The act of telling someone about domestic abuse is terrifying. It can lead to healing or it can lead to further harm — in many cases, both. In “Phoenix Rising,” a new HBO documentary about actor Evan Rachel Wood’s struggle to name her alleged abuser and reclaim her story, we see how telling completely upends her life. She is excoriated by the public on social media. She must travel to a safe house with her child. And still, at the end of the documentary, she names Marilyn Manson, aka Brian Warner, as the man she accuses of having brutalized her for years.
(Manson maintains he is innocent. He claims that his "intimate relationships have always been entirely consensual with like-minded partners. Regardless of how — and why — others are now choosing to misrepresent the past, that is the truth.")
We know what happens to women who name their abusers, especially if they are powerful and beloved figures. They are often called liars and accused of wanting money, fame and revenge. In the case of Wood: “What did she expect? Look at him” — a reference to Manson’s purposefully shocking performance persona. The vitriol Wood receives on social media shows there still are those who think victim shaming and disbelieving women’s accounts of violence are ways to cope with the tarnishing of their idols — or their own abusive behavior.
“Phoenix Rising” aims to educate its audience about how abusers succeed in luring in their victims, as well as the particular circumstances that led Wood, who was 18 years old at the time, according to the documentary, to enter a relationship with the then-37-year-old goth rocker.
Wood candidly alleges that Manson love bombed her, a manipulation tactic in which abusers use excessive affection or attention to influence or control their partners. He is also alleged to have eroded her boundaries and isolated her from her family and friends. She presents intimate photographs of and diary entries about early moments in the relationship that show a young woman in awe of a charismatic provocateur: “When you feel invisible and you think somebody sees you, it’s very alluring,” Wood explains in the documentary. “I felt like ‘here’s someone who gets me.’” These archives illustrate Wood’s impressionability and also Manson’s attractiveness in the beginning of their relationship.
The documentary also suggests that Wood may have been susceptible to grooming by Manson because her experiences as a young Hollywood actor were confusing. Often cast as a “Lolita”-type ingenue after her success in the movie “Thirteen” (2003), Wood intimates that she felt rudderless, without a sense of self. And, like other young actors and musicians in the early 2000s, she had to deal with a venomous gossip industry. The documentary reminds us that celebrity blogger Perez Hilton’s nickname for Wood was “Evan Rachel Whore.”
When Wood alleges that Manson raped her during the music video for the song “Heart-Shaped Glasses,” we see how the industry profoundly failed to help a young woman in danger. Distressed, Wood says the rape is what viewers see every time they watch that video. “I was coerced into a commercial sex act under false pretenses,” she says. “We had discussed a simulated sex scene, but once the cameras were rolling, he started penetrating me for real.”
Her family life was fractured at the time, and with few professional safeguards seemingly in place, Wood and Manson’s relationship progressed. Over time, Wood claims, Manson deprived her of sleep, threatened her and her loved ones and drugged her and assaulted her. Manson has denied these allegations and is suing Wood claiming fraud, defamation and conspiracy, to which Wood responded: “I’m not scared.”
Wood says that by the time she escaped the relationship several years later, she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and desperately trying to find a way to make sense of what happened. She turned to activism.
Wood’s 2018 testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee in behalf of the Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights went viral; for many it was the first time they had heard about her accusations. In 2019, Wood also appeared in front of the California Senate to testify in behalf of a bill she proposed, the Phoenix Act.
In fact, the documentary’s name refers to the Phoenix Act, which passed in California in January 2020. The act extends the time domestic abuse survivors have to press charges against their abusers, which had limited Wood’s ability to take legal action against Manson. During her testimony, Wood said she was inspired to push the Phoenix Act after she realized she wasn’t alone. As the documentary details, at least 15 women claim Manson abused them. (Manson has denied all of their allegations, describing them as "horrible distortions of reality.") Wood says that when she heard from these women, “it was like finding out you dated a serial killer.” Some of the most powerful moments in the documentary include support sessions between Wood and Manson’s other accusers.
At the end of the documentary, the filmmakers say they reached out to Manson and his legal representatives about the film’s contents but didn’t receive any comment. They also display a previously released statement by his counsel:
"Mr. Warner vehemently denies any and all claims of sexual assault or abuse of anyone. These lurid claims against my client have three things in common — they are all false, alleged to have taken place more than a decade ago and part of a coordinated attack by former partners and associates of Mr. Warner."
To see these women share their accusations of abuse — finally being heard, their faces a mosaic of emotion — is difficult but necessary. They emphasize how important being heard is and that telling their story is a fundamental act of healing.
Survivors of abuse often find it difficult to speak out, but once they do, they can be burdened with an impulse to tell, tell, tell. I should know — I’m also a survivor. I was scared to disclose what had happened to me, but once I did, I couldn’t stop. Partly that’s because we think that if we share the story enough, maybe someone will believe us. Maybe someone will see the signs. Maybe we can help, save, teach. Wood says as much: “There are other victims and potentially future victims. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I want this to stop.”