Rape Apologism and the Response to Mackenzie Phillips

john phillipsTrigger Warning

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.

0 thoughts on “Rape Apologism and the Response to Mackenzie Phillips

  1. Sarah M

    This whole thing has reminded me of how Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss was received. Have you read it, Cara? It’s a stunning book–one of the best memoirs I’ve read I think–that chronicles the incestuous relationship Harrison had with her estranged father, who she met for the first time when she was 20. I read it for the first time when I was too young–probably 15, and thought something like “oh ew I can’t believe she chose to have sex with her dad.” Years later I read it again and saw clearly the ways in which she was controlled and manipulated by this man; that the power dynamics and the emotional trauma of abandonment completely distort the idea of “consent.”

    Recently I was reading about the criticism the book faced when it was released in the late 90s. People accused her of using shock value simply to profit; they accused her of being a bad mother by putting this out there for her kids to one day read; they wondered if it would ruin her father’s life were he still alive somewhere. The most famous critical piece was published in Vanity Fair as part of an article called–seriously–“Women Behaving Badly” about how female memoirists are sensationalist and exploit their sordid pasts. It’s horrifying what we do to these women who have the strength to tell.

  2. Sarah M

    (i use the phrase “incestuous relationship” simply because those are the words used by the author, i believe, and in all official materials associated with the book. it’s not meant to imply something like “an affair with her father,” which i have also seen used to describe the incest.

  3. Linda

    YES. I was just informed about the Oprah interview this morning and began to look up articles about Mackenzie Philips. And to my surprise I received a slew of articles blaming the victim and even implying heavily that this is a charade made to sell books. And not ONCE do you see the media point out what is very clear– there is no ‘consent’ while intoxicated/blacked out. It’s bothersome that somehow (no matter how famous the victim), the blame does not go to the rapist–but to the person who stands up to perpetrator.
    I’m glad you took on this topic because it needed to be said.

  4. Alyson

    Thanks so much for writing this. Mackenzie was high, and passed out, and legally unable to give consent to any sex act. So what her father did was indeed rape, whether people want to use that word or not.

  5. Ned B.


    Great post. Lots of great points, some echoed by those who have already commented. A few that I am particularly glad to see are: 1. Every survivor of rape (or anything else that horrendous) has a right to tell her or his story (though shouldn’t have to if they sense they aren’t safe doing so). 2. People are complex. People who do some really horrible things often have good or admirable qualities. So, just because someone seems nice or sings an old song we like, doesn’t mean they couldn’t rape. 3. Pointing out the victim-blaming. The last topic is especially frustrating as you and many others have repeatedly and eloquently pointed out victim-blaming ever since the dawn of feminism. Unfortunately, it is obviously still necessary. So thanks for keeping at it.

    By the way, great site. I have had it bookmarked ever since I found it a year or so ago.

  6. Carolyn Shine

    It really is discerning how people can over look someone just because Her father is famous.
    The man was a rapist, if someone is passed out
    how in the hell can it be consentious? I’m glad Mackenzie has spoken out, and damn anyone
    in her family who doesn’t support her.

  7. Mia

    Thank you for this essay. This is such a complicated issue in many ways, and it’s brought up a lot of questions for me. Your analysis has helped t clarify some of that, and I am grateful.

  8. SunlessNick

    Great post.

    Something else I note about the SFG poll: none of the answers take as important what Mackenzie Phillips wanted; the only answer that says she did the right thing adds, “I want to know more,” making it about the respondent, not her.

  9. Debbie

    Great points, I was surprised that though Oprah herself had talked about her own abuse as a child that she came across so judgememtal. Yes, motives about coming forward are always questioned when there is celebrity at stake… the treatment of Mackenzie in the media today was like someone just told a little kid that Santa doesn’t exist, they blame the messenger, and ignored the message.
    Thank you for posting.

  10. Kristen

    I was enraged when I saw the headline on cnn a day or so ago. The media never ceases to surprise me with its crapitude.

    As for Oprah, its not something I watch, but I vaguely recall that she suffered childhood sexual abuse and that prompted her to run away. I wonder if some of her victim blaming is a reaction to her own feelings of guilt and powerlessness.

    A good friend of mine who was the victim of a stranger rape has a similar blind spot about date rape and I know she did/ sometimes still does it *because* she needs to feel that she has control over her likelihood being raped. Its not an excuse, by any means. But when I hear her saying something victim blaming, (which doesn’t happen very often anymore)knowing her history I can gently remind her that there are different types of powerlessness without triggering her own experience.

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  12. EKSwitaj

    Kristen, I think your interpretation is probably very close to the truth. I know women who have gotten out of abusive situations who can be very judgmental of women who haven’t or who took longer to do so precisely because they need to look at their own escape entirely as a reassertion of their own power. To be entirely honest, I think I sometimes make that mistake: to believe that you’ve escaped a horrific situation in part because you were lucky that the circumstances weren’t worse is incredibly frightening.

  13. abyss2hope

    What I find interesting is the contrast between some people’s refusal to accept sexual abuse as a possibility and the passive acceptance of John Phillips supplying his young daughter drugs, not just once but for years, which itself is child abuse.

    Those who accept that John provided drugs to his child cannot claim that John wasn’t an abusive father. And if he was abusive in one way that shows a disrespect which can help rationalize other acts of abuse.

  14. Pingback: Sexist Beatdown: “Consensual Incest” And John Phillips Fanboys Edition - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  15. Pingback: The Mackenzie Phillips Incest Story « After Silence

  16. Cris

    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.

    And I dare to add: it makes it easier to believe that it could never be committed by themselves. I imagine a lot of rapists honestly don’t believe they are committing rape, as the John Phillips example shows. If we accept the culturally reinforced image of rapists as monsters, we naturally exempt our own behavior from the category.

  17. wiggles

    I’m worried about Mackenzie Phillips. I totally understand her need to say it out loud, but I wonder if she was prepared for how cruel people and the media can be. She’s been a celebrity since she was a kid, so she must have some idea. I just hope she wasn’t under the all-too common misconception that anyone who announces that she’s a rape or SA victim will be met with an outpouring of sympathy.

    1. Cara Post author

      She was on Oprah again today, responding to the reaction to her show on Wednesday. There were statements from other family members (calling her a liar), and one of her sisters was there saying that it’s true but she wishes she hadn’t been so public about it … and in between defending herself, Mackenzie Phillips kept apologizing to her family for putting them through this. Oh, and Oprah basically accused her of tearing her family apart and asked how she felt about that.

      My heart goes out to her so, so much. She doesn’t have a single fucking thing to be sorry for.

      I just hope that she has at least one person close to her who will tell her that.

  18. Jo Coleman

    I myself was victimized by my grandfather from my first memories until I was 7 or 8 yrs old and I had had enough. I tried to tear a chunk of it out when he attempted penetration. I weighed probably 35-40 pounds soaking wet, but my brother had CF and my mom had to take him to the hospital 3 hours away so I had to stay somewhere. My oldest brother was 10 but I couldn’t tell him because he would have told my Dad and my Dad would have killed his step father. I learned how to cook pinto beans, potatoes and corn bread so we could stay at home and the brutalizations could stop. After my dad died, I told my brothers who promptly called me a liar. I told them be thankful that he only liked little girls. I was doubly brutalized by my grandfather and my brothers. I truly believe Mackenzie Phillips.

  19. Cyndi Bearden

    I am not famous but can empathize with Makenzie about the judgements being made against here. I, too, am an incest survivor – my older brother. During a trigger of this and a couple of other stressors, I ended up in the hospital. My own mother was talking to my social working, and even leaving voice messages, saying re: me ‘she’s’s lying’ ‘i doubt that ever happened’ I would question the reliability of her claim’, etc. TG the social worker saw thru it! Then after hospital discharge I happened to be able to read her e-mails. So, I saw her sent messages. She was blind cc about 20 people, some I have no idea who they are, about my status and my ‘statements’. ALL family members got her side of the story. This was a year in a half ago and I still haven’t talked to ANY of my family, not because I am embarrassed but because if refuse to ‘apologize’ and WE SURVIVORS DON’T HAVE TO DEFEND OURSELVES!!! TG I am not famous. This has been challenging enough for me. Stay strong and stick to your guns Mackenzie and don’t you apologize!

  20. Sister Joyous Whip of Enlightenment

    Thank you for this article. It gives me hope that some people have a brain in their head.

    It’s refreshing to read something that has a handle on how this is all going down.

    California Dream’in will never be the same but
    It’s not the only thing in life that’s been tainted.

    we could go down a huge list of lies and disappointments. For me just starting with what I was taught in school and what I have had to relearn. Like “we killed the Indians to take their land.” It’s like everything you thought was true is not.

    This is one more truth that people are just going to have to see. Good On Ms. Phillips for talking. I hope she keeps talking so she never has to put another needle or pill in her again.

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  22. Kristi

    Thank you for this article. I feel continually disturbed at the language the media uses when talking about incest, abuse, sexual exploitation, etc. There is no such thing as “consensual incest” or an “incestuous affair.” People–and victims themselves–have a hard time understanding that when there is a power imbalance between the two parties (father-daughter, teacher-student, therapist-patient…) THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CONSENT. And IT’S NOT AN AFFAIR.

    And I know from my own experience that speaking out and telling the truth about what happened is one of the best ways to fully heal. Keeping secrets can have serious effects on your mental and physical health.

    We still need to educate the public about abuse, incest and exploitation. Thanks for putting some truth out there.

  23. Pingback: The Mackenzie Phillips Story – It’s Not Consent! « Surviving Therapist Abuse

  24. Pingback: So What If Mackenzie Phillips Has a Book Deal? : The Curvature

  25. mary

    Thanks! This is a great site. Mackenzie was simply phenomenal on the Oprah show. I don’t know where or how she found the courage to start healing but the poor girl was in obvious torture and Oprah was absolutely horrific to her. I never would have believed, given how sympathetic Oprah was to Whitney earlier, that Oprah could be so cruelly dismissive and, worse, openly hostile. What’s wrong with Oprah? The Huffington Post blog by Trish Kinney I think is asking same question.
    Was it beause of Opra’s own past, or because she wanted to appear ‘tough’ and journalistic by appearing objective? What was going on!

  26. Julian


    Thank you. John Phillips, now from the grave, has some “too little too late” apologising to do to the other members of the family, not Mackenzie, as you note. HE fucked up, raped, and damaged his daughter Mackenzie. She did nothing wrong. There’s nothing she needs to apologize for.

    I find your comment to be overtly white supremacist, racist, and misogynistic towards Oprah Winfrey, who is a survivor of incest. To not understand Oprah’s dynamics through the lens of understanding what incest does to a person, and to implicitly or explicitly say that Oprah treated Whitney so good, but Mackenzie so bad–so Oprah may have been more triggered by one story than another: so what?–is to behave as a white supremacist.

    To Kristin: Thank you for extending woman-loving to Oprah Winfrey.

    To all the women survivors here who disclosed: given that I receive routinely unposted comments either from MRAssholes or men who, curiously, all have the same name: “Anonymous”, who use that anonymity to stay covered when they toss out their clusterbombs of misogyny, racism, and homophobia, I just want to commend you on speaking out with name in place.

  27. Annie

    Julian, could you please explain what you found so offensive about Mary’s comment? I saw no evidence of a white supremacist, racist, or misogynistic worldview, but perhaps I’m missing something.

  28. Christine

    Unless someone is a victim they have no right to judge Mackenzie Phillips. They have no idea what it’s like to live with sexual abuse. I’m so glad she wrote that book. Victims should never feel like they have to put it behind them as if it is something we shouldn’t speak about. That’s the biggest part of the problem…feeling like you should mention it because it’s just too ugly. Yes it’s ugly, but it happened, and it hurt people, especially the victim, and affected the rest of their life. It needs to be brought out in the open and dealt with. I despise the notion that somehow speaking about it will cause more hurt. That’s like telling the victim that their hurt doesn’t matter.

  29. MomTFH

    I just wanted to say thank you to all of the survivors who have told their stories here.

    I believe every one of you. The truth is stronger than the people who are too afraid to believe it.

  30. Lorraine Marrero

    Regarding some of the comments above on Oprah’s demeanor during the interview,
    in my opinion and we all have a right to an opinion, I agree, she seemed insensitive
    to McKenzie Philips apparent pain. I might add that this is not based on my previous perception of Oprah’s usual interviewing style, when it comes to survivors of abuse. I have watched Oprah for many years and have seen various interviews that touch on the issue presented by McKenzie, and in my opinion, Oprah displayed far more compassion and sympathy toward those survivors than she did for Philips (again this is an opinion). Also as a survivor of childhood abuse myself, it was surprising that Oprah would question
    McKenzie on the time frame of the abuse, as if she has no knowledge of the complex
    psychological and emotional dynamics of sexual abuse. I myself am a survivor and
    did not emotionally and psychologically process what happened until five years ago;
    and it came in increments, bit by bit; what I lived was unprocessed and stored separately in my psyche for forty years, it is said the body remembers what the mind forgets.
    Suffice to say I lived with the symptoms for years and blamed myself for these
    symptoms, until I finally processed the memories and realized through an
    excellent therapist who was an expert in childhood Trauma and the effects, that
    the abuse had affected my emotional and cognitive development. That is how
    serious abuse is, and to hear the media blaming McKenzie and using the word
    “consensual” shows how ignorant they truly want to be. McKenzie did use this
    word but in my opinion, “consensual” is not the appropriate word to use. I
    personally do not see it as “consensual” being that she was abused from her
    childhood by her father and so she was psychologically and emotionally conditioned
    and literally stuck in that traumatic nightmare. But again if this is where McKenzie
    is at in her healing, then who am I to say what she should say or not, healing and
    processing trauma takes time and it is a process. The abuse may appear one way
    to a survivor in one stage of the healing and take on a different meaning as time
    goes on.

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    I don’t understand how people are making this womans tragedy about their own households and their relationship with their children. People can’t not blame her for coming out and being open about her situation. It baffles me how Americans are so selfish. This woman bared her soul on national television and in a book. I can only imagine how humiliating that was for her but at the same time I’m sure it provided some type of healing but the only thing Americans can think about is how this story can possibly affect their lives. This is not about the open relationship that American families should already have with their children and no one is saying that every one that has been molested or a victim of rape should come out on national television and tell all.

  33. Janet Auty-Carlisle

    This show was replayed this week and again it stirred up much emotion. Abusers absolutely rely on people being silent, that’s their biggest ally. If nobody speaks up they can continue to be the controller. Sadly, in this society, at this time, using a voice to say this is not ok is still oftentimes dangerous and lonely. My hope in all of this is that the public outcry gets so loud it can’t be silenced anymore. Thanks for posting this. Living la vida fearless, Jan

  34. Pingback: The Mackenzie Phillips Story – It’s Not Consent!

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