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Thursday, October 1, 2009
GUEST SHOT: Mackenzie Phillips' tell-all book: TMI, TMZ or something sadly beyond "the view" of the sound bite-centric media?
By Curt Phillips
How much information is too much information? The book-buying public was afforded the opportunity to determine the answer to that question themselves last week thanks to the release of Mackenzie Phillips’ memoir, High on Arrival. So far it would appear that those who picked up a copy of the book and actually read it are coming up with a vastly different answer than those who have only been exposed to Phillips’ tumultuous publicity tour.
Before I go any further here, I should confess something. I am someone who became highly allergic to television news thanks in most part to coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in the mid 1990s. We had already been slipping mindlessly into a tabloid culture prior to those two murders and the trial that followed, but this appeared to be some sort of tipping point for yours truly. When the lead story on all news broadcasts was that prosecuting attorney Marcia Clarke had surprised everyone by getting a new perm, I could literally feel journalism die. Somewhere off in the distance Woodward and Bernstein must have been writhing in pain, I just knew it! If I followed anything related to that trial following that day, I don’t recall. I was likely exposed to information against my will simply by walking out my front door and walking past other human beings with the ability to open their mouths and speak.
With the exception of Ellen DeGeneres’ 1997 emergence from the closet and 9/11 coverage, I have largely avoided television as a news source. For all the positive things it did appear to offer, television news failed to offer much more than sound bytes and commentary. This past week while observing reactions to Phillips’ book, it has become clear to me that nothing much has changed.
For those two or three people out there who may still not be aware, actress and musician Mackenzie Phillips revealed in her book, as well as in TV talk show appearances, that for a period of years in her adult life she and her father John Phillips engaged in incest—and that it was consensual. There are fine points that she herself debates in her book, but this was the grand revelation that Oprah Winfrey helped her share, literally with the entire world, and which inspired a sea of news commentators and TV viewing public to shout back, “TMI!”
But was it just TMI? Well … yes and no.
As I said before, for those who have read the book, largely the answer to whether that bit of information is too much to share seems to be that no, it wasn’t. Yours truly read the entire 300 or so pages in the course of one day. Technically, it only took me roughly eleven hours to read it, and I argue that as long as you do read the book to understand the context in which the incest took place, that not only is it not TMI, but it could actually count as helpful information.
Many of the television news commentators, as well as other online and print media commentators, have chimed in on their reaction to the single announcement of incest, but few other than Oprah Winfrey seemed to have actually read this book. I have to question how credible that commentary is if it comes without research. Chris Mann, the gentleman who runs this blog and who invited me to share with you here today, has training as a journalist and would be more adept at dissecting this one for you than I am. Are the hosts of The View actual journalists and should they be held to the same standards as journalists, or are they indeed free to share their shocked reaction to a handful of quoted passages as they mug for the camera? Are they entitled to critique Mackenzie Phillips’ motives for sharing this part of her story without first reading the book to find these answers? Whoopi Goldberg, when you’re done telling Suzanne Somers that she should know better for her statements regarding Patrick Swayze and his cancer battle, will you please take a look in your own mirror?
So what about the book? From my vantage point, it was written by a woman who has battled many demons throughout her life and who is making a concerted effort to be open and frank so that those demons would no longer control her. She concentrates heavily on her strained relationship with her father, discussing many different aspects and events that at various times brought them closer to one another or drove them apart.
The incest is described very matter-of-factly—alongside many other events—as being one of many things she “boxed away” to avoid confronting. What seems to be ignored in much of the press is how it came about as the byproduct of heavy drug use, which Phillips explains had helped disconnect both her and her father from their more natural instincts. She does indeed describe the first encounter as rape, but goes on to explain in somewhat startling objective detail the discussions she and John had afterward. This part of her story might possibly cause the reader to examine the finer points of what does and does not constitute rape.
The true shame of this book tour, as it has played out in the media, is that many people might be inspired to pick up a copy and begin reading in hopes of finding some lascivious description of father-daughter sex. Those readers will be disappointed. This is not a lusty soft-core porn novel, nor the angry ramblings of a former child star. It is the effort of a woman battling addiction to tell her own life story in her own way as part of her own recovery process.
What about the question of this being TMI? For incest survivors, as well as those struggling with their own addictions, this book has the potential to offer catharsis. For those who have not had to confront either of these issues first hand, it has the potential to enlighten and educate. For those who are inspired to read it because they question the validity of criticism Phillips has received in the press, it has the potential to inspire even more of a critical thinking approach to listening to TV news. Perhaps for a few of the individuals who have publicly questioned Phillips’ motives in sharing this part of her story, it may inspire some reflection and introspection.
I stated earlier that sometimes the answer might also be that this is too much information. What did I mean by that? In some cases merely hearing the announcement that “Mackenzie Phillips announced on Oprah that she had an incestuous consensual affair with her dad,” would indeed be too much information. The determination for that, I believe, would have to do with context. If you do not know who Mackenzie Phillips is, or even care for that matter, then this information might have absolutely no purpose. If you never listened to any of John Phillips’ music and have no vested interest whatsoever in his memory, this sound bite may have no value. If you are not an addict, or an incest survivor, or if you have an extremely weak stomach and are foolish enough to eat your dinner in front of the TV, then this revelation may very well be completely useless in your world. I still argue, however, that learning first hand from people what they have experienced and how they survived it does indeed have value to us. We simply have to be open to it. If we are not open to it, then by our own indifference we indeed render it useless.
But Curt, what about her own family publicly denouncing her claims? I am so glad you brought this up, you smart reader you. Michelle Phillips, John’s second of four wives and Mackenzie’s former step-mother, has released statements intended to cast doubts on Mackenzie’s incest claim and on Mackenzie herself. Denouncements have also come from Genevieve Waite, John’s third wife, as well as Bijou Phillips, John and Genevieve’s daughter. Farnaz Phillips, John’s widow and fourth wife, has stated that she believes Mackenzie is lying. On the other hand, Mackenzie has received support as well. Chynna Phillips, Michelle’s daughter with John, has publicly supported her half sister, and other friends of the family have come forward to substantiate the incest claim as well.
Michelle Phillips asked people to take what Mackenzie has to say with a grain of salt. Is this a fair statement? You better believe it is. I say this not to help cast doubt, but because I feel it is important to take in any kind of information like this with an objective eye. Do I believe the claims of incest? Yes, but in the end what I personally believe isn’t the crucial factor here.
Mackenzie Phillips has a right to tell her own life story in her own way just as any of us have, and just as Michelle Phillips does—and has. In 1987, Michelle released her own memoir called California Dreamin’. Locating a copy might require effort since it is no longer in print. John Phillips’ 1986 autobiography Papa John, in which he details his own drug use, is also long out of print but used copies appear to have experienced a surge of new interest (no incest claims apparently exist in that book, so perhaps people are hoping to—forgive the pun—read between the lines).
Mackenzie shares her reaction to her father’s book at the beginning of her own. She acknowledged that he had a right to tell his own story, and she owned her own reaction to that. It is impossible, I would argue, for any of us to share our life’s story without sharing at least small parts of other peoples’ stories as well. Nobody lives his or her life in a vacuum. Our lives intermingle and often collide. That’s life. In every telling of a life story, collisions are to be expected. If none are reported, then it inevitably will lack an important layer of honesty. As a footnote here, I must point out that among the friends and relatives Mackenzie describes in her book, Michelle Phillips comes out smelling like more of a rose than most. I find the irony in this difficult to ignore.
This is a family in turmoil over a deeply personal issue, and they have been sharing their turmoil publicly. It is the kind of material that our news media absolutely adores. For the most part they can just sit back and let it play out on their own stage as the audience inevitably flocks to see the show. From a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense—scandal sells. It sells only because we buy it, often without questioning the validity of much of what we’re purchasing. As Phillips describes in her memoir, she is not merely a victim of incest or her addiction, but at many times a willing participant.
Throughout the entire 300-plus pages she recounts her adventure and owns up to her role in contributing to both the good and the bad of it. Like Phillips, we are willing participants in the sad state of our news media. We helped create it. We are no more victims of this monster than Mackenzie Phillips is of her various demons. Perhaps we have more to learn from Mackenzie Phillips and others like her than we realize.
In one of my recent videos for YouTube, I provided a far shorter review of this book. One of my regular commenters, a YouTuber by the user name of DL737, shared his reaction to what I had to say. I believe his succinct response summarizes this whole spectacle best: “When will we learn not to judge a book by it's cover—or its publicity tour?”