Hey Mama: Kanye West, Neil Gaiman, and Grief Made Manifest

What awards?  The MTV VMAs this year were all about Kanye West and Taylor Swift.

What awards? The MTV VMAs this year were all about Kanye West and Taylor Swift.

Posted by TERESA

Let’s get one thing straight.  I don’t watch MTV.  I haven’t watched MTV in years.  Sure, it might be because I’m too old to enjoy MTV.  OR, as I think is more accurate, the younger people who watch MTV don’t know any better – and certainly don’t know enough to know that the “M” in MTV stands for MUSIC.

But I digress…

I don’t watch MTV, and I’m not really keen on awards shows, either.  I usually only watch the Oscars every year, if that.  As for the rest, I’m perfectly content to look up the winners the next day and go “Oh, that’s nice.”  So, I wasn’t watching the VMAs this week – I was on my computer trying to write a little, and G-chatting with friends.  All of a sudden, Facebook and Twitter started blowing up about Kanye West, and not in a good way.  They were blowing up about this:

I was so angry after watching this.  To see someone whose music I enjoy and whose talent I respect so much stoop to something like this was appalling.  It would have been bad enough if he had interrupted the winner of an award for which he was nominated.  At least that would have made some sense.  But to interrupt someone on stage – a 19 year old winning her first VMA at that! – to “defend” someone who never asked to be defended in order to right some perceived award show wrong?  It was the fact that this act was so inexplicable that made people furious.  It made me upset, too.

It proceeded to be the watercooler topic of choice the next day as people debated what his act meant.  Whether it was premeditated, or merely the spontaneous, drunken act of a rude, irresponsible douche.  Whether it had to do with race.  Whether it was actually spontaneous, or whether it was staged to garner Kanye, or Taylor, or both publicity.  My stance?  One look at Taylor Swift’s face, and you could tell it wasn’t staged.  At least, not for her benefit.  No matter what’s going on with you, once you lash out at other people, you need to be severely reined in. I thought what he did was inexcusable.  I still do.

Yet, the more I talked about it, the more I realized that there had to be a reason.  People just don’t do things like that.  And then it hit me. Kanye West’s mother passed away a little less than two years ago.  Suddenly, it all made sense to me, because I’ve been thinking about grief a lot in recent years.  But first, watch this:

My own mother passed away 3 1/2 years ago, and it’s only within the past year that I realized exactly what that’s meant for me.

Dad, Me, Mom

Dad, Me, Mom

It’s funny, I started seriously thinking about it after going to my first Neil Gaiman signing here in NYC, when he was signing copies of Blueberry Girl at Books of Wonder.  He was late to the signing, and I discovered later that night that the reason he’d been late was that he got a phone call that his father had passed away in England.  I was both amazed and touched that he’d decided to go on with the signing anyway; to pay us the respect of rewarding us for our time standing in line, and also to allow us to help him feel a little better, which he said on his blog we did.  I was so touched that I wanted to do something, write him something as someone who’d also lost a parent…but I didn’t know what to say.  This set the thoughts in motion, though.  I realized that if I were going to tell him anything (I never did, by the way, and I still have half a letter somewhere that was never sent), the main things I would tell him would be:

Little Neil Gaiman with his grandfather and his father

Little Neil Gaiman with his grandfather and his father

1) Don’t feel guilty about forgetting.  You will.  There will be days when you don’t even think about the person you lost at all.  You eventually won’t be able to remember their face, and will need photos to remind you.  That’s OK.  It’s your mind’s way of saying Hold on to yourself.  Live your life.  Move on.


2) Your grief will manifest in ways you never expected.  It won’t always be clawing-your-eyes-out, sobbing grief.  It won’t always be stoic, honorable grief either.  Sometimes, it will be you yelling at the person behind the counter at Dunkin Donuts, because they accidentally didn’t give you the right change.  Other times, it will be you ignoring your friends, or snapping at them just for being near you whilst having fun and joking around.  You might do something incredibly risky just to see if you can, just to see if you’ll come out of it alive.  This won’t all happen neatly immediately after the death, either.  It will sneak up on you a year later after you’ve quit seeing a therapist because you thought you were all better and really why shell out the money for something you don’t need anymore.

This, too, is OK.  Expect it, so it doesn’t blindside you, but know that you won’t be able to control it no matter what you do.  Your mind, and your body, and your heart are going to demand that you grieve, whether you let it or not.  And if you’re someone like me, who doesn’t like to cry in front of people, who doesn’t like being a burden on those she loves, and who tends to go about things with a stiff upper lip and a “suck it up and deal” attitude, the demands of your grieving will force you to grieve whether you want to or not.  And sometimes, you’ll do very stupid things indeed.

Kanye West and his mother

Kanye West and his mother

It became crystal clear to me what was happening when Jay Leno brought up his mother, and Kanye said “Obviously, I deal with hurt….and so many celebrities they never take the time off…I’ve never taken the time off to really…you know, music after music, and tour after tour…it’s just a shame that my hurt caused someone else’s hurt, my dream of what award shows were supposed to be caused…and I don’t try to justify it, because I was just in the wrong, that’s period.  But I need to, after this, take some time off and just analyze how I’m gonna make it through the rest of this life, how I’m gonna improve.  Because I am a celebrity and that’s something I have to deal with.”

He was going through exactly what I was going through – not making time for grief, perhaps getting more drunk than usual more often, lashing out at people who not only didn’t deserve it, but had nothing to do with anything – except he had the added bonus of having a camera turned on him when he did it.

I’ll say it again.  Kanye West’s mother passed away a little less than two years ago.

Two years went by before I went to that Blueberry Girl event and only started to be able to articulate exactly what I’d been doing and what had been happening to me since my mother’s passing.  It seems as though Kanye’s just received his wake-up moment, too, and hopefully he will take that much needed time off and take the time to grieve.

We all wish and hope to go the Neil Gaiman route: be gracious and together in public, grieve in private, and keep our personal grief separate from the way we treat people.  Perhaps it’s something that comes with age?  Gaiman is in his late 40s, and while that’s still young to be losing a parent, one might be more emotionally equipped to deal with it when it happens at that age.  Kanye and I are both in our early 30s and at a time in our lives when we are just starting to do the things that we hope will make our parents proud of us.  To not have them around to see it can truly be devastating.

So while the act itself remains inexcusable, its motivation is understandable.  At least to me.  And I hope the internet will die down a little bit, and not continue to be hard on Kanye.  Because just as it’s inexcusable to lash out at the expense of a 19 year old girl’s feelings, it’s equally inexcusable to get your internet jollies by electronically stoning a man in pain.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 12:09 AM  Leave a Comment  
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To Mourn, or Not to Mourn?

jackson 5

Posted by TERESA

There have been more than the usual number of celebrity deaths this week.  Ed McMahon died earlier this week, and today had the deaths of Farrah Fawcett, after losing her battle with cancer, and more recently, Michael Jackson, of heart failure.

While they all saddened me, as they each in their way took a piece of my childhood with them (I used to say ‘Heeeeeeeeere’s, Johnny!’ all the time when I was little, and made fun of my sister’s ‘Farrah hair’), it was Michael Jackson’s death that prompted me to write something.  Not just because I was a fan of his music, though I was.  I loved his stuff pretty much all the way up to his Dangerous album.  Not just out of nostalgia, though Michael Jackson’s music, be it with the Jackson 5 or solo, was some of the first pop music I ever listened to.

What prompted me to write this was the reactions to his death.  For every person who was posting sad comments on Twitter, or posting old music videos in tribute on Facebook, there was someone else talking about how glad they were he was dead, or how we shouldn’t pretend that he wasn’t a child molester who should be in jail.


What surprised me wasn’t that those reactions existed – Michael Jackson’s always been a controversial figure – but how angry they made me.  While I loved the man’s music, and respected his place in pop culture, I was never a Michael Jackson fanatic.  Truth be told, before today I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard a song of his.  (No wait.  I listened to my Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits CD the other day.  Never mind.) Yet every time I saw someone either speaking ill of him, making light of his death or acting as though we should focus only on the man’s flaws, I got angry.  I couldn’t put my finger on why until I started to write this.

Those comments smack of hatefulness and hypocrisy.

First, it isn’t up to anyone to police grief.  If someone is upset about someone’s death, it isn’t your job to tell them they’re wrong for doing it.  Hateful.


Second, imagine this:

You’re born into a large familly with an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive father who pretty much pushes you into a music career before you’re remotely near puberty.  This then becomes YOUR LIFE – at the expense of freedom and normal socialization.  It’s as though you’re being punished for being more talented than your other brothers and sisters.  You get older under the constant glare of the spotlight.  There is a solace in music…but on one side your father makes you feel worthless even though you’re the cash cow (Your nose is too big), and on the other you are the BIGGEST STAR IN THE WORLD, which means that you are loved, but impersonally.  You become a well-attended exhibit at the zoo.  You become dehumanized, as any humanity you might have held onto has been replaced with words like “icon.”  After decades, it becomes the only way you know how to interact with the world.

In trying to hold onto your humanity, you latch onto childhood, possibly trying to recreate the one you never really got to enjoy.   This gets you into trouble, because as you’ve been building a fantasy world – creating a child’s play paradise as your home, owning a chimp, dressing up in elaborate costumes – you haven’t figured out how to engage as well with adults.  You try, but it never seems to work as well.

And all the while, people are dancing to your songs in clubs, watching your videos, loving and buying the music.

You’ve mutilated your face to meet with your father’s approval – approval you’re probably never going to get – and people use your love of children and childhood to make a monster of you in the court of public opinion in exchange for hefty payment.  The world of adults has taught you that you are nothing but a commodity to be bought and sold at their whim.  And so you retreat further into childishness…

And all the while, people are dancing to your songs in clubs, watching your videos, loving and buying the music.

Only now, you are also fodder for talk show hosts and comedians.  And they’re not just making good-natured jokes, but very personal ones about you, your family, your children…And everything you do, be it respond in song, face it head-on in a TV interview, or retreat from public view, only seems to exacerbate things.  You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and the gates of hell.

And all the while, people are dancing to your songs in clubs, watching your videos, loving and buying the music.

black or white

Picking up on a theme here?  Michael Jackson’s music has continued to sell.  But not only that – he’s continued to sell magazines, get ratings for TV networks, and have other people make money at his expense.  From the time he was about eight or nine, the American public has been complicit with his father in driving him so far off the deep end that, when asked about it in an interivew, he visibly cannot understand why anyone would think it’s wrong that a child that isn’t his sleeps in his bed.  We’ve continued to buy and enjoy his music as we’ve fed him to the wolves.  Hypocrisy.

Lastly, we don’t just mourn the man.  Only his family and close friends knew him enough to really mourn him.  For the rest of us, it is the passing of an artist we respect, a piece of our childhoods, an influence in music, fashion, dance.  We’ve also lost someone who spent much of his life raising awareness and funds for AIDS research, children’s charities, and the poor and hungry in Africa.

I don’t understand anyone who feels the need to jump on the Death Celebration Train.  Call me crazy, naive, or a bleeding heart, but I’ve never been someone who could be happy about someone’s death.  One of my first thoughts after I heard about Jackson’s death was about his kids.  I’m not trying to be funny, but those kids aren’t accustomed to normal sunlight.  I can’t imagine what they’ll go through now that the one adult they had who was making sense of the world for them – nonsensical as it may have seemed to us – is gone. 

michael and children

Hell, even when Saddam Hussein died I didn’t jump on the celebration bandwagon.  One of my first thoughts was Someone, somewhere misses him and is sad he’s gone.  And HE didn’t write Thriller.

RIP Michael.  Thanks for the music.

Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 11:13 PM  Comments (8)  
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