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Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.
Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

An Incest Tale that Oprah Doesn't Like

Oprah doesn't trust Mackenzie Phillips.

I just finished watching Mackenzie Phillips talk about her most curious relationship with her father while promoting her book, the memoir,This is Your Life.

Mackenzie—she of the hit sitcom One Day At A Time and daughter of the late singer John Phillips, was on Oprah's show, which I now like to think of as This Is Your Life.2.XXX, a fascinating docudrama masquerading as a talk show. Is this what trash television is all about or what! Great stuff. Great drama. Great truth. Who really knows? But there it was for the audience's prurient delectation.

Mackenzie Phillips, this is your life—or at least your rendition of it. Writ large on Oprah, no less. Way to go.

For the uninitiated, This is Your Life was a show that aired in the U.S from 1952 to 1961, and again in 1972 . A version of it continues a very long run in the United Kingdom, starting in 1955. The show has legs. No question about it.

People, celebrities and noncelebrities alike, came on the show for some trumped-up reason. The show's creator and host, Ralph Edwards, would then reveal the truth of why they were there, then journey through their life—hence the title—as he read from a large tome, highlighting trials and tribulations, joys and pain. At various points in the show, important people from the guest's past would enter from stage left and reconnect, renew or continue their relationship with the guest.

Eddie Cantor, Laurel and Hardy, Angie Dickinson, Dick Van Dyke were just some of the well-known-at-the-time celebrities who, in front of an audience of millions, walked through their lives with the help of Ralph Edwards' talking road map.

But trust me. There was no one like Mackenzie Phillips to grace the stage of This Is Your Life back in those halcyon days of TV. Her life would have been a closed book sporting a plain brown paper cover. Valerie Bertinelli, Mackenzie's little sister on One Day At Time and, apparently, a sister in drug use as well, came on near the end of the show to share some hugs and tears. I looked around the stage in vain for some fleeting shadow of Ralph Edwards. No such luck.

As I watched the show and the lurid details creakily unfold like encrusted Kleenex, I was struck by something, unnerved by it. I had never seen Oprah Winfrey quite so withholding of sympathy for a guest on her show, one who overtly seemed so very emotionally connected with what she was sharing with the audience.

Oprah was herself a victim of incest, and that her guest on the show, Mackenzie Phillips, daughter of songwriter and leading member of the legendary folk-pop group The Mamas and the Papas (is there a sick joke here?), is the subject of the book on her incestuous relationship with her father makes Oprah's "restraint" most curious, if not bizarre.

Mackenzie has written a book, High on Arrival, about this drug-addled, incestuous father-daughter relationship that allegedly lasted for over a decade and was "consensual" only in the physical and strictest sense of the term. How can a parent's seduction of a child ever be anything remotely resembling the consent of two nonrelated adults?

When one is socialized on drugs, as Mackenzie was, and initiated into the drug life by the self-same father, the consensual element of the incestuous equation becomes even more muddied, more quantum psychotic, and less honest, less a meeting of the minds and bodies.

But, like audience members or eventual readers of Mackenzie's book, the issue of her carrying on the sexual relationship well into adulthood stuck in Oprah's craw.

Still, I sat there and watched Oprah withhold her famous capacity to gush, to empathize, to sympathize, to verbally, emotionally, physically reach out to the person she's interviewing and banish that certain look she can mount that lets you know she cares about your pain, your tormented journey, if only for the length of the show.

But Why? My sense was that she wasn't sure she believed Mackenzie's story. Oprah's various comments throughout the interview indicated that she and her producers had explored the risks and upsides of doing the interview with Phillips, especially since Oprah is the nation's most trusted purveyor of book recommendations. She is to authors what Carson was to newbie comedians. You hit their shows and you hit the big time almost overnight. Or at least that's how it seemed.

As written, Mackenzie's memoir dwarfs Mommie Dearest, the sensational memoir (and movie) by Joan Crawford's adopted daughter, Christina, in terms of jaw-dropping gossip about the beautiful people, the rich, neurotic, the celebrated, the famous and the infamous. Did I mention the neurotic? If John Phillips were still alive...well, the mind reels at the possibilities.

But he's not and his ex-wives, children, and other blood lines are reportedly less than happy about the revelations, but not apparently denying them. But are the book's contents revelations or reconstructed recollections? Someone independent of Mackenzie will still have to weigh in on that subject.

But back to Oprah's reticence and reservations vis á vis Mackenzie. She was careful to never accept at face value what Phillips was averring about her father-daughter relationship. Nor does any mention of a mother or mother figure, say, someone like Michelle Phillips, one of John's ex-wives and putative stepmother to Mackenzie, ever come up as a corroborating source. So, we'll have to await further revelations about the veracities and less-than-authentic factoids in this kiss-and-shoot-up-and-have-sex-with-and-tell-all daughter-father memoir. Or we'll have to read the book —or at least a juicy, detailed review of same.

Maybe we'll learn more about Oprah's withholding on Thursday when Mackenzie Phillips Part Deux airs. When I was on Oprah's show a decade ago, I certainly saw a chilly side to her, something that never showed on camera but did pop when off camera, during commercial breaks. This chill was different, though, more than journalistic distancing or a CYA strategy or irritation with a guests' fibs or fabrications to get on the show. Here, there's more there there.

You know what, regardless of the incestuous bonds they share or the silent rape of body and mind that forms the nerve endings of their pasts, I don't think Oprah likes Mackenzie Phillips. Maybe she sees a part of herself in her. We're all discomfited seeing a little of our less A-list selves in others, particularly others about whom we already have misgivings.

Perhaps Oprah sees in Mackenzie someone who has acted her whole life for whatever clear or murky purposes made sense at the time, drugs and sex with daddy included. Maybe she senses that Phillips has also cultivated a little sociopathy to help her get through the days and nights of a life that went off the rails and never quite got back on.

Maybe she should cut Mackenzie a little slack, though. Let's face it. It's hard to be a polydrug addict all through your adolescence and beyond and mature into a highly functioning adult. With chronic drug abuse, there's always a stunting of psychoemotional development and it's almost impossible to play catch-up, whether or not you get off drugs. This is especially a problem for Ms. Phillips, since being off drugs is not a side of the street that she has walked very much.

On the other hand, perhaps Oprah feels that this book might be just one more theatrical foray. One more performance. For money. For revenge. For a new career in the field of incest victimology? Who knows for sure?

But, nope, Oprah doesn't trust Mackenzie Phillips. And I don't think she likes her either.

About the Author
Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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