You don't imagine a child at the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theater. It is a place, after all, that Hunter S. Thompson called “the Carnegie Hall of public sex in America.” A place known in the '70s for drugs, fully nude lap dances and live sex shows. But Liberty Bradford Mitchell spent plenty of her childhood visiting her father, Artie Mitchell, at the legendary San Francisco strip club. She was introduced to porn and G-strings before kindergarten.
Incredibly, that is perhaps the least remarkable aspect of her family history. Artie and brother Jim directed and produced the 1972 porn classic "Behind the Green Door," infamously starring Ivory Snow girl Marilyn Chambers. They produced porn upstairs at the O'Farrell, showed the films downstairs and eventually introduced live entertainment. As a result, they fought more than 200 obscenity cases -- when they weren't partying and making millions. In the end, Jim shot Artie dead with a rifle, for reasons that remain unclear.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Bradford Mitchell has swung in the opposite direction of her father. She's a fan of the work of controversial psychologist Melissa Farley, a self-described prostitution abolitionist. She feels passionately about the blight of sex trafficking, which she ties to the adult industry. Needless to say, she is no fan of pornography. At the same time, she speaks highly of the Mitchell brothers' work and allows, "I’m all for whatever floats your boat, as long as everyone involved is safe and consenting." It isn't easy to find one’s own identity in the shadow of an infamous father.
She's turned her personal story into a one-woman show, "The Pornographer's Daughter," which is currently playing in San Francisco. Salon spoke with Mitchell by phone about what it's like to be exposed to porn at such a young age, her feelings about her father's legacy and how she's made sense of his murder.
When did you first find out what your dad did for a living?
I remember having an awareness of it when I was around 3 or 4 that he made naked movies, which I thought was really hilarious. I think I imagined more like naked cartoons or something.
When was the first time that you saw pornography?
Growing up, I’d go to the O’Farrell Theater, we’d stop by the office when we were in the city. When I was 4 and a half, I became really cognizant of what I was viewing on the screen in the screening room. I describe that experience in the play of the first time I locked in on a full-screen close-up of a penis and vagina in coitus. I thought, “What are they doing? This is not what I thought a naked movie would look like.” At the time it wasn’t so disturbing to me, it was just very weird.
Once I was the age of 6 or 7 I was much more conscious that this was not stuff that I should be seeing and it did not make me comfortable when I was by the office, especially at the point where the theater went live and there were dancers that were basically naked walking around. None of it was really explained to me. There was no thoughtful conversation about sexuality and pornography and its role in the world. Especially when I was much younger, I think my father figured, “Oh, she doesn’t even know what she’s looking at.” That was true, for a good amount of time.
I know now that was the culture of the '70s. A lot of kids were reared in the '70s with progressive parents — they lived on nudist colonies or communes. There was a lot of interesting experimental living going on in those days.
Did you have classmates at school who knew who your dad was?
Very few. I kept it very secret. I did have a best friend in fourth grade who knew. Once I was in junior high, I was completely closeted about what my dad did. I changed my name, I was very shy. I was not in a space to stand up and be brave and say, “My dad’s a pornographer, big deal.”
It was complicated. I loved my father. We had a lot of fun as a family. We had a lot of dysfunction as well -- but who didn’t in divorced California families of the '70s?
How did that early exposure to porn and stripping influence you?
I personally was very inhibited sexually for a long time. I retreated and read little English novels, watched "Little House on the Prairie" and just found the most mainstream or traditional media outlets. I didn’t feel comfortable, I was a late bloomer. It wasn’t until college when I started to get more comfortable with myself and that coincided with coming out of the closet to my peers about what my dad did. Of course, by that time they all thought it was cool, it was great! “My dad’s job is so boring, he’s just a banker!”
I’ve read that you would sometimes take your college friends to the O’Farrell.
Yep. It started out being really fun because the office at the O’Farrell is pretty legendary for being a great place to party. There was always plenty of booze and pot. That was really fun. I’d go downstairs as a lark to take a look, but I wasn’t really interested in the shows. My girlfriends and I’d be hanging out upstairs. The hours would pass and the sun goes down and my male friends come back with this depraved look in their eyes and I was like, “God, what happened to you people when you were downstairs?”
I saw them all sink into this disgusting depravity where every women in the room becomes a target. It became this entitlement that the men had and it made me sick. I remember grilling my [male] friend for the five-and-a-half hours we drove back from San Francisco to L.A. “What is wrong with males? Why does this happen?” It’s not like women don’t get hot over seeing good-looking guys or women, whoever they’re turned on by, but it’s just not this weird animal instinct. I found it so disturbing and disappointing. All my friend could do was apologize for his own sex and go, “I dunno, that’s just how we are. We’re visually stimulated.” I came to understand, because obviously my father wouldn’t have made millions and millions of dollars if there hadn’t been this market of men wiling to pay a premium to look at naked women.
You came to see your early exposure to pornography as abuse. How did that shift in your thinking happen?
What happened was I worked as a yoga instructor and had to do an online child abuse training. I was going through the motions and at some point something about pornography came up on the screen and it said, “Exposure of pornography to a minor is a form of sexual abuse.” It really struck me. I’d never thought about it like that and then it seemed so obvious once I read it. There was something about putting it in that context, it made me feel better. I know that I wasn’t intentionally abused by this exposure — and compared to what a lot sexual abuse survivors have gone through it’s child’s play — but it was for me psychologically inhibiting and scary.
You talk in your show about deciding to dance onstage to “Me So Horny” at the 1991 AVN Awards. Tell me about that.
I was 20 and I had spent a good amount of time going to underground nightclubs in Los Angeles and dancing to house music. I was at the AVN Awards, which, for me, was really "fish out of water," but the Mitchell Brothers were getting their lifetime achievement award. Up to this point my dad thought I was really a square. So I was determined, "It’s my first trip to Vegas. I’m gonna be a party girl." Chi Chi LaRue, she’s a legendary drag queen and porn producer, she got onstage to sing and I was overcome with this compulsion, "Oh my god I’m gonna jump up there and be her backup dancer." The scotch on the rocks I’d had probably gave me some extra courage. Then everybody jumped on too.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face. He was practically falling out of his chair. He couldn’t believe it that I was so bold. My father’s perception was that I was this little uptight prep school girl.
So you were showing dad that you weren’t so uptight.
That I had a free spirit as well. After that he gave me a big hug and said, "I’ve never been so proud of you in my whole life."
How do you feel about pornography now as an adult?
I personally have no interest in pornography. As a writer, I get more turned on by the written word — or the live experience. It’s so much a part of our culture, whether you like it or not, there’s exposure. So much of what’s out there trumps by far anything I saw when I was a kid. Just from watching popular movies, there’s a lot more opportunity for people to see really hardcore imagery. I’m all for whatever floats your boat, as long as everyone involved is safe and consenting -- but again, I experienced firsthand how confusing it can be to be exposed to sexual imagery as a child and not having it put into context.
Kids are really learning about sex from such a removed space and believing that it just comes down to a simple act of penetration. It’s not like I’m a Pollyanna and think sex always means true love, but we’ve swung so far to the porn side. My daughter was a toddler and we were at the playground and there the mommies had their G-strings sticking out of their Juicy Couture sweat pants and I thought, god we’ve come full circle. When I was a kid, it was the dancers from the O’Farrell that had their G-strings in my face. Now it’s the mommies at the park putting them in my own kid’s face.
How do you feel then about your dad’s legacy?
I think the Mitchell Brothers have a very interesting legacy. My father died before the Internet came of age. You look at their movies now and I don’t think "quaint" is the right word, because they are sexy and interesting, but it’s just such a different time because there is an artistry to them. They were truly activists in San Francisco and they put their name and voice behind causes they believed in, whether it was AIDS or the environment. Whatever it was, they knew how to use their weight for a cause and I think that’s the greatest part of my father’s legacy.
They realized their dream and then some. But the dream took control after a while. At the end of my father’s life he was really tired of being in porn.
How did you find out about your father’s murder?
My mother called me early in the morning. It happened the night before. I wasn’t surprised he had died, because I had been so concerned about him. I thought it meant he’d had a drunk driving accident, because he was really struggling with alcoholism. I had a premonition three days before he died that I was never going to see him again, that he was going to die. And of course he did die, but not in any way we could have imagined. It was very difficult to process psychologically that my uncle was responsible for it.
Have you been able to make sense of your uncle's actions?
The thing that gave me the greatest sense of peace was the realization that, like it or not, sometimes there just isn’t a satisfying answer to why. I think there are a lot of factors that go into why he did it. Likely he didn’t even know entirely why he did it. There were business pressures, there were pressures from his girlfriend who wanted to control the business, there was the fact that my father was really in need of an intervention, there were a lot of other family dramas that were impacting my father’s behavior. Was the answer to shoot him? No. No, it wasn’t.
What I find the most frustrating is that my uncle never sought forgiveness and acted quite deplorably to me and at a least one of my other siblings in the aftermath. Perhaps it was guilt or denial, whatever it is that the mind has to do to get on with life if you’ve committed a horrible act. I’m sure he did regret it -- he loved my dad, I have no question. We’ll never know why. The Oscar Wilde quote “The truth is rarely pure and never simple” is what has guided me ever since my father died. For a long time I wanted it to be black and white, but that isn’t life.