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Video: Mackenzie Phillips: Dad ‘was a very sick man’

TODAY books
updated 9/24/2009 10:28:38 AM ET 2009-09-24T14:28:38

In her memoir, “High on Arrival,” actress and singer Mackenzie Phillips writes about the brutal, drug-filled life she lived as a daughter of a rock star, John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, and the taboo relationship she had with him. An excerpt.

In the mideighties, when I was on tour with the New Mamas & the Papas, a porter brought two packages up to my hotel room. One contained a book, my father’s newly published memoir, but I was more interested in the other package — a flat FedEx letter containing an eighth of an ounce of cocaine.

The band, a reconstituted version of the Mamas & the Papas, included my father, Denny Doherty, Spanky McFarlane, and me. We were on an extended tour, performing in city after city for more than 250 days of the year. In each city, a FedEx like the one I was holding awaited me, and I spent all day every day in my hotel room, shooting up coke, coming out only to appear onstage for the nightly gig. Then I’d return to my hotel and do more coke. I was twenty-six years old.

I put Dad’s book aside, opened the FedEx, and prepared a shot. Using a scarf, I tied off my arm. As I looked for a vein, I felt the familiar rush that accompanied the ritual itself. I knew what was coming. I pushed the needle in. As the coke entered my bloodstream I felt a euphoric onrush of sensation. I was back where I wanted to be.

Only then did I pick up my father’s book. “Papa John: A Music Legend’s Shattering Journey Through Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll” was a brick of a book with the title faux spray-painted on the jacket in neon colors. I turned it over in my hands to look at the photo of my father on the back. He was clean-shaven and smiling a newscaster smile, the sanitized, post-rehab version of my father. He didn’t look remotely like his hipster self.

Then I flipped to the index and looked to see if I was in it. There I was: “Phillips, Laura Mackenzie.” Under my name was a list of subheadings and page numbers. I scanned down the entries:

Video: Mackenzie Phillips: Dad ‘was a very sick man’ (on this page) Phillips, Laura Mackenzie

acting career of ... 

arrested on drug charges ...   

attempts to clean out ... 

in California ...  

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childhood of ...   

drug use by ...   

early childhood of ...   

at finishing school in Switzerland ...  

Jeff Sessler and ...   

marriage to Jeff Sessler ...   

Peter Asher and ...   

rape ....   

shipboard romance on QE 2 ... 

There it was, my life to date, with highlights selected, cross-referenced, and alphabetized. I had been organized and reduced to a list of sensational and mostly regrettable and/or humiliating anecdotes. Being indexed, particularly under such dubious headings, gave me a weird feeling that definitely wasn’t pride. I felt like I wasn’t a real person, just a list of incidents and accidents. Whoever compiled that index — I’m pretty sure my father wasn’t up to such a mundane and detailed task — was just doing his or her job, but it was cruelly reductive.

Decades passed before I thought about that index again. In 2008, now nearly fifty years old, I found myself in a police station in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. I was sitting in a hallway on a bench. My hands were cuffed and the handcuffs were hooked to the bench. All the cops were staring at me: the middle-aged lady, the former child star, who had just been busted at the airport for heroin possession. A low, low moment.

How had I gotten myself here? Was this happening? The best and worst moments of my life have always felt surreal, as if the events were just another entry in that foreign index someone else created. But the cuffs cut into my hands with the cold rigidity of reality. I’d been addicted to drugs before, and I’d overcome my addiction. That was fifteen years ago, so many long, mostly happy, entirely drug-free years. I never thought I would relapse. I’d been clean for so long that I thought I was fixed. But if the addiction was a cancer that had been carefully excised, well, I’d missed a spot. It had grown back, all the more fierce and malignant. Here I was again. Back at the bottom, caught in the arms of a bad-news lover I thought I had dumped for good. I could envision the new entry in the index, typed in the same font. Chronologically, it belonged right below “happy working mother.” It would say, “second arrest on drug charges,” a one-line condemnation that only hinted at everything that had led me to that bench.

All my life I’ve been a person who starts things and can’t finish them. As a junkie, as an actress and musician, as a mother — it’s been hard for me to complete even the simplest cycles of action. Like using one tube of toothpaste from beginning to end before buying the next. I’d inevitably leave it in a hotel, or lose track of it for long enough that I’d have to open another tube, then rediscover the original — half the time, at best. Sitting on that bench, looking ahead, I knew that in some way I had to go back. I had to go back fifteen years, to all the work I’d done when I got sober, to the surgery that had sent me into remission for so long. I had to see what was left unfinished.

In a way, the surreal feeling is a shield. I have demons, haunted parts of my life and myself that are painful and scary. Facing them, revealing them, makes them too real. But I think about the index of my father’s book, and how it reduced me to highlights and lowlights. I think about my mug shot in the tabloids. And I think of all that happened before, between, and after. The rest of the story. It is time to sort out a life that too often I left blurry, unprocessed, unreal, hoping that in doing so I would be leaving it behind me forever. It is time for me to return to that life, to face it, explain it, accept it, and let it rest as the insane, fun, ridiculous, terrifying, and true sequence that led a bright, goofy, famous little girl to a bleak jail bench, and I want to do it right, so that it is real and whole, and I in turn become real and whole.

I’m nearly twice as old as I was when my father’s book came out, and though this is my story, not my father’s, my relationship with him is undeniably central to my life. Dad was the great and terrible sun around which his children, wives, girlfriends, fellow musicians, and drug dealers orbited, relentlessly drawn to his fierce, inspiring, damaging light. The alternate solar system my dad drew me into had hilarious moments — like sliding down the banisters of my dad’s Malibu mansion with Donovan — and portentous scenes, like when I tried cocaine for the first time at the age of eleven. There are happy memories of the stable work and family I found on "One Day at a Time." There are loving and painful memories of the f---ed-up family I wouldn’t trade for the world. There are lost memories — conversations and chronologies I wish I could remember — and events I know my whole being wants to erase forever. There was a father-daughter relationship that crossed the boundaries of love to break many taboos, as my father was wont to do. My life was one of a kind — not everyone has a rock-star father, childhood stardom, and enough money and fame before the age of sixteen to last a lifetime. I have had more than my share of highs and lows. But all of it happened, it’s real, and it’s who I am.

Excerpted from "High on Arrival" by Mackenzie Phillips. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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