A Painful Permission

Mackenzie Phillips dropped a bombshell that has horrified her family, shocked a lot of people, and given childhood incest survivors an ability to hear their own experience and story through the story of another.


On the ‘Early Show’, she said: “I was hoping to help incest survivors and find some redemption and freedom,” she said on the “Early Show.” “I never expected this huge national dialogue. I never expected the rape and incest network to have a 82 percent rise in hits on their website a 26 percent rise in telephone calls.”

Last week on Oprah, she read a portion of her book in which she told her experience of waking up from a blackout to find her father having sex with her. While she initially labelled it rape, her father was surprised to hear her say that…with him declaring that they were “making love”. The incest lasted 10 years. Of that time, Mackenzie says:

“It became a consensual relationship over time, and I know that I can’t be the only one this has happened to,” Mackenzie says. “Nobody’s talking about this, and someone needs to put a face on not only nonconsensual incest but consensual incest, because I know it exists.”


I’d have to say that I quite agree with the following line:


“What struck me most about Mackenzie Phillips’ interview,” psychotherapist Robi Ludwig told CBS News “is that she’s still protecting her father. By calling incest consensual incest, she’s still protecting the person who abused her…. But you can’t say it’s consensual, because there’s always a power imbalance when it comes to a parent and child.”


What is helpful about Mackenzie’s story is the her implication that at some point she felt she valued the sexual relationship and joined in with it.

In my experience in working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, perhaps the most shameful and hidden horror of the abuse is that the child at some level was made to feel special by the abuse, and so in part, came to welcome it in a life that was otherwise difficult and lonely. Other times, during times of repeated sexual abuse, a child’s body is awakened to a powerful sexual response–it is degrading to hate the sexual experience and want it to end only to find one’s body aroused and wanting more. It is part of the perpetrator’s twisted and sinister strategy to have the child believe that s/he wants it and is an active participant.


The child is made to believe that the abuse is part of the way special love is shown to him/her that makes the abuse something to be seen as a sign of privilege. As the child, in part, is convinced that s/he is welcoming the abuse (even while another part of the child is silently screaming for it to stop), the child begins to feel like an active accomplice in the abuse.

The act of shameful betrayal–to find some part of body or heart welcoming the sexual contact–is something that sexual abuse and incest survivors struggle with. It is the unspoken horror–with the survivor’s assumption that if others knew of it, the survivor would be known to be as sick and sinister as the perpetrator. The agony of this shame is unspeakable, and therefore, not spoken of.

Mackenzie Phillips opened the door to have people begin to dare to speak…to have a voice…to dare to begin to talk about it…to begin to speak out and heal. I can only hope that her story continues to impact those who struggle with all of the hidden and secret pain of sexual violation at the hands of those that were meant to protect.

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