A life stranger than fiction: Local author releases novel of true-life confessions
As Royal Phillips packs up her belongings that signify the last 20 years she’s spent in Waynesville and prepares for her next chapter in Palm Springs, California, she can’t help but to feel like her life has come full circle — and what a crazy circle it has been.
Her big move back to the West Coast to be closer to her family is somewhat serendipitous since the story she’s been trying to tell for the last 30 years is finally out there — lifting a heavy weight from her shoulders. It’s a story she’s struggled to make others believe, but she has always determined to call it what it was — nonfiction.
Phillips’ latest book, Priest: The Last Confession, is a true personal account of her controlling alcoholic mother, her scandalous love affair with an Irish Catholic priest and the sacrifices she had to make to reclaim her life.
For years publishers told her they’d only publish the book if she would label it a work of fiction, but that’s not something she was willing to do. Some truths are stranger than fiction, she said, and those truths can make people feel uncomfortable. Phillips knows there are other women out there who have had similar experiences being groomed and manipulated by priests within the Catholic Church, and she hopes by sharing her story others will be encouraged to speak up.
“I’m really after truth. I want the truth to be known — I wanted it to be known that this happened and now seemed like the right time,” she said. “Everyone is coming out of the woodwork with their stories — they’re shining a light on what many Catholic boys have gone through but there’s really nothing said about the older Catholic women. I know they’re out there.”
Phillips decided to self-publish the book with the following disclaimer: “This is not a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are real. The material is from actual dated diaries, letters and family photo albums. The names of some individuals have been changed out of respect and consideration.”
Phillips, named after the Royal York Hotel in New York City where she was conceived, had a charmed upbringing from all outside accounts. Her father was a successful traveling salesman and she attended a Catholic school for girls in Chicago. While her parents were very different in many ways, they both liked to drink and throw extravagant parties.
When she was 17, Phillips decided she wanted to study journalism and art and she wanted to do it at the University of New Mexico — as far away from her mother as possible. Unfortunately, her father died just two months after she left for college. Her mother soon moved to Palm Springs and immersed herself in the Catholic Church and high society. This is where Phillips’ book begins.
It was 1960 and Phillips, 20, was just returning from a long summer trip around the world with her mother Madge. It’s clear to Phillips at this point that her mother needs serious help after binge drinking her way through Europe and embarrassing her to no end.
While Phillips is trying to help her mother, Madge is convinced it’s her daughter who needs to be saved. She introduced her daughter to Father Mike, a middle-aged charismatic Irish Catholic priest who was quite popular among his congregation and the ritzy country club scene in Palm Springs.
“My mother consulted an Irish priest to save my soul. Instead, he brought me to damnation,” Phillips wrote in the book.
Madge wanted Father Mike to mentor her daughter and bring her closer to the church, but in the process she gave her daughter someone to run to when she couldn’t take her abuse and heavy drinking anymore. Phillips looked up to Father Mike and sought his counsel in dealing with her mother, but Father Mike saw a vulnerable young woman who would do anything to escape from her life.
The unconventional relationship between Phillips and Father Mike eventually became romantic as the priest confessed his love for her and his willingness to leave the church so they could be together. He was honest with her about how he became a priest out of necessity as a way to get out of Ireland as a young man and, while he still held to his religious beliefs, he hadn’t honored his vows as a priest for many years.
“Living with a priest was revealing. He was very charming, but being a priest was not a calling for him,” Phillips said. “At the time, I was trying so hard to get away from my mother, I would have left with King Kong. (Father) Mike was dashing. He had a Thunderbird.”
Their secret love affair went on for months even after she returned to school. Her sorority sister would cover for her and take her to Albuquerque to meet Father Mike. The two knew their secret would get harder to keep when Phillips found out she was pregnant, which is when Phillips’ story really takes a turn for the unbelievable.
Not wanting her to terminate the pregnancy, Father Mike begins working on an escape plan that would take the couple to the Canary Islands and then to Spain as they tried to flee Phillips’ mother and public ridicule. Phillips detailed their adventures and struggles in her diaries, which she used when it came time to write the book.
When their money unexpectedly ran out, Father Mike and Phillips were forced to return to the states not long before they were expecting the baby. Without giving away the details in the book, Phillips was forced to put the baby up for adoption in the end.
Despite all the turmoil in her life up until that point, giving up her child was her breaking point. Paired with her feelings of abandonment from Father Mike and having to return home to her mother in Palm Springs, Phillips found herself in a deep depression she wasn’t sure she’d ever recover from. In a desperate attempt, she tried to turn to the Catholic Church for help and redemption, but she was only met with more hopelessness and deceit.
“I was sinking and I had no one to talk to. When you’re raised Catholic, you’re just told you’re sinning — go in a black box and confess and you’ll be better,” she said. “But it took me over two years of psychiatry to pull out of this. I was blessed with the best psychiatrist in the world who taught me about Christianity and different religions in a way I’d never heard before.”
Putting the past behind her, she moved to Santa Barbara and struck out on her own — something out of the norm for a woman in 1962. She was a cocktail waitress and then began writing a column for the Santa Barbara News Press.
Therapy also helped her not to repeat the sins of her parents when she eventually married and had three children of her own. She vowed to stay sober and not control her children’s lives the way her mother tried to control hers.
“All I ever wanted to do was have a baby so I would be unhealthy possessive of them, so I had to work through that,” Phillips said. “But I think I did a good job — my son is a mayor in California, my daughter is a nurse and my other son owns his own printing company.”
While Phillips has continued her passion for art and writing throughout her life, she also found her calling unexpectedly as a childbirth educator and doula. She spent 36 years traveling the world helping others through their pregnancies and deliveries.
Looking back at the experiences that led to where she is today, Phillips said she doesn’t have any animosity left toward Father Mike. Caught between his love of life and his deep religious beliefs, he comes across as a sympathetic character throughout most of the book. He did end up returning to the priesthood, but died from alcoholism at the age of 53, according to Phillips. Though she knows her story really happened, she does question how much of it was real.
“I don’t know if he really loved me, I guess I’ll never know,” she said.
Phillips said she has no regrets, even though she does still think about the baby she had to give up years ago. She even keeps her file updated at the Catholic Social Service Adoption Center just in case her daughter decides to look for her some day. At the end of Phillips’ book she includes a letter that’s kept on file at the adoption agency to the child she and Father Mike named Deirdre Dawn O’Donohoe.
“When I signed those papers in 1961, I felt as if I was giving the greatest gift in the world — YOU — to someone. I was! Never for a moment did I not want you. Never for a split second did I not love you,” she wrote. “The forbidden circumstances and the closed-minded era of your birth trapped me in a situation I had no control over.”
Phillips has not let her turbulent past stop her from leading an exciting life full of happy memories traveling to more than 80 countries, scuba diving and accomplishing her goals as a writer, mother and educator.
As she gets closer to 80, she says her story is far from over. She’s quite the prolific poet and is currently working on another volume of poems about her life. As she heads back to Palm Springs, she’s looking forward to more time with her children and her grandchildren.
In addition to Priest, she’s the author of Ugly Duckling: A True Life Story of Beauty, Manipulation and Murder — the real life account of her niece who is serving time in prison for the murder of her husband.
Phillips’ writing has received many awards, including her screenplay “Incommunicado,” based on her brief hostage experience in the 1994 Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. She also created and produced childbirth-specific books, audiotapes, and videos. Her documentary, “Prince for a Day,” chronicles Indonesian circumcision rituals on the youth of Sumbawa and was presented at the Anti-Genital Mutilation Symposium at University of Sydney, Australia.
Get the book
Priest is now available at Blue Ridge Books in Hazelwood and also at Amazon.com.
Visit www.royalphillipsstories.com for more information.