Sexual desire teases out the mutation, the beast, and a B-movie cast of zombies flood the street where they ooze into a choreographed number. The Elders at Jackson’s congregation in California weren’t okay with this occult sensibility, which is ironic because the Witnesses believe that one day, in the Resurrection, billions of dead people—a combination of JWs and worldly people who hadn’t gotten a chance to hear the Kingdom message—will stagger out of cemeteries. Organs, sinew and muscle will reform in mid-air. What could be more occult than literal zombies? What’s the difference between a possessed toy and a reanimated human? A ghost is a ghost is a ghost.
Regardless, the Elders threatened to disfellowship Jackson. Disfellowshipping is a form of JW discipline reserved for serious transgressions of the rules, such as abortion, adultery, anal or oral sex, “homosexual activity,” apostasy, spiritism, and the list goes on. When a Witness is disfellowshipped, they can’t speak to any other congregation members. They lose all friends and family, and have to suffer silently at the dinner table. They can still attend meetings, but they tend to sit in the back row, where it’s easier to slink out and avoid the people they’re not allowed to talk to. The JWs believe this policy is kindness, not cruelty, that shunning will teach the disfellowshipped person a lesson and encourage them to return to the fold.
Jackson wanted to stay, so he begged his team to destroy the Thriller tapes. Instead, his legal advisor John Branca convinced Jackson to rationalize creatively, as all JWs must do to reconcile nonsensical rules. Some say Branca made up a story about the actor Bela Lugosi, claiming he was a staunch Roman Catholic who had put a disclaimer at the beginning of the film Dracula stating his opposition to vampirism. Couldn’t Jackson similarly dance his way out of this? Thriller now starts with the following title card: Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.
Jackson went even further in Awake! magazine, companion to the Watchtower: “I just intended to do a good, fun short film, not to purposely bring to the screen something to scare people or to do anything bad. I want to do what’s right. I would never do anything like that again … There’s all kinds of promotional stuff being proposed on Thriller. But I tell them, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to do anything on Thriller. No more Thriller.’” He obviously didn’t honour that promise.
When the Jacksons came to Montreal for The Victory Tour in 1984, a family acquaintance paid eighty dollars for a pair of tickets, which we all thought was astronomical. He offered to take me, but my mom declined on my behalf, saying that “Michael Jackson wasn’t for kids.” That may have been true, but now I think her reticence had more to do with a strange man proposing an outing with me.
On September 16, 1984, at a time when any other performer would have been rehearsing, Jackson stepped into either my Kingdom Hall in Parc-Extension or the nearby Snowdon Hall. Either way, I wasn’t there, but the story trickled down to me. His visit would have been a shock. He would have walked in flanked by bodyguards and taken a seat in the back row to listen to the hour-long sermon. The talk would have been followed by a Watchtower magazine question-and-answer session. Q. Who will live in Paradise on earth for all eternity? A. Jehovah’s people, as long as they remain faithful and obey His commandments. Q. Why should we avoid spending time with worldly people? A. Bad associations spoil useful habits.
Was anyone tempted to pass Jackson the microphone? What did he think of the hymns, the swelling violins and cymbal crashes, the message that if we made the truth our own, pain and sickness would soon be no more? Could he hear the start of Armageddon in the bass drum? Did it remind him of going to the hall with Tito, Jackie, La Toya, Jermaine, Marlon, Randy and Janet when they were kids, where they could sing out of pure joy and without pressure or scrutiny?
Jackson made his getaway in a limo before the meeting was over. Geeky teen Witnesses I knew almost killed themselves tailing him through the city, which amounts to committing idolatry—another offence worthy of disfellowshipping. The two nights the Jacksons played Montreal’s Olympic Stadium have since become legendary. CTV reported that pyrotechnics fried a computer controlling a giant screen and it went dark. Apparently, the sound in the concrete toilet bowl was terrible, but few people seemed to care. One night, post-concert, Jackson danced on the roof of a van in the middle of the street a few kilometres away. The impromptu crowd confirmed he was indeed bigger than Jehovah.
When I attended a JW convention at the stadium a few years later and sat through sweltering heat and the endless queer-phobic talks, I swear I could feel Jackson’s residual energy and see his rhinestone flash. The Victory Tour concerts must still reverberate in the rafters.
In 1987, Jackson released Bad. With those three letters, he declared himself Apostate Number One, a rule-breaker, an ill-chosen role model, someone really, really bad. Rolling Stone reported that Elders visited him on the set of the video for “Smooth Criminal” to object to its violent content, but he ignored their admonishments. By this point, the Elders had been threatening to kick Jackson out for years, intimating a choice between his music career and serving Jehovah. He had previously been disciplined—on possibly several occasions—for reasons that likely included sexual suggestiveness in his videos and dance routines. The details of Jackson’s history with the Jehovah’s Witnesses remain murky, both because of the secretive nature of the group and the mysteries of his own life.
The last straw may have been when Elders commanded Jackson to shun his sister La Toya, who hadn’t been going to meetings. He disobeyed, and instead disassociated from the Witnesses. I don’t remember if we were ever asked to destroy Jackson’s records, but it was still a shock to lose our most famous member.
The Watch Tower’s influence continued to permeate Jackson’s music. The video for “Heal the World,” a song on the 1991 Dangerous album, presents a typical Witness narrative: we see sad children, scenes of war and overall unhappiness, until finally, soldiers put down their assault rifles and the children smile again. We hear a message about a possible world of “no hurt or sorrow.” The idea “see the nations turn their swords into ploughshares” is taken directly from Isaiah 2:4, which is repeated endlessly in Society literature as a go-to metaphor for world peace. Jackson ends up proposing an anti-Jehovah message: that redemption rests not in divine hands, but in human ones, and that it happens now, not in the future. “If you care enough for the living, make a better place for you and for me.”
I’ve always loved the song, but now I realize it’s for the worst possible reason: both musically and in its messaging, it’s a replica of what we would sing at the hall, the Kingdom earworms I still can’t get out of my head.
I found myself wondering how much leeway I would be granted if I deviated from the truth. Now, I wonder who my fellow congregants had fawned over: the wayward pop star who kept repenting, or a divinity who deigned to walk among us, the closest version of a god many of us would ever encounter? Are all Witnesses secretly jealous of anyone who escapes the Watch Tower with either their life intact or the ability to build a new one?
In my teens, I started an alternative rock band with two congregation friends—the beginning of my drift from religion. Now, my preferred magazines were Billboard and Pitchfork and their Canadian equivalent, Chart. I learned guitar and keys, and we spent hours in the studio—on our own dime—obsessing over effects and fader levels, trying to create the kind of mystical experience that we’d been taught could only be found through the Holy Spirit. We began turning to music for transcendence instead of to Jehovah.
We looked to certain stars as our guides, and Prince was one of them. Growing up, we had understood him to be worldly, someone to avoid. In 1987, the same year Jackson disassociated from the JWs, Prince recorded and produced The Black Album, also known as The Funk Bible. Using either sped-up or slowed-down vocal tracks, he appeared as different characters on the record, including Camille, his androgynous/feminine alter ego. Then, he had all five hundred thousand copies of the album destroyed prior to its release, claiming he—or perhaps Camille—was possessed by what he called “Spooky Electric,” an entity he seemingly never spoke of again. Somewhere, there are thousands of pounds of smashed vinyl in a landfill that never got a proper burial (probably not far from a grave of Smurf limbs).
In the band, I could finally see Prince as a genius instead of merely an evildoer. Who else could write, perform, and produce that way, not to mention play so many instruments? I also looked up to him for his gender nonconformity and his rejection of the music industry’s most toxic components. My bandmates and I wrote our sad-boy indie songs in the bus terminal at Fairview Mall and became famous in the confines of a single West Island garage, elevated by singers whose brilliance we could never match. Now, when I listen to our music on the single, warbly cassette that remains of our recording sessions, I can hear moments of yearning for escape amid a whole lot of mediocrity.
When I say escape, I mean I could hear queerness. For years, I knew I was queer, which for JWs is a sin that leads to destruction at Armageddon. At the appointed time, God would smite me to pieces and leave my bones for the birds. When I was eighteen, I could no longer keep up the act of hiding my sexuality, and I started fucking other men. Within a few months, the Elders found out and forced me to choose between sucking dick or swallowing the fire hose of the word of God.
I wrote a letter disassociating myself from the group, and my shunning was near total. I was forcibly separated from almost everyone I knew for the first two decades of my life, including most of my family. I eventually moved downtown to make a completely new life with almost no supports. The Elders never checked in to see how I was doing, or if I was still alive. I bought Lucky Charms and every other contraband cereal I could find. When I celebrated my first Halloween, I wore a ghoul mask and knocked on doors in my neighbourhood without a Watchtower script for the first time.
Sugar couldn’t fill all the gaps because my entire life was a gap. By this point, I was no longer in the band, but music was still key to discovering who I was as a queer man. I built a collection of albums to have sex to, which included multiple copies of Prince’s Purple Rain. Now, when I went to arenas and stadiums, it wasn’t to drown my personality in Kingdom news—it was to attend concerts that electrified me in a way Jehovah never could. Music created the new neural pathways I needed to finally think for myself.
At least I thought I was mentally free. Q. Is it normal for religious beliefs to linger? A. Yes, especially when the Society gets you young, you and most of your family. For example, it took over a decade after leaving for what I called my “Armageddon clouds” to go away, for me to stop fully believing I would die along with almost everyone I knew in a divine cataclysm.
There are other aspects of my upbringing that are similarly hard to dispel, such as my belief in the occult. For example, I can’t shake the feeling that Jackson—a dead man—and I are destined to run into each other one day. I’ve never gotten over our near miss. It felt like a sign when I came across an article about famous ex-JWs that listed MJ first and me last (for my work as an artist), bookends to a shared story. Same thing when I went to a memorial held at a nightclub for a congregation friend who’d died of substance use after being shunned by his family. When I went to the bathroom to collect myself, I found a collage of MJs smiling at me from a stall door. Sometimes I think, maybe if I write and publish this essay, he’ll leave me alone. I know it sounds delusional.
My ongoing connection to the occult can also manifest in subtler ways. I assumed I was no longer afraid of breakfast foods until I saw the scene in Muppets from Space where Gonzo pours milk into his lettered cereal and a memo appears, a message from his family in the distant cosmos. His ping-pong-ball eyes register fear that he immediately transfers to me. It’s the same with the scene in Rosemary’s Baby where rearranged Scrabble tiles reveal that the name of a neighbour is an anagram for a famous occultist. The idea that wooden tiles could be so all-knowing creeps me out. It’s bad luck for a writer to be afraid of words this way. All of this makes no sense and embarrasses me.
It seems that Jackson couldn’t ditch the occult, either. It’s been said that Ghosts, his chilling 1996 short film co-written with Stephen King, was the singer’s re-embrace of the paranormal after having disavowed Thriller. But I think that moment first happened in the final four minutes of the 1991 video for “Black or White,” when a panther transforms into Jackson, who dances, screams and smashes things before turning into a panther again. This time, there would be no mea culpa for the spiritism behind this kind of transformation.
Once a predisposition for the occult takes root in an artist’s thinking—either through indoctrination, taking a stand against it, or both—it might become a permanent part of their creative aesthetic, and I would be no exception. After leaving music, the first book I published was a 2006 novella about a disfellowshipped punk who corrupts other young Witnesses by tattooing them with Smurfs (which took some fellow ex-JWs by surprise because they had never heard the story). Other writers and former Witnesses, including Kyria Abrahams and Will McMillan, have brought their own original Smurf stories to life. For many of us who’ve left, Smurfs will always be a point of connection, a rebel symbol to recognize each other by—shorthand for we got out.
One day in the early aughts, a Minnesota couple opened their door to find Prince standing there reading scriptures. When the couple objected and said they were Jewish, Prince replied, “Can I finish?” and hung out on their steps for another twenty-five minutes. No one interrupts a performance by Brother Nelson. Unlike Jackson and I, Prince became a Witness long after he’d started making music, formally joining in 2001.
As Prince became more devout, he stopped playing some of his racier songs, such as “Darling Nikki.” When it had come out on Purple Rain—in 1984, before Prince was a Witness— the song’s sexy lyrics caused a furor and eventually earned the album one of the first-ever Parental Advisory stickers. Jehovah’s Witnesses would’ve flagged the song for sex, but also for backmasking, a technique that other Christian anti-rock crusaders had accused Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin and other acts of using to conceal subliminal messages. In backmasking, a vocal track appears backward. The record would have to be played in reverse to hear the message intelligibly.
“Normally, of course, people do not play recordings in reverse,” said the Watchtower, “Yet, when listening to certain musical records, either unscriptural or demonic ideas may be absorbed by a mind left open to improper suggestion.” In other words, merely hearing the garbled sounds left you open to demon attack. The irony is that if the Society had listened to Prince’s decoded “Darling Nikki” lyrics backwards, it would have discovered a shockingly wholesome message: “Hello, how are you? / Fine, fine ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon / Coming, coming soon.” To me, the song is a perfect example of the kind of cognitive dissonance that grows in the mind of a JW.
In the posthumous memoir The Beautiful Ones, written in collaboration with Dan Piepenbring, this dissonance is in full view in Prince’s stance on the occult. “Funk is the opposite of magic … Magic is Michael’s word,” Prince says, referring to Jackson. Piepenbring gives more insight. “When writers ascribed alchemical qualities to his music, they were ignoring the literal meaning of the word, the dark art of turning metal into gold. He would never do something like that. His object was harmony.” Despite this, Prince had no qualms about renting out a Minneapolis theatre so he could treat members of his crew to a private screening of Kung Fu Panda 3, which would be taboo for Witnesses, not only for its martial arts component, but also for its undead characters living in the spirit realm. Boiled down, this is a classic case of not practicing what one preaches.
Prince addresses this duality directly. “Is he his mother—drinking and swearing and coming on to another human like it’s the only chance he’ll get?” he asks, referring to himself. “Or is he his father, conducting life as though God were watching every breath—chauvinistic, stubborn, and quick to explode? ... One minute he’s a sweet, quiet little introvert. The next he’s either screaming the book of Revelation to someone or he’s drunk in the corner of some bar—masturbating.”
Yet Prince could still toe the JW party line with frightening precision. He once said this to the New Yorker on the subjects of gay marriage and abortion: “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’” The quote has been disputed, but the New Yorker stood by the interview. Even if some context is missing, how could Prince—who many consider to be one of the most sexually liberated artists of all time—veer anywhere near thoughts like this?
Easy: To be a Jehovah’s Witness is to be a living paradox. You must remain no part of this world yet interact with everyone in it. You go to work and joke with colleagues as if they won’t all be dead soon, bodies littering the street, leaving you to clean up. The rules are nonsensical, and to accommodate them, you must partition your mind at a moment’s notice. Over the years, you subdivide it infinitely. You learn to live for loopholes; you can’t celebrate Christmas, so you give wrapped gifts to friends on a random day in July. Somehow, to disbelieve is crazier than to believe.
This is how, at the 2007 Super Bowl, after finishing up “All Along the Watchtower,” Prince could prowl into “Purple Rain” as actual rain fell, his subtlest moves the epitome of sex, and give an other-worldly performance that would alter the planet’s orbit, then peddle Jehovah door-to-door the next day as if nothing had happened. It’s how I could distribute magazines that said AIDS was a punishment for being queer and that my life—mine, not the one the Society said I should lead—wasn’t worth the paper I held.
Anyone who comes into contact with a Kingdom Song eventually enters this two-state quantum life. It breaks most of us.
What used to feel like closeness to Jackson and Prince has now turned into distance. Prince represented freedom to me for most of my post-cult adult life, both in and out of the band, so I naturally felt unsettled when he joined the JWs, who are so vociferously anti-queer. He died a Witness in good standing, which qualifies him to be resurrected in Paradise. It makes me sad to picture him rising from the grave, becoming flesh and blood again, microphone in hand, ditching his entire luminous catalogue for two-bit hymns.
Jackson, who died an apostate, has no chance of resurrection. In the 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who’d been in Jackson’s coterie as boys, told their stories of the artist’s horrific abuse against them. We see Jackson take a young Safechuck to a jewellery store to buy a ring, a symbol of their twisted bond. My hands shake when the adult Safechuck takes it out of the box and shows it to the camera. It’s a memento of Neverland, a place so big you could go all day without running into a witness. Today, both men find a measure of healing. I want to reach through the screen and hug them.
These disclosures have made me rethink Jackson’s entire discography. It seems his public persona of caring for kids was just a screen for his crimes, one that made believing his victims more difficult. “But what if all of that change he so notoriously underwent, all the damage he seemed to wear on his body, all the creatures his videos turned him into (werewolves, zombies, a panther, a skeleton), what if his outward self became some semiconscious manifestation of a monster that lurked within?” writes Wesley Morris in the New York Times.
I wonder about the dimensions of this smooth criminality, how far it extends. In “With Michael Jackson, It’s Different,” Jo Livingstone wonders as well. “To try to cancel him would be to point out a criminal at the very heart of the entertainment industry’s belief system, and to remove the laurels of the most significant Black artist of the pop age.” I wonder what it means for me as a white writer to write this essay, what complexities I’ve oversimplified and privileges I’ve overlooked, and if I’ve claimed common ground with Black artists where very little exists. I’m grateful for the scholarship of Black writers on Jackson and Prince, such as Wesley Morris, Carvell Wallace, Keith Murphy and many others.
What is the Watch Tower Society’s role in all this? If, at one time, the Society was afraid that Jackson would tarnish its reputation, now it can do that all on its own. A few days before part two of Leaving Neverland first aired, the Superior Court of Quebec authorized a class-action lawsuit against the group, including its Canadian branch, on behalf of current and former Witnesses who were sexually assaulted as minors by a fellow member.
The headlines hit too close to home: this is where I had spent almost half of my life, and the news could have life-altering effects on people I know and love. This case is only one of many lawsuits against—and investigations into—the Jehovah’s Witnesses for policies that enable child sex abuse. The group has a history of failing to report it, and for otherwise covering it up. The scope is unimaginable. But this is not that essay.
It’s clear, however, that the Society is no more morally upstanding than the members it expels, and that the trauma that results from being a Jehovah’s Witness can take many forms. It makes sense that the Witnesses latched onto eighties Stranger Danger—it perpetuated the myth that the threat always comes from outside the God-fearing house, when we know the opposite is true. If my upbringing has taught me anything, it’s that to assume that demons can ever live outside of us is a mistake.
What do we make of our belief constellations when we wrestle with an artist’s legacy? How can we transcend the question of whether a singer is in or out, since it’s always more complicated than that? Can someone be brainwashed and still make music that frees others? What did Jackson write in his disassociation letter, and why is it not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? When and how will we find out what “Spooky Electric” is?
When will I stop liking the Kingdom Songs that tell me, lyric after lyric, to hate myself? These are the mysteries that make music worthy of our worship.
Daniel Allen Cox’s essays have appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, the Malahat Review, and elsewhere. His work was nominated for a 2021 National Magazine Award for personal journalism. He is the author of four novels and a memoir-in-essays that will be published by Penguin Canada in 2023.