Over the last century, we’ve evolved from a society hindered by unhealthy repression—taking our most painful secrets with us to the grave to spare our loved ones distress or social shame—to one that values the importance of unburdening and “exorcising our demons.” For most, this involves years of intense therapy sessions, followed by even more years of learning to cope with the revelations they engender, then slowly rebuilding a new life, where you accept those demons as part of who you are, but not the sum total. It’s a deliberate, frustrating, incredibly private process—unless you’re famous. In which case, you just go on Oprah.
Oprah is a listener. Oprah is a giver. Oprah is the warm, matriarchal hug that says things are going to be all right. Oprah is also the illusion that we, as a culture, take the harrowing confessions of her guests and learn to draw inspiration from them—which no, we simply gawk in horror at them, then dwell on and debate each other over the sordid details. For example, did anyone come away from Oprah’s recent interview with Whitney Houston with a greater understanding of why she spent most of the last decade in a drug-fueled stupor, or leave feeling inspired by her newfound commitment to rehabilitation? No, we came away with a few crazy anecdotes about Bobby Brown spray-painting “evil eyes” on the wall, a handful of carefully deflected non-answers, and plenty of forced “lessons you’ve learned” that Oprah shoehorned in to create the illusion that all of these things were somehow symbolic of a redemption arc that never really materialized. But oh, it’s cathartic, and look how brave she is, and see how we can take our pain and grow from it and so forth—and isn’t Oprah caring for providing a safe place where one can get those sorts of things out in the open?
Except some things have no business being out in the wide open. Some things do not need to be processed under the watchful eye of millions. Yet this is how our oversharing culture has lately learned to process things, and this is why you get revelations like the one absolutely everyone has been talking about today.
I’m fully aware that addressing this is unbelievably tricky business. Just by bringing it up, I’m inviting accusations of trying to use incest as a launching pad for our usual snark—and true, I’ve more than established expectations for any commentary seen here to follow that line of thinking. And okay, insensitive as they may seem, there are uncomfortable questions that arise whenever those kinds of confessions are couched in some sort of promotional push—particularly when they come from a celebrity who’s willingly exploited their own personal tragedies before. After all, Mackenzie Phillips spent the last several decades in and out of grace, turning the endless cycle of rehab and relapse into a quasi-career, so it’s tempting to cast a suspicious eye on this sudden, headline-grabbing confession—which, naturally, is but a teaser for a book she’s currently plugging—and point out that it’s only now coming out after years of increasing legal and financial troubles. More importantly, she’s speaking up long after her father has died, ensuring no one can dispute the story. It also probably doesn’t help matters that Phillips’ other big revelation of the day was an oddly lighthearted anecdote about sleeping with Mick Jagger, whom she said had been lusting after her since she was 10 years old. Taken together, these stories seem particularly timed to capitalize on the growing thirst for celebrity tell-alls, which has never been more feverish than in the last few years. Even for people without a tendency toward negativity, there’s a natural tendency to be suspicious of that.
But look: Those qualms aside, I’m not here to cast aspersions on the validity of Phillips’ story, or diminish her personal trauma—and certainly not the trauma of rape and incest in themselves. If Phillip says she engaged in an incestuous affair with her father, there’s no hard evidence to suspect she’s lying, even given the timing or her past unreliability. There’s also no schadenfreude or satirical angle to be found in John Phillips raping his daughter, convincing her that it was “making love,” and then suggesting they run away together to Fiji and live as man and wife. “Papa John” was already known as a negligent, drug-addled shitbird with nonexistent parenting skills, but this allegation puts him on some sort of monstrously debauched Roman emperor level that will make it all but impossible to cue “California Dreaming” on the jukebox from here on out without somebody bringing it up. I acknowledge that it’s reprehensible to attempt to make light of any of this. Believe it or not, I’m not trying to do that.
Leaving the central story aside for the moment, however, it’s the sideshow to this whole nauseating affair, the way it’s become endemic of how our culture now processes its tragedies, that I also find distressing—and it raises a question about our disturbing need to make our private problems public, and the way doing that almost automatically negates their impact. Phillips has said that she wants to “put a face on consensual incest,” and that’s a brave and noble intention. But outside of writing a memoir and appearing on Oprah to talk about said memoir, there doesn’t seem to be much else to that intention, at least so far. (Though it’s always possible that further speaking engagements to fellow victims, charitable donations, and the like will follow.) And that definitely goes for Oprah too: On her show, she prompted Mackenzie Phillips to cut right to the chase and cough up the incest story right quick, lest her audience assume this was another cut-and-dry “how I got sober” narrative and change the channel. And of course, as with anything Oprah does, it was all under the auspice of “confronting our pain so we can learn from it.” But what, exactly, did we learn today from this shitstorm, other than that John Phillips was probably the worst father in the world (which, you know, we already knew that), Mackenzie Phillips has a book for sale, and that Oprah—like our entire oversharing society—pretends to be sympathetic when really she’s just acting as a classy surrogate for her audience’s gawking? And will this finally be the nadir of the celebrity memoir, or—as some have already half-jokingly speculated—just the bar everyone else has to clear from now on? The idea that Mackenzie Phillips endured what she says she did is certainly tragic; that still we’re finding new, unnerving ways to turn confronting that tragedy into entertainment may be equally so.