Warning: This review WILL contain spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet but plan to, consider yourself forewarned!
Well, as I mentioned here before, I did end up receiving Frank Cascio’s book “My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship With An Extraordinary Man” for Christmas. I also promised a full review after I had finished reading it.
Back when I did my article on Christmas Shopping For The MJ Fan On Your List I mentioned how polarizing this book has been in the fan community. I haven’t seen much easing up in that regard, but I will note one thing I’ve observed for the most part-those fans who thoroughly trash the book, along with Frank Cascio, will usually admit they haven’t even read the book. Most of them will say they refuse to read it; a refusal based on their own personal feelings against the Cascio family and/or some of the more sensational publicity this book garnered on release. Typically, every media review of the book honed in on what is actually one very small and isolated portion of the book-Michael’s drug use, especially that of propofol. When the book came out, it was at the height of the Murray trial and of course, this was the one topic the media cared about the most-and the one aspect of the book that every reviewer seemed eager to pounce on.
I think based on these early reviews, many fans had an automatic, knee-jerk response to the book and its author. Of course, none of that has been helped by the controversy over the Cascio tracks on the “Michael” album. Ever since then, Frank has been lumped in with his brother Eddie to become-like many of Michael’s acquaintances-a somewhat controversial and polarizing figure.
But regardless of how one feels about Frank Cascio personally, one fact is undisputable: Michael Jackson was a very big part of this young man’s life, for many years. Frank was there when many of the darkest chapters of Michael’s life played out. He knew both Jordan Chandler and Gavin Arvizo, and as one of the many boys who formed that circle of friends in the early 90’s that included McCauley Culkin and others, Frank was in a unique position to tell that side of the story.
I said when I received the book that I would read it with an open mind. The bottom line is that, yes, there are some things that may be unsettling to some fans-if they are still clinging to some idealized version of who Michael was. Since that’s never been an issue with me, I frankly wasn’t shocked by some of the book’s “revelations.” But I think the bigger picture here is that the book does exonerate Michael on many bigger and more important issues.
However, that isn’t to say that I didn’t read between the lines and also find some fault with the book. But overall, I honestly think the worst thing Frank is guilty of is what I call the “Insider’s Syndrome.” It seems to be something that no aquaintance of Michael’s was immune to. Without fail, everyone who knew him seems to want to think of themselves as Michael’s closest friend and most intimate confidante. And along with that, often the idealized belief that they could have somehow “saved” him. Granted, in Frank’s case, he did know Michael in a way few people ever got to. And certainly it would be arrogant and presumprious of me-or anyone-to sit here and say I know better than Frank what Michael did or thought or said. That’s not my intent. However, I did sometimes catch myself reading between the lines and second guessing some of the assumptions he makes-for example, that Michael’s marriage to Lisa was a sham (even if they did have sex-according to Frank, the sex was just a by-product, not so much that they actually loved each other, but because Michael wanted kids…and well, frankly, she was there and available) or his assertion that Michael never had sex with Debbie (insisting that Prince and Paris were both conceived in vitro; so yes, according to Frank, Michael is indisputably the biological father of all his children, but he never touched Debbie). To be fair, he makes it very clear that his assumptions are based on what Michael told him; he wasn’t there in the room, of course. But by his own admission, he also admits several instances where Michael lied to him-so who’s to say? I’ve read some fan reviews of the book where people have said, “How would Frank know the details of Michael and Lisa’s marriage; he was just a kid?”
Yes, but…let’s not forget that Michael and Frank remained close friends well into Frank’s adulthood. I’m sure Michael probably talked to him about these things, if not at the time, maybe later.
But I did question, for instance, if he was really with Michael when Michael supposedly “chose” Blanket’s mother out of a donor catalog-or that it was actually he who made the final choice! I’m just very suspicious by nature when someone claims to have been right by Michael’s side through every major important move and decision of his life. I’m willing to give to Frank that he was there for a LOT of it-but to hear him tell it, he was practically Michael’s shadow! (Let’s just say, some of it I bought, and some I took with the proverbial grain of salt).
When I was reading the part about Michael and Lisa’s marriage, I couldn’t help but think back to what David Nordahl told me in our interview last year. David, who was another of Michael’s closest friends (for over 20 years) and very loyal, spent over two weeks living with Michael and Lisa at the Trump towers in 1994, and by his own account, Michael and Lisa were “very much in love.” I have no reason to doubt David’s sincerity, so for me, that casts an automatic cloud of suspicion over Frank’s claims that Michael told him he had married Lisa just to satisfy bin Talal (an Arabian businessman who Michael apparently had many dealings with, and who was also apparently insistent on Michael having an image as a family man-at any rate, according to Frank, this bin Talal seemed to be Michael’s magical explanation for a lot of things).
But there is also another possibility, which is that Michael may have told Frank this after having become bitter over the breakup with Lisa; perhaps as a way of salvaging his own pride. (Oh, well, I never loved her anyway; I just married her because bin Talal wanted me to).
Now see, this is where Frank’s book gets interesting for me. It’s not so much what he writes, but the little, subtle things one can pick up between the lines. Or as I call them, the gray areas. For it’s often in those gray areas that one really finds the truth, or the closest version to it. What a reader can take from this is that there is often some element of truth in all sides of a story-in this case, a marriage that may have indeed been a sham-or started out that way. But nevertheless, perhaps Michael and Lisa did have genuine love, of a sort-and certainly had sex. So in that regard, the marriage was absolutely real! Michael could be manipulative and at times, did stretch the truth-but he was 100% honest and up front about the things that really mattered in his life, and this is what all readers need to keep uppermost in mind. Michael apparently never lied about the things that were most important-his innocence of the allegations, his vitiligo, the paternity of his children, and that ever pesky little question of his true sexuality. It doesn’t bother me in the least if the truth of the matter is that he never really wanted to marry either Lisa or Debbie. Michael wanted children-not necessarily a wife and children. But regardless, he did have a very real bond with both Lisa and Debbie. And as Debbie herself has said, so what if theirs wasn’t a traditional family or traditional arrangement? It was their decision, and their life.
This is just the beginning. There are other very telling details that give a reader pause for thought, or that may make them question certain beliefs about Michael they have thought to be true. Just to give another example, one of the more controversial aspects of the book is that Frank writes candidly (but also, I should add, very sympathetically) about Michael’s struggles with painkiller dependency and the Demerol shots he was receiving from Klein. But he also reveals that Michael was undergoing a very excruciatingly painful treatment for vitiligo that involved regular treatments of over fifty facial injections per visit.
I haven’t had time yet to research this treatment as thoroughly as I would like, but I did have some very interesting links that were provided to me by shelley (thanks!):
And then there is this document, in which Tom Meserau refers specifically to a vitiligo treatment Michael was receiving that involved injections:
The reason I find this interesting is because if this is true, it provides one more instance in which Michael is actually vindicated by the revelation of this information. Remember how the media had a field day with the Demerol story, and how they were speculating why anyone would receive that much Demerol just for botox injections? But could it be that the injections Michael was receiving were not for botox at all, but rather legit if albeit experiemental vitiligo treatments? I don’t know about you guys, but personally, the thought of having 50 needles injected in my face would certainly be enough to make me want a shot of Demerol! And remember, I had quoted before from Dr. Treacy who said that Michael did have hyersensitivity in the facial area due to past surgeries, and therefore always requested some form of sedation before any cosmetic or dermatological procedures:
There are other examples of what I call “gray area vindication” throughout the book, instances in which we can see how certain myths about Michael may have gotten their start, but also getting the whole story of the truth that often lay behind those stories.
Just for example, Michael did refer to wine as “Jesus juice” and often did drink wine in soda cans, just as was alleged by the Arvizos during the trial. But it was not for the sinister reason that the Arvizos and DA tried to insist in the trial; it was not for the purpose of enticing children to drink with him. Rather, it was something he did to protect the children around him, as he did not want to set an example of drinking alcohol to them. Also, because being the very private person that he was, he didn’t necessarily want everyone to know his business. However, sometimes it’s important to know the truth if it means the difference between exoneration and allowing false notions to stand. Personally, it doesn’t bother me to know Michael liked his wine, whether in soda cans or not; I would personally find it a lot more disturbing if he had gone around drinking openly in front of kids!
The important thing one has to keep in mind when reading a memoir-especially a memoir of one’s experience with a famous person-is that no matter how honest this person is, in the grander scheme of things, their story is simply their version of the reality they lived. The root word of “memoir” is “memory.” But by our very human nature, our memories are often selective; occasionally even distorted. Our versions of events are filtered by our own biases and whatever baggage we associate with those memories. Memoirs have to accepted as what they are-one individual’s reality and perception of events. Memoirs can be entertaining, engaging, and even thought-provoking. But they can’t-nor shouldn’t-always be taken as gospel. However, I think if a reader approaches this book with a fair and open mind, they can certainly learn about the man Michael Jackson that Frank Cascio knew. And I do think Frank is being honest and open in presenting us the man, Michael Jackson, who was his friend and mentor. Like I said, it may not necessarily jibe with the idealized version of Michael that many fans have. But we have to keep in mind, this was Frank’s experience and the Michael Jackson presented in this memoir is the man he knew. Ultimately, however, memoirs of this type always end up being as much about the person writing them as about the subject in question. We have to keep in mind this isn’t “just” Michael’s story. It’s also Frank’s story and what it was like to come of age as a young man living in the shadow of Michael Jackson. When you realize that your whole life has revolved around Michael Jackson since the age of four, how does one find their own identity and purpose in the world? How do they manage to forage their own path? For Frank Cascio, that question has probably been his biggest life challenge.
Frank also does a good job of debunking the whole false notion which emerged after the Bashir crock, which was that Michael routinely had kids over for sleepovers at Neverland. In simple truth, the infamous “sleepovers” never happened, at least not as they have come to be portrayed. The sleepovers involved entire families-families who often traveled over great distances to be at Neverland. Michael’s enormous bedroom suite became a kind of informal, focal gathering place for these families, where people watched TV, played games, or simply talked until everyone fell asleep, exhausted. With the candor of an insider’s persective, Frank tells the truth about what those nights spent at Michael’s house were…and more importantly, what they were not.
And contrary to what some cynics say, Michael did alter his behavior around children following the ’93 Chandler allegations. He never again allowed young children-especially boys-to be in his bedroom unchaperoned (the parents were always present) and in most cases, he was careful from then on to always make sure that any child he was around was accompanied by an adult. One of the small but significant details that my boyfriend and I have noticed is that throughout the HIStory tour, when he would do the Heal The World finale, he never held hands with the boys or picked them up; it was always the girls that he would single out. Obviously, the first allegations did their damage. He was scarred emotionally by the accusations-but he also learned from them. That he would come to be accused again would come about, not because of any undue carelessness or blatant disregard and arrogance on Michael’s part-as has often been erroneoulsy reported- but because he was too kind-hearted to turn down a child in need of help.
There are also a lot of interesrting but little known facts that I discovered from the book. For example, did you know that in the early 2000’s, before the debut of “American Idol”, that Michael was being slated to do his own weekly talent show, one in which he would have been the judge? Apparently the project, tentatively titled “Hollywood Ticket” fell through, mostly due to waning interest on Michael’s part (anyway, we all know Michael wasnt’t fond of being on TV; he probably got cold feet over the idea of being on national TV every week and the obligation of having to be a weekly judge and mentor) but I have to say, it certainly would have been interesting had the project gone through. Sadly, though, this seemed to be the story so often in Michael’s last decade, so many projects that never materialized, and the saddest of all, knowing that it was often his legal issues and the mismanagement within his own ranks that led to these aborted projects.
Frank Cascio’s experience with Michael Jackson was a unique one from the beginning. It wasn’t an aquaintance he sought out, or even one that he made on his own. Imagine, if you will, that you are a small child, and your parents just happen to be best friends with a world famonus superstar. This was how Michael Jackson came to be part of Frank Cascio’s life. Imagine said superstar becomes your mentor and greatest teacher; now flash forward many years, and you find yourself as a young adult not only working for him, but even at times having to reverse the father/son role, which is a sad reality that happens for many of us as we grow up and realize our parents or even our “parent figures” aren’t the perfect people we envisioned as children, but rather, imperfect human beings just like ourselves. I can see why some fans have concerns about the book. There were a few things that I questioned-even if it’s true, why the need to include it here if it serves no real purpose? Why not keep some things private? Just for example, I don’t know that the whole world necessarily needed to know that Michael experimented with marijuana. It’s not that I’m a prude and really, these days, smoking a little pot isn’t really frowned upon that much more than drinking beer. But as we know too well, the media has always been prone to judge Michael by a different standard than other celebrities. That’s really the whole issue when it comes to making these kinds of private details public-we all know how the media loves to sensationalize and run with any story on Michael Jackson. This knowledge is, in turn, I believe, why so many fans are prone to feel very over protective about what is written about Michael. It simply comes from long experience with knowing how the media has always loved to portray Michael Jackson. What is seen as harmless behavior for most celebrities somehow becomes damning when it’s Michael Jackson. (However, if you are curious about this, I’ll just say that you’re probably going to find it quite funnny when you discover just who it was that turned Michael on to pot…hint: It certainly wasn’t any of his heavy metal stoner friends!).
Again, some will fault Frank for this revelation, just as they have for some of the things he reveals about Michael’s private sex life (though nothing too graphic; however, he does say that Michael had quite a few, casual encounters through the years, even with some fans…well, lucky them, I guess). However, I’ll stress again that the importance of knowing this information is that, violation of privacy or not, it does help to exonerate Michael in perhaps a far more crucial way, which is the knowledge that his only sexual interests were in adult relationships with women-not children, and certainly not with boys.
I think for Michael there was always a sort of “disconnect” from the human being that he was, and this sort of idealized vision he had of himself, or rather, the person he wanted to be. Sometimes it’s easy to look at some of his words vs. his actions and call them hypocritical, but that’s oversimplifying a very complex issue. As far as Michael’s stance on drugs and casual sex, he wasn’t just making a public stance when he spoke against them; that was really how he felt. As Frank says, Michael detested the typical drug-seeking, groupie-chasing pop lifestyle. He didn’t want to “be” that or to “become that.” He wanted to be a decent role model for young people to look up to. He also didn’t want to be a cheap womanizer like his father and brothers, and the few times when he gave in to temptation, he wasn’t proud of it. And also, his very religious upbringing played a large role in shaping his adult character-both for better and worse. I think Michael’s biggest overall problem, perhaps, was that he seemed to have a hard time just letting go and giving himself permission to be human. And when he did, there always seemed to be a measure of guilt which only compounded matters for him. I’ve heard people say he was a hypocrite because he claimed to be a vegetarian, but loved KFC (well, how many of us have ever tried to stick to a healty diet with the best of intentions, only to fall off the wagon sometimes-or even to enjoy an occasional indulgence?). I’ve heard people say he was a hypocrite because he spoke against recreational drug use, yet look at how he died (forgetting that his death had nothing to do with a recreational high, but rather was the culmination of years of pain and seeking ways to numb it). I’ve heard people say a lot of ignorant things, but the truth is, nobody knew that the pressure he put on himself to be perfect was more damning than anything anyone else could do or say. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that he never seemed to realize that he didn’t have to be perfect for us to love him.
Personally, I think the book does a great job of balancing the idealized Michael Jackson with the human one. Michael didn’t walk on water and he wasn’t God. His bled like everyone else. But there is a very poignant passage in the book which I’ll quote here, since the quoting of brief passages are allowed for review purposes:
Michael’s skin disease, along with his difficult childhood and the molesation allegations, were conditions or circumstances that he did his best to survive, and the plastic surgeries he had on his nose were, like so many of his eccentricities, attempts to exert some kind of control over his own destiny and happiness. Those surgeries didn’t make him normal. And, in many people’s eyes, they didn’t make him beautiful. What they did do was make him Michael.
I bolded that last sentence to make a point. We could say likewise that Michael’s very human flaws didn’t make him good or bad, beautiful or ugly. But they did make him Michael. What emerges from this book is a portrait of a very beautiful, generous, talented, and intelligent but vulnerable man who had been battering his wings against the iron bars of the gilded cage ever since he was five years old-he had learned how to fight, and how to survive, the only way he knew how. His way wasn’t always the best or most admirable way, but it was his way.
And it was the totality of this very complex humanity that made him who he was. If it achieves nothing else, I think “My Friend Michael” does a wonderful job of capturing that very complex humanity and allowing us all to get to know the man behind the myth a little better. There were many times while reading this book that I laughed out loud (you have to read all about the midnight excursion of the haunted hotel in Scotland; that part is hilarious); there were also many times that I cried. But most of all, I felt inspired. Through the pages of this book, one gets to know the great friend that Frank had in Michael-and when it’s over, we miss him all over again. We feel the ache of that emptiness; the void that has been left. We are reminded anew of how poorer we are for his loss; but also, how enriched we are for having had him among us for a little while.
ETA: (1/14/12): I thought this might be a cute addition to the review. In the book, Frank mentions that he was with Michael at the Virgin Megastore record signing in 2001. Like most fans, I’ve watched the videos of this very well-known event, but until now hadn’t paid much attention to Frank’s role in it. He was just one of the guys sitting to the side. But knowing what I do now, I was curious so I went back to this video series. Of course, the entire eight-part series is available on Youtube, but the one I chose to highlight here is Part 5. At 3:45, a fan is talking to Michael (they discuss a recent bout with larngytis, among other things) and then he asks, “Is that the famous angel? Angel Frankie?” Then, at both 6:51 and 9:29, you can see Frank and Michael cracking each other up as they exchange a couple of private jokes between them (I suspect they might have been joking around about some of the girls in line). It’s very funny and cute to watch, and you really get a feel for what their relationship was like when you watch them interacting here.
ETA: (4/26/12): A very good interview with Frank about the book: