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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
Retroality.TV Reporter

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?”


CHRIS MANN said...

Hey Curt.
Regardless of whether it's too much information or not, the publisher knew they had a hit on that one selling-point alone (the incest). I'd venture to guess Phillips has a hard time with it, but she also has to know that she probably wouldn't have been on Oprah had it not been for the sensationalism around the book.
Anyhoo, good article!

CHRIS MANN said...

Great job..I haven't viewed much press on the book because like you I don't care to much for those shows.

You really did a great job writing this ... I knew you would

Love you!

CHRIS MANN said...

I agree with you on the media becoming more
about commentary and big headlines.
But I have to say they also became so much better
at getting eveywhere and getting the true story.
Look at the Iran coverage or embedded reporters
in Iraq or aphganistan.
20 years ago we would't have a true grip on what is
really going on there.

CHRIS MANN said...

Great blog Curt. Like you, i'm very much annoyed by so called news coverage & yes, it's the same over here in the UK. Although I do believe have a little catching up to do. Even the standards of the BBC have slipped over recent years. I now tend to be very selective about where I get my "news" these days.
BTW Have you ever thought of a career as a writer, or at least starting your own blog? I think you should.

CHRIS MANN said...

TMI is a very subjective thing. I don't think Ms. Phillips' revelation is necessarily TMI, but I certainly question whether or not it was one of the top five news stories of the past month.

As to questioning the definition of "rape" - whatever consensual relationship may have followed, it does not change the depiction of how it started, which IMO falls squarely under rape. (And, frankly, I also question the ability to fully consent when there's the parent-child power dynamic at play.)

Does this mean I can no longer listen to John Phillips' music? No, but it certainly adds another layer to the story of a wonderfully gifted and hugely f*&^ed-up man.

CHRIS MANN said...

What a wonderfully well written and concise piece this is Curt.
I as others,initially,could only hear"incest",but now believe as you, that this information,whether too much for some or not,could definitely be cathartic for many(probably a great many more than we realise.)
Yes Mackenzie Phillips is famous so,in her case, it plays out on a world stage!
But if anyone who has been affected by this societal taboo(almost too taboo to mention,making it even more difficult for survivors to cope!)
is encouraged/guided to seek healing,then it has been worthwhile,whether we hear about those other suvivors ,or not! There's a lot more information out there that will never be given a public stage,but will affect those involved ,no less deeply!
I haven't read the book as yet,but I certainly will.
To digress,I think the OJ Simpson trial and what followed in TV journalism particularly had a ripple effect that reached Australia too.I dont take any notice of television news's become totally cult of personality and so far from the truth usually,that it doesn't bear the vaguest resemblance! Great work Curt! <3
P.S.I hope I haven't rambled too much! :P

CHRIS MANN said...

Curt - this was terrifically written. A great review of not only the book, but if the shallow coverage on TV. I too am appalled at what passes for 'the news'; more locally than nationwide. I noticed it particularly after moving back here from the Midwest and from a little international travel. I'm a news junkie and it ticks me off to have to wade through the crap to find out real news. Thank the thinking public for public radio! I also surf online for the BBC and for Canadian Broadcasting and a couple of other sources. So, thanks for your thoughtful commentary. You've added to my thought process not only regarding this book but also relating to the 'coverage'.

CHRIS MANN said...

Glee, I hope I'm doing this so it shows up as a direct reply to your post.
Thanks! And thank you for sharing about how the shift over here has touched off things over there in Australia. It's a reminder that we really are more deeply connected than ever before, in ways that continue to impress, surprise and even occasionally frustrate me.
And, no, you didn't ramble too much IMO.

CHRIS MANN said...

I wish I knew more about coverage of international affairs 20 years ago, especially that of what has taken place in Iran, in order to adequately comment. Sadly, in 1989 my main concern was making sure my VCR was programmed to record Thursday night episodes of "Knots Landing" so I didn't have to miss it while I was at work.

I'd love to hear more on your thoughts about this, actually. Being positioned where you are, I think you'd have a perspective that a lot of us probably lack.

CHRIS MANN said...

Thanks, Syd -
Oprah has the power to make or break books anymore (and not just books, for that matter), so the publishing company was not making any dummy move, that's for sure. I'd be curious to hear someone from Simon Spotlight comment on what they envisioned or intended. It was hard to tell how much of what Winfrey did with this on her show was MP & company and how much was Winfrey & company.

CHRIS MANN said...

This is excellent, you have such journalistic prowess. I miss the news coverage I grew up with as a young person. I fellt it was more succint, but i could be wrong. I do remember profoundly watching cnn, just to see what happened in the throughout the day, so I was reading the ticker, because everything was pushed aside by OJ's picture in picture in th corner and I see 300,000 die in Somalia.300,000 DIE! That was it. The ticker went off, and I turned on for 2 days trying to catch it again, any part of what was going on in Somalia. I finally found and read a newsprint article that 1.5 million were sufferering sarving and running for their lives, and 80% of UN food relief was stolen by warlords, and countless mass graves were being discovered, a mass genocide. I saw for moment on a ticker. I gave up TV for awhile, read the newspapers more, I was so appalled that two murders abliterated 300,000 people. Appalling because it wasn't the two murders, they still resonate: it was the gall of the media, to blow it up into such a sensationalistic travesty, a butchering of media content, and it was revolting. This was a refreshing read Mr. Curt and very insightful as to plight of us all ,held hostage by sound bytes and uneven media temperment. ***applause***

CHRIS MANN said...

I am not too sure of the TMI aspect. The Mother of my children was a victim of "Incest" to which I believe there is NO CONSENSUAL age for a child when their FATHER is involved.

I know that Incest has a long and lasting effect not just on the child but the Mother of my children eventually committed suicide while our children were 3 & 6... this had a long lasting impact on my children's lives and still does today.

Not talking about this topic leaves it locked in a dirty closet of silence and the NO ONE speaks up EVER.... it's just a dirty secret that leaves raw emotions that never get properly addressed so children take it to their graves most often...

This particular situation is unfortunately over exposed with the media hype, she must've really needed the money!

Truth be known there are far too many cases of incest that manifest themselves in child prostitution, run aways, children rejected by the own parents to keep this dark and horrible secret,

While I can't applaud Mackenzie's actions as brave, I do hope that more people are aware of the social ramifications INCEST has on all of us....Interview Prison inmates and find out how much incestuous chid abuse had taken place and where the CHILD winds up when he/she acts out inappropriately after the fact.

Nice job Curt... Love you buddy... Rey

CHRIS MANN said...

Hi posters of the above comments ...

THIS is actually Chris Mann, this blog's owner/editor.

All of your names above were automatically replaced with mine when I switched tonight from the JS-Kit/Echo comment "system" back to Blogger's comment interface. Nice feature, JS-Kit!

I'm trying to figure out how to restore these comments' authors' names—we'll see if these JS-Kit people can give me a straight answer—but in the meantime, if you'd like to repost your comment with your actual name ... please feel free.

Sorry about this confusion. And thanks so much for participating in this blog ... Curt, you did a fantastic job with this piece, by the way!


HopelessHeadcase said...

Was that a great use of a Melrose Place reference, or just the best coincidence ever?