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

TODAY contributor
updated 9/26/2009 10:19:06 AM ET 2009-09-26T14:19:06

It is not, Mackenzie Phillips said, either as simple or as reprehensible as the news stories make it seem. Her father, John Phillips, was not a monster, and that 10-year “affair” she is said to have had with him is not as easily categorized as it would seem.

“My father was not a bad man. He was a very sick man,” Phillips told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in one of a series of interviews about her tell-all book, “High on Arrival,” and her folk-rock superstar father, “Papa John” Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas.

“If anyone out there can possibly separate his body of work from his personal demons, that would be the honorable thing to do. He didn’t set out to hurt me. He did the best with what he had. He was a damaged guy,” Phillips said.

She says it is true that on the night before her first marriage at the age of 18, she woke up in a drug-induced fog to find John Phillips having sex with her. And it is true that 10 years would go by before she finally stopped the incestuous relationship after she aborted a child because she didn’t know if it was her father’s or her husband’s. But, Phillips told Vieira, it is not accurate to describe that decade as a continuous relationship.

“At 18 I was molested, then maybe three years later, I started waking up with my pants down around my ankles. And then maybe two years after that, it became consensual,” Phillips said. “So to call it a 10-year affair, a 10-year relationship, is not correct. That is something I would like to get out.”

Book has divided her family
Phillips said she did not intend to reveal so much when she began writing her memoir, but she decided that it would be dishonest to do otherwise and a disservice to others who have suffered the emotional horrors of abuse and incest.

Her stepmother, Michelle Phillips, has said that Phillips is imagining what happened. Her half sister Chynna said the stories are too incredible to be made up. Her other sister, Bijou, and her brother, Tamerlane, have shown measured support.

Phillips did not criticize those in her family who have not shown unflinching support for her. For one thing, she said, to her knowledge her sisters were not abused by John Phillips. For another, they are reacting the way most families react to such unwelcome and embarrassing news.

Image: Mackenzie Phillips and her father
Phillips spent much of her TODAY appearance defending her late father, while also discussing his sexual abuse of her.
“If you open a textbook on incest you can see a picture of the Phillips family,” Phillips said. “We are behaving in a typical way. The instinct is to say it’s not true. The instinct is to deny. The instinct is to brush it under the table. The instinct is to protect the abuser. I love my family … I understand this is very difficult, and to be revealed on a public level such as this makes it ever more difficult, and my heart goes out to them. I know that, God willing, as a family we will all be stronger when this dies down.”

Phillips said she also understands that many will find the story disgusting and either condemn her for revealing it or question her veracity.

“I’m not asking you to understand and say, ‘Of course, that’s what happened.’ I’m asking you to see how it could and how it does and how this is a problem that’s going on all over the world,” Phillips said.

The one segment of society that has responded most positively to her book, Phillips said, is others who have been through similar experiences.

“This is a universal story, and since the publication of this book yesterday, the outpouring of support from other incest survivors has been phenomenal,” Phillips told Vieira. “This is a subject that is so incredibly taboo, as well it should be, but there needs to be a dialogue about it. Covers need to be pulled. You can’t keep sweeping this under the carpet. This is affecting families all over the world.”

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Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll
The former child star of “One Day at a Time” had a childhood that was defined by sex, drugs Video: Phillips on son’s ‘support and love’   and rock ’n’ roll from an early age. At 10, she wrote, she shared pot brownies with the singer Donovan of “Mellow Yellow” fame. At 11, she was snorting coke in her classroom at school. At 12, she gave up her virginity in a closet with a classmate at a party. At 18, she slept with Mick Jagger, who told her he had been waiting to bed her since she was 10.

Although it looks incredibly abnormal and abusive from the outside, she said that as a young girl, she assumed it was simply normal.

“It was like a fantasy world, but to me it wasn’t. We experience what we know and what we know is what we experience,” she told Vieira.

In a later interview with TODAY’s Al Roker, she expanded on that, saying that as she was entering her teens, she saw that her childhood was not normal.

“Maybe at 12 or 13 I realized it wasn’t like this for everybody,” Phillips said.

High on heroin on TODAY
Her drug addictions led to her being fired several times from “One Day at a Time.” She even shot up cocaine while she was pregnant with her son, Shane, who somehow was born a healthy, normal and intelligent boy. Phillips would clean herself up and remain sober for 15 years, but prescription painkillers pulled her back into an addiction to heroin. Video: On drugs on TODAY

As Phillips tells it, she was high nearly constantly, including during an appearance on TODAY in 2008 in a reunion interview with the cast of “One Day at a Time.”

Phillips assured Vieira she is clean and sober now. “You got a pee cup, I’ll pee in it for you. I have no problem. There’s a very different look in my eyes, there’s a very different type of composure, there’s a very different vibe,” she said.

Phillips will soon be 50. She said she did not become a full-blown addict as a child.

“It was a very permissive time in a very rock ’n’ roll world,” Phillips said. “Pretty much anything went. I can’t characterize it as being strung out as a child. That came later. Certainly, things were set into motion early, but I wasn’t strung out as a 10-, 11- or 12-year-old. It sort of grew. It’s a snowball effect. Nobody starts out as a full-on junkie. It comes over time.”

Her account of how she ended what had become a consensual incestuous relationship with her father was riveting.

“I became pregnant and I was in a relationship with my son’s father at the time and my father, and I didn’t know whose child it was,” Phillips told Vieira. “I was horrified. It brought me smack-dab into present time. The implications of it were just so intensely disturbing to me that I had an abortion. I never let him touch me again.”

She even shot up cocaine while she was pregnant with her son, Shane, who somehow was born a healthy, normal and intelligent child.
She said she told her father about the pregnancy and he paid for the abortion. “The life that was growing within me was not meant to be, for obvious reasons,” she said.

After she again talked about what a good person her father was, Vieira said that the reaction of many readers is to hate him.

“If you think about it, his book, ‘Papa John,’ if you can get your hands on that book and read it, it might give you more of an understanding of how neglect as a child can bring you into drug abuse, can bring you into the place where you could actually consider doing something like this,” Phillips said. “I would like people to try and give Papa the benefit of the doubt.”

To Roker, she added, “You can’t forgive something like this, but you can understand.”

Video: Phillips: Dad ‘didn’t set out to harm me’ Phillips said she hopes that she can become an advocate for other victims of incest.

“I’m beginning to feel more and more that maybe I can just be a voice for this large community of incest survivors that don’t know where to go or what to do or how to talk about what happened in their lives, and the only way they know how to deal with it is to turn it inward and self-destruct,” she told Vieira.

“It’s time for that to stop,” Phillips went on. “There’s so much damage being done to people, they’re doing the damage to themselves because of what they’ve lived through. These things can destroy a person, and I think they might be slowly eating away at the fabric of our country and our youth and I certainly am an example of both sides of it. I hope to continue to be well enough to be of service.”

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