Family Ties and Love Cuffs: Thinking About Mackenzie Phillips
For years I lived next door to a brother and sister who were lovers. How do I know they were lovers? I don’t, as I never caught them in the act, but at the very least they slept in the same bed. When you live next door to someone you learn a lot about them without ever being invited inside. They kept to themselves, one never leaving the house without the other, and yet, the only true oddity that I can report is that one year they put their used Christmas tree in the trunk of their Volvo station wagon parked at the curb and then never moved the tree nor the Volvo until the following April. An experiment in Christmas tree decomposition, perhaps.
A good friend of mine once witnessed identical twins French kissing. You can’t get much more narcissistic than that. Kissing yourself? I’m not even sure I’m attracted to myself enough to want to goose myself on the butt, much less stick my tongue down my own throat. But then, I’ve never been attracted to insecure people.
Last week Mackenzie Phillips published her new memoir, “High on Arrival,” and announced on Oprah that she’d had consensual sex with her father, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. Coincidentally, I was reading Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, “The Kiss” (about her own adult affair with her minister father) the day of the Oprah announcement. Had I not been reading Kathryn’s book, I may have thought Mackenzie was making a big celebrity scene about an issue she otherwise should have kept to herself.
I’ll pause here to add the disclaimer that my experience with incest is limited to a trip to London I took when I was seven. After a day spent visiting museums and statues, my mother leaned over me as we stood outside Buckingham Palace waiting for the changing of the guard and explained, in all seriousness, that the reason the British monarchy was so hideously ugly for many generations was all the inbreeding—she thought the idea of subjecting a child to a life of frizzy hair, a stunted nose, beady eyes and mental ineptitude might make me think twice before falling in love and procreating with my first cousin.
But back to Mackenzie and Kathryn, and “The House of Yes,” the 1997 movie starring Parker Posey. When does “close” become “sick,” and the usually reassuring “between two consenting adults” get seriously complicated?
Family members can be close. Very close. Family ties can be as simple as the guilt that makes us show up for Thanksgiving, even though we know it will just end up a boring repeat of last year—when Aunt Judy brought her mincemeat pies decorated with leftover Halloween candy corn. “The House of Yes” is a laugh-out-loud comedy about the uncomfortably close relationship between Parker Posey’s character, “Jackie-O,” (who thinks she’s JFK’s widow), and her brother Marty (played by Josh Hamilton). When Marty brings home a girlfriend (Tori Spelling), all hell breaks lose, as Jackie-O suddenly realizes Marty isn’t completely “hers.” The craziness comes not from genes being crossed, but from the manipulation we exert in that ridiculous familial way. It’s one of the rare films to portray this kind of relationship, and though it’s part mad-cap comedy, something about the relationship between these siblings rings true.
But family isn’t always funny. And possession rarely is. My neighbors were perhaps too close–they only had one twin bed in their home, and they were both large people (maybe one of them had a bad back and opted to sleep on the wooden floor?). I don’t know the internal psychological workings of their relationship, but Mackenzie Phillips calls what happened to her the first time “rape.” Kathryn Harrison describes her relationship differently, but she’s explicit about the subtle control her father had over her. Both memoirists were exploited by very narcissistic men. Both men called this possession romantic love.
Some bloggers say Mackenzie should keep her trap shut and talk to a good therapist, accusing her of exploiting the situation. They say she’s gone public just to make money. Really? I bet Mackenzie has lots of money-making options available to her that don’t involve putting herself through what she had to know would be a public backlash. Or maybe she did it just to get that big hug from Valerie Bertinelli on Oprah. (I snagged one when I interviewed Val at the LA Times Book Festival, so I understand.)
Both Kathryn and Mackenzie exposed a secret they carried inside for a long time. Secret-keeping can wreak havoc on a person’s emotions and general psychological state. That’s any secret, from the Matchbox car I stole from my Sunday school class when I was five, all the way to the CEO embezzling from his company. The gradual meltdown is why we don’t do well at keeping secrets. And a secret like “my father makes love to me”—if that doesn’t drive you crazy, I don’t know what will. But who do you tell? Who will believe you? And who are all the people who will be hurt by it? These considerations are overwhelming, so it’s easy to understand why people would keep something like this locked away.
Love, as adults, comes in many shapes and forms. We should never shy away from it if it fits us well. I heard once that perversion is only as perverted as one’s perspective—a kind of extreme version of the “two consenting adults” excuse. But often, “love and commitment” can be a guise for one person wanting acceptance, and the other taking control. To me, Mackenzie and Kathryn’s stories don’t seem like tell-alls. The act may be the same, but the stories are their own. Each was seeking love from their father and in the end discovered a more complete love for themselves. Every relationship has two perspectives (well, menage a trois has three and so on…), and no two relationships are alike. Relationships come in a variety of packaging, but no matter what the wrapper looks like, the candy on the inside should be a sweet one.
I hope my neighbors were happy in their own way, whatever that was, and that the Christmas tree experiment was not some cry for help that I missed. As the months got warmer, I worried about the possible combustion of the dried pine needles in the hot car. The only thing I can be pretty sure of is that the tree was probably another family obligation that neither had the wherewithal to take to the dump.
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