As someone who enjoys the deplorable practices of drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, I’d feel like a hypocrite giving my future children the same hysterical lectures about the evils of pot and booze I received as an impressionable member of the “Just Say No” generation. Yet in a strange way, I’m grateful I was inundated with histrionic anti-drug propaganda from a young age. I’m strangely appreciative that it was drilled into me that my first marijuana cigarette would lead irrevocably to sucking off random passersby for crack money a mere week later. I’m glad I read Go Ask Alice, that famously bogus anti-drug “diary” of a teen runaway/LSD addict that was actually concocted by a Mormon youth counselor with highly dubious academic credentials. These measures didn’t keep me from using pot or mild hallucinogens, but they scared me away from everything else. I’m glad they did.
Teenagers are going to rebel. They’re going to flout the rules and break their parents’ hearts. That’s the nature of adolescence. So when my children break the rules, I want that to mean sharing a joint at a party or drinking too much with their friends, not doing coke before class or shooting up or experimenting with crystal meth. Anti-pot hysteria is perhaps a necessary evil. We need this false or soft or untenable restriction so that teenagers, who are going to rebel anyway, can break the rules without getting hurt or subjecting themselves to serious harm.
Mackenzie Phillips’ compulsively readable new memoir High On Arrival is notorious as a book about celebrity incest, but it’s really about what it’s like to grow up without any of the restrictions that govern everyday life. It’s a meditation on what it’s like to come of age as a borderline-feral countercultural princess in a world where nothing was forbidden, where the overriding philosophy was an ecstatic commandment to just say yes, yes, yes to everything: to sex, to drugs, to life, and ultimately to death. The fact that Mackenzie Phillips eventually entered into a decade-long consensual incestuous relationship with her father was merely the ultimate manifestation of this anything-goes ethos.
In Arrival, the shimmering promise of the ’60s—a world of absolute freedom, especially where drugs and sex were concerned—leads to an apocalyptical emotional Altamont where the most fundamental restrictions of morality and basic human decency are cavalierly discarded. It’s all well and good until you wake up one morning with a pounding headache, a mind flooded with bad chemicals, your skintight jeans around your ankles, and the enduring sense of shame that comes with having fucked your own father.
Phillips led a curiously bifurcated existence as a pre-adolescent, shuttling between a relatively stable life with her alcoholic but fundamentally conventional mother and a fairy-tale world of Dionysian excess at the debauched pleasure palace of her father John, the eccentric, wildly self-destructive leader, frontman, and chief songwriter of iconic ’60s band The Mamas And The Papas. At Papa John’s dilapidated mansion, Phillips roller-skated in an empty pool, palled around with regular guests like Gram Parsons and Mick Jagger—who she later seduced, if it is indeed possible to seduce a sentient erection like the Rolling Stones frontman—and learned all about drugs from raiding her dad’s Texas-sized stash.
You’ve got to give John this much—he was no hypocrite. He made no effort to hide his drug use. Nor did he apologize for it. So Phillips grew up in an upside-down looking-glass world where a bang on a bathroom door was answered with an incongruously paternal, “Just a minute, honey. Daddy’s shooting up.” Drugs were everywhere. For John, they were as natural and necessary as oxygen. There was no delineation between hard and soft drugs, between mild herbs that relax and powders with the power to destroy and enslave.
The slim to nonexistent chance that Phillips would grow up healthy and functional amid all this madness vanished once she became that most doomed of all creatures—a child star. At 12, Mack was cast as a precocious smartass who tags along with hot-rod enthusiast Paul Le Mat in 1973’s American Graffiti. A starring role as the daughter of a single parent in the long-running Norman Lear sitcom One Day At A Time followed, and with it, stardom. Oh, and also a very serious, very public cocaine addiction fueled and fed by Mack’s poisonous relationship with her father, who also taught her how to shoot up.
Then came the dad-fucking that elevates Arrival from an unusually sordid, drug-sodden child-star tell-all to a pop-culture phenomenon that managed to sicken and disgust a seemingly jaded society. It’s the tragic twist that transformed Mack’s sad saga from E! True Hollywood Story fodder to Caligula-level depravity. It all began with Papa John trying to convince his 19-year-old daughter, the night before her wedding, that she shouldn’t marry her rock manager, Jeff Sessler, following a whirlwind three-week courtship.
John’s instincts were sound; the marriage was predictably calamitous and short-lived. John’s tactics, however, were criminal. He brought over a pile of pills, drugs, and booze. Phillips woke up from a blackout drunk to find herself having sex with her father. It was a new, almost unimaginable low in a relationship that was fatally flawed from the start. Phillips desperately wanted to be close to her father, who was both fiercely protective and distant. Drugs alienated John from those closest to him; he kept out the incursions of a scary outside world by cocooning himself in a bubble of heroin addiction. He was emotionally unavailable and sometimes just plain AWOL.
Yes, Phillips wanted to be close to her father in the worst possible way. That’s exactly what she got after she was fired from One Day At A Time for consistently showing up at work high and incoherent, and John decided to disregard that last tricky shred of dignity by forming The New Mamas And Papas with his daughter Mackenzie, original bandmate Denny Doherty, and new recruit Elaine “Spanky” MacFarlane.
Father and daughter soon fell into a tawdry routine. By night, they’d perform The Mamas And The Papas songs on cruise ships, at state fairs, and at various Indian casinos, often while high on various mood-altering agents. Then they’d head back to John’s room for more drugs and incestuous sex. To her credit, Phillips doesn’t fixate on this aspect of her relationship with her father. It’s presented primarily as a symptom of her drug addiction. Cocaine and pills rendered Phillips helpless. She was reliant upon her father/boss for money, for drugs (he was her supplier, though she had the foresight to have “friends” Fed-Ex her packages of white powders wherever she went) and for a nightly taste of the limelight, however pathetic or debased.
The phrase “sex with my father” never loses its queasy, horrifying power. Phillips never learned about shame or regret as a wild child, so she discovered them the hard way as an adult. Her accounts of her nightmare descent into pills, coke, and incest are elliptical in nature; she skips directly from coming to John’s room to score more drugs to waking up from an endless series of blackouts to the horrifying realization that she was in a consensual ongoing sexual relationship with her father. She understandably wants to purge those memories from her scarred psyche.
Writing a memoir entails reliving, on some level, everything you’re writing about. It involves conjuring up long-lost demons so you can exorcise them in a public cleansing ritual. I can’t imagine how agonizing it must have been to revisit memories of incest without the bleary, protective buffer of drugs and alcohol.
This invites a question: to what extent are people responsible for the things they do while on drugs? Authors of recovery memoirs tend to draw a clear line between the people they were while on drugs, and the sober, responsible people they became. But it’s never that simple or uncomplicated. Was it exclusively drugs or something even darker—the need for connection, for solace, for a complicated, contradictory father’s approval at any cost—that brought Phillips to her father night after night?
Regardless, their sexual relationship ended conclusively when she became pregnant and didn’t know if her theoretical baby’s daddy would also be its granddaddy. Phillips had an abortion and finally found the inner strength to stop having sex with her father. But the proverbial nightmare descent© was far from over. She writes harrowingly of shooting up cocaine while six months pregnant with her son. That might seem horrifying and irresponsible now, but this was in a simpler, more primitive time—the late 1980s—when doctors thought it was perfectly healthy to shoot hard drugs well into the ninth month of pregnancy.
For decades, Phillips lived with the single-minded focus endemic to drug addicts, the belief that nothing matters beyond that next fix. Then she eventually hit bottom and stayed sober for well over a decade before botched cosmetic surgery and her father’s death led to one more terrifying ride on the addiction express. Phillips’ relapse is unnerving because it highlights just how fragile sobriety can be. She got her life back in order, became the kind of mom who doesn’t carry her newborn baby into a crackhouse in a mad search for coke, and revitalized her acting career with a steady gig on the Disney Channel show So Weird, but when everything fell apart, she lurched back into the habits that brought her to the very brink of oblivion. Finally, an arrest in 2008 for cocaine and heroin possession scared her straight.
High On Arrival has become the subject of enormous controversy. Phillips has been vilified, if not crucified, in the press as a sleazy, desperate opportunist at best and a shameless literary con artist who made up allegations of incest to resurrect her flagging career at worst. Phillips’ own family is violently split regarding the veracity of her memoir.
Yet I am inclined to believe her. It takes enormous courage to write about something as painful, personal, and taboo as an incestuous adult relationship with a parent. Sadly, I imagine Phillips’ experiences with her father aren’t anywhere as unique or rare as we’d like to think. There is a value and a power to testifying, to telling the truth no matter the consequences.
Phillips doesn’t blame the counterculture for her addictions and self-destruction, sexual or otherwise. She doesn’t blame child stardom or her parents or a culture of permissiveness. She concedes that she was both blessed and cursed to grow up in a rarified realm surrounded by beautiful, brilliant, fucked-up children of privilege who had everything they could ever want, but little of what everyone needs: structure, security, and rules.
Underneath the sordid revelations and thick layers of controversy and tabloid sleaze, Arrival resonates as a powerful, compelling story about the complicated, tragic, and strangely loving relationship between a father beyond redemption and a daughter who finally found the tools to save herself so she could live to tell the tale.