Michael Jackson and Judy Garland: Does Vulnerability Cause Addiction or Is it the Key to America’s Recovery?


Last night I was watching an old documentary of Judy Garland. One of the narrators who had once been head of CBS commented that she was the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century. She had exceptional abilities as a singer, dancer, and actor. The narrator also made the observation that her vulnerability is what endeared her to an audience. She held nothing back. Her interpretation of a song had such heart and she also let it all hang out in television interviews as well. She told the truth, her truth of course, as a great raconteur, but she didn’t craft a story just to make herself look good. She didn’t hide and people loved her for it, and yet “she could hit a song like a guy, with the command that Sinatra brought to his music.”

I thought about this as I heard Berry Gordy refer to Michael Jackson as being the greatest entertainer that ever lived. Two people who were loved by their fans, their family and friends, and had long time drug addiction issues. Although Michael was extremely vulnerable inside, he wore a mask, literally and figuratively. He hid so much of himself and as he got older, the secrets got bigger, and the addiction more pervasive.

What gave both of their performances on stage such power was in part ( at least on the emotional level) that vulnerability. The greatest performance artists of our time have it and few escaped addiction. The paradox of what it takes to reach an audience and what it costs you (if you are that vulnerable) is tremendous. Being in the spotlight with all eyes on you with the public’s incredibly ridiculous projections contrast so greatly with how the individual who is a “sensitive” feels on the inside. To be an icon who the public can identify with requires access to the little guy inside and yet this child part has no coping skills for the demand of always being on display. Alcohol, pills, and heavy narcotics become the way that this child part finds to shut out the world and all its expectations.

I think that the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett ( another highly sensitive star who had once had some addiction issues) are shining the light on addiction, but they pose another cautionary lesson. To be a leader whether that is in the entertainment business, politics, religious institutions, or corporate America is to bring your authentic self to the people. The evolution of our consciousness is demanding that all “the masks and gloves” be ripped off of anyone in the public eye who purports to be one thing and keeps another shame ridden self deep in the cellar of the subconscious. Although we are seeing this “uncovery” through people like Jackson, Ted Haggart, and Governor Sanford, we too are being called to step out of the shadows.

Every human being has a part of themselves that is the child, that is vulnerable and scared at times. It is time for us all, not just our leaders, to attend to that child. To listen without judgement to its fears rather than sedating or numbing out its cries. When we invoke within ourselves a good parent to take care of the child, authenticity comes easier and so do boundaries. When the child part of us is not abandoned by us through substance abuse, food, and a myriad of distractions such as internet addictions, we can handle the judgements of the world and give the child what it really needs: love from the self not fleeting adulation from others. And to be a good parent means to say to the child: “loving you sometimes means telling you no.” “No, you can’t spend more than you have, eat more than you need to be healthy, or sacrifice sleep to get more done in a day.

I have great hope for America. We have come far since the days of Bill Clinton who did not trust himself or the people to come clean with his addictions. In the few months since he has been in office, Barack Obama has taken full responsibility for mistakes made. A perfect president? Far from it. However, I do think he is more authentic than anyone we’ve seen in office yet so it is for us to take our masks off first to ourselves and peer into our own deepest shadow and let the world see us: good, bad, and ugly. Every time you allow vulnerability without shame, every time you allow vulnerability through self deprecating humor, you stand for a healed relationship with your emotions and you provide a leadership to whomever is listening to you: your children, your community, your co-workers. This is the key to America’s recovery.

Thanks to reality tv, everyone wants overnight celebrity driven success. Andy Warhol said prophetically, eventually, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. What if we stopped seeking the spotlight and replaced it with our inner light? It could be the key to feeling strong through vulnerability. If what we are seeking is to give the world our light, our full potential self, there is no need to buffer ourselves with addictive substances because there would be no disparity between what shines through you and what is you. This is the real stardom…

Dr. Toni Galardi is a licensed psychotherapist and author of her new book The LifeQuake Phenomenon: How to Thrive ( not just survive) in Times of Personal and Global Upheaval