Mackenzie Phillips has more to say

Why would an adult endure years of an incestuous relationship?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published October 16, 2009 10:17PM (UTC)
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“It felt bad and it felt good.” That’s the thing that’s so hard to get around.

When Mackenzie Phillips appeared on "Oprah" a few weeks ago to discuss her new book “High on Arrival,” the outcry over the bombshell that she’d had a sexual relationship with her father, John Phillips, was immediate and acute. The liaison, which began when she was 19, had, she said, initially been a case of rape, but it soon turned into something “consensual.”


As Broadsheet reported at the time, the quickly-arrived-at consensus among the feminist blogosphere was that what transpired between the former "One Day at a Time" actress and her Mamas and Papas musician father was no way, no how, anything but consensual. But as Tracy Clark-Flory pondered, if “consensual” was the wrong word, was “rape” automatically the right one?

It was a question that flummoxed many, especially as Phillips' revelation spurred more discussion on the topic and more admissions from other men and women of their own dark secrets.

Inspired by the outpouring of responses, Phillips returned to "Oprah" on Thursday, along with other incest survivors. Included was author Kathryn Harrison, who famously detailed her four-year sexual relationship with her father in her 1997 best-seller “The Kiss.”


As the guests told their stories, one haunting and heartbreaking theme emerged. Whether they were ordinary women who kept their faces in the shadows or ex-television stars and authors, they hadn’t screamed or fought or told. They had, instead, loved.

One woman’s mother had died when she was 10, and she spoke of becoming the de facto mother – and wife – of the family. She said she’d felt good about it at the time, happy to have such a place of honor in her father’s eyes. Another had engaged in a long-standing, frequently drug-fueled relationship with her brother. And yet another told of years of sexual encounters with her mother. “You don’t want to say no,” one guest explained, “because you don’t want to hurt them, because you love them.”

And then Winfrey, who has from the beginning of her career been outspoken about her own youthful molestation at the hands of a trusted uncle, did what she does like nobody else can – she made it real and relatable. She spoke eloquently of “the shame and the guilt and the confusion,” striking each word like a hammer. “The people who are doing this are people you love. When somebody does it well, it feels good,” she explained. “And the mistake people make is thinking that if it feels good you, must have wanted it.”


Harrison echoed the sentiment, telling of how her father, whom she met for the first time when she was 20, had told her she was beautiful. “I had a hard time turning down love,” she said, “in whatever form it was offered.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, when she later broke off the relationship, her father turned on her, telling her she was “polluted” and that no one would ever have her.

The idea that someone – especially someone who isn’t a young child – could feel tenderly toward a person who is sexually exploiting him or her, could have a physical response to that person – is beyond the scope of most of our imagining. Incest perpetrators know that. They count on it. They make their victims feel complicit, because then how could anybody tell on them without implicating themselves? How could a person admit to participating in something so taboo?


A child loves a parent. A sibling loves a brother. We begin life believing that the people in our families aren’t going to hurt us. That's why both Harrison and Phillips yesterday told Oprah that in addition to their anger and pain, they both still love their fathers. And while that may seem at first inconceivable, anyone who has ever loved knows how easy it is to confuse sex with affection, how the eagerness to please can turn so cruelly upon one. It’s what makes incest such a cruel betrayal of the most primal of bonds.

So while the word “consensual” seemed disingenuous to describe Phillips' relationship with her father, “rape” never quite fit either. On yesterday’s show, she herself acknowledged her own semantic confusion. “I’ve been schooled,“ she admitted. “What went on was not consensual. There’s cooperation. There’s participation. But consent implies sound mind and body and that wasn’t the case.”

“What would you call it then?” asked Winfrey.


Phillips looked into the camera and stated her reply plainly. “I call it abuse.”

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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