Evan Rachel Wood tells her story during 'Phoenix Rising'—a two-part documentary about her former relationship with accused abuser Marilyn Manson, and the activism that it's spawned. (HBO/ 'Phoenix Rising')
All domestic violence survivors face questions about why they failed to speak up or leave sooner. But for the women who’ve accused Marilyn Manson of a litany of physical, mental and sexual abuse—and there are at least a dozen of them now—there’s an extra hurdle. They’re also expected to explain what they were doing with him in the first place.
Before I sat down and watched Evan Rachel Wood’s agonizing new two-part documentary about her relationship with Manson, I already knew the answer to that question. For the entirety of Wood’s four-and-a-half-year relationship with Manson, I worked for a magazine that was one of Manson’s earliest and most fervent supporters. When I started that job, I thought Manson was corny and cliché. By the time I’d left, I believed him to be an artist and social commentator deserving of the world’s respect. I know first-hand that the cult of Marilyn Manson is powerful and convincing, and if one so much as brushes up against it, it’s extraordinarily easy to get sucked into.
Evan Rachel Wood does a masterful job of describing that phenomenon in Phoenix Rising. She explains that, to his fans and inner circle, Manson isn’t just another shock-rocker, but an intellectual artist who holds a mirror up to society. He’s an icon who gives lost children a safe place to go. He is one of the good guys, dressed up like a bad guy because that’s his artistic vision. And then she spends two and a half hours demonstrating what a bunch of bullshit it all is.
Wood also vividly explains why she was the perfect target for Manson. She provides intimate details of her family background, her turbulent teen years and the grooming she experienced. She was 18 and adjusting to fame when they met; he was 37 and still married. These details do an excellent job contextualizing how and why Wood’s relationship with Manson started in the first place, something she has been asked repeatedly to explain. They also show how the appeal of Marilyn Manson works—an essential thing to grasp if the world at large is ever going to understand survivors’ stories.
Wood has already gone on the record, repeatedly, about what happened behind closed doors during the relationship from mid-2006 and early 2011. But nothing yet publicly discussed can fully prepare one for the harrowing details she shares in Phoenix Rising. She describes rape, scarification, antisemitic abuse (Wood is Jewish), beatings and druggings at Manson’s hands, along with restrictions around what she ate, how long she slept, what she wore and who she saw. (When fellow Manson survivors appear, their stories are equally disturbing.) Wood also talks plainly about an abortion and a suicide attempt directly relating to her time with Manson. None of this—absolutely none of it—is for the faint of heart.
It’s impossible to fathom where Wood found the strength to put this documentary out into the world. Especially when it so clearly shows her still processing everything that’s happened. In one moment we see Wood standing her ground as an empowered and determined activist, trying to make a difference for women everywhere. In the next, we see her caught off-guard, shaking or sobbing as a sound or a piece of evidence hurls her back into her past.
Nowhere is the schism in Wood’s daily existence clearer than in a scene in which she collapses into violent sobs after successfully extending the statute of limitations for domestic violence in California. In the courtroom, she is a stoic warrior. Outside its doors, she resembles a broken child. Understanding that the former wouldn’t exist without the latter is painful to witness.
Wood uses the word “scared” in Phoenix Rising more than she probably realizes, and more than I could count. And in giving us access to her day-to-day life, Wood also gives the viewer a glimpse of the lingering terror and insecurity with which all survivors of domestic violence continue to live. When authorities begin building a case against Manson, for example, we see Wood flee her home for a secret, safer location. (You have to wonder: What about the women who don’t have somewhere else to go?) We see her and fellow activist Illma Gore moving boxes of evidence to avoid detection by Manson. At one point she explains that Manson has “made it clear that if I ever said anything, he would come after me. He once said he would fuck up my whole family and ... he would start with my dad.”
It’s excruciating to watch Wood describe how Manson’s power as both an icon and an employer prevented numerous bystanders from intervening to assist her and, presumably, the women who came after her. At one point, Wood says Manson flew into a violent rage on tour, and physically dragged her into a hotel room against her will. Wood says a trusted crew member—someone she considered a friend—watched this happen and looked the other way, even as she pleaded for help.
The scars from such incidents are so deep that when witnesses admit in the documentary that they were aware of the alleged abuse as it was happening, Wood’s reaction is not one of anger. Rather, she’s palpably relieved to finally have her story corroborated. When one of Manson’s former assistants, Dan Cleary, speaks up on Twitter to back up Wood’s version of events—and the stories of other Manson survivors he knew—she weeps to finally have someone from Manson’s inner circle in her corner. (Cleary appears in Phoenix Rising at a meeting of survivors.) When crew members from Manson’s infamous “Heart Shaped Glasses” music video come forward to state that Wood was abused on set, she screams “Yes!” even while visibly shaken.
One of the more surprising elements of Phoenix Rising is the amount of empathy afforded to Brian Warner—the person Manson was before the creation of his famous alter ego. Warner’s background with a violent father, mentally ill mother and years of bullying by peers is presented respectfully in the first episode. (“There’s no doubt in my mind that he was severely abused,” Wood notes at one point.) Warner’s own traumatic background is presented as a factor in the controlling, racist and abusive person Wood describes. (Excerpts from Manson’s 1998 autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, are used here to demonstrate his awareness of that transformation, as well as his lack of remorse about his violent treatment of women.)
On March 2, before Phoenix Rising’s release, Manson sued Wood and activist Illma Gore for “defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress,” as well as damage to his career. He is also requesting a jury trial. The timing is, in all likelihood, designed to coincide with the premiere of Phoenix Rising, and an attempt to undercut its content.
After watching the documentary, I don’t believe for a moment that he will be successful. Phoenix Rising is an exercise in literally and figuratively building the case against Manson. Even in its smallest details, it never once loses its focus on the big picture. And that picture, by the end, is more monstrous than anything Marilyn Manson ever created on stage or in a studio.
‘Phoenix Rising’ premieres Tuesday, March 15 on HBO.
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