Today’s Oprah Winfrey interview with Mackenzie Phillips — in which the One Day at a Time actress discussed being raped by (and later going on to have a 10-year-long, consensual sexual relationship with) her father, Mamas and the Papas singer John Phillips — raised a lot of difficult, disturbing questions. On some visceral level, the one resonating loudest in my mind is where do we draw the line between a celebrity offering a cathartic confessional — sharing a past trauma that might help Joe or Jane Everyman cope with their own personal demons — versus the morally murky process of writing and marketing a memoir with the ultimate goal of winding up on the best-seller list.
Because make no mistake, regardless of whatever public-service value the Oprah appearance provided, one definitive goal of the gig was to move copies of Phillips’ new memoir, High on Arrival, which not coincidentally hit store shelves today. I lost count of how many times the book title got repeated during the one-hour telecast, but I’m pretty sure it reached double-digits. And that’s why even though Phillips was insisting the road to her revelations was paved with the best intentions — “I had to tell this story for me,” she explained, adding that “someone has to put a face on consensual and non-consensual incest” — I couldn’t shake the thought that ultimately, said storytelling was linked to a product that’s selling for $20.99 right this second at Borders.com.
For her part, Oprah handled the bulk of the Q&A with the perfect balance of sympathy and toughness, sweetly making sure Phillips had a tissue when she needed it, but not shying away from tough questions that needed asking. “Who’s gonna call us up the next morning and say you’re a liar?” Oprah asked, noting Phillips’ famous father had passed away in 2001. Oprah also chose to confront the incest accusations at the start of the interview, seemingly to Phillips’ surprise, and got the actress to read from infamous Page 108 of her memoir, about waking up from a drug-induced blackout to discover her father was raping her: “Your father is supposed to protect you. Your father is supposed to protect you, not f*** you,” Phillips said, in what had to be the most chilling part of the interview.
Oprah also pushed Phillips about the fact that by the age of 29, when her sexual relationship with her dad had become consensual, she must have been “very much aware” it was wrong. She also pointedly asked the actress, who said she’s been sober for almost a year, “Who’s to say you’re gonna stay clean?” I would’ve also liked Oprah to ask Phillips why she waited till now to very publicly reveal her disturbing past, and what (if anything) she’s done beyond writing a memoir for profit to help support or connect with the “community” of incest survivors she said she is concerned about.
Two other aspects of the interview made me skittish as well. First was Phillips’ blase telling of how she was seduced by Mick Jagger when she was 18 — “I’ve been waiting for this since you were 10 years old,” the Rolling Stones singer allegedly said to her before they locked themselves into a bedroom while Mackenzie’s father banged on the door and tried to stop them. The way Phillips ended her tale — “That’s my Mick Jagger story!” — was delivered more like a cocktail-party laugh-getter than a serious revelation about her troubled teenage years. And, perhaps worse, there were moments of the interview that seemed designed to promote Oprah and her many brand extensions, including at least four mentions of the fact that Phillips was on her way to the Oprah-produced Rachael Ray Show when she was arrested for heroin possession last year. What’s more, when Oprah brought Phillips’ former costar (and current Rachael Ray Show contributor) Valerie Bertinelli onto the stage in a show of support, and Phillips thanked Oprah profusely, the powerful talk show host raised her arms in triumph and shouted: “I’m so glad!” Yes, Oprah, Mackenzie Phillips couldn’t have done it without you. Whether “it” is bravely confronting a social taboo for the greater good or reaching several million potential memoir readers, well, I leave that up to you down in the comments section below. (And if you want to follow my pop-culture thoughts on Twitter, by all means do…@EWMichaelSlezak!)