Loneliness was a feeling that I didn’t even recognize. It was the definition of who I was, a chronically lonely child.
My parents were divorced by the time I was two years old, and we had moved so many times that I never allowed myself to attach too closely to anyone or anything. I had been molested four times before the age of seven and my father was a notorious heroin addict. My parents, John and Michelle Phillips, comprised half of the members of The Mamas & the Papas. At that time, they had reached a level of superstardom that few musical groups ever dreamed of achieving and I was lost somewhere between my mother’s need to find a new husband and my father’s conscious or unconscious attempt to kill himself.
The only escape from my empty, out of control reality was fantasy. Fantasy was my favorite pastime, my only refuge from the uncomfortable realities of my life. It continued this way for several years until one day at age fourteen I asked a group of girls if they wanted to “play school.” There was a long, pregnant pause when suddenly they all spontaneously burst out laughing… “Chynna, you’re joking right?” I wasn’t joking, and at that moment I realized my days of diving into fantasy were over. That realization was truly devastating for me because imaginary play was all I had to get me through, to keep me in deep denial, to help me navigate my devastating loneliness, the abandonment, the abuse. I cried myself to sleep that night. It was obvious that it was no longer acceptable for me to play child-like games and that phase of my life had officially ended.
Now what? How will I survive? This stark reality shook me to the core. February was approaching and that meant my 15th birthday was coming. I had developed a plan. This birthday was going to be a “rager.” That was my answer–I had made the decision that I was going to be a “party girl” from now on. Let’s just say I was very successful in my pursuits. I had finally found another remedy to ease my pain…drugs and alcohol.
Eight years earlier, I had been attending a Baptist Church school against my mother’s will. I had transferred there after being bullied endlessly at the local public school. But there I experienced a different kind of peer pressure. One day some girls surrounded me and said “Would you be willing to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” This took me by surprise, and I didn’t know quite what to say. It was awkward, but they kindly asked me to follow them down to the girl’s bathroom, so I did.
As we entered the bathroom the girls hovered around me in a circle, they were holding a little card that had a picture of Jesus on it and some written words on the back. They were all smiling as they handed me the card (this wasn’t awkward in the slightest!). I took hold of the card and they said, “Just read the words out loud.”
I reluctantly started saying the words that were written on the little card, and as I did, something very peculiar started to happen…
At the top of my head I started to feel as if a holy scan had begun. It was the purest, most beautiful presence. It travelled down my face, my neck, then over my shoulders, and down my chest, through my abdomen and down my legs. As it moved to my feet, I knew something profound was happening to me. I kept saying the words and by the time I finished the salvation prayer, I knew I had been made a new creation. It still gives me the chills today. I hadn’t expected anything to happen; I didn’t know anything about Jesus–my mother had given me a Bible one Easter and we had attended maybe one Catholic mass in my entire childhood, but that was it.
I looked at these girls, but no words would come out. The power that had surged through my body had also in one moment cleansed me. I honestly didn’t recognize myself. I had been transformed, but HOW? Suddenly I realized, “Oh my goodness, this person whose image hung on crucifixes, that image, that person…was actually God.” However, I had no idea how to get to know Him. I felt he had claimed me, but what happened now?
There was one huge glaring problem with this newfound revelation about who God actually was and that, unfortunately, was my home life. It was commonplace for me to come home from school to see ashtrays sporting half-smoked marijuana cigarettes or “roaches” as my mother called them. Or to hear bellowing laughter coming from the dining room until the late hours of the night where my mom had several high profile Hollywood elites over for a spirited dinner party. There was drinking and lots of it.
It was also not uncommon to wait for hours after school for my mother to pick me up only to have the exasperated office lady say the all too familiar words “Chynna, we called your mom AGAIN and she should be here soon.” The look on her face was always the same, “Poor girl, I wish there was something I could do to help her.”
By that point, my heart had been hardened, my trust had been broken over and over again, my emotional needs had been trampled on and I was angry. Anger is a violent emotion because it usually gets internalized. It’s hard to admit even now, but I hated myself…I really did.
That’s when food took over–talk about idols! Food became my next obsession and even though I was now clean and sober, I was now worshiping at the throne of the refrigerator. I would stand in front of my toaster with a loaf of bread and butter and eat the entire thing in one sitting. Directly after that it was straight to the gym to work out for several hours on end. That was my form of purging. This went on for quite some time until my mom took me to the Nina Blanchard Modeling agency and they took me on as a model.
Modeling had become my newest endeavor and of course modeling and an active eating disorder was a deadly cocktail. The very first “go see” I had was with Neutrogena skin care and I booked it right there on the spot. I was elated! But soon after (when I started packing on some pounds) my modeling agents would call and say, “Chynna you have to lose 10 pounds or we can’t send you out on anymore “go sees.” Talk about self-loathing. The food addiction was a horrible downward spiral that brought me to my knees fast, and I mean FAST. At least with drugs and alcohol I could just stay abstinent, but with food? If you don’t eat, you die. This was a serious conundrum. It was time for psychotherapy.
I spent many hours in Dr. Marlene Schoen’s (Ph.D) office and I spent many a penny on her services. Undoubtedly, it was money well spent. I really blossomed as a young lady and my eyes had a new spark in them. I was in a place of true wellness for the first time ever and for that I was extremely grateful. Digging through the rubble of my past and crying the seemingly endless tears was cathartic. But… and I say it again… but… something was still missing.
As far as the world was concerned, my life was a Cinderella story. By the time I was 23, I was in a pop trio singing group called Wilson Phillips. We had sold over 12 million albums worldwide, had three number one hits, and I had more money in the bank than I ever thought a person my age could acquire. The whole rise to fame had happened so quickly that I honestly can’t tell you where it had all really started. Carnie and Wendy Wilson (daughters of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys), the other half of the group, had been lifelong friends. We spontaneously decided to start singing together just for fun. What started off as just a good time harmonizing quickly turned into a record deal and BAM! Next thing I knew, I was singing live on the David Letterman Show and I was SCARED OUT OF MY MIND. It was terrifying. I had never before sung in front of an audience, let alone in front of millions of people sitting at home in their living rooms. We were an instant hit and our first single “Hold On” was an international smash that topped the charts all over the world. It was a song I had written in my car, at night, in front of my mother’s house. The song was an anthem with a universal and easily identifiable lyric, “Hold on for one more day.” Anyone can do almost anything for just one day right? It seemed like the answer was a resounding YES. We were nominated for six Grammy awards that year, 1991. Of course all of this was terribly exciting, but the greatest was yet to come and I had no idea.
The actor Billy Baldwin was apparently EVERYWHERE but I had no clue who the guy was. So when I saw his goofy good looks light up on the silver screen in the Ron Howard blockbuster movie, Backdraft, I immediately melted. “I HAVE TO MEET THIS PERSON,” I thought. The very next day after a fundraiser concert, it would be off to Spain, then Italy, then Paris then… I had lost track. By that point I just hopped on planes and went wherever we were scheduled to show up.
As we sat in the American lounge at LAX, half asleep and still in my sweats, I saw someone turning a corner and entering the area. My eyes locked onto the guy casually walking through the door. I COULDN’T BELIEVE MY EYES. It was him–BILLY BALDWIN! Carnie turned to me and said, “did you notice the way he looked at you?” I said, “no.” She gave a gruff laugh, “I bet you he asks you out before we land in New York City.” She lost the bet–Billy asked me out at baggage claim.
Our mad love affair lasted several years until we finally married in 1995. It was a fantasy wedding and life was really good. My traveling had pretty much come to a stand still, as I decided to disband from Wilson Phillips. The girls and I had been fighting more often and what was once an exhilarating experience had become old and exhausting. So, that was that, I put the pop star thing down and decided to nest. Billy and I bought an apartment together in N.Y.C. and soon after that babies came onto the scene. Yes, it all seemed utterly blissful to an outsider, but something was not quite right, something was well… still missing.
September 11th was a crisp, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky kinda morning. What stands out the most about that particular morning was that our daughter Jameson had a nasty cold, that is until my girlfriend called and told me to turn on the news. An airplane had hit the World Trade Center and I figured, like we all did, that it was a small commuter plane. Soon after, I was witnessing the towers collapsing before my eyes on TV and being nine months pregnant with my second child, I tried not to let my blood pressure get too elevated. So I turned off the television and decided to pray instead.
Prayer was something that I started doing more often after that horrific morning. Billy’s brother, Stephen, had been so impacted by the events of 9/11 that he had followed in his wife Kennya’s footsteps (she had become a Christian about a year earlier) and gave his life to Jesus. Billy and I thought this was probably just a phase that he was in and that most likely he would “snap out of it” and get back to real life shortly. That didn’t happen, though, and I was somewhat intrigued.
You might be thinking, “but I thought you had that powerful experience with Jesus in the bathroom at the Baptist church as a kid?” You’re right–I did. But it had been many years since then and my heart had been hardened toward the Lord. So when Stephen and Kennya frequented our home toting their Bibles, I was thinking, “this is a bit extreme, I mean it’s one thing to call yourself a Christian, but this is a whole other ball of wax, this is just TOO MUCH.” Honestly I couldn’t help but feel as if I was being judged because I wasn’t “doing God” like they were. The question their newfound faith created in me was, “who is God to you, Chynna?” I hadn’t a clue.
A few months later, we decided to move out of the city to Bedford, NY and Stephen and Kennya came over to see the new place. It was Super Bowl Sunday. Once again, they had their beloved Bibles. On this occasion, we also had Billy’s teenage nieces over. After a lovely family dinner, I was in the den watching the halftime show with Billy when I heard some commotion coming from the kitchen. The sounds were becoming more and more impassioned and curiosity got to me, so I walked in that direction. It dawned on me pretty quickly that what I was hearing was prayer. But this was not just a “now I lay me down to sleep” kinda prayer, this prayer had ZEAL, and I mean serious ZEAL.
I listened from outside the kitchen as Stephen and Kennya prayed emphatically over our two nieces. Part of me was fearful of entering the room, the girls were crying and clearly they were experiencing something radical. As I continued to listen, a small voice said “Chynna go in there and tell them that you want prayer too.” It was as if my body walked itself into the kitchen without my permission, because next thing I knew I was sitting at the table with Stephen and Kennya laying hands on me and lines of tears streaming down my face. Tears of joy, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of anger, tears of relief… yes, RELIEF. Jesus had shown up for me once again; actually, I realized in that very moment that he had never left me. He had been with me the whole time. It was I who had walked away, not HIM.
Immediately after the prayer, I got up from that table, walked out to our front door and grabbed the Buddha that had been sitting there for several months. I wrapped it in a sheet and duct taped it, then put it in the garage. The first words out of my mouth when I re-entered the house were, “that’s it, my life belongs to Jesus now, from this day forward I will serve him and nobody else.” Stephen and Kennya could barely believe it. The look on their faces was something I’ll never forget. It was a combination of awe and shock. To this day, we still laugh about it. I was converted (this time for real) on Super Bowl Sunday at my kitchen table. HALLELUJAH!
Soon after the kitchen table conversion, I began work on a Christian album that was launched on the very same day my half sister Mackenzie Phillips’ book, High On Arrival was released. This book was an exposé on her incestuous relationship with our father, John Phillips. The entire book was a sword through my heart. Her story was utterly disturbing and numbing. It took me several years to bounce back from the shock, but still I supported her claims as best I could. My father had long passed, so it was impossible to know exactly what had happened. It goes without saying that my album flopped. The Christian world didn’t want to touch anything that had the name Phillips on it, not even with a 10 foot pole. This was heartbreaking, since I truly felt I was doing God’s work, something important for HIS kingdom, only to fall flat on my face.
The perfect storm was already forming because soon after my sister’s allegations and my record nose-diving, my marriage started to unravel with the 2008 financial crash. We literally lost everything and had to start from scratch. We were forced to sell our home and scale back significantly. At the same time, Billy’s hit series was cancelled due to an unexpected writers strike. We had to rebuild from the ground up. It just seemed like someone or something was conspiring against us and I was becoming disillusioned with God.
After seeing a lawyer and moving out of our house, I had firmly decided divorce was the only option for Billy and me. We were fighting constantly and the hostility between us was just unbearable. In my heart, I really didn’t think he could or would ever transform into the man that I envisioned. Don’t even bother asking me who that “man” would be, I just knew it wasn’t him. His east coast grit, loud voice and constant urgent energy was exhausting me. I had hit a bottom. Little did I know my bottom had a basement.
After several months of couple’s therapy, I decided to revoke my petition for divorce and reluctantly moved back into the house. Things were far from perfect, but we were making strong attempts to reconcile and meet each other’s needs in a way we had neglected to do in the past. Trust me, I was far from perfect, but deep down I knew that divorce was not going to be the solution to our problems. Just the thought of dismantling our family was excruciating, much like having an arm cut off without anesthesia. My greatest fear was repeating the patterns of my parents and I was determined to make the marriage work, for better or for worse.
As if this wasn’t enough to push our marriage to the brink, a super Neutron Bomb was detonated over our family when our 16 year old son Vance was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. It had started in his testicles, then metastasized to his spine and lungs. The news was devastating and I collapsed in the radiology room. I had never fainted before in my life. It was as if a Samurai sword cut me at the knees. Nothing like a cancer diagnosis to throw you into a fiery tango with God.
But once I truly accepted the rough terrain that laid ahead for our son and our family, I went into full warrior mode. Nothing was going to crack my faith in Jesus. At that point he was my only life preserver, and I was clinging on for dear life. I prayed day and night. The support of family, girlfriends and church was my saving grace. I prayed unceasingly for the entire three years that our son fought for his life. It was twenty-eight rounds of chemotherapy, two major surgeries, a half a year of missed school, and Vance never complained once, I mean, not once. I’m beyond grateful to tell you that Vance is expected to live a long life and see children and grandchildren of his own!
JESUS IS MY WHOLE LIFE NOW. Although my husband Billy has not yet surrendered his life to the Lord, I do believe he’s on his way. That just has to be enough for me right now.
I am now in learning mode, accessing sermons, podcasts, books (and a lot of material from Gospel in Life), trying to grow in my understanding of the Jesus who has loved me through all the ups and downs of my life. I have learned that “experiences” without knowledge and personal surrender can’t support a life. But now I want to know Jesus.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, all the way home.
Today each morning that I wake I try to make my first words …God of My Life, I LOVE YOU!!!!
I’ve come to realize that the Bible verse “We live unto the Lord and we die unto the Lord” is the absolute bottom line of why I am in this world.
And although I have not yet “landed my plane”, I’m making my slow descent (with tons of turbulence on the way back to solid ground) and that’s good enough for me.
*Chynna keeps busy with family and her new business venture California Preachin’