On December 8, 1993, La Toya Jackson announced to the world that her brother Michael was a pedophile. She was supposed to be on vacation in Tel Aviv, Israel, but duty called, and so she held a press conference. Gossiping about her family at that point had effectively become La Toya Jackson’s full-time job. She was working overtime.
“I cannot and will not be a silent collaborator of his crimes against small, innocent children,” she said. At the time, Michael was under investigation as a result of 13-year-old Jordan Chandler’s claims that he’d been molested by the pop star.
“And if I remain silent, that means I feel the guilt and humiliation that these children are hearing, and I think it’s very wrong,” La Toya said, her mew of a voice curdling into something like ferocity. She begged for common sense: “You stop and you think for one second and you tell me, what 35-year-old man is going to take a little boy and stay with him for 30 days? And take another boy and stay with him for five days in a room and never leave the room?”
Many people were saying these things, but La Toya was the only Jackson saying them. Now that Leaving Neverland has swung the conversation back to La Toya’s expressed interpretation of Michael’s relationships with various prepubescent children, her claims have come back to haunt. Last week, the story of her press conference circulated widely via news outlets like People, Complex, and NME. At the time, La Toya was met with skepticism, and she herself would refute her allegations eventually, explaining that she’d been forced to make them by her abusive, controlling husband and manager Jack Gordon.
But throughout much of the ’90s, telling family secrets was La Toya’s brand—so much so, that she launched a 900 number that decade that allowed callers to access dirt about various family members with the push of a button. About two years before that press conference, she had ripped the façade off 2300 Jackson Street with the publication of and press tour for her memoir, La Toya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family, which alleged horrifying parental abuse.
“Our father controlled us with the constant, implicit threat of further violence,” wrote the Jackson family’s middle child in the book, which went on to peak at No. 2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and received a seismic amount of media coverage due in no small part to the enduring cultural fascination with her brother Michael.
All along, La Toya’s credibility was openly questioned, sometimes to her face as she promoted her book. “Why should we believe you?” asked Harry Smith on CBS This Morning on September 10, 1991, the day her book was released. Later, Entertainment Tonight ran a poll that found over 50 percent of respondents saying her abuse allegations were her “exploiting a personal matter.” Her family refuted her claims so many times, it was like a call and response: La Toya told on the Jacksons, the Jacksons cried, “Lies!”
But regardless of whether La Toya had finally cracked the attention economy with her allegations, or was legitimately advocating for abuse survivors, she had opened a Pandora’s Box of information that could never again be closed. Some of her claims were eventually corroborated by family members’ accounts. Others, like the molestation allegation, have found renewed relevance. La Toya was the first Jackson sibling to detail how far the Jackson clan deviated from its squeaky clean all-American image. (It’s hard to believe but for a time, the biggest scandal that rocked the family was her 1989 Playboy spread.) After La Toya, the public’s perception of the Jackson family would never be the same. If she was telling lies, well, she was also revealing a bigger truth.
For years, La Toya had been struggling to secure the public attention that Playboy and her book would finally yield. By 1991, she had released six albums without a U.S. Top 40 hit among them. It’s not like she hadn’t had a shot—she appeared on American Bandstand a few times, had deals with Polydor, Epic, and RCA Records. Her public profile was inherited and then bolstered by that 1989 Playboy spread, which sold 5 million copies, according to the Washington Post. With an uncommon candor for the time, La Toya exuded opportunism on Entertainment Tonight. “I felt it was a good career move,” she said of the semi-nude pictures that had recently been published.
But Playboy did not yield musical momentum—the summer before the release of her memoir, La Toya had played a tour of 30 county fairs. Her book and its allegations finally afforded her some staying power in the limelight. In La Toya, which she co-wrote with Patricia Romanowski, she alleged that her father Joseph ruled through violence. He trained the Jackson 5, whip in hand, she wrote. Beyond the group, she alleged that Joseph had beaten Katherine, Rebbie, and her. She wrote that at age 6, “his boxer’s fists pummeled my face and body,” after she brought home a report card that said she didn’t speak in class. This was the only time that Joseph hit her, she said.
La Toya said that the abusive environment drove “a lot” of her brothers and sisters to suicide attempts. She reserved particular animus for her mother, “the guiding force behind the cruelty and the abuse.”
“This woman who pretended to be so gentle on the surface had in fact caused all the turmoil in our lives,” wrote La Toya.
Blitz would be an understated description of La Toya’s promotional tour for her memoir. She appeared on virtually every sensational daytime talk show or news magazine that was airing in the U.S. at the time. It seemed that she would speak to whoever would listen, and in 1991, there was an unprecedented number of high-profile takers.
It was the performance of her life. The veracity of her allegations notwithstanding, she unpeeled layers of her story over her series of appearances with an uncanny sense of showmanship and surprising self-assurance. She was not content to merely repeat a few talking points ad nauseam; her story intensified as she went from interview to interview, as though to prove that she could justify all the airwaves she was hogging.
On the September 5, 1991, episode of Today, one of the first stops on her media tour, she blurted out that her father had sexually abused the eldest Jackson, Rebbie. La Toya’s book wouldn’t even be in stores until the following week, and she was already effectively writing its sequel with even fresher allegations.
Later that day on Donahue, she explained that she alluded to the rape in her book, but didn’t spell it out explicitly because, “It’s something that the book company did not want to elaborate on because they felt it would be infringing on someone’s personal life.” Even if La Toya was telling the truth, this wasn’t her truth to tell. She justified doing so by explaining, “I feel that abuse is something we need to speak about, speak openly about.” When an audience member asked her about pressing charges over her father’s sexual abuse, La Toya said, “Well, I didn’t really say he sexually abused me—I mentioned my sister.”
But soon after, La Toya claimed that he sexually abused her. A few days later, on September 10, 1991, the Associated Press ran a story in which she alleged that she was present for Rebbie’s abuse on account of sharing a bed with her older sister. After her sister left home at 16, La Toya claimed, Joseph Jackson started sexually abusing her. “It’s very hard for me to talk about it,” she said. She soldiered on, though. On the September 12 episode of Larry King Live, she specified that the sexual abuse started when she was 10 and lasted until “probably 13.”
In response to her family’s adamant denial of all of her claims, she threatened to reveal more in a second book. “This is only forcing me to write La Toya, Part Two,” she told the New York Post in October 1991. “And it will make Part One look like Peter Pan.”
The family had been denying the book’s numerous allegations since before its release. For an article printed a full month ahead of the publication of La Toya, Katherine Jackson told the Chicago Tribune, “Everything in the book is a lie” and alleged that Jack Gordon had brainwashed her daughter. In an interview on Donahue, Joseph denied ever hitting her. “I never whipped La Toya,” he said. Katherine said La Toya’s one beating came from her, not Joseph.
They denied the rape allegations, as well. “We never sexually abused her,” Joseph told the AP. In 1993, Katherine would eventually claim that La Toya’s book was “the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life besides the death of my mother.”
Janet Jackson verbalized what many had suspected about La Toya’s motivations for coming forward with this information. “It’s just a way of getting attention, the attention she didn’t get from the public,” Janet said in a televised interview. “She’s never really had the success that the rest of the family really has had and now she’s being acknowledged by the public because of this.” Janet took issue with La Toya’s claims about her, which included accusations of anti-Semitism.
Eventually Rebbie, too, publicly denied her sister’s claims. On an episode of the ABC News magazine show Day One that aired April 11, 1993, Rebbie said Joseph had never molested her. “No, that’s not true. No. That never happened to me. It honestly didn’t,” she said.
What’s also notable about that Day One interview was that family members corroborated at least one of La Toya’s claims. “There was times I was afraid of my father, certain times, you know, when he’d get mad,” said Jackie Jackson. “And if you did something wrong, you got a whipping,” added Jermaine. A big part of why they were acknowledging Joseph Jackson’s iron fist was that a few months earlier, their brother Michael had told Oprah Winfrey that he was so scared of Joseph as a child, he would sometimes throw up.
“He ’gurgitated all the way to the bank,” was Joseph’s response on Day One. He’d previously put his parenting style into this perspective following Michael’s Oprah interview: “When you chastised a youngster back in the early ages, we called it a whipping. Now it’s called child abuse.”
La Toya’s repeatedly stated mission statement was to break the silence about abuse, and even if she was being as disingenuous as her family alleged, she had broken the silence. Michael would eventually use the word “abuse” to describe Joseph’s behavior and Janet told a story in her 2011 quasi-memoir/pseudo-self-help book True You: A Journey to Finding and Loving Yourself about being beaten by Joseph. Just as La Toya had alleged about her own beating, Janet said hers happened before she was 8 (she couldn’t recall the precise age) and that it had only happened once.
Though La Toya’s aesthetic was lurid and her favored medium was trash television, what complicated the situation further, beyond La Toya’s already complicated existence, is that she was managed by a man named Jack Gordon, an ex-con (he’d done time for racketeering in 1979, and the Chicago Tribune reported that he’d been convicted of statutory rape at age 16). Almost 20 years her senior, Gordon married La Toya in 1989. She said that it was so that she could leave her family, who held her captive and then attempted to kidnap her. La Toya characterized the marriage as “in name only.”
Later, after they separated, La Toya claimed that an abusive Gordon controlled every aspect of her life, effectively making her a prisoner in her own career. Before that, when they were still together, he was brazenly running La Toya’s career like one big open machination for fame and wealth.
“He’s constantly telling me things that I should do,” said La Toya in a 1990 interview alongside Gordon. Reflecting on his professional relationship with La Toya after it had ended, Gordon told E!, “To me, she probably was a product.” In that interview, he also discussed coercing her into professional situations in which she had no initial interest.
Gordon didn’t merely use La Toya as a pawn—he treated her like dirt. He was accused of abusing La Toya multiple times, most notably in 1993, when he was arrested for hitting her with a chair. She gave the New York Post the exclusive on her injuries, which included a black eye, 12 mouth stitches, and a bruised back and arms. She declined to press charges. Gordon admitted to having hit her, but he claimed it was out of self-defense when she charged him holding a knife.
It was Gordon, La Toya later alleged, who shoved the written statement into her hand ahead of that December 8, 1993, press conference in Tel Aviv, when she spoke out against her brother’s alleged child abuse. The next day, she appeared on the Today show via satellite. She said the only evidence she had of her claims were the checks to boys’ parents she referenced in the press conference that had been brought to her attention around 1984. In a claim consistent with one she made during her book tour, she said she’d heard her mother denigrate her brother for being gay. “That damn faggot, I can’t stand him,” she recalled her mother saying about Michael.
She also said her family, which as usual had denounced her public words, was rallying around Michael because he financially supported “every last one of them.”
La Toya’s perpetually evolving story would take a sharp turn. In 2011, she wrote in her second memoir, Starting Over, that the press conference was “among the biggest regrets in my life.” Starting Over, released a little more than two years after her brother’s death, was a new retelling of much of what she had written (and why she had written it) in La Toya. In the second memoir, she wrote that Gordon, whom she eventually fled (their divorce was finalized in 1997), was “behind every word” of her first book (and all of her career decisions at the time, including Playboy). She had reunited with her family in the wake of her escape. Starting Over is both a refutation and a mirror image of her first book—it largely details her abuse at the hands of Gordon, much like her first had detailed the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Starting Over was co-written with her manager at the time, Jeffré Phillips. (La Toya and Phillips were engaged in 2013, but broke it off in 2015.)
“The truth is that I didn’t want to author that first book,” she wrote. She also wrote about how her mother’s theory—that Gordon was feeding La Toya mind-altering drugs while they were married—“made sense,” and she claimed that an FBI agent told her Gordon had used her to smuggle diamonds and drugs, since fame allowed her to pass through airplane security lines without being checked.
La Toya had much kinder words for her parents this time around. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that Joseph’s bark is much bigger than his bite,” she wrote. On CNN, La Toya called her mother Katherine “a wonderful mother” and “a very strong lady.” She revised her story of Joseph’s parenting style so that it fell more in line with that which he had been describing for years, in the wake of abuse allegations from several of his children.
“I think back then, in those days, people really spanked their children,” she told Dr. Drew Pinsky. “When you did something wrong, they would spank you. And that’s what my father did. And, I think it was normal back then. But, today, it’s unheard of.”
Starting Over marked La Toya’s full public assimilation back into the Jackson family: Like the rest of them, she agreed that La Toya Jackson (at least the ’90s-era La Toya Jackson) told several lies.
But there’s a little loophole here regarding her allegations of Joseph’s sexual abuse. Those, you’ll recall, weren’t made in La Toya, but in various talk shows and interviews while she was promoting that first memoir. La Toya was a series of Gordon’s fabrications, but what of its surrounding press?
In an interview on the Today show around the time of her second book’s release, Matt Lauer (who was eventually fired from the show after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct) attempted to clarify whether La Toya had revised her story of Joseph Jackson’s sexual abuse. La Toya evaded the question.
“You stand by the comments you made about molestation and child abuse?” asked Lauer.
“My father is a very wonderful man, Matt,” said La Toya, elaborating with a story about Michael and Joseph’s eventual reconciliation before Michael’s death. Lauer tried again.
“You’re standing by your original statements about your dad?”
“My father is a wonderful person and always will be,” said La Toya. “He has a great heart and, yes, I do love him and care for him a great deal.” She left it at that.
The Jacksons have shown themselves to be quick to label any perceived attacks on their family as lies, but are often less than forthcoming with their own stories. Perhaps the glare of the spotlight creates a lopsided sense of narrative morality out of sheer self-preservation. Perhaps La Toya Jackson’s concept of honesty is necessarily complicated beyond the binary of true and false.
“La Toya, if your allegations are true, you are truly one of the most heroic figures in recent times,” Geraldo Rivera told her during a 1994 episode of his show. “If, however, the allegations are false, and time certainly will tell, then you are one of the most bizarre people of all time.”
There is, of course, a third option: Perhaps La Toya Jackson is both.