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Ick, ick, ick.
We don't want to read Mackenzie Phillips' account of her "consensual" relationship with Papa John Phillips. We don't want to see Oprah Winfrey devote airtime to the alleged rape, abortion, drugs and unsettling etc. We don't want to relive the whole sordid story in People.
We don't want to hear it. Any of it.
And that might be the ickiest thing of all.
Understand, the ick factor we're feeling is not about whether the former sitcom star is lying, although some, including stepmother Michelle Phillips, think she is; the ick factor is about the subject matter.
Jennifer Storm works with assault survivors as executive director of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program in Harrisburg, Pa. She tells us incest-related abuse cases that go to trial—cases that have been vetted and endorsed by authorities higher than Oprah—are among the hardest for prosecutors to win.
"Juries do not want to believe the victim because they cannot fathom doing that to their own child," Storm says. "We see so many not-guilty verdicts because the average brain cannot comprehend a parent abusing that privilege."
So, not only do we not want to hear it, in some way, we can't hear it. When Phillips talks, we get nothing but static—and a vague feeling that the signal would be better if only she'd kept her story to herself, her therapist or even, most cynically, her own imagination.
But whoever said this was about us?
"It's important for the survivors that they break the silence," says Storm. "It's not so much for the catharsis; it's putting a voice on it. It really helps normalize that these really horrible things are happening."
And, no, if it hasn't been made clear already, Storm is not a Phillips doubter. Maybe because her life story, like Phillips', involves drugs and sexual assault (although not incest). Maybe because her story, like Phillips', was told in a memoir, Blackout Girl. Maybe because her story, like Phillips', was deigned by some as being too much.
As in, too much information.
"I've had people tell that to me. [And I'm] a noncelebrity," Storm says. "Most people wouldn't put that kind of spotlight on themselves because it's not an enjoyable thing. It's probably one of the most vilifying places to be."
Oddly, Wednesday's Oprah didn't look like a much better place for Phillips to be. Through much of the interview, Winfrey was clinical and exacting, rather than comforting and empathetic. Was this the performance of a woman with a long memory of James Frey, a woman who didn't want to risk appearing to be sold on Phillips?
Or was this something else? Like the careful approach of an incest survivor herself who sensed we didn't need to be sold on Phillips as much as we needed to be walked through the actress' story, page by page, so that maybe we'd understand.
Understand that where some subject matters are concerned, there can never be too much information.
(Originally published Sept. 25, 2009, at 5 a.m. PT)