T.here’s a running theme in Phoenix Rising, the two-part documentary on Evan Rachel Wood’s story of domestic and sexual abuse by shock rocker Marilyn Manson, of evidence. Wood, a 34-year-old actor, has old photos from the early stages of her relationship with Manson, whom she met as an 18-year-old in 2006 (he was 37) – cherubic and teenage before, atrophied and vacant after .
The film selects from journal entries recounting her emotions as he turned her against friends and family. There are so many press and paparazzi photos of them together, which makes public fascination with the pair – a gorgeous Hollywood Lolita with middle America’s nightmare in goth makeup – feel even more queasy now. During filming from 2019 until Wood publicly named Manson, given name Brian Warner, on Instagram in February 2021, several other women and former Manson associates come forward with details either mirroring her experience or corroborating her memories riddled by the repetitive trauma, sleep deprivation and drugs she says Manson forced on her.
I can’t stop thinking about this evidence; most women don’t have near the documentation Wood does, as confirmation or support for their own memories, let alone as material for authorities. As we have seen time and again with first-person accounts stemming from the revelations of the #MeToo movement, there is power and catharsis in disclosure, in telling one’s story. But for all Wood’s personal testimony di lei, her processing of years of memories through the language of trauma and therapy for herself and for us, the pursuit of legal action – the backbone of Phoenix Rising’s narrative – comes down to documentation, files, photos, to houses.
As the star of HBO’s Westworld, Wood has considerable power in her own right, and little incentive to accuse Manson for the sake of publicity, as he has claimed in a defamation lawsuit filed earlier this month (conveniently timed, as Wood told The Cut earlier this week, to the release of the documentary). So it’s disheartening to see, over the course of three hours of film covering months of working through the system, how little changes and how much comes back down to perceived trustworthiness of one’s story. To date, 16 women have accused Manson, 53, of sexual abuse – including the Game of Thrones actor Esme Bianco, whose story shares striking similarities with Wood’s – and four have sued for sexual assault. Manson has denied all allegations and has not been charged with a crime. His defamation lawsuit alleges Wood and her friend di lei, the activist Ilma Gore, concocted a conspiracy to defame him and forged an FBI letter to shore up Wood’s allegations. (Gore, Wood told the Cut, is no longer affiliated with The Phoenix Act, Wood’s nonprofit to change the statute of limitations on abuse cases.)
Phoenix Rising, directed by the Oscar-nominated Amy Berg (An Open Secret, The Case Against Adnan Syed), is the latest in a wave of documentary projects in the #MeToo era that uncovered patterns of abuse by beloved public figures, traced the long shadow of sexual trauma, and outlined the cultures that turned a blind eye. This includes Leaving Neverland, the 2019 HBO series on two thorough accounts of alleged child sexual abuse by Michael Jackson; Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes, on Ronan Farrow’s 2017 investigation of Harvey Weinstein, which helped ignite the outpouring of recognition that became #MeToo; On the Record, which follows former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon as she contemplates telling her story of alleged rape by music mogul Russell Simmons to the New York Times. There’s Lifetime’s Surviving R Kelly, Showtime’s We Need to Talk About Cosby, and Athlete A, on the journalists, lawyers and gymnasts who exposed the systemic of abuse of cover-up of USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser. HBO’s Allen v Farrow, released last year, was both an investigation into allegations that director Woody Allen molested his daughter di lui Dylan and a personal account of Dylan’s life warped by trauma, processing, and years of public scorn and dismissal.
Some of these projects strike the balance between messiness of experience, the often cyclical nature of pain and abuse, and clarity of ethics better than others. Some are justifiably postured against retaliation. All deal with the legal and emotional consequences of coming forward against a prominent person. Different alleged crimes and context, of course, but they’re all dealing, fundamentally, with intimate trauma: how it presents and morphs, how one lives with it, how long it takes to begin to understand.
Wood’s allegations are, to be clear, consistently horrifying. Among them: that Manson repeatedly drugged, manipulated and coerced her on the set of his 2007 music video di lei Heart-Shaped Glasses and “essentially raped” her on camera; that Manson controlled her eating, raped her in her sleep after he gave her a sleeping pill, tortured her with an electric shocking device, beat her with “a Nazi whip from the Holocaust” while she was tied to a kneeler and fed her meth and other drugs without her knowledge. In concert with several other women, some of whom appear in the film in a meet-up, Wood outlines a pattern of love-bombing, isolation, control and abuse.
Phoenix Rising, like the others, hinges on disclosure, the catharsis that is telling one’s story, and the tricky navigation of publicity. But it also feels like the outer limit of what a #MeToo documentary can do. Five years of listening, five years of hearing the same type of patterns and recognizing how predators operate within cultures and systems, how messy one’s personal life can be and still not detract from the violation. What do we do now? As the documentary depicts, Wood was successful in getting the Phoenix Act passed in California, which raised the statute of limitations on domestic violence felonies from three to five years and required police officers to undergo more training on intimate partner violence. She cooperates with a Los Angeles police investigation into Manson and gives an interview to the FBI, shown wordlessly in the film.
But still it comes down to attention. By film’s end, fearful for her safety di lei and hiding out with her child in Tennessee, Wood decides that issuing a public statement is the best course forward. “If there’s not public outrage about this and about the crimes that he’s committed, and if there aren’t people coming forward, then there’s no real incentive for law enforcement to do something,” she says over footage of her drafting a grenade of an Instagram post. “And we could just be waiting in line at the DMV for two years waiting for something to happen.”
The Phoenix Act seems eminently reasonable, an opportunity to better shape laws to the human experience and what these films, long-form investigations, podcast, testimonials hammer home again and again: trauma is messy, idiosyncratic, mutable, chameleonic. One’s ability to see clearly is a slow process even with the privilege of therapy and time. “People underestimate the power of that kind of trauma and what it does to your body and your brain,” Wood told Trevor Noah on the Daily Show this week. “This is what the laws do not reflect: the effects of trauma on the brain.”
Wood was in Manson’s orbit for close to four years; when she began work on the Phoenix Act amid the #MeToo movement, the statute of limitations in California was one to three years. “One to three years is nothing to a survivor,” she told Noah. “It’s nowhere near enough.”
Manson is still free (and collaborating with Kanye West), as is his right, given that he’s never been charged with or convicted of a crime. Phoenix Rising, for all its messy and compelling personal elements, ultimately jabs at that fact. When the criminal justice system doesn’t account for the long tail of trauma, what do you do? What is fair, what is right? And is it worth it? Five years and many thematically similar documentaries in, we still don’t have good answers.
Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organizations. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 802 9999. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html