What exactly are you supposed to do when a former lover dies, especially if that person hasn’t been in your life for two decades? If you are Ellen DeGeneres, it is clear that you should not tell the truth, otherwise you will be criticized all over the world.
Many people expressed their apparent surprise at the former talk show host’s lack of emotion upon learning that her ex, Anne Heche, was in a devastating (and ultimately fatal) car accident. DeGeneres was in a relationship with Heche from 1997 to 2000, but they didn’t keep in touch. The two had not been seen in public together since their split.
Yet as reports began to trickle in of the late Heche’s car accident, the couple’s three-and-a-half-year relationship made headlines for the first time in two decades. Commentators were desperate to hear DeGeneres’ thoughts on the matter. Now I understand why people were interested in Heche and DeGeneres as a couple back when they were dating: the two were celebrities, and Ellen had just come out very publicly. But after their split, the two moved on in a very substantial way. Heche got married, divorced, and started another long-term relationship, having two children along the way. DeGeneres met, dated and married her longtime partner Portia de Rossi, with whom she celebrated 14 years together this week. Heche and DeGeneres did not remain friends; there’s no indication that there was any animosity there, but like many exes, they went their separate ways.
What else was the comedian supposed to do when asked if she had any updates on the situation after Heche’s tragic car crash, but say, ‘We’re not in touch with each other, so I wouldn’t know”? She went on to say, “I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
Perhaps those who love a good tabloid story were disappointed that DeGeneres didn’t say something like, “Well, she broke my heart once!” Or maybe they imagined her running to Heche’s bedside and draping herself over the unconscious body in tears, shouting, “I never stopped loving you!” as it would have happened in a Lifetime movie.
Quite frankly, I think Ellen’s reaction made perfect sense and I don’t see the callousness of her honesty.
Ten years ago, when I learned that a former boyfriend I had been with for six years had died of cancer, I had a very similar reaction. He was actually the same age as Heche when he died, with a successful career, and although single, he had family and friends who loved him. I learned of his death via social media.
After her breakup with Heche, DeGeneres used the word “betrayed” when asked how she felt. I felt the same way when my ex and I broke up. For various reasons, I decided that I didn’t want to stay friends with my former lover. I was about to graduate from college and wanted a clean break from all that that entailed. It made no sense for either of us to keep in touch.
Three decades later, with a husband, two kids, and a writing career under my belt, I was ready to reconnect with my ex through Facebook, as I did with many other childhood friends. When I couldn’t find it, I put an APB on my page and got three private messages telling me the bad news. One person’s greeting read, “Sorry for your loss.”
Although I enjoyed the feeling and the concern, I hadn’t lost anything. Like Ellen, I didn’t want to see anyone suffer and felt bad to hear that someone with so much life ahead of them hadn’t had a chance to live it.
The thing is, though, when you haven’t seen or heard from someone in decades, you don’t know them anymore. You may not hold a grudge. You can share wonderful memories. You probably wish them luck in their future endeavours. But learning of a tragedy that happened to them, your grief is not really specified. You feel sad as you would feel sad when you read about the death of a stranger in the news.
It’s pretty clear that DeGeneres was put on the spot when she was questioned about the Heche accident and she was in a damned situation if you did / damned if you didn’t. Just imagine if she had cried and extolled her ex’s virtues. I’m sure those who criticize her now for her cold response would also have called her a “fake Hollywood” and she would have been accused of turning on the aqueduct out of sympathy or centering herself. That’s exactly what happened when Alec Baldwin emotionally answered questions about his former colleague Halyna Hutchins after her tragic death on set.
The fact is, someone died an untimely and horrible death. This is a terribly sad incident for her and for all who loved her. I’m sure Ellen DeGeneres liked Anne Heche a long time ago. But she hasn’t done so for a very long time – and her honesty doesn’t make her insensitive.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the new novel, THE LAST SINGLE WOMAN IN NEW YORK CITY