For years, Michael Jackson's eccentric behavior has fascinated the world. Now, some medical experts are wondering whether the King of Pop suffers from some "psycho-emotional" retardation that causes him to live in a kind of permanent childhood.
With an amusement park for a back yard and penchant for entertaining young friends, is Jackson just a big kid himself, or could his actions signal something more troubling?
Jackson, 45, surrendered Thursday to police in Santa Barbara County, Calif., after authorities obtained an arrest warrant accusing him of multiple counts of child molestation. Jackson has denied the allegations and says he will be vindicated in court.
The singer spends a great deal of his time associating with children, but he himself maintains many childlike qualities. He speaks in a childlike voice and pursues childish activities such as scooter riding (even when children are not present). Like Peter Pan, he even lives in a place called Neverland.
Many people love children, and there is nothing necessarily sinister about Jackson's affinity for youngsters. None of the experts in forensic psychiatry and child development who were interviewed had any direct knowledge of the case, and none made any judgment on Jackson's possible guilt or innocence.
It is the seemingly extreme childishness that Jackson himself exhibits that experts find unique.
Television interviews with Jackson make it appear as if he wants to "hang onto and preserve his childlike demeanor," said Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychiatric expert in pedophilia at Johns Hopkins University. "He seems proud of it."
"He seems stuck in childhood himself," said forensic psychiatrist Ryan Finkenbine of West Virginia University Medical School. "It's one of the more interesting aspects of the case."
Michael Borack, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Cincinnati Medical School, has evaluated many pedophiles, and says Jackson does not fit the usual profile.
"[His eccentric behavior] is not typical of most offenders," Borack said. "Most offenders are 'normal' people who could be your neighbors, not freaky or weird."
Most pedophiles will keep toys or other such appealing items around to lure children, but they do not usually play with the items much themselves.
Richard Lawlor, chief of Outpatient Forensic Child Psychiatry Services at the Indiana School of Medicine, notes that many pedophiles do display some form of arrested development in that they choose to focus their attention on young children over other adults. "They become 'fixated' during development," Lawlor said. "We don't know why."
However, Lawlor says Jackson's childish demeanor would be rare among pedophiles. "I don't think that kind of behavior is very common," he said.
Some experts feel that pedophiles display a kind of Peter Pan syndrome and use children to hang onto their youth. Berlin cautions that this explanation is perhaps too hasty. "That's getting into a theory of cause, which I think is difficult," he said.
Berlin maintains there is no "typical" pedophile. "That's like saying, 'What is the typical heterosexual?'"
However, Ken Lanning, a retired FBI special agent who specialized in child sex crimes, says Jackson may fit some of the characteristics of an "acquaintance molester." Acquaintance molesters choose victims outside the family and seduce children with affection and attention.
But, he cautioned, "Just because you have some of the characteristics, it does not mean you are guilty."
Not an Excuse
Jackson raised eyebrows when he told British journalist Martin Bashir in a documentary that he has allowed children to sleep in his bed at the Neverland Ranch. He said there was nothing sexual about it.
If Jackson does suffer from some form of psycho-emotional retardation, it's possible he thought innocent snuggling in bed would be OK, experts say. However, Borack pointed out, "Jackson is an adult with an adult's sex drive."
Experts agree that, regardless of what may or may not have happened with Jackson, children should not be sleeping with unrelated adults of the opposite gender. "It just opens the door for misunderstandings at best," said Borack.
Borack speculates that Jackson's tumultuous upbringing may have left lasting emotional scars that help explain his odd behavior as an adult. "From what I've observed in TV interviews, Jackson had a violent, dictatorial father and an isolated upbringing. He never really had a childhood."
In any event, Jackson's eccentricities have increased the attention surrounding the scandal.
"[Jackson] is such an unusual person," Berlin said. "It makes the case that much more difficult."