Nearly four months after Bruce Willis’s family announced that he was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a form of dementia that affects a person’s ability to use or understand written or spoken language, the actor’s daughter, Tallulah Willis, is sharing her perspective on her father’s decline—including the symptoms that, in hindsight, were early signs of his condition.
“I’ve known that something was wrong for a long time,” the 29-year-old wrote in an emotional essay for Vogue. “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.’”
The February statement that revealed Bruce’s diagnosis noted that he’s experiencing “challenges with communication,” and according to the National Institutes of Health, it’s common for family members to initially misunderstand FTD as absent-mindedness or misbehavior. (In fact, symptoms can include difficulty prioritizing tasks, a sudden disinterest in family activities, or acting impulsively or inappropriately without considering others.)
As time passed, Bruce’s unresponsiveness grew. “I sometimes took it personally,” Tallulah recalled. “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.”
At the time, such an assumption was easy for Tallulah to make because she was dealing with her own physical and mental struggles. Over the last four years, she experienced anorexia nervosa, depression, and other mental health conditions that ultimately landed her at a recovery center, where she was given a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, which “impairs the ability to regulate emotions and find stability in relationships,” she wrote.
Tallulah admitted that the timing and intensity of her own lows left her avoidant and in denial of her father’s. “While I was wrapped up in my body dysmorphia, flaunting it on Instagram, my dad was quietly struggling,” she wrote.
In 2021, Tallulah’s avoidance came to a head when, as a wedding guest, she listened to a bride’s father give a moving speech. “Suddenly I realized that I would never get that moment, my dad speaking about me in adulthood at my wedding,” she wrote. “It was devastating. I left the dinner table, stepped outside, and wept in the bushes.”
Slowly, through treatment and self-acceptance, Tallulah began to face her fears and join her family in caring for Bruce—who still “lights up” when she enters his house to find him traipsing about the kitchen and office, as dementia has “not affected his mobility,” she wrote.
“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,” Tallulah concluded. “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.”