Mining the Headlines

Dishing about the legal and psychological implications of the day's news

Incest: Power, not sex

The complicated stew that is incest . . .

Papa John Phillips, of the iconic 60s band The Mamas and the Papas, liked to see himself as a man with no boundaries. Taboos, like incest, were meaningless to someone who considered himself a god, a power tripper fueled by ego and massive quantities of drugs. And his daughter Mackenzie was his victim, as she discloses in her recent book, High on Arrival.

I have also written about incest with my father in my book, Truth Heals: What You Hide Can Hurt You. (Hay House 2009) I have been very interested in watching Mackenzie's appearances on television shows, and I've been puzzled at how she's been treated in her interviews. Some interviewers have seemed to imply that the incest was her fault or that she was lying about it. And I find it rather hard to forgive Whoopi for saying it wasn't really "rape rape."

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I know there are many parts of Mackenzie's story that make it difficult for others to understand the depth of her bravery in speaking out. For one, she initially labeled the "relationship" with her father as "consensual." What Mackenzie has been learning from other survivors is that incest is never consensual, and she has learned to call it what it is: abuse. Yet there are so many confusing aspects to incest that it's easy to see why she resorted to thinking about it that way, and why interviewers don't quite know how to handle the story.

Let me try to explain (using father-daughter incest, although boys are sometimes victims too). When children are abused, they are completely disempowered (although the word "disempowered" doesn't begin to convey the reality). You have no power center of your own; it's been replaced by the parent's. You become an object, a puppet whose strings are tightly controlled. I know I would have done anything my father wanted.

The annihilation of self-power explains why a woman in her 20s or 30s or even 40s can still be doing what the abuser wants. There was the "Essex Fritzl" in England, who was jailed for having sex with his daughter for more than 30 years. (He was named after the Austrian Joseph Fritzl, who locked up his daughter in a basement for decades and fathered seven children with her). "Essex Fritzl" began to abuse his daughter when she was 7 years old and the abuse went on until she was 40, when she finally confided to a friend who urged her to go to the police. She wasn't kept under lock and key, so why did the incest go on for so long?

In Australia, a woman in her 40s got brave enough to go to police about her virtual imprisonment by her father for three decades, bearing four children to him. In an interview in the Australian, a former neighbor said: "When I said to her, 'Do you want to go to the bingo?', [she said] 'Oh no, Dad won't let me'. I thought, 'Dad won't let you?' And you're in your 30s? It didn't make sense to me."

It makes sense to me. The psychological imprisonment of incest is as real as the locked basement. My father started molesting me when I was two, raped me when I was nine, and continued to do so until I was thirteen. I spent my teens and early twenties acting out the memories with drugs and alcohol and promiscuity, followed by years and years of 12-step programs, therapy, meditation, and a loving husband to clear out the physical and emotional damage from the incest.

Like Mackenzie, I thought I'd be free when my father died. Instead, like her, his death hit me like an earthquake-the world turned upside down. Daddy completely owned my sense of self, like Papa John owned Mackenzie. I had already quit drinking and was meditating, which is why I made it through the ordeal without relapsing, but at first it felt like I had died myself.

Another aspect of incest that is rarely talked about because it is so confusing is the way the pleasure principle can be activated in someone who is being sexually abused. The human body is designed to respond to sexual stimulation, even when accompanied by terror and physical danger. Very young children are sensual/sexual beings, and don't realize the sex is a violation. At a deeper level, though, they sense something is wrong because they've been warned, "Don't tell." They also pick up on the adult's guilt and shame, and make it their own. In my own case, I remember certain erotic memories, accompanied by my inner voice screaming, "Daddy, don't hurt me." A very complicated stew indeed.

Adults like Mackenzie, who was 19 and already sexually awake, will also respond with a mixture of horror and sexual responsiveness. This leaves the victim with guilt and shame and massive confusion, and the feeling of being "dirty." Does my sexual response mean that I enjoyed it? Does it mean it's okay? No, it's not okay. The body just responded automatically. Whether you're nine or nineteen, you have been overpowered by the principle authority in your life.

So yes, Mackenzie at first saw what happened to her as both a rape and romance. It was the little girl delighting in her daddy's attention, as well as violence and a betrayal of trust and innocence. I'm glad that Mackenzie has taken such an important step in her recovery by writing her book and speaking up publicly about the incest. It has already helped others to bring forth the secret shame of their lives and get on with their healing.

Deborah King, New York Times best-selling health & wellness author, speaker, and attorney.

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