It seems like everyone I know, and even some I don't, assumed I would blog about Mackenzie Phillips. I, too, have a new memoir, Silver Platter Girl, which focuses on paternal sexual abuse. But my story is nothing like Mackenzie's, probably very few are. I mean how many children are born into the Mamas and Papas family of wealth, success, drugs, sex and indulgence? She has a disadvantage in disclosing her story to the public because it is hard for anyone to relate to the perfect storm of dreadful circumstances which doomed her childhood, adolescence, and adult life. Way too many of us can relate to the sexual abuse part, but not the part about being thrust into an adult world of excess to the extreme which created a family environment of drug abuse that enabled her long term incestual victimization.
It didn't take a PR genius to choose Oprah's gold standard talk show for Mackenzie's coming out event. Oprah opened the show by saying that she and her producers had been required to sign non-disclosures agreeing they would not speak about the story until the show aired, creating a heightened sense of anticipation for the bombshell to follow and promising high octane shock value. Perhaps it is out of necessity that Oprah can no longer afford to be the earnest, vulnerable, down to earth heroine who pulled so many of us out of our sexual abuse closet years ago when she disclosed her own story, freeing us of our silence and shame by educating, encouraging, accepting and understanding. She is a different figure now, powerful, larger than life, revered by millions, almost regal, successful and wealthy beyond the comprehension of most of us.
Mackenzie did not receive the marshmallow two segment interview recently afforded Whitney Houston, a woman who entered into an abusive, drug filled relationship as a consenting adult. In the privacy of a beautiful empty theatre in the first segment, Whitney sometimes rambled, spoke in broad terms in a hoarse voice, often invoking her Christian faith as an answer when it seemed she had no others available, admitting that she allowed terrible things to occur in front of her daughter during her darkest days of drug use and domestic abuse. Oprah hung on her every word, compassionate and understanding, leaning in close, willing her through the difficult job of explaining why it took her so long to leave such an abusive, destructive marriage. She shared on the second day that she had felt a deep connection during their time together and wondered aloud if Whitney had as well. When she surprised her studio audience with a performance by Ms. Houston, Oprah was caught on camera mouthing all the words to the song that she obviously knew by heart with tears streaming down her face. Mackenzie was handed her book and instructed to read from a certain page, Oprah saying she wanted to get right to it, despite Mackenzie's weak objection that this was not exactly how she saw things going down, but consenting anyway.
What followed was a disturbing display by a victim of unspeakable child abuse who is not yet far enough along in her recovery to completely understand her own story. She asked us not to judge her father harshly because she adored him and understood he had a difficult childhood also. Mackenzie declared that she wanted to become the face of "consensual incest", an oxymoron if ever there was one. She briefly ventured into simple celebrity tell-all with her nearly smug account of being seduced by Mick Jagger when she was 18, virtually with the consent of her nearby father, also her lover. Understandably there is a part of Mackenzie that is still deeply connected to her role as an insider in a musical and cultural revolution the likes of which we may never see again. Come on, who among us can't admit to a little bit of jealousy there, despite the horrors that came with the price of admission.
There are some stereotypical components to this story. There is no doubt in my mind that Mackenzie is an abuse victim on many levels. She looks like one, she acts like one. She has only been clean and sober for a year so she is taking on a lot with this public disclosure. I hope she has a tremendous support group around her because she will need it. Her family's response is pretty predictable. In her case, not one but two stepmothers are angry and say she is lying. In most of these cases, that is exactly what mothers do. In most cases, it is more hurtful than the abuse itself, but probably not in this case. It was fascinating to watch the media repeatedly condense the family statements, leaving out pieces that were more telling than those more often quoted.
The sound bite version of half sister Bijou's statement said that Mackenzie had disclosed the relationship to her whereas the full statement also claims that Mackenzie later told her it wasn't true. (This would not be at all unusual for an incest victim testing family reaction as well as her own response to having dared to tell the secret.) The part of stepmother Genevieve Waite's statement that was reported was that John was "incapable" of having such a relationship with his own child. What you most likely didn't hear was that she would often complain to John about Mackenzie's "overly familiar attitude" toward him and he would tell her that was "just her way". (Ms. Waite obviously doesn't understand that she just provided strong evidence in favor of Mackenzie's claim.) Mama Michelle called Mackenzie mentally ill suggesting that it was hard to believe a woman who spent so much of her life with a needle stuck up her arm.
No wife wants to believe, or God forbid have anyone else believe, that she could have been married to such a monster and either didn't know it or didn't stop it. So discrediting the victim is pretty standard stuff. But, even by those standards, it is a pretty low blow for Mama Michelle to blame the victim for drug induced lack of integrity when it was her father who introduced her to drugs at age 11, with rampant drug use being the one detail agreed upon by all parties. The most supportive statement seemed to be from Jessica Woods, daughter of Papa Denny Doherty. She declared Mackenzie's claim to be truthful, saying her father told her the "awful truth" and that he was "horrified" by it.
What surprised me the most was Howard Stern's take on the story. He was upset because Mackenzie asked us not to dislike her dad for what he had done. He was upset because she called the sexual relationship "consensual". He played old clips with John making reference to how close he was to Mackenzie and how he kept nothing from her, including his drug use. He played a song John wrote for his daughter with its telling, now haunting lyrics. Howard got it and, by doing so, demonstrated how painful it is to watch the lifelong sentence of child sexual abuse in action. I felt a little guilty because my PR firm arranged an interview for me with a Howard Stern producer to appear on the show to promote my book, Silver Platter Girl. And I didn't think Howard would be fair to me and my subject, thought it was an unsafe environment in which to speak about sexual abuse. Perhaps I was wrong.
Mackenzie's disclosure and her book don't really change things all that much. The people who didn't want to know or talk about incest still don't want to, thinking it better left in the closet, on the therapy couch, or as the dubious jewel of dysfunctional families.
Those who don't really care about it or don't think it applies to them saw it as just another salacious pitch to sell books. Those in the Mamas and Papas extended family probably already had a pretty good sense of this particular secret but didn't think they would ever have to stand in the harsh glare of public disclosure and land on one side or another of this complex and disturbing issue, often exposing just as much about themselves as the accuser. There are countless numbers of victims who disclose every day and are striving to become long term survivors, but not on Oprah, and not in a book about their famous family. These survivors will not become the face of anything, they will just try to get along, to get better, to get well. Hopefully they will not be too swayed by what happened in last week's news cycle. Incest is never consensual, addiction is a result of abuse, and excuses should not be made for abusers.