By Stacy Jenel Smith
No sooner had news come out that Mackenzie Phillips was revealing a 10-year incestuous relationship with her father, John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas fame, than the judgments began.
Media members and chat room visitors alike questioned her motives, her timing. The man is dead and can’t defend himself, while she’s looking to make big bucks on her “High on Arrival” book — which was touted all through her Oprah Winfrey interview. Capitalizing on something so abhorrent, it just smelled bad.
Her stepmother, Michelle Phillips, quickly challenged Mackenzie’s claims, saying she didn’t believe her. She chalked it all up to Mackenzie having a disturbed mental shape after all her years of drug abuse. And, what’s more, the book is coming out at the opportune time of a new album and tour push by half-sister Chynna Phillips, she pointed out. All the more reason to be suspicious.
This type of reaction — the doubts and disbelief — “is typical,” according to Dr. Kathleen C. Faller, Professor of Social Work and director of the Family Assessment Clinic at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Faller is the author of several books that address the subject of incest, including “Child Sexual Abuse: An Interdisciplinary Manual for Diagnosis, Case Management, and Treatment” (Columbia 1988).
“Despite the fact that the number of cases reported has increased and there have been successful criminal prosecutions, in virtually every case, there is doubt about the veracity of the victim’s or survivor’s account,” she says.
She adds that survivors “often live in a world of doubt” — doubt that people will believe them, doubt in themselves.
It is also typical for survivors to go many years before disclosing a history of incest, according to Faller and other leading experts in the field, such as Dr. Judith Lewis Herman of Harvard Medical School. She characterized the keeping of such information hidden for years, even decades as “quite common.”
In 1991, Roseanne Barr went public with her recollection of childhood abuse at the hands of both her parents, who denied the allegations. She told People magazine, “keeping the secret of incest has taken all my energy and courage for 38 years. For most of my life, voices in my head must have been telling me, ‘Shut up. Shut up. Shut up and take it.'”
Roseanne was inspired to face her past both by her then-husband, Tom Arnold, who was grappling with his own
memories of childhood sexual abuse by his babysitter — and by “Miss America by Day,” the book by former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur, in which she disclosed the incest she suffered from age five to 18.
Van Derbur hated dolls. It wasn’t until she was in her forties that she tied that in to a mental picture she had of a doll of hers sitting in a chair near her bed, “and the shame I had that the doll could see what was happening.”
Van Derbur, a long-time advocate for incest victims, recalls in an interview on her website that when she finally told her mother about her father’s unwanted visits to her room, it was a year after his death. She was 48 years old, successful, highly regarded. And yet, her mother’s response was, “‘I don’t believe you. It’s your fantasy.'”
Van Derbur finds that incest survivors tend to “hide in shame and become drug addicts and do nothing with our lives” or they “excel and try to be perfect.” She fell into the latter category. Going public with her story unexpectedly liberated her from the tyranny of always trying to be flawless, she said. It “was very freeing … people knew the worst thing they could possibly know about me … and still spoke to me, people still admired me. It was unfathomable to me.”
“It helps to have people who are prominent, like Oprah Winfrey, who describe their abuse,” says Faller, referring to Winfrey’s disclosures of having been sexually abused by a cousin, an uncle and a family friend when she was growing up. “Every time somebody discloses and there is a positive outcome — when people believe the victim or survivor, help is obtained.”
Referring to Phillips, she says, “When a case like this comes up, it brings up another important thing for people to understand, that offenders are not dirty old men in raincoats. They’re usually close to the victim. [Incest is] not closely tied to socioeconomic status, it falls across the full spectrum. This case would be illustrative of that, with someone who had a prominent reputation and many fans, and now you have his daughter describing him in these terms.”
She stresses, “You want people to tell. It’s really important for their healing to talk about what’s happened.”
“Talking about it is good,” says Linda Davis, representing the organization Survivors of Incest Anonymous. “Talking about it is how it gets stopped. It festers in silence. ‘Shut up and take it,’ is the message. ‘It’s your fault.’ And if someone is a child — or child-like — they believe that.”
Davis believes that the Mackenzie Phillips story could trigger responses for many incest victims and survivors. And, noting that they’ll need a place to turn, she adds that SIA offers resources and a 12-step recovery program. (Contact them at Survivors of Incest Anonymous — P.O. Box 190, Benson, MD 21018, or on the web at www.siawso.org.) Therapy is the answer for many.
Noted Beverly Hills psychologist and author Dr. Brandi Roth, who works with children who have educational and behavioral issues, has provided therapy for incest survivors as part of her practice. She says, “Yes, celebrities can awaken other people and empower people. If, however, people don’t have the resilience to recover from trauma, it’s an enormously risky time.”
She describes three types of resilience: those who “just figure it out, handle it and move forward”; those who undergo a temporary collapse, get help and then are able to “bootstrap themselves up”; and those who experience “a full collapse in which people stay victimized forever. All these groups face the same things — shame, self-doubt, vulnerability, the risk of being re-abused.”
Encouragingly, she adds, “At any time, people can recover. I’ve had old people come in, in their seventies and eighties, for repair. They want to understand what’s happened.”
While the public debates the whys and wherefores of Phillips’ decision to tell her story — and, no, she was not a child when the alleged affair took place, which shouldn’t be forgotten — the fact is, her disclosure is now much bigger than her own life or her book sales.
Roseanne and Marilyn Van Derbur have both been thanked often by other survivors, who found strength and inspiration in knowing they weren’t alone. Roseanne, in fact, went to visit a children’s home in San Diego not long after her story hit the news — and talked to some youngsters who already knew she shared their trouble.
“A couple of the kids, especially one little girl, touched me really deep,” the star told People. “She said she was so glad that any celebrity cared about them. She reminded me of all the little girls and little boys who have to live with that horrible experience.”
“We protect our children from the popular media as much as possible,” says Cathy Clement, Director of Philanthropy for the Five Acres home in Altadena, CA, that serves youngsters who’ve been abused and/or neglected. “If the subject came up, however, the message to kids is that there are some grownups who do bad things even if they are rich and famous. So, her disclosure is not necessarily surprising. And we want our children to know that all children deserve to be protected regardless.”