Thanksgiving is the biggest day of the year for American families. In every home in the United States, dinner is turkey with all the trimmings and pumpkin pie. It was at such a typical dinner that I spent Thanksgiving two years ago - but with a rather atypical American family. For the guest's at my friends’ home in New Jersey were Michael Jackson and his five year old boy, Prince Michael I, and three year old girl, Paris.
Yes, the same Michael Jackson who, after dangling his youngest child, Prince Michael The Second, over a 60ft Berlin balcony, is now condemned as the world's worst father. In spite of Jackson's abject apology for his crazy behavior, I am told by social workers that if the incident had happened in this country, all three children would probably have been taken into care.
And yet, on the basis of four months I spent around Michael and his two elder children before and after that Thanksgiving, I came to a controversial conclusion: Jackson isn't actually that bad a dad at all. Not only that, but Prince Michael I and Paris are, in my experience, among the best behaved, least spoilt and most balanced of children.
During my time with the Jackson children, I got to know them quite well. I read to them, with Paris on my lap, and Prince sitting next to me. I also told off Prince for running over my foot with a toy tractor. (He responded by politely saying sorry, and repeating the apology with the prompting from his dad, who didn't think the first sounded 'sorry enough'.)
This was not the behavior of the spoilt, dysfunctional brats I was expecting. But there were other surprises. The Jackson children of popular mythology live in isolation and are denied contact with other kids. But I have seen them play for hours with friends.
The Jackson children reputedly have all their toys destroyed at the end of the day for fear of infection. But I have seen them hugging and sucking the manky, unhygienic plastic junk that all children have.
I have trailed around a toy shop with Prince and Paris on one of Michael's private shopping binges. It took place at 7pm and was brought swiftly to an end because the children's bedtime was approaching - they were allowed just one toy each.
Jackson may be neurotic, eccentric and downright flaky, but Prince and Paris are bright, confident, affectionate and considerate. They say Grace before meals, speak in sentences rather than monosyllabic American grunts and are forbidden, like many children, from using rude language.
Prince has a solemn face, but an impish nature and a relentless curiosity. Although he is surrounded by staff eager to do his father's bidding, I found no hint of arrogance in the little boys manner.
Paris was tiny when I knew her, with a cute, pointy little face. She would always compete with Prince to be the first to jump on Dad's knee. Since Jackson is divorced from the children's mother, Debbie Rowe, they were looked after by Governess Grace. A Hispanic lady, who kept herself in the background, she was always watchful. I do not believe anything would escape her attention and, if she is still the nanny, I dread to think what grief she would have given her employer for the balcony nonsense.
The children's clothes seemed to be chosen by Michael in Prince's case, and Governess Grace in Paris's. On special occasions, Prince tends to be done up like a little Lord Fauntleyroy. Paris always seemed to be wearing dainty, lacy and slightly dated velvet dresses.
As a father of three, I could see Prince and Paris exchanged a healthy amount of argy-bargy that goes on between siblings. Over one meal, Prince spotted that Paris had smuggled her security blanket up to the table. 'Paris has a blankey, Paris has a blankey' he taunted. Michael pointed out that Prince really shouldn't laugh because he had a 'blankey,' too. The little boy look chastened and a little embarrassed at this having been revealed. Thirty seconds later, but quietly, this time, Prince started again: 'Paris has a blankey ...' Paris ignored him.
Much of Jackson's eccentricity goes back to his own father's harsh discipline. With his own children, Michael is tough but in an infinitely more considered, humane way. He is resolutely anti-smacking, and somewhere inside the hazy fog of whatever it is that obscures his sharp mind is a solid determination that his children should have the most normal upbringing possible.
He is anxious in particular, that when they all hit their teens they should avoid drugs and other distractions of a showbiz background. He insists 'no means no', but discipline must be administered without anger or yelling. When the children are naughty or unkind to one another, he favours taking things away from them and making them stand in the corner.
At home in Neverland he rations their toys. They are not allowed to refer to toys as 'mine' when they have friends over and have been taught that the only reason to have money is to share its benefits with others. Somewhat astonishingly, Michael claims to come down heavily on vanity. He tells how he caught Prince combing his hair in a mirror and saying 'I look good.' Michael corrected him by saying: 'You look OK.'
Prince and Paris are also taught to be diplomatic, but not to lie. Even white lies are wrong according to their father. He prefers to teach children to 'see things from a different dimension'.
Prince, for instance, is afraid of turbulence on aeroplanes. If you tell him he's not on a plane but a rollercoaster, Michael explains, he will know it's a lie. But if you say we're on a plane, but think of it as a rollercoaster, it becomes a matter of perspective.
Michael is also hard on himself. One day when he was recording his last album, Prince came to the studio and spilled popcorn on the floor. Michael insisted on cleaning it up himself. 'It's my son who made the mess. I'll clean it up' he told the bemused musicians as he got down on his hands and knees.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a friend of Michael, and host at our Thanksgiving dinner, believes the star has a rare, instinctive empathy with children - possibly from never having grown up himself. He tells of the time his eight year old daughter got lost at Neverland. Finding her crying, his instinct was to tell her not to be silly, but Michael intervened and said: 'I know how you feel, I remember that happening to me when I was a little boy'. I saw this empathy many times. Michael talks to all children as if they were adults. He will not tolerate them interrupting an adult conversation but is unusually attuned to hearing a child's voice asking a question when most of us choose to be slightly deaf. He is terrified of dogs but has bought his children a golden retriever, thinking it was wrong for him to pass on his irrational prejudice. He also dislikes making up answers to awkward questions the children ask. He likes to go to his vast private library to research the correct answer.
So what was Michael Jackson doing in the now infamous balcony scene? What led a man obsessed to the point of paranoia with his children's safety, to endanger his baby so needlessly? I can only guess he was carrying out, in a daft way, another of his principles - that children should be taught not to be afraid of anything. He told me at dinner that night that he is in love with danger, but didn´t understand why.
It is hard to see this explanation carrying much weight with the social workers Michael may face if anything like the Berlin incident happens again. But perhaps they could take notice of a part of the speech he made about childhood and his children last year at Oxford University:
'What if they grow older and resent me, and how my choices impacted their youth? "Why weren't we given an average childhood like all the other kids?" they might ask. And at that moment I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt. That they will say to themselves, "Our daddy did the best he could, given the unique circumstances he faced."
'I hope' he concluded, 'that they will always focus on the positive things, on the sacrifices I willingly made for them, and not criticise the things they had to give up, or the errors I´ve made, and will certainly continue to make in raising them. For we all have been someone's child, and we know that despite the very best of plans and efforts, mistakes will always occur. That´s just being human.'