Tallulah Willis gets candid about dad Bruce Willis's dementia: 'I've known that something was wrong for a long time'

Tallulah Willis attends 2019 AFI Fest -
In a candid essay for Vogue, Tallulah Willis shares how she's been coping with dad Bruce Willis's dementia. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Tallulah Willis emotionally opened up about how she's been coping with dad Bruce Willis's dementia, revealing in Vogue she was initially "too sick myself to handle it." In a raw first-person essay, the 29-year-old shared how her own body image issues impacted her ability to be there for her family in the early stages of Bruce's diagnosis.

"I admit that I have met Bruce's decline in recent years with a share of avoidance and denial that I'm not proud of," Tallulah, the youngest daughter of Bruce and Demi Moore, wrote.

Earlier this year, the Willis family announced the action star's aphasia diagnosis progressed to frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a neurological disorder impacting his cognition and speech. However, Tallulah said, "I've known that something was wrong for a long time."

"It started out with a kind of vague unresponsiveness, which the family chalked up to Hollywood hearing loss: 'Speak up! Die Hard messed with Dad's ears,'" Tallulah recalled. "Later that unresponsiveness broadened, and I sometimes took it personally. He had had two babies with my stepmother, Emma Heming Willis, and I thought he'd lost interest in me. Though this couldn't have been further from the truth, my adolescent brain tortured itself with some faulty math: I'm not beautiful enough for my mother, I'm not interesting enough for my father."

When Tallulah was 11, she attended a red carpet event with Moore and her mother's ex-husband, Ashton Kutcher. The next day, Tallulah went online and read horrible comments about her physical appearance. That lead to her "believing that I had stumbled onto a truth about myself that no one had told me because they were trying to protect me. And for years afterward, protecting people right back, I told no one. I just lived with the silent certainty of my own ugliness."

Tallulah first entered psychiatric treatment at age 20. When she went to another facility at 25, she was diagnosed with ADHD. While the diagnosis was beneficial in some aspects, the medication prescribed helped fuel an eating disorder.

"For the last four years, I have suffered from anorexia nervosa, which I've been reluctant to talk about because, after getting sober at age 20, restricting food has felt like the last vice that I got to hold on to," she shared, admitting she enjoyed the medication's side effect of having her appetite suppressed. "I saw a way to banish the awkward adolescent in favor of a flighty little pixie."

Tallulah's friends and family worried as she continued to lose weight.

"While I was wrapped up in my body dysmorphia, flaunting it on Instagram, my dad was quietly struggling," she wrote. "All kinds of cognitive testing was being conducted, but we didn't have an acronym yet. I had managed to give my central dad-feeling canal an epidural; the good feelings weren't really there, the bad feelings weren't really there."

In the summer of 2021, while at a friend's wedding, Tallulah "painfully" realized what Bruce's health issues meant as "the bride's father made a moving speech."

"Suddenly I realized that I would never get that moment, my dad speaking about me in adulthood at my wedding. It was devastating," she said. "I left the dinner table, stepped outside and wept in the bushes. And yet I remained focused on my body. By the spring of 2022, I weighed about 84 pounds. I was always freezing. I was calling mobile IV teams to come to my house, and I couldn't walk in my Los Angeles neighborhood because I was afraid of not having a place to sit down and catch my breath."

Tallulah wondered what her dad would have done if he saw her at 84 pounds and had the cognitive ability to understand she was unwell.

"I'd like to think that he wouldn't have let it happen," she explained, calling Bruce a "stereotypical father of a certain generation" whose style was "to plug the leak even if he's not sure why the leak is happening." (Tallulah said her mother and sisters are more interested in "root causes, in close examination.")

"Certainly there are benefits to examination, but there's a beauty in his way, and I don't think I noticed it until he was no longer capable of it," Tallulah wrote.

Instead of Bruce coming in to save the day, last June, Tallulah went to another recovery center after she was dumped by her fiancé. She was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, "an illness that impairs the ability to regulate emotions and find stability in relationships."

"I realized that what I wanted more than harmony with my body was harmony with my family—to no longer worry them, to bring a levity to my sisters and my parents," Tallulah said. "An emaciated body wouldn't do that. I had felt the weight of people worrying about me for years, and that put me on my knees."

"Recovery is probably lifelong, but I now have the tools to be present in all facets of my life, and especially in my relationship with my dad," she continued. "I can bring him an energy that's bright and sunny, no matter where I've been. In the past I was so afraid of being destroyed by sadness, but finally I feel that I can show up and be relied upon. I can savor that time, hold my dad's hand and feel that it's wonderful. I know that trials are looming, that this is the beginning of grief, but that whole thing about loving yourself before you can love somebody else — it's real."

Tallulah said she documents every hangout with her dad, whose mobility has not been impacted by FTD.

"Recently I found a scrap of paper there on which he had written, simply, 'Michael Jordan.' I wish I knew what he was thinking. (In any case, I took it!)," she shared.

"He still knows who I am and lights up when I enter the room. (He may always know who I am, give or take the occasional bad day. One difference between FTD and Alzheimer's dementia is that, at least early in the disease, the former is characterized by language and motor deficits, while the latter features more memory loss.) I keep flipping between the present and the past when I talk about Bruce: he is, he was, he is, he was. That's because I have hopes for my father that I'm so reluctant to let go of," Tallulah added.

Tallulah said she sees Bruce's personality in herself, "and I just know that we'd be such good friends if only there were more time."

"He always loved a cozy couch with his feet up. Can you be 10 percent more comfortable? I think he asked himself that every day," she wrote. "And now that I'm feeling better I ask myself, How I can make him more comfortable? It wasn't easy growing up in such a famous family, struggling as I did to find a patch of light through the long shadows my parents cast. But more and more often I feel like I'm standing in that light."

Tallulah is now an aunt as her sister, Rumer Willis, welcomed a baby girl in April.

"There's this little creature changing by the hour, and there's this thing happening with my dad that can shift so quickly and unpredictably. It feels like a unique and special time in my family, and I'm just so glad to be here for it," she concluded.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder please visit the National Eating Disorders (NEDA) website at nationaleatingdisorders.org for more information.