Yesterday on Oprah, Mackenzie Phillips, star from One Day At a Time, revealed that she was raped by her now-deceased father, John Phillips (left), from the Mamas and the Papas. This, after years of him supplying her with drugs from a very young age. The abuse continued for ten years, into her adulthood — Mackenzie refers to this continuation as “consensual,” though I highly doubt that it is possible for incest between a father and daughter to ever be consensual, let alone when the father has been grooming his daughter with drugs for years, and raped her for the first time, and many times after, while she was blacked out.
I don’t blame Mackenzie Phillips for referring to this abuse as “consensual incest” — many victims blame themselves, most people period interpret compliance as consent, and Stockholm Syndrome is powerful stuff. She seems to me to be doing the best she can — and from what I saw on Oprah yesterday, though she is using the word “consensual” to describe much of the sexual contact, she’s also clearly identifying all of it as abusive.
I do however blame the media, which is pretty much universally referring to Mackenzie Phillips’ revelations as being about “sex with her father.” They refer to an ongoing incestuous relationship. Some even mention the first (known) instance, in which she awoke from a blackout during the assault. But exceedingly few refer to it as rape. Most that do put the word in scare quotes, while failing to do the same when calling it sex.
Here’s the thing: Mackenzie refers to much of the sexual contact as “consensual.” I understand not wanting to put words in her mouth, and the liability that is involved with that — even though John Phillips was her father, and that should make this issue really clear cut. But the first instance was obviously rape. How do we know? Because one cannot consent to sex during a blackout. Also, because she called it as much on Oprah yesterday. She said that yes, it was rape. Her father raped her. (She also said that when she confronted him about it, his response was “Raped you? Don’t you mean the time we made love?” Extremely typical, if extremely disturbing, minimization and manipulation by an abuser.)
And I’m extraordinarily concerned that the media feels the so-called “consensual incest” is more interesting and newsworthy than explicitly defined rape. I’m seriously disturbed by the clear effort to overlook the latter in favor of the former. It shows where our priorities are, what discussions we are and aren’t comfortable with, and which transgressions are worth public shaming.
But it gets worse than this. Way worse. Yesterday, Oprah embarked on a line of questioning that, to my horror, involved repeatedly emphasizing how long the abuse continued for, and the fact that it continued into adulthood, with a disapproving look in her eyes. She essentially asked Mackenzie Phillips how she could have let her father keep raping her for so long. We also have people in comments everywhere, and her own family members, calling her a liar, out for the most bizarre and undesirable publicity ever heard of.
We then have the San Francisco Gate comparing Mackenzie Phillips’ revelation to other recent “tell alls” by celebrities that include such scandalous tidbits as sleeping in the nude. Because obviously Megan Fox sleeping naked and John Phillips raping his daughter are equally offensive to our sensibilities. They also have a poll up asking readers to weigh in on whether or not a rape survivor did the right thing by choosing to be publicly unashamed of what she endured. Of course, while there are options that involve feeling titillated by the news and which admonish her for speaking out, there’s not a single one that says “whatever Mackenzie felt she had to do in this situation was the right choice for her.” (The LA Times asks the same question, simply without a poll.) Even worse than that, the poll is prefaced with this:
She’s certainly going to make money from bearing her soul and “sharing” but now anyone with kids who happened to hear this has some explaining to do I would think. Which brings me to this poll question: should MacKenzie Phillips have spilled the beans the way she did, so publicly?
Yeah, people are concerned about having to do something horrific like talk to their children about abuse. Is it really fair of Mackenzie Phillips to tell her story and force people to have a necessary but uncomfortable conversation with their children? Clearly a parent’s level of comfort is more important than a child knowing that they should speak up if they are abused, and that abuse is always, always wrong.
The LA Times is not to be outdone in terms of petty concerns over which rape survivors should just shut the fuck up. They’re, wholly unsurprisingly, very concerned about John Phillips’ legacy:
OK, we get it, and we understand how important it is to make it public. But seriously, it kinda ruins the sweet, innocent Mamas and Papas’ music for, like, ever.
We’ll never listen to “California Dreamin’ ” again without thinking of John and his daughter together. How about you?
Ah, what an irreverent tone. No better way to talk about incestuous rape, right? “Yeah, yeah, we get it, rape is serious, and should be talked about. But dammit, we liked that song!”
First of all, I wish to say that I support Mackenzie Phillips’ decision here unequivocally. A survivor, any survivor, has the absolute right to speak out or not speak out, and to do so as publicly or as privately as they see fit. Mackenzie Phillips did the right thing here because she clearly feels that it was the right thing for her. And that is all that matters.
But it is precisely the attitude displayed up above in the LA Times that I feel makes Mackenzie’s decision to come forward here particularly important, and especially brave. All survivors experience backlash by going public — that backlash is only going to grow tenfold when the abuser is famous. It’s this backlash that makes coming forward so difficult, but also so significant. People don’t like to hear that their heroes can also be rapists, and that rapists can also be heroes. People don’t like to hear that rapists can have separate qualities worth admiring, can have talent, and depth, and people who love them. People don’t want to hear anything about rapists that doesn’t involve them being evil, slimy, instantly identifiable monsters, who have absolutely no worth or humanity. People don’t want to hear it because it makes rape easier to ignore, deny, forget, and believe could never happen to them, could never be committed by someone they know.
That is precisely why people need to hear it.
John Phillips was a very talented singer and songwriter. He’s a little bit of a 60s icon. And he was also apparently a rapist. Most people are currently unable to hold these things simultaneously in their minds. This is evidenced by all that is up above. And rape apologism and denialism aren’t going to stop until, among other things, they (and we) learn how to.
But unfortunately right now we’re also spending a whole lot more time talking about Mackenzie Phillips than talking about John Phillips. And those of us who know better are being forced to spend more time defending her than talking about how what he did was so incredibly wrong.
We need to learn to talk about abuse and abusers. We’re also apparently, sadly and tellingly going to spend a lot of time beating up already victimized women over and over and over again as we very slowly get there.