Phylicia J. L. Munn
In 1999, Mena Suvari was the breakout star of the Oscar-winning sensation American Beauty. But behind the bright lights and awards, there was a much darker truth. "I was living a double life," Suvari, 42, says. "Every time I would go on a set. Every time I was interviewed, I was acting the whole time. It was another role for me to play. That I was okay."
As Suvari tells PEOPLE, that was also an act — an effort to hide the truth about the trauma she'd been living through. In her new memoir The Great Peace: A Memoir, excerpted in this week's PEOPLE, "Between the ages of twelve and twenty, I was the victim of repeated sexual abuse."
It began in the sixth grade when she was raped by a friend of one of her older brothers, whom she refers to as "KJ" in the book.
At the time she was feeling a bit lost, "the new girl," after her family had moved to Charleston, SC. "I was trying to fit in," she recalls.
That's when KJ began pursuing her and eventually pressured her to have sex. "No, I don't want to do that," she recalls telling him in the book. One day, when she was a month shy of turning 13, he brought her to a private room in his family's home where he raped her.
"Part of me died that day," says Suvari. "He used me, had fun with me and then disposed of me. He called me a whore. I never got to have a healthy expression of [sex]. My choice was lost. And that, compiled with already not feeling seen and heard, established a concept that I would have of myself. That that was my value."
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She blamed herself that she had "allowed it to happen," a lasting sense of shame that destroyed her sense of self worth. Over time, the pattern began to set in: Make it work; just survive.
After Suvari moved to Hollywood to try acting at 15, she didn't feel she had a choice when one manager, whom she considered her friend and protector, wanted to have a sexual relationship.
"By this time my family had pretty much fallen apart," says Suvari. "My mother had moved out and wanted to find herself and my father [who was much older] was in decline mentally and physically. I didn't feel like I had any other options or was worthy of a life that was any different."
Suvari escaped into the rave scene, late night clubbing and eventually hard drugs to numb the pain. "I turned to any form of self-medicating I could find, just to get by," she says. "I was just trying to survive." Her life slowly became a haze of drugs and despair.
Phylicia J. L. Munn
Just before Suvari turned 17, she met "Tyler," who abused her sexually and emotionally during their three-year relationship. He pressured her to participate in threesomes and pick up women to bring home for him. "I remember thinking maybe this is how relationships are: the screaming, the name calling, the abuse," she says. "I felt like I had brought it all on in some way. From KJ to Tyler, it was a process of destruction."
Suvari found solace in her acting work. After her role in American Pie (1999) skyrocketed the young actress to fame, she got the part of Angela, the teenage cheerleader in American Beauty who is the object of a middle aged man's obsession, played by Kevin Spacey. The role brought her much acclaim and a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Looking back, she says of American Beauty: "It was a beautiful experience, being given the opportunity to work and express myself right when I needed I to save me."
Still, Suvari admits, she often felt she was living a double life, "functioning on the outside and on the inside, desperately trying to heal."
She eventually broke it off with Tyler and stopped using drugs — and began to see, through therapy and supportive friends, she deserved better.
In 2016, she met Mike Hope on the set of her Hallmark movie I'll Be Home For Christmas. They fell in love and married in August 2018. "It was the first time I felt I wanted to have a family with someone," says Suvari, who had married and divorced twice before. "I found out I was pregnant when I finished writing the memoir," she notes.
Their son Christopher, her "gift," was born April 2021.
By sharing her trauma and how she found her way out, Suvari also hopes to help others who have suffered. "This is my truth. This is my voice," she says. "I was so tired of fighting and hiding my whole life. I hope I can help someone else see their value. If I can lessen the pain for someone else, then I want to do it, because I didn't have that person."
These days, Suvari also gives back by working with disadvantaged youth at Vista Del Mar. "I want to share my story in hopes to always shine light and inspire," she says.
Suvari explains: "This is what I have learned about myself. And for the first time I'm giving myself permission and finding the voice I wished I'd had."
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to rainn.org.