In the year since my father died my grief lost its fangs. One morning this summer, though, I awoke and could think of nothing but my father. As if Dad’s spirit put a spell on me, I craved his musty, old closet smell. I longed to see him in his old man outfit of suspenders and forty-year-old brown polyester slacks. My ears hungered to hear his scorched voice on the phone, his habit of clearing his throat before he said hello.
I tried to shut down my Dad-hunger, but couldn’t. I had no idea why I was yearning for him—it wasn’t like we had ever been close. I loved him, of course, but throughout most of my life we sparred. Even as an adult, I’d give him the silent treatment, let months go by without calling him back. But the morning my father’s memory hooked itself in my brain, I was overcome by an urge to go to his grave. That day, no matter that I had buried Dad in his hometown of St. Louis, four hours from my home in Indianapolis. I filled the Camry’s gas tank, slid a latte in the cup holder, and grabbed from my stash of audiobooks one for the long drive ahead.
The last time I’d been to my father’s grave was the previous winter, for the dedication ceremony for his headstone. The wind gusted, bone-cold, and I didn’t stay long. I wondered if Dad brokered a deal with God to make the weather unpleasant just to get back at me.
As I traveled Highway 70, green cornfields blurred in the periphery. The sky shone cotton candy-blue. Opening the audiobook, I slipped in the first disc and out came the voice of Mackenzie Phillips as she narrated her memoir, “High on Arrival.” As I passed Terre Haute, Effingham, with its giant stand-alone white cross, Vandalia, with its small-scale replica of the Gateway Arch—Phillips entertained me with the plot of her messy, dramatic life.
Mackenzie Phillips is the lanky actress who played Julie Cooper, the smart-alack older sister on the ’70s sitcom One Day at a Time. She’s the daughter of John Phillips, singer of the Mamas and the Papas—although her parents split when she was young. Her father, a charismatic, drug-taking, free love kind of guy, appeared in his daughter’s life sporadically. During the time Mackenzie spent with him, he groomed her for a rock and roll lifestyle. Destined to become an addict herself, the stories of Mackenzie Phillips as a teenager, and then adult, shooting up cocaine are tragic, but make for intriguing reading (or in my case, listening), in a voyeuristic way. The cycle of Mackenzie Phillips’s drug addiction and her attempts to get clean repeat throughout the book: Her addiction overtakes her, she does terrible things to the people she loves, she promises herself she’ll get clean, she goes into rehab, she relapses. Mac—and I like to think she’d be okay with me calling her Mac—paints a detailed, riveting picture of her drug-taking. She exposes her insecurities, mistakes, and failings, and by doing so elevates her memoir. Sure, it’s juicy in a People magazine sort of way, but Phillips achieves something more. She writes about her experiences in a way that elicits from me a great reservoir of empathy.
As if the drugs and sex in Phillips’s life didn’t provide enough salacious storytelling, she lets the reader in on an even bigger reveal: Mackenzie Phillips had a sexual relationship with her father.
The first time Phillips’s father f**ked her, she was an adult. But she was an adult who was so high on drugs, she was unconscious. As the episodes of incest continued, though, she became aware of what was happening. Here’s the thing—she didn’t run screaming, or resist. In High on Arrival, Mackenzie Phillips confesses: She allowed the incest to continue.
I thought she’d told all, but she follows this shocking admission with something all but unadmittable: During the time of her sexual relationship with her father there were times she was the one who initiated sex.
I know exactly why Mackenzie didn’t walk away.
Let me be clear: My father and I did not have a sexual relationship. Ironically, though, one of our main conflicts centered around the fact that he refused to believe that as a child I had been repeatedly sexually abused by his brother-in-law, my uncle. I kept the molestation a secret until I was thirty years old, and when I finally told, not only didn’t my father believe me, but blamed me for upsetting the extended family and became furious with me. He demanded I be quiet.
So young when it began, I can’t remember the first time my uncle first fondled me, only that it was a constant in my childhood. If my uncle had been looking for an easy target, he found it in me. Loneliness defined my childhood on the West Coast. I was the girl who never looked anyone in the eye, who rarely spoke. My mother’s mania drove her into rages that left me terrified she might kill me. When depression rendered her catatonic, I panicked, thinking she had died. She moved out before I enrolled in kindergarten, but even when she stopped by the rented flat Dad and I shared, she never seemed interested in having a daughter. Mostly she was just gone, in every sense of the word.
My world was Dad. He sat on the edge of my bed and read me stories. He took me to the zoo. But around the time I started first grade, something changed, although I didn’t know what or why. He’d come home from work, sigh, heat our TV dinners and then take his upstairs. He spent evenings behind the closed door of his bedroom, watching television. I must have failed him, I thought, and I was determined to win him back. After cleaning the kitchen, he got frustrated and edgy, angry that I hadn’t done it properly. It wasn’t long before I gave up trying to please him.
Every summer Dad and I traveled from our flat on the West Coast to St. Louis, where we stayed with his sister and brother-in-law—the uncle. During the day cousins from another part of the family picked me up and we splashed in the pool. Around the dinner table, back with Dad at his sister’s, my uncle asked me about my day. After we ate, my uncle took me out for soft-serve. Once, and it wasn’t even my birthday, he took me to Neiman Marcus and bought me a jade ring—jade!—and a rabbit fur muff for my birthday. Pleats ran down my uncle’s trousers and tassels adorned his leather loafers and he spoke in a calm, authoritative tone. He liked to take drives down the tree-canopied streets of the St. Louis suburbs. He never sighed.
At night, when everyone else left the den, my uncle motioned me to move closer to him on the couch and asked if I’d like a back rub. I was terrified. Did I want a back rub? I said yes. I was young, so young, but I some deep part of me knew that whatever was about to happen was horribly wrong.
Even though I was young enough not to remember the first time my uncle pushed his hands under the elastic of my panties, I do remember the buzz of anxiety that took root beneath my ribcage. A voice inside my head screamed, Tell him you are going to bed! The room I slept in was at the end of the hall. A voice inside my head screamed, Get off the couch! If I could just push his hands off me, get off the couch and say I was going to bed, maybe he would stop. But no sound came out of my mouth. I pleaded with myself, used all my will. Say you’re going to bed! Get off the Couch! But my muscles locked as if cemented to my bones. My heartbeat roared in my ears. Light from the TV strobed over the wall behind the couch in the den and what was happening was wrong, wrong, wrong, and with my uncle’s hands on my skin, I sat, mute and paralyzed.
My uncle knew I was a good girl. I’d learned to be silent so as not to trigger my mom’s rage, not to further burden my overburdened dad. A ghost of a girl, I’d learned that any value I had lie in my quiet compliance. Back on the West Coast I slept fitfully, waking up in the middle of the night chilly with sweat, imagining what horrors might await me if my father left me.
But looking back, I think there was something else. Scared and unable to speak or move while on that couch, I needed my uncle. To him, and to no one else, I was special. His touch eased the unbearable cold ache of loneliness. Like Mackenzie, I took the abuse for a very long time, way past the age others might expect a girl to be able to stand up for herself and say No; stop.
I’ve never told this to anyone, but I didn’t stand up to my uncle until I was eighteen.
Here’s something else—there was a pleasure in being molested, but not a sexual pleasure. Other girls’ mothers brushed their hair, bought them dresses, held their hands. Other girls’ dads spoke to them at the dinner table, bragged about their grades. But those things were not meant for someone like me. I was a freak, inside and out, a lesser being who didn’t merit my parents’ love. The truth was that in order to keep my father from leaving me I’d emptied myself out, banished all that I once was. Inside I felt both empty and lead-heavy, as if a dank, slimy fungus filled the space. My uncle’s touch confirmed my worthlessness, that my only value lie not only in my quiet compliance but also in allowing someone to take pleasure from my body. I wanted my uncle to touch me because it was a torture I knew I deserved. The sessions on the couch left me dazed and exhausted from anxiety. Tensing my muscles into paralysis left my entire body sore. I wanted pain.
To allow myself to feel sad or lonely would have destroyed me; they were too big. But to feel pain was to feel something. To feel pain brought a fleeting redemption—as a lesser being, I deserved it. The truth was complicated: I needed and feared my uncle’s touch. His “back rubs” were both nourishing and a torture. The truth was that I would have allowed anyone to do anything to me.
St. Louis was my father’s hometown, and despite my uncle, it had been the only place I’d had some fun, in that pool with cousins. Dad’s gray headstone stood in the shade of a sugar maple not far from his parents and their parents. My father had never believed me about my abuse, and he never apologized for taking his brother-in-law’s side, for commanding me to be quiet. I had a lot to say to him. The cemetery’s groundskeepers’ trucks made loud sputtering noises but I talked to my dad as if he was alive, sitting on the base of his tombstone next to me. The afternoon sun softened, and a light breeze cooled the back of my neck. I’d spent hours in the cemetery telling my father how I had needed him and how he let me down. Telling him how he had left me so wounded. I told him I forgave him, and at the time I thought that was true. I drove back to Indianapolis and finished listening to Phillips’s memoir. Mackenzie Phillips narrated her most recent relapse and recovery. She sounded strong, but who knows what the future holds for any of us? The cornfields were lush and high and stretched out as if they had no end.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.