Ellen DeGeneres recently opened up about her painful history of sexual abuse and how her mother, Betty, refused to believe her.
The 61-year-old comedian told David Letterman the traumatic details of her abuse. When she was only 15, her stepfather repeatedly sexually assaulted her. She finally confessed the truth to her mother a few years later, but her mother’s reaction was intensely disappointing.
“[My stepfather] said I was lying, and then she stayed with him,” Ellen told David.
Betty stayed with her husband for 18 more years before she finally left him.
Ellen and Betty have a good relationship; Betty has appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show many times throughout the years.
Still, this remains a painful scar on their relationship.
A week after Ellen told the story, Betty released a statement to NBC News. She acknowledged her mistake and urged other parents not to repeat it.
“I live with that regret,” she said. “If someone in your life has the courage to speak out, please believe them.”
Ellen DeGeneres first revealed in 2018 that she was sexually assaulted as a teenager. She was inspired by the Senate testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school.
“I was 15 and I had something happen to me,” Ellen said on The Ellen DeGeneres Show at the time. “When I watched Dr. Ford — anyone who has had something happen to them, you just get so angry when someone doesn’t believe you or says, ‘Why did you wait so long?'”
In May, Ellen opened up more about the story of her sexual abuse. She told the traumatic details on an episode of David Letterman’s show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.
It was her stepfather who assaulted her — “a very bad man,” she says.
The abuse started after Ellen’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Her stepfather used the diagnosis to manipulate and abuse Ellen.
Ellen went into detail about the sexual assault, explaining how her stepfather mistreated and abused her.
Like so many survivors of abuse, Ellen kept the assault a secret. She didn’t tell her mother for years.
“I should never have protected her. I should have protected myself and I didn’t tell her for a few years and then I told her,” she said.
Sadly, Ellen’s mom also reacted like many people do to stories of abuse: with total disbelief. Her stepfather said Ellen was lying.
“She didn’t believe me, and then she stayed with him for 18 more years,” Ellen said. “And finally left him because he’d changed the story so many times.”
“I didn’t really let it get to me. Until recently, I kind of went, ‘I wish I would have been better taken care of. I wish she would have believed me.’ And she’s apologetic, but, you know,” she said.
Stories like Ellen’s are more common than many people want to believe. It’s heartbreakingly common for family members of sexual assault survivors to dismiss their stories out of denial.
Ellen’s mother, Betty DeGeneres, 89, provided a statement to NBC News about her role in her daughter’s trauma.
In her statement, she says she wishes she’d believed Ellen at the time, and she hopes other parents act differently.
“I know now that one of the hardest things to do is speak up after being sexually abused,” Betty said. “I love my daughter, and I wish I had the capacity to listen to her when she told me what happened. If someone in your life has the courage to speak out, please believe them.”
When she first discussed her abuse on her show last year, Ellen expressed anger at people who don’t believe survivors because they don’t remember every exact detail or don’t speak up immediately.
“As a victim of sexual abuse, I am furious at people who don’t believe it and who say, ‘How do you not remember exactly what day it was?’” she said.
“You don’t remember those things,” she explained. “What you remember is what happened to you, where you were and how you feel. That’s what you remember.”
In another interview with Today, Ellen explained why many survivors are reluctant to say anything about their abuse.
“We are really vulnerable at that age, and we trust,” she said. “And then when you are violated, you don’t know what to do and you don’t want to say anything because first of all, you just start wondering, ‘How did this happen, how was I that stupid?’ All of these things you think you could have controlled and you can’t.”
But breaking the silence changes everything, which is why Ellen is speaking up now — to advocate for young girls everywhere.