‘Phoenix Rising,’ Marilyn Manson, and the Abuses of Art

One of the visible conceits of Phoenix Rising—a brand new two-part HBO documentary concerning the actor Evan Rachel Wood’s allegations of abuse by the hands of the rock musician Marilyn Manson—is a sequence of animated sequences that painting Wood as a cherubic, Alice-like doll and Manson as a macabre monster whose darkness infects and imprisons her. It’s a curiously heavy-handed selection, as if Wood’s uncooked testimony weren’t sufficient. In actuality, her recounting of the issues she says Manson did to her is profoundly, indelibly disturbing.

Over the course of an on-and-off, almost-five-year relationship that began in 2006, Wood says, Manson whipped her with a Nazi whip; shocked her wounds utilizing an electrical intercourse toy; had intercourse together with her whereas she was handed out; and compelled her to drink his blood whereas he drank hers. She suspects he drugged her repeatedly. Wood describes alleged abuse so traumatic that, at one level, “I felt my brain change. I felt it almost calcify. And the world is never the same.”

Manson denies all of Wood’s allegations, and has responded by suing her for defamation. Invoking legal professionals has been his disaster response for the reason that late Nineties, when he was extensively and wrongly vilified for uplifting the varsity capturing in Columbine, Colorado. Manson’s lawyer has said he “vehemently denies any and all claims of sexual assault or abuse of anyone,” and in his lawsuit he accuses Wood of recruiting different accusers and dealing to coordinate their tales. But if we consider Wood—and greater than a dozen different girls who’ve accused Manson of abuse—then an odd twist is that the aftermath of Columbine appears to have enabled Manson to turn out to be what Wood’s brother describes within the documentary as “a wolf in wolf’s clothing.” The hysterical, invented accusations leveled at Manson then—that he molested youngsters onstage, killed animals, had his safety guards drug underage followers with “liquid ecstasy”—minimized different issues which may have been occurring in plain sight. But additionally they allowed Manson to detach his inventive persona from himself, and allowed others to deduce that something offensive he did was simply efficiency artwork: winking commentary on America’s hypocritical and immoral core.

“The comments in Spin where Manson had a fantasy about using a sledgehammer on Evan and he cut himself 158 times was obviously a theatrical rock star interview promoting a new record and not a factual account” is how Manson’s publicist responded to questions from a journalist in 2020. “I thought [it] was ironic” is how Wood herself describes Manson’s preoccupation with Nazi imagery and paraphernalia, together with her allegation that he known as Hitler “the first rock star.” There comes some extent, although, the place irony hits its restrict: No one can sofa what Wood describes as rape in edgy citation marks. Acts of alleged nonconsensual sexual sadism can’t be excused as theater, particularly when there isn’t an viewers. And Manson himself has lengthy attested that his personal traces between life and efficiency are exhausting to attract. “I will never admit this to anyone but I’ll write it here,” he says in his 1998 autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, billed by its writer as a “shocking and candid memoir.” “The reason I haven’t copped out in an interview and said, ‘Yeah, it’s just a character, this is just a concept album,’ is because to me it is so much more … I mean, my whole life is an act. But that’s my art.”

The problem of coping with Manson whilst a secondary topic is that his persona is designed to dwarf everybody and all the pieces else round him. His artwork kind is consideration. Phoenix Rising was meant to be a movie about Wood’s activist efforts to cross the Phoenix Act, a regulation that elevated the statute of limitations for domestic-violence felonies in California from three to 5 years. But it additionally wanted to incorporate the tales of different girls who’ve come ahead since Wood first spoke publicly, in 2016, about her allegations of abuse by the hands of a then-unnamed ex. The ensuing focus of the documentary factors to a typical paradox of tales about alleged abuse: It’s virtually unattainable to not flatten topics into portraits of victimization. Manson’s spectral presence—too outlandish to sideline—solely compounds the issue. How do you inform Wood’s story with out getting distracted by the alienesque, knife-wielding elephant within the room?

The director, Amy Berg (An Open Secret, The Case Against Adnan Syed), addresses this conundrum early on by analyzing Wood’s life and profession earlier than she met Manson, on the age of 18. (He was 37.) Born right into a household of actors, she had minor roles in quite a few TV reveals and flicks earlier than starring in Thirteen, a controversial however critically acclaimed movie about one lady’s expertise of intercourse, medicine, and self-harm. The film’s success, Wood notes, “set a tone” for her typecasting as a troubled and sexually precocious teenager. She by no means explicitly connects the dots between the problematic entertainment-industry archetype she was folded into and her subsequent relationship with Manson, nevertheless it’s discernible all the identical.

When Wood met Manson, in 2006 at a celebration at Chateau Marmont, the musician was established within the public consciousness as a provocateur who self-mutilated onstage, integrated swastikas into his act, and boasted in his autobiography about smashing his mom within the face with a cologne bottle, however who additionally introduced himself in interviews because the considerate, intentional antithesis of the politicians and commentators who condemned him. “I liked him and what he stood for,” Wood wrote in her journal, describing him within the documentary as “the hero, the spokesperson” of misfits. He started pursuing her with habits she likens, looking back, to grooming: She says he started a platonic friendship, mentioned motion pictures and artwork together with her, requested her to collaborate on a movie he was writing concerning the work of Lewis Carroll. “He had gathered enough information about me in the beginning … and then once it had crossed into romantic territory, he had all the ammo,” she says. (After Wood went public together with her accusations, Manson said, “My intimate relationships have always been entirely consensual with like-minded partners.”)

Phoenix Rising takes time to outline the phrases it makes use of to explain Manson’s alleged manipulation of Wood: not simply grooming, however “love bombing” (calling her his soul mate and muse in copious letters) and isolating her from her household and pals, in order that when his habits allegedly turned bodily and sexually violent, she had nobody to show to for assist. Berg additionally highlights components of Manson’s autobiography (co-written with Neil Strauss, a former New York Times music critic and the creator of The Game) that appear to again up Wood’s account. According to the memoir, he’s studied “philosophy, hypnosis, criminal psychology, and mass psychology” for his “character”—a person who “does everything he can to trick people into liking him. And then, once he wins their confidence, he uses it to destroy them.” (In an interview concerning the ebook in 1998, Manson stated he felt “detached” from the occasions he’d written about, including, “I’m sure in a month or so I’ll deny things I’ve said and attribute them to drug use or coercion by Neil.”)

Throughout the documentary, Berg stays tightly anchored to Wood, specializing in her worry of naming Manson publicly, her disgrace and self-hatred on the habits she says he compelled in her, and her profound reduction when a member of Manson’s inside circle began to verify parts of her account. (The documentary reveals Wood and her mom a protracted Twitter thread from Dan Cleary, a former assistant of Manson’s, who stated, partly, that over the course of 1 12 months, he believed Manson “broke” Wood.) But Berg additionally captures Wood assembly with different girls who say they skilled comparable abuse at Manson’s palms. “I have fat carved on my thigh,” one says. “I have MM on my inner thigh.” (Manson hasn’t commented on particular person allegations within the documentary, however his legal professionals have condemned accusers who “weaponized otherwise mundane details of his personal life and their consensual relationships into fabricated horror stories.”) Wood remembers how Manson painted portraits of her all through their relationship, documenting her bodily and emotional decline. “It made me feel like the abuse was art to him.”

Manson has carried out so many transgressions in public that it’s exhausting to see them clearly. (During a efficiency with the then-18-year-old musician and actor Taylor Momsen in 2012, he groped her breast, appeared to carry her by the throat, and rubbed her head in his crotch; Momsen hasn’t condemned the efficiency and has merely stated she “had a lot of fun” touring with Manson.) It’s extra palatable to consider his persona is an act for the media to devour, even when he’s not onstage. “The most fascinating thing about Marilyn Manson is wondering to what degree he manipulates his life for the future benefit of his interviewers,” Steven Hyden wrote in Grantland in 2015. One reporter documented Manson joking together with his then-girlfriend, Lindsay Usich, about needing ice for her vagina. (He’d simply boasted that they interact in not less than 5 acts of “sexual congress” a day.) Another journalist even stated that Manson flicked him within the testicles after being requested if he was completely different from his persona. “Marilyn Manson is whatever you need him to be, even now, even after all this time,” Hyden concluded. For Manson’s report label, for a big proportion of his followers, for fogeys who must sleep at evening, that means somebody who’s deceptively mental about his persona, slightly than an icon whose ugly antics are genuinely merciless.

There are issues Berg’s documentary doesn’t embrace. One is the testimony of the actor Esmé Bianco, who sued Manson in 2021, claiming that he lashed her with a whip and used an electrical intercourse toy on her wounds (simply as Wood alleges he did to her). Bianco advised The Cut she was “terrified” however thought to herself, “It’s just Manson being theatrical. We are going to make great art.” Nowhere else is the twisted brilliance of Manson’s “‘shock rock’ stage persona”—the outline his legal professionals used to defend him towards Bianco’s accusations—fairly so obvious. (Though Manson’s legal professionals have denied all of Bianco’s allegations and sought to dismiss her case, a decide denied their movement, and the lawsuit remains to be ongoing.) Manson’s recurring protection—that he’s an artist who intentionally pushes boundaries and provokes to make folks assume—appears to have been so totally internalized by his followers and companions that one even employed it whereas he was allegedly assaulting her.

Two weeks earlier than Phoenix Rising was launched, Manson sued Wood and the activist Illma Gore, who additionally seems within the movie, for defamation, accusing them of inventing and disseminating allegations towards him, offering different girls with checklists of particular accounts of abuse to convey up, and falsifying a prison investigation, amongst different claims. In interviews to advertise Phoenix Rising, Berg and Wood have declined to touch upon the specifics of the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation. Without understanding extra, there are nonetheless a number of salient factors to contemplate. Manson’s customary response to hassle he can’t handle appears to be authorized motion. After Columbine, he says he despatched cease-and-desist letters to media retailers that related him with the perpetrators, citing trademark infringement; he’s countersued music editors and former bandmates for breach of contract and defamation. There’s little or no that Manson has been accused of that’s extra egregious or damaging than occasions he’s recounted himself. Even if his autobiography is exaggerated, or invented wholesale in components, his willingness to place sure issues on the report deserves consideration. After violently wounding one girl, he writes in a single chapter, “in altercations that followed, I hit her, spit on her, and tried to choke her. She never retaliated. She just cried, and I never felt sorry for her.” The girl wasn’t a girlfriend. She was his mom.

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