Do Celebrity Victims Have an Obligation to Speak Out?

It’s the confession that stunned the world this week: Mackenzie Phillips appeared on Oprah to admit publicly for the first time that she and her father, famed '60s musician John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas), had a ten-year, consensual sexual relationship. During her appearance, Phillips also uttered a sentence that most definitely has never been said on Oprah before: "I am here to be the face of incest."

Phillips went on to say that the reason she is sharing her story, in addition to purging herself of her own demons, is to give other incest victims the strength to speak up: "I know that I can't be the only one this has happened to. Nobody's talking about this, and someone needs to put a face on not only nonconsensual incest but consensual incest." (Oprah Winfrey herself has spoken up as a victim of childhood incest, which may be why Phillips chose to speak to her.)

So far, it looks like Mackenzie’s public confession is having its desired effect. According to ABC News, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network has experienced a 26% jump in hotline calls this week, while traffic to its Web site has nearly doubled. A supervisor at the organization credits Phillips’ inspiration: "Whenever a person hears another person's story about being assaulted, that gives them the courage to come forward."

Clearly, celebrities have the power to do what even therapists and family members can’t always accomplish: to remove some of the stigma from taboo subjects, and to inspire ordinary people to speak out. So, given that celebrities have this power – does that mean they’re obligated to use it?

Rihanna doesn’t seem to think so. The pop star, who was brutally assaulted by her famous boyfriend Chris Brown this past February (as evidenced by the widely-circulated police photos), has steadfastly refused to speak out about being an abuse victim. Her silence has frustrated anti-abuse advocates, who have struggled to use her name to raise awareness of the issue without any direct support from the star. Yesterday, Rihanna’s friend Jay-Z (during – what else? – an Oprah interview) joined the critics, saying of Rihanna: "There's a contention of young people who are going through the same things, and no one hears their voice. She can be their hero. Or she can choose not to grow from this."

Jay-Z’s phrasing is telling: by not speaking out about her demons, Rihanna is "refusing to grow." It’s entirely possible that Rihanna has been dealing privately with her abuse, and that she will go public when she’s ready. But celebrities have a tendency to think that nothing that happens out of the public eye, actually happens. If Mackenzie Phillips had confessed her secret only to her family, she would still consider it a secret, because she hadn’t said it on national television. Celebrities require an audience for their pain.

And that’s where things get tricky. When it comes to celebrity advocacy, the line between self-sacrificing and self-serving is often blurry. Mackenzie Phillips didn’t choose to come forward until she had a book to promote, and not coincidentally, that book immediately shot up to #4 on the Amazon national bestsellers list. Angelina Jolie has put a great deal of time and money into raising awareness of third world issues, but her real-life role as humanitarian brought her major legitimacy in Hollywood, as she transitioned from goofy B-movies to Oscar-caliber dramas. Jenny McCarthy hasn’t made a noteworthy film or TV show in years, yet her outspoken (and often ill-informed) advocacy on behalf of her autistic son has kept her solidly in the public eye. The fact is, any celebrity who takes up a cause -- no matter how personal -- is bound to be greeted with some degree of cynicism.

Maybe that’s why John Travolta remained silent. For years, he refused to acknowledge that his son Jett, who died of a seizure at age 16 in January, was autistic. Now, under the duress of a blackmail trial, Travolta has admitted his son’s autism for the first time. The star had been under public pressure to speak about Jett’s disability for years. A magazine editor who knew him spoke anonymously to the NY Post in 2007, saying, "It's fine with me if Travolta doesn't want to become the poster child for autistic parents, but every time the parent of an autistic child hears about someone else who is in this fight, it makes them feel better. He could do so much good for autism awareness if he would just come forward."

No one is sure why it took Travolta this long. The predominant theory is that the Church of Scientology, which refuses to acknowledge that autism is a real diagnosis, discouraged him from coming out. But only the Travolta family knows the real reason. Maybe it was their religion, maybe denial. Or maybe they just wanted to shield their child from the public eye. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that the Travoltas were trying to protect their own family. And sometimes, maybe, that’s more important than going on Oprah.

Chime in: Do celebrity victims have an obligation to speak out?

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