You may know Tyler Perry from many of the films he’s produced, directed, and starred in over the years. It seemed like every year I would see a new Tyler Perry movie coming out of the box office. I can’t say that I have seen any of them, though he is a clear success story being one of the highest paid men in Hollywood.
What I did see on 60 Minutes recently was the startling admission that, like myself, he is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The reason why this is shocking isn’t that he IS a survivor of abuse. The statistics show indeed how common abuse is in our culture, with 1 in 4 women being victims of abuse before the age of 16 and 1 in 6 men.
What is of note is that Tyler Perry is a high profile black man admitting that he was abused as a child. It’s the coming out that has always been hardest for us men. One of the basic virtures of early manhood is being able to successfully defend yourself from harm. For male victims it is this perceived failure that is sometimes the hardest thing to come to terms with.
Tyler is coming to terms with this specter that has hovered over his life for so long. He spoke of a friends mother who molested him as a child. She locked him in their house and only provided the key to leave if he ‘had sex’ with her. Tyler later shared additional details about living with a physically abusive father. After his admission, his father passed along the message to Tyler that “…If I had beat your ass one more time you probably would have been Barack Obama.”
You may be horrified by that comment. Yet, its so telling of how parents so often confuse discipline with outright abuse. Or maybe it’s just his fathers way of rationalizing the abuse and suffering he inflicted on his defenseless children.
These admissions from public figures are inspiring and courageous but to people who want to make real change in our society we can’t leave it at that. We have to explore the questions raised by the personal accounts from survivors of abuse.
I was always a big fan of the comedian Richard Pryor growing up. He would often compare men with women, and how black culture differed from white culture. He once mentioned quite fondly about the time his father gave him an especially violent physical beating because he came home after his curfew. The audience laughed. Pryor’s genius was in being able to make his misery funny. I have all of Pryors tapes. I think he’s the most gifted comedian, yet I never laughed at those jokes. Pryor joked on how it taught him character and professed his admiration to his father for making him hard.
It made me wonder. How can any physical beating ever be a point of pride in any culture, any society? What extremes and rationalizations are parents willing to employ to make sure they have well behaved children? What should our response be when this is too often the message we are sending in our society?
I may have not known about Tyler Perry’s admission if I had not known about his work with a new movie coming out called Precious. It’s about the struggle of a 16-year-old survivor of abuse. You don’t see too many films about abuse streaming out of the Hollywood lot. This is one of them. Go see it on November 6th.
And remember, there is courage in breaking the silence, but change only comes when we decide to respond to the brave stories of those like Tyler Perry. How do you plan on responding?