With a new litany of bizarre and disturbing stories coming out of the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial each day, some mental-health experts are split on the picture that the allegations paint of the pop star.
"In anyone else's case, you could easily [be led] to conclusions that are fairly negative," said Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and founder of the school's sexual disorders clinic. "But this is such an eccentric person who leads such a different lifestyle that you have to wonder if this is just a character he's portraying who does outrageous things or someone who is really involved in sexual improprieties?"
Berlin said that even with Jackson's repeated assertions that he doesn't want to grow up and likes living the life of a child, the question of whether the singer's alleged actions amount to the profile of a child molester is open.
"It strikes me as peculiar that none of the allegations with respect to the latest boy have to do with the time period before the [Martin Bashir] documentary," Berlin said of the 2004 TV special that spurred the police investigation leading to the charges against Jackson. "It airs and then he decides to turn it into a sexual liaison?"
But Dr. Richard Lawlor, associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the school's chief of forensic child psychiatry, said allegations that Jackson provided the cancer-stricken child with soda cans full of "Jesus Juice" (wine) and surfed pornographic Web sites with the boy (as alleged by the victim's younger brother in court this week) are troubling (see "Witness: I Saw Michael Jackson Molesting My Brother").
"Showing pornography to children is a typical 'grooming' behavior," Lawlor said. "Oftentimes you see people — though not of his star caliber — become the neighborhood friends of children, filling their homes with toys and games that are of interest to children. The allegations definitely raise red flags, especially for someone who spends an inordinate percentage of their life around children. I've seen a number of people who have PlayStations or pool tables in their homes that kids can come use anytime they want, but that's a far cry from the fantasy world of Neverland. Part of the behavior can be not overtly sexual things, but gradual touching and, in some instances, starting to show the kids pornographic films or magazines. Sometimes alcohol can be a part of that. Before you do anything, you get the children primed for that behavior."
Jackson's attorney Thomas Mesereau admitted in court on Tuesday that Jackson had "girlie" magazines at Neverland but said that he never shared them with children.
As for why a grown man would share his bed with unrelated children, allow them to call him "daddy" and have a physical bond with them that included hugging and appearing in front of them naked in a sexually aroused state, as the boy's younger brother testified, Lawlor said they are all actions that may hint to a kind of arrested development.
"As a general rule, when you have people who molest children, one of the important considerations is whether this person is a regressive molester or a fixated molester," Lawlor said. "A regressive person, for the most part, has normal sexual development, but when they get under a period of stress from divorce, career failure or the death of a parent, they fall apart and regress and engage in that kind of behavior. It's a breakdown in the normal coping mechanism. A fixated person is one whose interest in children developed early on, and they never progressed. They have difficulty with dealing with normal adult heterosexual relationships."
Lawlor said that difficulty could derive from being molested as a child or having a sexual experience at too early an age, which causes a primary focus on children. "He seems trapped in the childhood he never had," Lawlor said of Jackson. "He makes a great display of how he enjoys being like a child, which is not, in itself, a problem, but if it progresses to doing inappropriate things with children, then it is."
The accuser's brother also testified that Jackson asked him if he'd ever masturbated, and when he said he hadn't, the singer allegedly told him, "Everyone does it. You should try it. It's OK." Lawlor said the message to children that masturbation is not wrong in and of itself is OK, but that it's not typically the place of a stranger to deliver that lesson.
Berlin agreed that the testimony about alcohol and pornography fit the profile of a typical molester, but said the other facts that have come out in the case seemed inconsistent to him. "Ordinarily, when I hear about a boy sleeping in an unrelated adult's bed or bedroom that would raise a red flag," Berlin said. "But that person would not normally put it out in public and talk about it. They'd do their best to hide it. Same with giving alcohol and showing pornography. It fits the profile, but it's almost always done in secrecy, and it's less likely to happen when that person is already under suspicion."
In addition, Berlin said that given Jackson's fame, wealth and power, it strikes him as odd that, unlike most people involved in inappropriate behavior with children, Jackson is alleged to have limited his liaisons to just a few victims.
"He's had the opportunity to do it with hundreds over the years," Berlin said. "Why is he not attempting sexual involvements with all these other kids if he has the opportunity? And why wait until the heat is on before initiating a liaison?"
For full coverage of the Michael Jackson case, see "Michael Jackson Accused."