In Hollywood, Johnny Depp is a well-recognized figure. Known for his diverse roles in the film industry, his off-screen relationship with his mother, Betty Sue Palmer, has also been a subject of interest. The complexities of this relationship were highlighted during Depp’s 2022 defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard. The allegations that surfaced during the trial suggested a troubled mother-son relationship, which might have influenced Depp’s personal and professional life, including his legal battle with Heard.
Who Is Betty Sue Palmer?
Betty Sue was born and raised in Kentucky in 1935. She married John Christopher Depp, with whom she had four children, including Johnny Depp. Their marriage ended when Johnny was only 15 years old. She later married Robert Palmer, for whom Depp wrote a Hollywood Vampires song titled ‘As Bad As I Am’:
“So the words of the song were this toast by my stepfather, who made his exit about 15 years ago. He was this really cool guy. He was a bit of a rounder. He spent about half his life in prison in Statesville, Ill. And he had this toast. ‘Here’s to you, as good as you are. Here’s to me, as bad as I am. You’re still as good as you are, as bad as I am.'”
Johnny’s relationship with his mother was not without its dark moments. On one occasion, he walked in on his mother, attempting to overdose on pills following her divorce from his father. During the defamation case, Depp recalled the following:
“My mom went into a very dark place, a very deep, dark depression, as you can imagine. One afternoon, I woke up and walked out into the living room, and I saw my mother very feebly. It was like a slow-motion crawl. I saw my mother in that mode. Instantly, I knew that something was dreadfully wrong. There was drool coming out from her mouth. As I was about to run and call, the front door busted open, and my uncle and two paramedics came in. … She had swallowed a multitude of pills to try to commit suicide.“
Betty Sue also was physically abusive toward Depp. In a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone, he recalled his mother’s ‘irrational beatings’:
“There were irrational beatings. Maybe it’s an ashtray coming your way. Maybe you’re gonna get clunked with the phone. It was a ghost house – no one talked. I don’t think there ever was a way I thought about people, especially women, other than ‘I can fix them.'”
While testifying at his defamation trial against Heard, Depp claimed the verbal and psychological abuse was worse than the physical pain Betty Sue inflicted on him:
“The verbal abuse, and the psychological abuse, were almost worse than the beatings. The beatings were just physical pain. The physical pain you learn to deal with. You learn to accept it. You learn to deal with it.”
These traumatic experiences caused Depp to use substances to cope since 11 years old. However, he chose to forgive his mother and continued to support her throughout her life. He often showed public affection for his mother. The actor took her with him when he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and bought her a horse farm in her home state. She also accompanied Depp to the Academy Awards when he was nominated.
The Abuse Allegations
Allegations about Betty Sue’s abusive behavior were brought to light again during Depp’s 2022 defamation trial against Amber Heard. Johnny’s older sister Christi Dembrowski testified that their mother was abusive, volatile, and unstable, both towards her children and her husband, John Christopher Depp:
“Mom would scream, yell at him, she would hit him, call him names, that kind of thing. Dad never reacted when Mom hit him or screamed at him. Basically, he would let her scream and get it out and be done. The way you dealt with my mom, he always tried to keep the peace.”
Christi also claimed that Betty’s behavior was the same toward them, and she called them names:
“[She treated us] similarly to how she treated Dad. She screamed she yelled, she hit, she threw things, and she called us names. We each had our own set of names. Some we wouldn’t repeat. My name was Violet. Violet was my father’s mother, and my mom hated my father’s mother. She had a few [for Johnny,] some to not repeat. ‘One eye‘ was her favorite. Because when he was young, the doctors thought he had a lazy eye, they put a patch on his good eye to strengthen his other eye. Those names were just a way of life. We got used to them.”
She then remembered how Betty would make them pick a twig she would use to hit them:
“She would hit us, throw things, go pick a switch off a tree; that would be what she’d hit us with. One that’s nice and green. If it weren’t a nice green twig, it wouldn’t break. [Johnny] was a typical little boy; when hurt, he would cry. For the most part, he just wanted to get away from it.“
Despite these allegations, Johnny Depp maintained a relationship with his mother. Betty Sue encouraged him to become an artist, buying him his first guitar at the age of 12. Besides, she did impart some valuable advice to her son. She gave Depp some advice that he said he has carried throughout his life:
“She’d come from nothing but hillbillies, and she said, ‘OK, here’s the deal. Next time anybody puts their hands on you, pick up a brick and lay them out.‘ And I’ve taken that advice ever since.”
So, Betty Sue’s difficult behavior didn’t stop him from admiring her. Depp even has a tattoo of his mother’s name, ‘Betty Sue,‘ inside a heart on his upper left arm.
Depp Still Spoke Good About Betty Sue
Johnny Depp spoke to Rolling Stone in 2013 about how his mother’s upbringing in a shack in Appalachia influenced her parenting style and, subsequently, his own:
“My mother was raised in a shack in the wilds of Appalachia, where the toilet was an outhouse. She used to say she did the same things that her mom did — and her mom certainly didn’t know any better. My kids; they’re told 75 times a day that they’re loved. One thing I know is they feel loved, secure, happy, needed, necessary, and a part of something.”
Betty Sue Palmer passed away in 2016 after a long illness. Johnny Depp was open about their difficult relationship, even at her funeral. In 2018, he told Rolling Stone what he said about Betty Sue after her passing:
“My mom was maybe the meanest human being I have ever met in my life.”
As reported by the Mirror, Betty Sue might be one of the reasons Depp and Heard got divorced, as some sources claimed Betty hated Amber and thought she used the actor for fame:
‘The 81-year-old reportedly told friends before she died that she feared the Texan beauty was using her son for money, fame, and to boost her own career. The sources claimed Amber and Betty Sue had two ‘sit-downs’ in an attempt to clear the air, but both times it ended with the actress being branded a ‘terrible person.’“
Even though Depp referred to his mother as the ‘meanest human being’ he had ever met, he also called Betty his best friend:
“She’s just one of the smartest, funniest, greatest people I’ve ever been lucky enough to know. She is truly one of my best friends.“
When he was presented with the Rhonda’s Kiss Healing and Hope Award in 2020, Depp paid tribute to his mother, thanking the medical staff who treated her before her passing. As reported by People, he said:
“She was a hellcat. She was mean, but she was funny. The amount of care and love she received from every member of the staff and the brilliant and dedicated specialists who tirelessly gave of themselves far beyond the call of duty, I am truly humbled by this kindness. Their kindness and your infinite knowledge, doctors, and specialists. My mom and her family would have been very much lost in the darkness without these people. We’ll always owe them a deep debt of gratitude that is virtually impossible to repay.”
So, despite the tumultuous and abusive nature of their relationship, Johnny Depp has publicly stated that he has come to terms with the hardships his mother faced. He has forgiven her and decided to do better than he was taught, especially in his role as a parent.