As a comedian, Tom Arnold has entertained audiences for two decades. But his latest role, playing a pedophile in the movie Gardens of the Night, was more than a risky career move; it was a tough personal choice. From age 4 to 7, while growing up in Iowa, Arnold says he was sexually abused by a male babysitter. Now, in an effort to close the door on his past and help others, Arnold, 49, opens up to PEOPLE’s Ulrica Wihlborg.
My mom left my family when I was 4. Shortly before that, she started leaving me with a 19-year-old babysitter in our town. The first time I was left alone with him, he led me into the coat closet in his house, locked the door and asked me to play a game with him. I remember it being weird, but at that age I didn’t know what sex meant. He turned violent if I didn’t play the game right or if I didn’t seem to like it. I had to learn it by heart, because he played the same game with me for the next three years, three or four times a week. I could hear his mom in the kitchen, and I had to stay quiet or he would hurt me. The payoff was a giant candy bar. I wasn’t allowed candy at home, so I kept it a secret from my dad. I felt ashamed that I took the candy and ashamed that I was afraid of him. When I was 7, it stopped. I remember he moved away. What happened was violent and humiliating. I never questioned my sexuality; I had crushes on girls every summer at camp. I didn’t realize I’d been sexually abused until I was 13, when my stepmom gave me a sex-education book. I was very naive for my age and didn’t know what sex was. I never wanted a book more in my life. The day the book arrived I was so excited. Finally the mystery was to be revealed. As soon as I opened the book, I just knew. What he did wasn’t in the book, but I knew I’d had sex and I didn’t even realize it. I felt tricked and angry.
As a teenager, Arnold began experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and his substance-abuse problem lasted 16 years. He entered rehab in December 1989, a month before he married his first wife, sitcom star Roseanne Barr.
I’d used drugs and alcohol to deal with everything in my life since I was 14. The last week of rehab, we had to give an account of our sexual history. In my memory, the guy was only a few years older than me. When my counselor said, ‘You were 5 and you had a 7-year-old babysitter?’ I suddenly remembered he had a man’s body. I felt stupid, angry and scared. And I knew I had to find him.
Fifteen months later, with the help of a private investigator, Arnold found the man and confronted him at his office.
He put his finger sharply on my chest and for a second I was 4 years old again. I smelled that room, I saw the violence and I heard the threats. I got truly scared. But then I remembered I was no longer a kid, I was a 6’2″, 250-lb. man. I bent back his hand and said, ‘If you ever touch me again I will break your f—ing neck.’ Coming out of his office, I felt pure joy. It took all those years, but I stood up for myself when I was young. I came back and I got him. At the time, I thought I’d dealt with it and put it behind me. But then this movie came along. The decision to play this person who had caused me so much pain, and to dress exactly like him, was tough. But I wanted to show a pedophile that you would let your kids get in the car with. Because I can personally promise you they exist. Of all the things I’ve gone through in life, this is the one thing that has caused me the most pain for the longest amount of time. The hurt is much more than physical. You’re only young once, and there are these special moments, like the first time you fall in love or your first kiss, that should be beautiful and awkward and mystical. But I like for kids who have had similar experiences to know it does get better. You can make peace with things that have happened to you. I know my way of dealing with it is unusual, but I also know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.