Updated: Aug 30
On 25 June, 2009, Michael Jackson died of a propofol (and possibly lorazepam and midazolam) overdose. Soon after, his personal doctor, Conrad Murray, was charged in the singer’s death. Although Murray claimed his job was to “keep surveillance” on the health of Jackson and his children and to make sure that everyone “washed [their] hands” and ate right, it was clear that his most important job was to enable the singer to sleep with the help of a pharmacopeia of drugs. On 7 November, 2011, Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man
Murray chose not to testify at his trial, but in the media circus that accompanied the proceedings, he more than made up for his silence on the stand. In particular, he participated in a BBC documentary (The Man who Killed Michael Jackson – a name I’m sure he did not choose), which was eventually sold to MSNBC and renamed Michael Jackson and the Doctor: A Fatal Friendship. The film covered the months leading up to the trial and a small portion of the trial itself. A few days before the verdict, Murray granted an interview to the Today show. His arguments in the court of public opinion hinge on what strikes me as an interesting red herring: was Michael Jackson an addict?
In an interview with Steve Hewlett at the beginning of the BBC documentary, Murray described Jackson as “drug-seeking.” Jackson’s arms, he continued, revealed “drug user’s, drug abuser’s” veins. He talked about Jackson’s “dependency,” adding that the singer “pleaded” for propofol. This, in a nutshell, is Murray’s defense: Jackson was an addict and, consequently, he was responsible for his own death. His ad hominem innuendo, however, backfired. When Hewlett noted that maybe Murray was “less doctor; more supplier” (ad hominem tu quoque?), Murray abruptly ended the interview and stormed out of the room.
In the Today show interview with Savannah Guthrie, Murray pushed his argument further, claiming that Jackson hired him under false pretenses and complaining that he was “entrapped” by the arrangement. When asked if he regretted giving Jackson propofol the night he died, Murray disregarded the question, saying instead, “it’s difficult to think that I met Michael with the situation where he was absolutely having use of that substance long before I got there,” by which he means that Jackson’s propofol dependency predated their doctor-patient relationship. When Guthrie tried, again, to return Murray to her line of reasoning, asking if he was “right” to leave Jackson unattended, he once again returned to his own argument: “had I known what I know today in retrospect, that Mr. Jackson was an addict, and he had shared that information with me – addicts may behave in a way that is unreasonable.” Once again, this line of reasoning didn’t sway the interviewer, who countered with the argument that Jackson was a desperate man, and Murray had a medical obligation to help.
In one last effort to frame Jackson as an addict – and himself as Jackson’s victim – Murray mused that Jackson did not have “an active intention to do me harm,” but there was a “degree of betrayal.” If Jackson had survived the overdose, Murray indignantly declared, he would have quit.
Is this the face of addiction?
A reasonable person might wonder why this matters. After all, anyone can die of a propofol overdose, particularly when it’s coupled with lots of benzodiazepines and a doctor who had reneged on his Hippocratic Oath. Plus, no one really dies of addiction, so Murray is not proposing an alternate cause of death. Why would the doctor resort to this line of defense?
Murray’s claim – that he was an innocent dupe entrapped by the cunning and deceitful Jackson – is really an attempt to shift responsibility for the pop star’s death to Jackson himself. Murray’s lawyer, Ed Chernoff, also made this argument, saying, “when Dr. Murray left the room, Michael Jackson self-administered a dose” of the anesthetic, which, coupled with the other drugs he had taken, “created a perfect storm in his body that killed him instantly.” The defense eventually recanted this line of reasoning, but Murray continued to offer it as an exonerating explanation for Jackson’s death.
Based on Murray’s comments, we can infer a provocative definition of “addict,” one that frames an argument about guilt and innocence. For Murray, addiction is a pre-existing condition that a person is obligated to report. An addict, especially one who hides his condition, is dishonest, manipulative, powerful, and destructive. Because he chooses to take a drug, an addict is therefore liable for his own self-destruction as well as for those he destroys in the process. Most importantly, I think, Murray implies that one can die of addiction (as opposed to dying of an overdose or from improper medical care). Following this reasoning to its logical conclusion, Jackson’s death was more properly a suicide than a murder.
Instead of a bad doctor, Murray sees himself as a hobbled hero. Instead of a parasite, he is a friend. Instead of a murderer, he is a victim of Jackson’s dishonesty and manipulation. The judge at his trial was particularly offended by this line of reasoning, saying, “to hear Dr. Murray say it, Dr. Murray was a bystander . . . Talk about blaming the victim. Not only is there not any remorse, there’s umbrage and outrage.”
Murderer? Hapless stooge? Hero?
Murray’s decision to defend himself by calling Michael Jackson an addict does something interesting to the current way we think about addiction. Calling addiction a disease, as we now most commonly do, highlights certain aspects of a person’s relationship to a substance, while downplaying others. In general, when we say addiction is a disease, we cast addicts in a sick role and, in the process, we absolve them of a significant amount of responsibility for their actions. As a result, we reduce their agency, framing them as patients in need of expert medical and psychological intervention. Murray’s accusation, however, suggests a different argument, one in which Jackson did have agency and, thus, responsibility for the consequences of his actions. His reframing of addiction as a moral failing returns to an earlier theory of addiction – one the medical model intended to mitigate – while also paradoxically challenging an overly simplistic medical model. In an ideal world, thinking about this argument could help foster a conversation about how addiction is more than simply a moral failing, or a crime, or a disease. We might talk more explicitly about iatrogenic addiction, and drug use, and harm reduction. Sadly, I see no evidence of any of these conversations.
Unlike just about every other aspect of his life – plastic surgeries, ridiculous eccentricities, megacelebrity, ostentatious consumption, an odd (and possibly inappropriate) obsession with children – Michael Jackson’s insomnia humanizes him. Anyone who has found him/herself awake in the middle of the night can sympathize with his suffering and desperation. I know I can. His insomnia also suggests some interesting ways to problematize Murray’s accusation of addiction. If a person can’t sleep without the aid of a substance, are they addicted to that substance? Does rebound insomnia count as withdrawal? Does sleep anxiety count as craving? If so, then the nation’s population of “addicts” must surely at least double in size. And if this is the case, we might all work to foster sympathy and respect for those who struggle with the negative consequences of drug use, whether they be overdose, or poverty, or incarceration, or illness, or shame. I doubt this will be Michael Jackson’s – or Conrad Murray’s – legacy, but maybe it should be.