Roseanne, which returned to ABC after more than two decades off the air, presents a TV family that’s dysfunctional but also happy and loving. It’s apparently a stark departure from star Roseanne Barr’s actual family life. The Emmy-winning actress once accused her parents of incest, and while she later expressed regret over those claims, she didn’t exactly take them back.
In 1991, near the height of her sitcom’s popularity, Roseanne opened up about her upbringing in an interview with People. “Keeping the secret of incest has taken all my energy and courage for 38 years,” she said. As she explained, her long-repressed memories came flooding back two years prior when then-husband Tom Arnold called her from rehab and told her he was molested as a child. “Immediately after hanging up, I began to shake and sweat,” she said. “Pictures started to appear before my eyes — surreal and frightening, looming large, then crystallizing into my mother’s face.”
“My mother abused me from the time I was an infant until I was six or seven years old,” Roseanne claimed. “She did lots of lurid things. She hurt me psychologically and physically.” She described two incidents in particular, claiming her mother held her under a pillow on one occasion and pretended to be lying in a pool of blood on another.
Then Roseanne turned to her other parent. “My father molested me until I left home at age 17,” she alleged. “He constantly put his hands all over me. He forced me to sit on his lap, to cuddle with him, to play with his penis in the bathtub. He did grotesque and disgusting things: He used to chase me with his excrement and try to put it on my head. He’d lie on the floor playing with himself. It was the most disgusting thing you can ever imagine.”
And the then-38-year-old explained her decision to go public with her accusations. “Incest and child abuse thrive in darkness, in secrecy,” she observed. “One of the great taboos about incest is talking about it, dealing with it and healing from it. I believe the more voices we hear, the braver we become. I want to enter my voice into the mix. I want to be one more person who speaks out and up about incest, to give it a name. With a name and a visible form, we can treat it, contain it, destroy it.”
At the time, parents Helen and Jerome Barr denied all the allegations through their attorney. Roseanne’s brother, Ben Barr, declined to comment; and her sisters, Stephanie and Geraldine, couldn’t be reached. (In a 1994 memoir titled My Sister Roseanne, Geraldine denied Roseanne’s accusation and defended their parents, though she said she had forgiven her famous sister. “May you one day also come to know such peace,” she wrote in a passage aimed at Roseanne, “despite currently being in the midst of a hell of your own creation.”)
While appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show nearly 20 years later, however, Roseanne said she regretted those accusations. “I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done,” she said, per Access. “It’s the biggest mistake that I’ve ever made.”
“Calling it incest?” Oprah asked. “Or going public?”
“Well, both of those things,” the comedian replied. “I was in a very unhappy relationship. I was prescribed numerous psychiatric drugs, incredible mixtures of psychiatric drugs to deal with the fact that I had — and still in some ways have and always will have — some mental illness. And [with] the drugs and the combination of drugs that I was given — which were some strong, strong drugs — I totally lost touch with reality in a big, big way.”
But Roseanne didn’t retract her accusations against her parents. She just retracted her word choice. “I say in the book [2011 memoir Roseannearchy: Dispatches from the Nut Farm] I was mistaken to use the word incest,” she told the talk show host. “But I can’t really think of another word, and when I do, I’ll use it.”
And that’s where she left it. Like many Hollywood stories, this one seems to have ended — for now, at least — with a “To be continued.”
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