Jemele Hill details watching her mom battle drug addiction as a child: 'All I could see was her slipping away'

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Emmy Award-winning journalist Jemele Hill sat down with her mother, Denise, to discuss their collective childhood traumas and how they navigated their respective healing journeys on Facebook Watch's Red Table Talk, out Wednesday.

Hill, 46, was joined at the red table by her mom Denise Dennard, who raised her as a single mother in Detroit, Mich. The two delved into the complexities of generational trauma and its snowball effect on their lives.

Jemele Hill and her mom unearthed their childhood traumas for the latest Red Table Talk. (Photo:Jordan Fisher)
Jemele Hill and her mom unearthed their childhood traumas for the latest Red Table Talk. (Photo:Jordan Fisher)

"When I was about six years old, that was where my mother was raped," explained Hill. "The fallout from that just kept happening. I just saw my mother falling apart. As a kid, you know something is wrong, but you don't know how to put the finger on it. As she continued to work through what we know now is PTSD, all I could see was her slipping away."

As a child, Hill says she was unable to understand the multitude of nuanced factors that led to her mother's addiction, but the consequences had a lasting impact.

"You absorb so much of that, you enable, you navigate around. And all I could do was be mad about the fact that I couldn't have this 'normal' childhood and I couldn't really explain to people why and it felt like so much was being taken," she said.

Following a turbulent series of life events, including divorce, eviction and the death of their neighbor, Hill says her mother turned to crack, eventually showing her what it looked like in efforts to dissuade her from ever trying the life-altering drug.

"We had to live in a very rough neighborhood. So rough, in fact, the woman who lived next door to us, she got murdered. And so my mother, already suffering from the PTSD of having been raped, [that] sent her into a spiral. And so one of the harsher incidents is the night my mother showed me what a piece of crack cocaine looked like," says Hill.

As awful as this experience was, as an adult, Hill has been able to empathize with the battles her mother was facing at the time.

"She's dealing with trying to understand the pain she is in but at the same time mother enough to tell me 'Do not do this, ever. I'm suffering from something I don't even understand but I know one thing: I don't want you to trade places with me,'" said Hill.

Excerpts from her new memoir, Uphill, were also woven into the chat. Hill detailed a particularly notable time her mother beat her like she had "four sets of hands" after reading Hill's private diary where she vented freely about her mother's dangerous behavior. Her mom then drove her to her dad, who was living in a rehabilitation center due to his own struggles with addiction, to show Hill how "ungrateful" she was.

"I guess that was my mother's point, too, she was all I had. Drunk, drugged or indifferent," she wrote.

Now Hill and her mother, are in a much better place, grateful to share their journey through redemption. But decades later, Dennard says she still struggles with the shame and guilt of what she put her daughter through.

"When [I] realize what I've done to my child, it's hard to reconcile that in 2022. It's the only thing that can break me," said Dennard. "You should have been valued more from me. I do more than own it, I embrace it because if I don't, it would prove me unworthy of you. What I stole from you can't be replaced. And that's the hardest part."

During the talk, Jada Pinkett Smith, who shared some of her own struggles as the child of an addict, acknowledged that without her turbulent childhood, Hill may not have been as equipped to deal with challenges in her career.

"Even though my journey has not been smooth, I didn't relive what you went through, and I'm grateful for that. As painful as what you have gone through [was], this is where the trauma in our family was broken. I don't want you to ever think it was in vain," said Hill.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is here for survivors 24/7 with free, anonymous help. 800.656.HOPE (4673) and

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357)

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