“I felt my body betraying me.”
That was a portion of a wrenching, in-depth interview with multi-talented filmmaker Tyler Perry, who spoke for the first time publicly about the horrendous physical and sexual abuse that he suffered as a child.
Perry appeared in a pre-taped, unforgettable episode of the Oprah Show, which aired across the country yesterday.
Perry has worn a lot of successful fine arts hats in his 41 years, including actor, director, producer, writer, studio head. He also created his signature character, and role: The tough-as-nails grandma, Madea. But none of the tremendous fame he has achieved has erased the pain he endured as a survivor of truly unspeakably brutal childhood abuse.
When I watched Perry, I was deeply moved by his willingness to “put his truth on the table,” as one woman would later say.
His emotional description of what his life was like would have broken lesser people, men or women. I, myself, suffered molestation as a girl beginning about age 7, abused for several years by the male janitor at my elementary school.
I didn’t suffer even one iota of what Perry went through, yet I suppressed much of what had happened, until I was old enough to cope with the emotional fall-out. He did attempt suicide, but how did survive and stay sane?
He credits his faith (he said he met “Jesus” at a young age, thanks to his mother) for being able to survive, but said that he did have several “dead years” when he barely functioned. He said he acted out at school, and even burned a house down.
Perry suffered severe emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his father. In addition, he was sexually abused by four other adults – three men and one woman, the mother of one of his childhood friends.
[Above: Tyler Perry at age 6]
"It was a living hell," he said of his childhood, tears filling his expressive eyes when he was shown a photograph of himself at age 6, a time when the abuse was occurring. He said that he even hid under his house for hours at a time whenever he could to conceal himself from his father, who routinely battered him viciously throughout his youth. "I feel like I died as a child."
He said he decided to come forward with all of the brutal details in an effort to liberate himself emotionally – and to lend support to others, especially males, who may have experienced, or may be experiencing, childhood abuse.
[Above: Tyler Perry’s Mother Maxine]
Perry waited to speak out until after his mother, Maxine, had died, saying he didn’t want to traumatize her by hearing the specific details, although she had know that he had been abused. Perry’s mother died last year.
"I think that everyone who's been abused, there is a string to the puppet master, and they're holding you hostage to your behaviors and what you do," he said. "At some point, you have to be responsible for them. What I started to do is untie the strings and chase them down to where they came from. And I was able to free myself and understand that even though these things happened to me, it was not me."
I had always known, intellectually, how difficult and shameful it was for males to speak about sexual abuse, maybe even more difficult than it is for females. But, it hadn’t hit me at a core emotional level until I listened to Perry describe what he had gone through.
Several times during the interview, Perry described how his body had “betrayed him” during the sexual abuse, finally explaining that he had gotten erections even though his mind was repulsed and terrified at what was happening, and that he was way too young (he was only 5 or 6) to have even understood what sex was.
Whew! Girls can’t have an erection forced out of their bodies. They can be raped, but sexual arousal can’t be forced on them by their abusers. I can’t even imagine the utter humiliation of what that must be like for a male.
Not surprisingly, the abuse made it difficult for him to figure out his sexuality. He said he knew he liked women, but all of this other stuff when men had been forced onto his body and he had physically responded.
Not long ago, Perry mentioned the beatings he had endured in an email, which was given to his father by someone else. Instead of expressing regret, his father startled Perry with an unimaginable response:
"He sends a message through my brother saying, ‘If I had beat your ass one more time, you probably would have been Barack Obama,’" Perry said.
More than 3 million reports of child abuse are made every year in the U.S., and each report can involve more than one child, according to Childhelp, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing abuse. In 2007, approximately 5.8 million children were involved in an estimated 3.2 million child abuse reports, and allegations.
Below, is a synopsis of Perry's interview released by the Oprah Show:
He was beaten, scarred and nearly broken. In a groundbreaking interview, Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry reveals the devastating details of his childhood sexual abuse.
Tyler Perry is a media mogul sitting at the top of the A-list. He's produced more than 20 plays, movies and TV shows and has rubbed elbows with entertainment elite. In 2010, Tyler was also named the second highest-earning man in Hollywood by Forbes magazine.
But Tyler's life wasn't always so fortunate. For years, he says he suffered brutal physical abuse at the hands of his father and severe sexual abuse at the hands of several adults. Inside or outside the home, Tyler says he never felt safe.
Now, for the first time, Tyler reveals in-depth details of his traumatic childhood and shares his personal story—a story of strength, power and, ultimately, triumph.
Though they're close friends, Oprah says she never realized how brutal Tyler's childhood really was. When she asks Tyler to describe the early years, his answer says it all. "[It was] a living hell," Tyler says.
As a picture of a young Tyler flashes across the screen, tears flood his eyes. "That's hard for me to look at," he says. "I feel like I died as a child."
To endure the violent beatings, shouting and name-calling, Tyler says he used his imagination to escape.
"I could go to this park [in my mind] that my mother and my aunt had taken me to. ... I'm there in this park running and playing, and it was such a good day," he says. "So, every time somebody was doing something to me that was horrible, that was awful, I could go to this park in my mind until it was over."
One particular beating Tyler says he'll never forget is the time his father brutally whipped him with a vacuum cord.
"To this day, I don't know why he did it. But I remember him cornering me in a room and hitting me with this vacuum cleaner cord. He would just not stop. There are all these welts on [me], the flesh that's coming from my bone, and I had to wait for him to go to sleep," Tyler says. "When he fell asleep, I ran to my aunt's house, and she was mortified when she saw it.
[Above: Tyler Perry’s Aunt Jerry]
Tyler's aunt Jerry she says he didn't say a word when got to her house, but he was crying. "I lifted his shirt, and there were five huge welts—long and they had lines in them, and they almost broke his skin," she says. "I got very upset.
"And what did you do, Aunt Jerry?" Oprah asks.
"I picked up a gun," she says. "I'm not proud of the fact, but I did and I went around the corner to their house. I met [Tyler's father] on the sidewalk, and I pointed the gun at him."
That same day, Jerry says she told Tyler's mother, Maxine, that she should never leave Tyler alone with his father again. "I knew that he couldn't stay there with him," Jerry says. "And she took him everywhere with her after that."
After another vicious beating from his father, Tyler says he blacked out for three days. "He played these mind games with me," Tyler says. "This one in particular, he wanted me to change a tire." As Tyler worked to loosen the bolts, he says his father screamed and cursed at him. Even Tyler's mother and uncle tried to help him...but they couldn't prevent the inevitable.
"[My father] couldn't get the bolts off [either] because they were rusted," Tyler says. "He looked up at me, and there was a smirk on my face. All I remember is him tackling me, and I remember holding onto a chain-link fence so tight, my hands are bloody and he's hitting me."
Every day, Tyler says he lived in fear that something would set his father off. It got so bad, young Tyler took drastic measures. One day, he says he slit his wrists and tried to commit suicide.
"I thought, 'What is the point of living?'" he says. "My mother was truly my saving grace, because she would take me to church with her. I would see my mother smiling in the choir, and I wanted to know this God that made her so happy. If I had not had that faith in my life, I don't know where I would be right now."
In addition to the brutal physical abuse, Tyler says he also suffered severe sexual abuse at the hands of four different adults.
Tyler says he was 5 or 6 years old the first time he was molested. While building a birdhouse with an adult male neighbor, the man put his hands in Tyler's pants, he says. "I'm thinking, 'What is this?'" Tyler says. "And I felt my body betraying me, because I felt an erection at that age."
Tyler says he later endured sexual molestation at the hands of a male nurse and a man he knew from church. "[The man from church] used God and the Bible against me to justify a lot of the things that were going on. It was so horrible," Tyler says. "And that was my first sexual experience, with this man performing oral sex on me as a boy."
When Tyler was just 10 years old, he says he was also molested by a friend's mother. Tyler says he was over at his friend's house while the mother was arguing with her boyfriend in another room. Then, she suddenly appeared in front of him, wearing lingerie.
Tyler says she put her son in the bathroom to take a bath and told Tyler to go home. But, when he tried to open the door, it was locked.
Tyler: I hear the click, click, click of the door. I couldn't unlock it. She lays on the sofa. I didn't know she was wearing lingerie at the time. I said: "I have to go. It's getting dark."
Oprah: You're 10.
Tyler: I'm 10. And she says, "You want to go home?" She lights a cigarette. She takes the key. She said, "Here's the key." I come over to get it, and she puts it inside of herself (inside her vagina) and she tells me to get it. So I—I get the key, but I feel my body betraying me again because I felt an erection. This is so disgusting, you know, what these people did to this little boy.
Tyler: She pulled me on top of her. So my first sexual experience was with a woman, that was it.
Oprah: Did you even know what sex was?
Tyler: I had no idea.
Unrelenting abuse made it nearly impossible for Tyler to trust adults around him. Aside from his aunt Jerry, there was one other woman he loved and turned to—his mother.
Tyler says his mother, Maxine, was also beaten and threatened by his father, and she even tried to leave him when Tyler was very young. One day, Maxine packed up the children into a Cadillac and drove to California to escape. Tyler's father reported the car stolen, and his mother was arrested. They were driven back to Louisiana by Tyler's uncle, and Tyler says his father beat his mother the whole ride home.
"My mother wasn't strong like my aunt," Tyler says. "She was just very passive. She did not have that backbone to stand up for herself, so certainly she couldn't stand up for me."
Tyler's mother passed away Dec. 8, 2009, and now that she's gone, Tyler says he's willing to talk about the abuse he endured. "She suffered so much horror in her life—surviving breast cancer, the abuse from my father, the belittling, the beatings. And I just could not be a source of pain," he says. "I knew if I spoke about this, that she would be hurt. So I didn't. ... I feel this tremendous sense of, 'Now it's time for me to take care of me and get some of this stuff out of me and be free from it.'"
As a little boy who was molested by three different men and one woman before the age of 10—before he even knew what sex was—Tyler struggled to understand his sexuality, he says.
Oprah: Did [the molestations] leave you confused sexually?
Tyler: Yes, absolutely. How could it not? I knew I liked the little girls in the neighborhood, but this man was doing something to me and my body kept betraying me. It took me all of my 20s to figure out what this was that this man had given me to carry inside of my heterosexuality that did not belong to me. This is why so many men will not talk about this—the shame of having to admit that. And there is no textbook definition for what molestation does to someone. Each individual is different.
Oprah: Everyone is different.
Tyler: This is my story, so another man who has been molested may have a different story. But for me to be in this position and have what he had done to me...he gave me something to carry that I didn't want, that I didn't desire. And thank God, somewhere along the way, I found what you feed will grow in your life, and what you don't will starve.
Decades later, Tyler is still learning to cope with the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. In his adult relationships with women, Tyler says certain experiences have triggered painful memories.
He recalls how one woman locked the door just before becoming intimate. "Click, click, click," Tyler says. "I went from being stimulated to not being able to perform. My body betrayed me again."
Another time, a woman Tyler was in love with walked into the bedroom wearing lingerie. It was another trigger, reminding him of the lingerie his female abuser wore the day she molested him.
"All of these people had given me something to carry," Tyler says. "I think that everyone who's been abused, there is a string to the puppet master, and they're holding you hostage to your behaviors and what you do. At some point, you have to be responsible for them. What I started to do is untie the strings and chase them down to where they came from. And I was able to free myself and understand that even though these things happened to me, it was not me."
Tyler's father is still alive today, and Tyler says he feels no remorse for abusing his son. After sending out an emotional message to his fans last year revealing parts of his painful past and the power of forgiveness, he expected a phone call from his father. What he got was very different.
Tyler: He sends a message through my brother saying, "If I had beat your ass one more time, you probably would have been Barack Obama."
Tyler: Here I am trying to heal from it, and that's what he sends me.
Oprah: And yet, I know you still take care of him.
Tyler: I do.
Oprah: You still send him a check every month. You still have him living in a beautiful mansion in Louisiana. You still provide for him.
Tyler: I do. Because I forgave him. I had to.
Though he forgives his father, Tyler says he will not have a relationship with the man, and will not put himself through the fear and emotions that surface whenever he's around.
"I think that's really important to be clear that just because you forgive somebody does not mean that you now want to be around them," Oprah says.
By sharing his story, Tyler hopes other men will be encouraged to stand tall, speak out and begin to heal—just as he started his journey toward healing after watching an episode of The Oprah Show years ago.
"Nobody's telling me I'm special. Nobody's telling me what I can do, and here you are on television," Tyler says. "I turn on the TV, and I see you. You say [during that show that] it's cathartic to start writing. I started writing down all of the things that happened to me. ... It was a chain reaction."
Tyler credits Oprah with helping to change his life, but he also credits his younger self, the boy who went through so much pain.
Oprah: What do you think you owe [your younger self]?
Tyler: My life. I think that he had to endure so much and had no recourse. He had no help. He just had to walk through it. So he gave birth to the man I am. I owe him to live the best life I can. I owe him to be the best father that I will be someday. I owe him to use my life and my words and my work to encourage, to inspire, to do what you did for me.
Oprah: What would Tyler Perry say to that little boy now?
Tyler: I would tell him: "It's going to be all right. I'm going to make you proud."
Actually, Tyler Perry has made everyone proud of him! His willingness to share his life so openly will truly help further the national and global conversation about childhood abuse, especially involving male victims.
In addition on Nov. 5, Perry will return to The Oprah Show. This time, there will be 200 men in the audience who have also survived childhood abuse. Many of those men’s wives/mothers have before never known of their victimization.
You might also want to support Perry by viewing his movies: Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail (Widescreen Edition); I Can Do Bad All By Myself (Widescreen Edition); Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? (Widescreen Edition); and Tyler Perry - The Plays (7 Disc Box Set).
— The Curator