Michael Jackson, Puer Aeternus: The Eternal Boy

by Judith Rich on June 26, 2009

I know, you’re probably Michael Jackson’d out by now.  So am I.  But his death was the first thing on my mind when I woke up this morning.  I woke up wanting to explore his life and death from a slightly different angle.  What does his life and death say about us and our culture?

Recapping from yesterday, no sooner had I finished posting about Farrah Fawcett’s death than news reports began filtering in about Michael Jackson, whose shocking death rocked the media and nearly brought down the internet.  I’m reminded of the movie, Defending Your Life, where those who are departing board the Big Bus on the way to their destinations in the afterlife.  The bus picked up two incredible passengers yesterday.

Clearly, Farrah’s passing was old news by 2 PM when reports of Jackson’s hospitalization broke.  The irony has not escaped me, that as she was handed setbacks in life, the news of her death was lost in the roar of coverage surrounding Jackson’s death.  Given how her own story seemed to merge with that of her characters, this seems like an all too sad and dramatic end to her story.  She doesn’t even get to have the spotlight to herself on the day of her death.

But her death did not come as a shock to us, unlike that of Michael Jackson.  And yet,  Jackson seemed like a being who never quite landed in this realm, never quite took up occupancy in his own story, even though his celebrity and stardom were larger than life.

Michael WAS a real-life Peter Pan, the classical Jungian Puer Aeternus archetype.  The eternal boy who never grew up.  The walls in his boyhood bedroom are said to have been covered with photos of Peter Pan and he later named his southern California estate, Neverland.  Like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, Michael preferred the company of young boys, maintaining his innocence and later being acquitted against charges of sexual abuse in 2005.

Some say a Puer type would never consider sexual molestation an offense.  Jackson thought it made perfect sense to want to share his bed with young boys.   In his way of viewing the world, he’d done nothing wrong.  His career never recovered after his long trials and even at the time of his death, he was involved in multi-million dollar law suits involving contractural disputes.  His upcoming come-back tour was planned to help him recover financially.  It wasn’t to be.

The wound of a Puer-type is classically that of an over possessive, dominating mother.  The shadow or opposite complex is the Senex, represented by Jackson’s physically abusive father, Joe, who is said to have bullied his children into the music business.

One news report last night on MSNBC speculated that Michael began doing plastic surgery when he looked in the mirror and saw the face of his father begin to emerge as his own.  The news segment super-imposed an image of Jackson’s face as a teen ager, still with the broad nose, over the face of his father.  The resemblance was striking!   No one will ever know if that was his motivation.  Clearly, Michael could not accept his appearance and went to great lengths to re-create himself.  He ended up destroying not only his physical appearance, but his very life.

Michael was Icarus, a mythical Puer archetypal character, who flew too close to the sun and was burned in its flames.  He pushed himself to the limit in every area of his life.  He was the consummate entertainer, bigger than Elvis, the King of Pop, who knew no boundaries, who sought to see how far he could fly and crossed the line between life and death.  I have a feeling he lived very close to that line most of his life, as comfortable with the idea of death, maybe even more so, than with life.

In the end, he died a wisp of a man/boy, some reports saying he weighed less than 100 lbs.  Ironically, his body had become frail, like an old man, even as he fought to preserve his youth.  Michael had become a recluse, withdrawing from all but his children in whom he took great joy.  It’s touching to know he had that little piece of happiness.

I wonder what will happen to his children now?  How will they be impacted by the loss of their father?  Who will they become? Many speculate he was not the biological father of any of them, but he certainly raised them with all the love he had to give.  The oddity of his dangling little “Blanket” over the railing of his hotel in Paris not withstanding, Jackson was considered to be a loving, attentive father.  In fact, his live revolved around his children.

Here’s what I wonder:  What is the starvation in our culture that has us consume our celebrities with such a voracious appetite?  What unmet desires for ourselves are we seeking through them?  James Hillman, renowned Jungian analyst and father of Archetypal Psychology, has suggested our culture itself is a Puer Aeternaus culture.  Hillman sees us collectively locked into the “I won’t grow up” Peter Pan syndrome as an antidote to the greater collective focus on war and negativity.  We project our unlived lives onto the celebrities who chose to live out their lives in the glare of fame and fulfill our own desires for transcendence.

But the price for that fame is steep.  All too often, caught up in the glare and by our hunger for it, celebrities end up like Michael Jackson, being burned on the pyre of fame and gone before their time.  Jim Morrison sang about it, “Light My Fire” in the 60’s and then ended up in the pile of dead celebrities who had no boundaries.  Anna Nicole Smith, Janis Joplin, Freddie Prinze, Jimmy Hendrix, Heath Ledger, John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, all consumed by their own and I speculate their fans’ voracious appetites that took them to the stratosphere where the boundaries between life and death become blurred and human rules no longer apply.

The Puer archetype is not limited to males.  The female version, Puella, thrives in our individual and collective lives.  I see the Puella tendencies in myself, literally wanting to fly as a little girl, jumping off a 2nd story balcony and flapping my arms,  believing I could take flight.  My hard landing at the tender age of 7, taught me the rules apply to me as well, a lesson I would need to re-learn again and again throughout my entire life.

Michael Jackson was a huge spirit trapped in a human body.  He knew he’d come to leave behind something grand.  And he did.  His music will live on forever, as does Elvis’ and John Lennon’s and the gifts of so many talented others.   As sad as his death is, it somehow seems fitting that we’ll never see him truly grow old.  Like Marilyn Monroe and the others, he and they will forever be frozen in time in our minds and memories, the eternally young, who’s stars burned brightly for a time and then suddenly went dark.  A light is missing in the sky and in our hearts tonight.

I’m lighting a candle for Farrah and Michael in honor of their beautiful spirits.  May they find the grace and peace in their deaths they failed to find in their lives.

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The Language Arts and Skills Blog » Michael Jackson, Fame and Identity
July 1, 2009 at 8:32 AM

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Laura Luhrs June 26, 2009 at 4:03 PM

When I recounted the life of Michael Jackson yesterday, your thoughts were mine, exactly. As a student of Jung,Liz Greene and Richard Idelman, in my opinion, Michael personified the puer. He was child-like not childish. The body type, the life he led and the awesome creativity he displayed is a perfect example of the puer.

marjorie July 1, 2009 at 10:06 AM

Whoever and whatever he really was, I know that many of his songs were about making it a better world and there is something about him dying as he did that feels like the end of a voice that expressed longing to heal some sort of wounded hope and flawed love.
I realize that my deep reaction to Michael Jackson’s death could be a reflection of the loss of my own hope and love that I’ve had in other times. Maybe it’s a call to open up again to that hope and love that goes along with effective action for a bigger cause.

Brenda Robinson July 1, 2009 at 10:40 AM

I enjoyed reading your thoughts.
I believe you will like reading Fitness guru Kathy Smith’s chance meeting with Michael and his children two weeks ago. It’s really poignant. http://www.kathysmith.com/blog/michael/

marga July 7, 2009 at 11:27 AM

Hello, very interesting article. I am Liz Greene’ s student and I dont think Michael Jackson was a puer. In my opinion he didnt have a childhood and he just wanted to find that he lost, he was very unhappy in his childhood, unlike all puers, and the world he had imagined was just a recreation about happyness, he projected happyness in children and childhood, but in the deep sense Michael Jackoson was a victim, a neptunian, but a victim.
Sorry for my English. Best regards

Laura J. July 10, 2009 at 11:50 PM

I have shed tears daily since Michael Jackson’s death was announced. I grew up with Michael Jackson, as did many– being only one year older than he. I had dreams of having a career as a performer. His was the epitome of a career in show business — rocketing to it’s zenith at breakneck speed and then slowly unraveling into a freefall. One he never could recover from….the lost child. Yes, I can relate.
Music was my love. I took the safer route of becoming a teacher of music. My dreams were dashed. And so, I vicariously lived through the Judy Garlands and Michael Jacksons out there. Here was a man who supposedly had ‘it all’ and yet was burned by his experience. We idolize this type of rapid success. And now, through my exploration of the details of his life and career over the past two weeks, I have come to love this man as a friend and brother, and realize his true genius, which I had often missed along the way of living my life as a young career-minded woman and single working mom. For Michael’s gifts and soft spoken messages, my heart has grown –it feels at least 4 sizes — and it stings me and ached in my chest. When I suddenly hear one of his tunes trip across my mind or when I stop to let him enter my awareness during a quiet moment, I am awash with sadness, pain, gladness, joy, love and wonder! All these emotions together….it is so new and so frightening at times. He has hit me somewhere very deep. Dear Michael Jackson, I always admired, but now I am a true fan… for the loving spirit that you were and still are….for the gentle man with the childlike playfulness and soft, tender voice… for the fiercely amazing, breathtaking artistic genius of your being. What has happened? I have been called up to address my emotions? These were dormant for a period…and this old soul, Michael — who now speaks to me has taught me a valuable lesson: Listen to my heart– do not let it crust over and
prevent me from really living and seeing the world around me and within me. A part of me mourns his passing still, never again to witness his beauty through living expression of his art … (thank god for video) yet, I also feel a gift bestowed that may be even more sacred, valuable. His life is a poignant reminder that we are here for such a short time….and we must make it count!! We must love one another more.
Thank you Michael, for blessing my conciousness. May you find eternal rest and peace, my brother.

Judith Rich July 11, 2009 at 7:39 AM

Dear Laura J,
I’m very touched by your comment. Ironically, Michael’s passing may prove to be even more impactful in imparting his message of unconditional love than was his life.
Thank you for your loving tribute to this extraordinarily gifted man.

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