Do you know how you tell if a Jackson’s lying? Their lips are moving! Or, in the case of La Toya Jackson, her pen was moving. Er, make that her ghostwriter's pen was moving. It zipped along to the deliriously tall tales that fill her 1991 memoir La Toya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family. Now that the Jacksons are something to obsess about all over again (are you sick of them yet? I'm not!), La Toya is the deliciously trashy beach reading that comes along but once a summer. There's something morbidly telling about the fact that up until June 25, this shit went for pennies on eBay (my boyfriend bought it for me a few years ago for literally $0.01) and it now starts at almost $50 in Amazon's Marketplace. I'm not judging: it wasn't until this summer that I finally cracked the spine. And I'm so glad that I did.
La Toya's fascinated me for a while now. She's a three-legged dog in a family of champion racers. She is runty in sight, sound and intellect. She's so desperate for attention that, even today, all it takes is some charity advocacy to wind her into a frenzy (scroll down). That's pure camera-driven adrenalin right there. It's tragic, the lengths she's gone to and the ears she's damaged in search of even Jermaine-level success. The only thing sadder than watching her is not watching, since she's so needy for attention.
Desperate enough to be a telling reflection of its "author" (even if it's by way of fun-house mirror), La Toya is appropriately full of lies. It climaxes with a series of her own family's attempts to kidnap her after she finally left their Encino compound Hayvenhurst at around age 30. Reading this section, I was like, "Toy, no one likes you enough to put that much effort into being near you. Stop flattering yourself by way of creating a plot point!" There are pages on end devoted to exonerating her then-husband Jack Gordon, who was accused of bribing feds for the approval of some slot-like gambling machine. Reading page upon page of obviously planted defense, my eyes glazed over but not so much that they kept me from scrawling in the margin, "WHO FUCKING CARES?" I wanted to get back to the dirt about Jermaine's bitch-assness (he was so jealous, he pronounced Thriller a flop upon pre-release listens) and Janet's anti-Semitism and Michael's introspection inspired by (what else?) The Twilight Zone ("...He was sitting in front of the TV asking himself, 'Who am I? Am I really real?'") or La Toya's own delusions of grandeur ("['Wanna Be Startin' Something' is] not about Michael at all, it's about the friction between me and my sisters-in-law"). Who knows what in there is true? (Somehow I just can't picture Janet as a Jew-hater.) Who's gonna let it stop them from being entertained by the possibilities?
To La Toya's credit, she did blow the lid off of how severely fucked-up the Jackson clan is. I'm inclined to believe virtually everything she says about Joe Jackson's abuse (it definitely is a buzz-kill in the scheme of the book, but not enough to make the entire thing a downer -- all else is just too ridiculous). Last week, in going over my archived footage for this post, I found and posted a Phil Donahue Show clip from '89, in which he raves about how scandal- and drug-free all the Jacksons were and how Joseph and Katherine are to be praised. I know he's an asshole, but the fact that anyone could say that with a straight face is pretty amazing considering all that's transpired in the past two decades. And La Toya, for better or worse, wielded the lightning rod as though it were a baton in a parade.
And people were pissed! Check out this clip from a different Donahue appearance (from '91), in which the crowd is livid that she'd be telling her family's secrets. I mean, they are in so many words accusing her of opportunism, which: fair enough. I love that she is both belligerent and completely air-headed in response. Either response wouldn't have helped her cause, but the two together makes this thing full-on farce:
So yeah, the point is that she's kinda sad, really desperate, a little fun and totally hilarious. A sampling of my favorite quotes from her memoir is below. Watch out though: read them and you're gonna get rocked!
- On examining a brain Michael kept in a jar: "...[I] looked at the gray mass floating in formaldehyde. It seemed...quite large."
- On meeting Elvis Presley: "At one point he remarked, 'You know, all this rock and roll, it started with the blacks.' Having heard rumors that Elvis was racist, my siblings and I were pleased to discover otherwise."
- On the Jackson family tutor: "A real Jewish mother, Mrs. Fine always asked whether or not we'd eaten."
- On people wearing clothes once worn by apes: "My brother, who never shopped for himself, used to buy Bubbles [the chimp] clothes, returning home from kids stores...with piles of outfits that were so nice, Rebbie asked if she could have Bubbles' hand-me-downs."
- On people being more interested in apes than Jacksons: "Any time family members dropped by Hayvenhurst, the first words out of their mouths were always, 'Where's Bubbles?'"
- On hilarity: "...When Michael first met Smokey Robinson, all he would talk about afterward was Smokey's hands. 'They were so soft, La Toya, I couldn't believe it,' he marveled. We'd assumed all men's hands were calloused like our father's. It's funny how sometimes seemingly inconsequential details about people stick in your mind."
- On Michael's term of endearment: "Moonface, he used to call me."
- On ignoring evidence: "[Joseph] never stopped loving music. Even today my father is a fine singer and an excellent blues guitarist, though he hasn't picked up the instrument in probably twenty years. My siblings and I have often playfully debated about where we got our music talent."
- On her culinary skills: "One of [my] jobs was to help Mother cook, because according to Joseph, 'You're a girl, and you belong in the kitchen, so you'd better learn how to make cornbread.' I oiled the pans for the muffins and cornsticks. It's an irony of adulthood that you manage to forget much of what you were forced to learn as a child. Today I couldn't cook a pan of cornbread if my life depended on it!"
- On Jackson family misconceptions: "You can see that the Jackson 5 wasn't a kid act singing soul music, but an accomplished soul act that happened to be kids. Michael had such a commanding presence even then, some people actually suspected he was a midget!"
- On Michael's early bond with children: "Every morning Michael and I witnessed, knocking on doors around Los Angeles, spreading the word of Jehovah. As my brother's fame grew, he had to don convincing disguises, like a rubber fat suit he bought years later, around the time of Thriller. Adults were easily fooled by Michael incognito, but it was a rare child who didn't see through his costume in seconds."
- On Katherine's smiling through the body-snark: "...Joseph would often remark, 'Kate, doesn't La Toya look just like you did when we first met? Look at that tiny waist--just like yours used to be.' Mother would smile."
- On facial tics: "While we were in Las Vegas, Randy developed a facial tic."
- On the hard life of a performer: "Promoters and hotel owners don't want to hear about entertainers' problems, not even if they concern possible assassinations."
- On visiting Studio 54: "Everywhere you looked, dancers paused to sniff from tiny colored vials that hung from chains around their necks. I just assumed these were the latest fashion accessories; it never occurred to me they contained cocaine."
- On sinning through pop music: "...You can imagine my dismay when presented with my first single, 'If You Feel the Funk,' which contained the line, 'If you feel the funk, shake your rump.'"
- On interpreting the Jacksons' "Can You Feel It" video: "In it Jackie, Tito, Marlon, Michael and Randy appear as omnipotent, benevolent creators, dispersing joy, wisdom and enlightenment in showers of celestial dust."
- On running into Julio Iglesias in Atlantic City: "He kept embracing me and touching me in places that I guess are okay for some people, but not for me."
- On unnecessary complications: "The biggest celebration at our house was what we called Mother's Day, held on a day other than the traditional second-Sunday-in-May-holiday, usually just after her birthday."
- On what made the Commodores such individuals: "They were a great bunch of guys to be on the road with, always laughing and joking."
- On her husband (by name only!), Jack Gordon and the coining of phrases: "Until meeting Jack I'd assumed that, with the shining exceptions of my brothers, all men were inherently evil like my father. I began to realize how wrong I was. Now, I know you may be thinking, Sure sounds like she's 'liking him' (an expression of mine)."
- On martyrdom: "...Mother equates love with control. Thus she especially loved me, the faithful daughter who willingly sacrificed my own needs to her happiness."
- On zingers: "Observing her two-facedness a number of times, I remarked dryly, 'Mother, you're really a great actress.'"
- On witnessing a Phil Spector freak-out: "Wordlessly, he crept toward the sofa, sat down uncomfortably close next to me, and, staring intently, asked, 'Would you like to go to the Bates Motel?' 'The what? Of course not,' I said laughing. I'd never seen Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho--thank God!--and had no idea what the Bates Motel was. I thought he was just trying to be funny. 'We're here to work, Phil,' I said, anticipating a punch line. 'Why would I want to go to the Bates Motel?'"
- On surviving Phil Spector: "When [Jack Gordon] answered his door, I collapsed into the foyer. 'What's wrong with you?' he asked bewildered. 'Just please help me,' I gasped out of breath. 'You've got to help me.' 'What? What is it, La Toya?' 'Phil Spector.' Jack gave me a look that said, 'Say no more.'"
- On heretical fashion: "I once worried that my fellow Witnesses would judge me materialistic because I preferred wearing natural fabrics to less expensive polyester."
- On the aborted concept of La Toya playing Michael's love interest in the video for "The Way You Make Me Feel": "As far as we were concerned, the two of us would merely be playing parts. But [Michael's manager] Frank Dileo and several other advisers pointed out to Michael that because 'The Way You Make Me Feel' has such overtly sexual overtones, and I am his sister, people might read something into it."
- On her family's disdain for her You're Gonna Get Rocked album cover: "The controversial article of clothing was a rhinestone-encrusted leather brassiere-style top--provocative, but hardly revealing by today's standards. Still, Jermaine was outraged, as was Mother. You'd have thought they just came off the farm, with no idea of how pop music and a sexy image go hand in hand."
- On killing rumors: "One good thing to come out of the Playboy pictures: speculation that Michael and I were the same person was permanently laid to rest."
- On animal obsession: "...Hugh Hefner had called to let me know that Michael showed up unexpectedly at the Playboy mansion, ostensibly to visit its exotic animals."
- On generosity: "Despite living under deplorable conditions, they were so warm and generous, and I truly admire their spirit. Talking to them on the streets of Moscow, I gave them whatever I had on me--little items like lipsticks. From their reaction, you'd have thought I was passing out gold bouillon."
- On self-summary: "One day I came home from school very upset because some kids kept calling me Gorgeous. Having never heard the word before, I was certain they were making fun of me."
The last is my favorite quote of the book because it hits on all of La Toya's major notes: that of the victim, of the self-congratulator, of the utterly clueless. More than singing, dancing or writing, playing these roles is her God-given talent. I'm not sure where this leaves her, but the results are consistently hilarious.
Speaking of funny, and just to put into perspective the level of talent we're dealing with, please enjoy this Jerry Lewis Telethon performance from '89. It's so awful, it's perfect.
And finally, since I'm clearly obsessed, I would like to close this post out with two gifs from another performance. It just feels like the thing to do.
Please, please let's find a cure. I love you.