‘We didn’t feel safe’: Disney heiress describes violence in childhood

“Through Her Eyes” is a weekly show hosted by human rights activist Zainab Salbi that explores contemporary news issues from a female perspective. You can watch a full episode of “Through Her Eyes” every Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on Roku, or at the bottom of this article.

As the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney — co-founder of the Walt Disney Company — Abigail Disney grew up in a world of privilege with unfettered access to “the happiest place on Earth”: Disneyland. But she says life wasn’t so magical in the Disney household; family life as a child could get violent, and she didn’t feel safe at home with her alcoholic parents.

“There's this assumption that I just was raised on fairy dust and rainbows,” Disney said in an interview with Yahoo News show “Through Her Eyes.” But Disney insists that was not the case.

“My parents were conservative and very strict. And both alcoholics,” Disney recalled. “So there was some violence in my home. Not all over the place, not all the time. But when you do get subjected to some violence as a child, you kind of never feel safe again. So we didn't feel safe in my home at all.”

When asked by host Zainab Salbi if the violence she had experienced was “emotional violence, or physical or both,” she replied: “Both.”

Disney has spoken publicly about trauma in her childhood, saying during the Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford hearings in September that Kavanaugh’s “rage and entitlement” triggered memories of her own father, Roy E. Disney. She adds that he eventually got the help he needed to change his behavior.

Speaking with “Through Her Eyes,” Disney recalled that it was like she had “been released from a prison” when she left home for college. She is now involved in multiple philanthropic projects, including founding the Daphne Foundation, which empowers New Yorkers directly affected by poverty, violence and discrimination. And there’s a trait that sets her far apart from her famous family: She’s liberal.

“You know how everybody makes jokes about the Thanksgiving dinner, ‘Oh my God, I have to go home and argue with my crazy uncle.’ I've never not had that Thanksgiving dinner. Every Thanksgiving is like that for me,” Disney quipped, joking that her mother was “the love child of Rush Limbaugh and Phyllis Schlafly.”

“That's how conservative she was,” she said.

But Disney doesn’t see her political views as an impediment to her familial relationships.

“I learned how to be what I think of as ‘bilingual’” she said. “I can hear, I can tolerate what conservatives have to say. A lot of liberals cannot, and do not. A lot of liberals are, in fact, snowflakes and won't discuss the merits on the other side. And it's made me more open to be able to at least have a conversation and draw people out.”

“I don't see it as a different ideology,” Disney added of her liberal identity. “The thing I kept telling my mother was, ‘I'm not doing the things I do in spite of what you taught. I'm doing it because of everything you've taught me. Didn't you teach me to be loyal, to be kind, to be generous, to respect my elders, to be true to my country? Did you teach me all of those things? Well, what those things seem to be asking me is to help the poor. Is to respect veterans.’”

“Those aren't left/right values.”

With the 2020 presidential election approaching, Disney told “Through Her Eyes” that she hasn’t chosen a Democratic champion from among the roughly two dozen candidates in the primary. But she made it clear that she has at least two least-favorite candidates for the nomination.

“I will tell you that both Bernie and Joe make me really sad, unequivocally sad,” she said of Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, the current frontrunner. “We couldn't be alienating the young people more than leaning in the direction of those two guys. We need something young, we need something new, we need something different.”

“I don't have a specific candidate right now,” Disney added. “But right at the moment, Elizabeth Warren I'm loving. I'm really loving her.”

Although Disney says she is a feminist, she explains that her conservative parents incorporated a more old-fashioned approach — taking their cue from classic Disney films.

“The princess philosophy in most of the early films was a philosophy I was raised on,” she said, recalling the patent leather Mary Janes and white gloves she was forced to wear for special events. There were frequent visits to Disneyland, or “the park” — and Cinderella taught her the proper way to wave in a parade.

“I was raised to be very, very, very polite and to pay attention to how I treated everyone, and to carry myself well, and to not be the loudmouth that I am.”

But she said the life of a Disney princess was not for her.

“I never fit that description,” Disney said. “I just never did. I was a tomboy.”

Instead, she has gone on to become a successful producer and filmmaker with projects like “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. Disney said the Liberian peace activists profiled in that film — led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee — are the kinds of “princesses” she aspires to become.

“They're the real princesses,” she said. “As far as I'm concerned, you want to be a real princess, go be brave. Go face someone down who is carrying a gun. Go tell him that you are tired of fighting the killing of your people, as Leymah says. That is to me the kind of behavior I admire.”

“I guess I feel a cynicism about the princess thing and the ultra femininity thing because I had my life handed to me on a silver platter,” she added. “And I did not ask or earn it.”

Listen to the full episode of the “Through Her Eyes” podcast, and listen to past interviews with Queen Latifah, Aly Raisman and more from Season 1.