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’re Ellen DeGeneres, it’s clear you shouldn’t tell the truth — or you’ll get criticized the world over.
A lot of people have expressed their apparent surprise at the former talk show host’s lack of emotional soul-baring upon hearing 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 stay in touch. The two had not been seen in public together since their breakup.
Yet as reports started coming in of the late Heche’s car crash, the couple’s three-and-a-half-year relationship became front-page news for the first time in two decades. Commentators were desperate to know DeGeneres’ thoughts on the matter. Now, I understand why people were interested in Heche and DeGeneres as a couple at the time they were dating: both were celebrities, and Ellen had just come out in a very public way. But following their breakup, both moved on in very substantial ways. Heche married, divorced and entered into another long-term relationship, having two children along the way. DeGeneres met, dated and married her long-term partner Portia de Rossi, with whom she celebrated 14 years together this week. Heche and DeGeneres did not remain friends; there’s nothing to suggest there was any animosity there, but like many exes, they drifted apart.
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 followed up with, “I don’t want anyone to be hurt.”
Perhaps those who love a good tabloid story were disappointed that DeGeneres didn’t say something like, “Good, she once broke my heart!” Or perhaps they envisioned her running to Heche’s bedside and draping herself over the unconscious body in tears, crying, “I never stopped loving you!”, as would have happened in a Lifetime movie.
Quite frankly, I think Ellen’s reaction made perfect sense and I fail to see the callousness in her honesty.
Ten years ago, when I found out that a former boyfriend with whom I’d been in a six-year relationship had succumbed to cancer, I had a very similar reaction. He was in fact the same age as Heche when he passed, with a successful career and, although unmarried, he had a family and friends who loved him. I found out about his death via social media.
After her breakup with Heche, DeGeneres used the word “betrayed” when asked how she felt. I felt the same 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 on the cusp of graduating college and I wanted a clean break with everything it entailed. It just didn’t make sense for either of us to stay in touch.
Three decades later, with a husband, two children, and a career as a writer under my belt, I was ready to reconnect with my ex via Facebook, as I was doing with many other childhood friends. When I couldn’t find him, I put out an APB on my page and got three private messages breaking the bad news. One person’s salutation read, “Sorry for your loss.”
Although I appreciated the sentiment and concern, I hadn’t lost anything. Like Ellen, I did not want to see anyone suffer and I felt bad hearing that someone with so much of life still ahead of him had not gotten a chance to live it.
The fact is, though, that when you have not seen or heard from someone in decades, you no longer know them. You may harbor no hard feelings. You may share some wonderful memories. You probably do wish them well in their future endeavors. But upon hearing of a tragedy that has befallen them, your grief is not really specified. You feel sad in the way you’d feel sad about reading of a stranger’s death in the news.
It’s pretty clear that DeGeneres was put on the spot when asked about Heche’s accident, and that she was in a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t situation. Just imagine if she’d teared up and extolled the virtues of her ex. I’m sure those criticizing her for her cold response now would similarly have called her a “Hollywood phony” and she’d have been accused of turning on the waterworks for sympathy or centering herself. That’s exactly what happened when Alec Baldwin gave an emotional response to questions about his one-time colleague Halyna Hutchins following her tragic death on set.
The fact is that someone died an untimely and horrifying death. It is a terribly sad incident for her and for all those who loved her. I’m sure Ellen DeGeneres once loved Anne Heche, a long time ago. But she hasn’t for a very long time — and her honesty doesn’t make her unfeeling.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the new novel, THE LAST SINGLE WOMAN IN NEW YORK CITY