Published: Jul 18, 2009
It is early December, 1984, just two years after "Thriller," the twin towers of Michael Jackson's revolutionary music video and album, shot to the top of the charts.
Patricia Highsmith, the sixty-three year old Dark Lady of American Letters, is in the fourth decade of a shadowy self-exile from the United States. Her life's work to date –- twenty novels and short story collections including her two masterpieces, Strangers On a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) –- has long since been corralled into the "thriller" category. But when it comes to music, her pleasure is worlds away from Michael Jackson; she loves Mozart and classic Broadway musical comedies.
Highsmith and her favorite character, the talented Tom Ripley, share some serious identities with the still beautiful, still visibly black, still apparently male twenty-six year old creator of "Thriller."
This connection is obvious to no one but Pat Highsmith. Just now, she is intending to write a story about "someone like Michael Jackson." Or does she mean it to be a story about someone like herself?
Highsmith has been living in Switzerland and France, shuttling between two houses in which she doesn’t feel comfortable, travelling between two countries whose languages she refuses to speak. Her physical moves have been as extreme as her moods. And her moods began on the day in 1924 when her mother Mary wed her stepfather Stanley and shattered Pat's childhood dream of marrying her mother. The violence of her imagination continues to circle this incident, the most painful laceration of her life.
Highsmith's single-minded pursuit of silence and peace has made her a restless exile from Texas, from New York, from England, from France -- from everywhere, really. Her love life – a Pandora's box of sexually and intellectually interesting women, a few good men, and some deeply disturbing fantasies – is almost always kept secret. A fortune teller once told her mother that Pat should have been a son not a daughter, and Pat believes this. The word "transgressive" might have been invented for her.
Just now, she is living in a Swiss village so steeply ringed by mountains that in winter her 17th century stone house gets less than two hours of sunlight a day. There are bars on the windows of its bottom floor, and she imagines it to be a submarine bathed in emanations from the granite in the mountains. She spends her time in this dark house taking notes, talking to herself, and thinking up little inventions to lighten her days.
The radiant beauty of her youth is gone. Years of drinking, depression, and raging internal fires have ravaged it. But Pat can still magnetize a room or a guest with her piercing, dark-eyed glance that darts up from under her bangs; assessing you, says one young friend, "with the shrewdness of a homicide cop looking for evidence of wrongdoing."
Perched in a rocky canton in the world's most pristine country, Pat’s mind just naturally turns to images of cancer, toxic waste, radiation, poison, rape, torture, the horrors of nuclear war... and to Michael Joseph Jackson, the twenty-six year old American pop star whose personal life is not yet a matter of public record and whose music and dancing have taken the world by storm.
But it isn't Jackson's music Highsmith is interested in --- and it isn't his moonwalking.
Highsmith's subject in all her writing has always been the double, the Alter Ego, and its natural enabler: the alluring and dangerous act of self-transformation. She first proposed it in "Strangers on a Train", turning Plato upside down to make it work: "There's also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush." In "The Talented Mr Ripley", she gave it a triumphant shape – the shape of the American Dream -- and a successful form in the character of Tom Ripley, a young grifter of indeterminate sexuality, who, like his creator, wants only "the best" in life, slips in and out of different roles with ease, confuses love with murder, and gets away with everything.
In each of her books, Pat has paid special attention to the way dress can affect and express character. In life, she is particular about clothes and chooses costumes -- crisply ironed Oxford shirts, black loafers, vests, well-cut boy's pants – that announce her androgyny. Sanity is a central preoccupation: "I think I have some schizoid tendencies, which must Be Watched," she wrote grimly. "I fear the madness in me, quite near the surface."
When Pat turned her coroner's gaze to the young Michael Jackson, it was his budding "schizoid" tendencies she thought she saw; tendencies she had long since identified in herself: his obsession with costumes and transformation; his irrevocably divided character; his desperate attempts to retrieve the golden childhood he never had by surrounding himself with children and animals. (They had Peter Pan in common, too: Pat named a cat Tinkerbell, Michael called his kingdom Neverland.)
Those tendencies would metastasize grotesquely in Michael Jackson over the next quarter of a century until some variation of "Is he all there?" came to be the second question people would always ask about the self-styled King of Pop.
So it would have been with some sense of kinship that Highsmith, on the morning of December 10, 1984, hitched her chair up to her roll-top desk, lit up another Gauloise jaune, tightened her grip on her favorite Parker pen, and began –- very shrewdly, for the limited amount of information she had about him -- to parse Michael Jackson's character in a paragraph.
In 1984, Mr. Jackson had not yet attracted world-wide derision by adopting the chimpanzee Bubbles as a kind of double. In 1984, he had not yet publicly dedicated himself to Narcissus by composing his signature song, "Man in the Mirror" (1988), nor had the successive waves of child molestation charges that would wash over him in the 1990's yet submerged the brilliant dancing, the unearthly voice, the increasingly stylized spectacles designed to cover the wounded vulnerability. When Pat Highsmith decided to pin him to her butterfly board, the press was still treating Michael Jackson as a pop angel; a cuddly cross-over youth phenomenon -- despite those violent videos in which he dressed in military drag, plucked definitively at his crotch, turned into a slavering monster, and frolicked with ghouls. It would be a decade before his plastic surgeries, his bent for cross-dressing, his uncompassed roamings and his unruly urges began to make his name a byword for "transgression."
Although she never wrote her Jackson story, Pat Highsmith managed to be the first person to bring back the news about Michael Jackson, as much from the ends of her nerves as from anywhere else. And what she wrote that morning in 1984 was something like an epitaph for a lost boy, twenty five years before his death -- an epitaph couched in the low, flat, compellingly psychotic murmur she used for all her later work. It is, like most of what Highsmith wrote, a stunning shortcut into the perversities of the human heart. And it has, unlike so much of what is now being written about Michael Jackson, the virtue of absolute clarity:
A type like Michael Jackson, in love with himself. Sterling image to the public. Schizo finally. He talks to himself as he dresses. He becomes two persons within himself. Friends are aware of this –-- but the boy is a money-maker.
Guest Butler Joan Schenkar is the author of The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith coming this fall from St. Martin’s Press.
To read more about Highsmith's "The Price of Salt" on HeadButler.com, click here.
To buy “The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith” from Amazon.com, click here.
© 2009 Joan Schenkar