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Does Confidentiality End When You Die? The Michael Jackson Revelations

Why do people feel that it is permissible to break confidences after someone has died? Is this ethical, or more importantly, is this being a good friend? If these are the kinds of friends Michael Jackson had to live with while he was alive, it is no wonder that he felt as lonely and sad as he appears to have felt.
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The death of Michael Jackson will not leave anyone for a while. I hesitate to say he "was" a phenomenon, because more than most musical stories, his will be a legend that will last for generations. He is and will always be.

It is easy to see why his death was such a shock for so many people then, and why so many people have come out of their relationship closets with him to mourn the loss of someone who was "close" to them. Yet, throughout the reporting, I have had a distinct discomfort about the emphasis on his drug use and this as a potential cause of his death. It strikes me that many of his confidantes do not see themselves as "entrusted ones" now that he is gone. Why do people feel that it is permissible to break confidences after someone has died? Is this ethical, or more importantly, is this being a good friend? If these are the kinds of friends Michael Jackson had to live with while he was alive, it is no wonder that he felt as lonely and sad as he appears to have felt. Providing evidence in confidence to necessary authorities is one thing. Proclaiming confidential facts to the public is another.

The rip-roaring undercurrent of the allegations of drug use have been filled with waves of concern that we should use this celebrity death to expose the sanguine Hollywood doctors who prey on celebrities; that we should educate the public and our children about the dangers of prescription drug abuse; and that this mystery needs to be solved: why did such a young man die so suddenly?

While I do respect these opinions about the shady Hollywood doctors, or the need to emphasize the problems with prescription drug use, listening to these affirmations has left me wondering how respectful this is. Would Michael Jackson have wanted his "friends" and "confidantes" to speak about him in this way? And if he confided in them, did he convey that this confidence ended after his death? Are deaths an "opportunity" to educate the public at the cost of respect to someone whom one purports to love and admire?

While there have been many celebrations of Michael Jackson and many wonderful things that have been said about him, what is this need that we appear to have to devalue his life at the same time that we are idealizing it? When I asked a colleague about this, he said that we do not want to idealize his drug use. And I fully agree. But is the time of death a time to push our own ideologies? Is it a time when we want to stand on our pedestals and scream out our social causes? Why do I feel that there is something so crass about this; something lacking in dignity and class?

If our lives were exposed in dribs and drabs, most of us would shudder to think of how people understood us without the full story. Most of us would be afraid that we would be misunderstood. When you last told a close friend a secret, did you have at the back of your mind that after you died, this would not be a secret any more? What about the people who survive you? Whatever happened to doctors maintaining confidentiality, or treating the dead with dignity? I know that this is not black or white (no pun intended), and that people sometimes have mixed intentions. But giving up the confidence of a close friend or patient is a sad decision, and one, that I think we would benefit from reflecting on after a person is dead and gone.

Michael Jackson is an icon. He is an artist who transformed the world of music and movement. He made a choice to show us his talents so that we could enjoy what he had to offer. He gave us evidence of the possibility of originality and of the power of moving a world with one's own transcendence. He was a man with an "outside" and an "inside"; a man who grew increasingly uncomfortable with his "outside" despite his immense success. Yet, his legacy lives on because of what he had "inside" and how this translated into his art. Whatever pain he had, it was "inside". He didn't want to show it to us. He didn't want to feel it. And if he was abusing prescription medication, this was probably part of his pain.

If Michael Jackson told anyone about his pain or pain medications, I would think that his sharing this information was a privilege for the person who heard it. Releasing this information after a person's death is a betrayal of this confidence and one that deserves some consideration. We all make mistakes in what we say. But it behooves us to recognize this when that mistake is the betrayal of confidence of a friend or confidante.