The King of Pop is gone—that spectacular, superhuman figure from the 1993 Super Bowl performance, arms outstretched, white shirt fluttering like a flag, black hair against a pale face. Or that chocolate-skinned, full-nosed Michael, all sex and androgyny at the same time in that white suit on the cover of Thriller, the first album I ever owned.
He died of “acute propofol intoxication,” according to the Los Angeles County coroner. And to think that he, of all people, after a strange, tragic half-century of a life died from an anesthetic given to colonoscopy patients rings of a particular pathos. Other musicians overdosed on smack or coke. Jackson was killed by milk of amnesia.
He reportedly took propofol to sleep.
Bullshit, I say. Jackson wouldn’t have played with his life—no matter how painful it was—all for a better night’s sleep.
I was given propofol three years ago during a colonoscopy, the way a person is supposed to have it—in a doctor’s office, hooked up to a heart monitor, as a sedative for a medical procedure. “It’s very clean,” a nurse assured me. At the time, I thought her word choice was odd.
But propofol was the least of my concerns. I was 33 years old at the time, undergoing this unusual procedure for someone my age because, a couple months earlier, I had an ovarian tumor surgically removed that appeared to be intestinal in origin. I was preoccupied by the sudden precariousness of my mortality and fertility, and the shock of being a young, healthy person who was suddenly seriously ill.
Because of that—and something doctors euphemistically call “colonoscopy prep,” of which I’ll spare you the details—I was a wreck when I arrived to the doctor’s office.
However, taking propofol was one of the most truly pleasant pharmaceutical experiences. Propofol didn’t just make me sleepy; it made me feel as if my soul had been detached from my body and was resting just above it, on a cloud of marshmallow fluff, sweet and achingly tender. It made the time I was under its influence pass in a flicker like the inside of a tunnel viewed from a bullet train, just a glimpse of darkness and lights stretched into long streaks. Then daylight.
I remember seeing the gastroenterologist through my milk-of-amnesia haze, and feeling something for him that was akin to love. Not desire, just an expansive, all-encompassing euphoria that had no rhyme or reason. Everyone looked beautiful—I could see past their external appearances and feel their radiance within. The doctor pointed to an image of the inside of my colon on a screen. That was even beautiful, too.
When I came to, I felt redefined, the boundaries between me and the world around me crisper—clean, just as the nurse had promised. The worries and fears I brought to the doctor’s office eventually seeped back, but for a few hours they seemed as vague and insignificant as my tenuous memory of events and conversations in the doctor’s office. Had they really happened or had I imagined them?
I felt refreshed, not the least bit groggy, but it was more than that—it was a catharsis. That feeling, I’m convinced, is what Jackson wanted. Not the sleep, but the escape. The sweetness of being outside of a body that had borne the belt lashings of his abusive father, the excruciating scars of the burns he suffered in the 1984 Pepsi commercial accident and the shame he associated with the vitiligo that became both the metaphor and the rationale for his racial ambiguity—black skin turning white, battling against ugliness.
What did Jackson want to relegate to the realm of the imagined? It might be easy, viewing the countless time-lapse photo montages of his changing face, to say his blackness. Or, honing in on the devastating low points of his life and career, to say the accusations of child molestation—and maybe whatever it was that happened at Neverland.
But in death, perhaps too late, we have redefined Michael Jackson with a blend of adulation and pity that counters the mockery and revulsion we levied on him in life. And somewhere in between those opposing impulses the real answers lie.
Did he envision the milky-white propofol as his Lethe, the mythological river of forgetfulness from which souls drank to wipe away memories of the past life before reincarnating?
If so, then maybe another, happier piece of recent news related to Jackson offers some insight. On what would have been Jackson’s 51st birthday, in front of the Monument of the Revolution, 12,000 dancers broke a world record for the largest number of people dancing to “Thriller” in a single gathering British and Spanish fans, as well as Filipino prisoners, have also recreated the dance. To say the least, these videos are remarkable.
That these iconic dance moves, the song and accompanying video narrative about—that’s right—life after death have reincarnated Jackson in the bodies and faces of the multiracial, international throngs of dancing Latin Americans, Europeans, Pacific Islanders may have been just the kind of reincarnation Jackson longed for when he turned to pharmaceutical elixirs.
He’s gone, tragically, but now he is redefined beyond color, beyond abuse, beyond pain.
He is, in a word, clean.
Angie Chuang is an assistant professor of journalism at American University School of Communication.