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Mena Suvari feels "freer" in her work as she ages, explaining that she no longer relies on her sexual appeal — on or off screen.
The 43-year-old actress got personal with fans when she released her memoir The Great Peace just last year, detailing how she grew up and the trauma that she had suffered through sexual assault, abusive relationships and her own drug use. In the year since, she's processing just how cathartic it was to put her story out there.
"I needed to express myself. I needed to purge this in order to move on … I very much wanted to let it go," Suvari told The Guardian, noting the "bittersweet" response to the book. "It felt beautiful to feel seen and heard, but it was heartbreaking to hear that others had identified in similar ways. I didn’t want that for them, but overall I feel very proud. We’re living in the craziest time, the world’s on fire, but at the same time things are a lot more open. I always hoped that [the book] could help create some kind of change and initiate further conversation."
Suvari explained that moving around as a child and watching her parents grow apart while remaining married created an unstable environment where she "struggled to be seen and heard, engaged with." Ultimately, she faced her earliest trauma at the hands of her older brother's friend.
"I didn’t feel such a loss of sense of self until I was 12. When I was raped," she said. And before she told anybody about what had happened, she faced slut-shaming at school instigated by the perpetrator. "That sucked the life out of me. I think that was just excessive confirmation that no one was going to save me, no one was going to do anything for me."
What Suvari had experienced in her personal life quickly bled into her early encounters in Hollywood, where she moved with her parents as she started to book modeling gigs and commercials. She quickly realized that people wouldn't be treating her as the child that she really was.
"Everyone was raving about how I looked 18. But I was 12," she recalled. "What was communicated to me was that I was an adult, therefore I can act like an adult."
That theory was confirmed for her as she went on to work with older men who she became romantically involved with while she was still just 15 and 16 years old. "I didn’t have anyone telling me, ‘That’s not right, that person shouldn’t be doing that with you,'" she said. She also managed to show up to work in the way that she was expected, despite what was going on behind closed doors. "So, to my own detriment, no one noticed."
When her mom eventually walked out on the family, leaving Suvari to take care of her elderly father, the young actress resorted to drugs. "That doesn’t put you in a good frame of mind," she said. "I think I was desperate. I felt completely helpless, and hopeless."
Other relationships saw Suvari through more emotional and physical abuse, which she hadn't fully realized at the time. It wasn't until later in life that she confronted the reality of it. "I was being manipulated and I had no idea. The circumstances had been created for me, and I was just swallowed up by it," she said of one relationship that was characterized by gruesome sexual abuse.
She's since addressed her difficult take on sexual pleasure and the more nuanced conversations happening today on the topic.
"I’ve never wanted to speak negatively about things that can be very healthy for other people. I was not given the choice or the permission to do it, and that’s what was so destructive for me," she said. "It’s a very messed up thing when you experience sexual abuse, because part of it is ... like, satisfying. But then the other part is an absolute nightmare, so you’re confused, you don’t know what’s right. All of that still weighs on me because I never got the opportunity to discover myself in that way."
Dating through high school and making a decision to "consensually lose your virginity to one another" are things she wishes she had experienced. "That sounds so beautiful to me. All of that was lost for me."
Her experiences even fed into her performance as Angela in American Beauty. "I knew how to play that role, because I was so schooled in it. ‘Oh, you want me to be sexually attractive?’ Done. I felt unavailable in a million other ways, but I knew how to play that card," she said.
Eventually she felt burdened by the many people who called on her to be a sexual being, including a female photographer who suggested she move her hair in a shot to bare her breast. "I just don’t know what the goal of that is. Just sell as much of yourself, as young as you are, for as long as you can?" she reflected. " don’t know what that message is. But, yeah, it felt very much like that: How sexy can you be?"
Though these realizations made the process of writing her book painful, Suvari said that the experience was cathartic in allowing herself to recognize the harm that had been done.
"I think the biggest thing is that, for me, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to consider a lot of these moments as abuse or trauma, because I always excused it. That’s a big part of survival — I had to learn how a lot of things served me then, and they don’t have to serve me any more," she said. "I feel like stuff never really goes away, you just garner a new perspective on it, and a new patience for myself and more compassion."
She's even acknowledged how removing her breast implants a few years ago and striving for a more vanity-free life has allowed her to leave the objectification she faced for so long behind.
"I never really wanted it. I feel like I can do my work more honestly," she said. "I feel a lot freer. Just more sure of myself."
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