It’s all over the news: Ellen DeGeneres has broken the silence about her childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.
Ellen told David Letterman on an episode of his Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, that as a young teenager she was molested by her mother’s husband on multiple occasions. Even more horrific was the admission that her mother didn’t believe her and chose to stay married to the man for an additional 18 years, a decision that deeply impacted the relationship between Ellen and her mother.
My heart breaks into a million pieces as I imagine that 16-year-old girl and the fear she felt, the confusion, the anxiety, the shame, and the guilt. And most of all, my heart breaks for the loss, rejection, and betrayal she must have felt when she finally told her mom and wasn’t believed. Wasn’t protected. Wasn’t loved through her truth and shame.
My heart breaks into a million pieces because this is my story, too.
I was 13 when I was molested by my stepfather. My mom was away on a business trip. I managed to get away and called my dad to come and get me, and in the middle of the night, he came and took my sister and me to safety. As terrifying and awful as that night was, it was the phone call I had to make the next morning to my mom that reduced me to a shaking, sobbing, shell of a girl.
I think I knew deep in my heart that she wouldn’t believe me. But I still had hope.
Like in Ellen’s story, my mom chose not to believe me. She stayed married to my stepfather for another six years.
For nearly two decades after, my mom and I had a strained and challenging relationship. It was one filled with anger, pain, distrust, regret, judgment, and lots of walls. We managed to navigate a tricky dance where certain subjects were never brought up, but they were felt with an emotional heaviness like wet wool at every encounter.
Finally, in my early 30s, I got the help I needed to come to terms with what had happened to me in my past. With the guidance of a wonderful counselor, I found healing. I found a safe place for the scared 13-year-old girl who still lived inside me, and I found forgiveness for my mom and her decisions, which I came to understand were made from fear.
About five years after I chose to forgive her, my mom said the words I thought I would never hear: “I believe you, and I’m sorry.”
This week, Betty DeGeneres announced to the world that she had made a mistake. “I know now that one of the hardest things to do is speak up after being sexually abused,” she said. “I love my daughter, and I wish I had the capacity to listen to her when she told me what happened.”
I don’t know all the details of Ellen and Betty DeGeneres’s relationship today, but I know what a balm those words have to be for Ellen’s soul. Nothing can erase the damage, the time lost. But I know from my own life experience that it’s never too late to start anew. It’s never too late to forgive. And it’s never too late to say, “I’m sorry.”
My mom and I lost years of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. We will never get that time back. But what we have today? What God has blessed us with—the healing and restoration—is more beautiful than anything I could have imagined.
Betty DeGeneres’s public statement concludes: “I live with that regret, and I wouldn’t want that for any other parent. If someone in your life has the courage to speak out, please believe them.”
My hope for all parents, all adult caregivers is this: that you will not lose precious time because you let fear keep you from protecting the ones entrusted to you.
Children do not make up stories of abuse. In fact, they are much more likely to hide the truth than to report it; the facts support this. The shame, embarrassment, and fear that comes with that confession are bigger than the child reporting it. Believe them. Protect them. Love them.
And if you are struggling to heal a relationship because you didn’t make the right decision, know that there is still hope. Through God all things are possible.