Growing up in a crime-riddled neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C., wasn’t easy for Taraji P. Henson.
When she was about 4 years old, “my father dragged my mother by her hair into his car while threatening to kill her,” the actress, 46, writes in her new memoir, Around the Way Girl.
Her mother, Bernice Gordon, divorced her husband, Boris Henson, and raised the future Empire star as a single mom.
“She never gave up, she always persevered,” the actress says in the current issue of PEOPLE. “I knew she was upset about living from check to check, but we were never in danger of being kicked out. There was always, always food on the table.”
Despite the divorce, Henson says she was shielded from the true dynamic of her parents’ relationship and that her father — a Vietnam veteran who died in 2006 at the age of 58 after battling liver cancer — was a constant and positive presence throughout her childhood.
It wasn’t until she was much older that he opened up to her about his abuse toward her mom. “Kudos to my dad for saying, ‘Look, I’m flawed. I did this. It was wrong. I apologize,’ ” she says. “He told me, ‘I hope you never, ever, have to go through that.’ But that’s what happened anyway.”
- For more on Taraji P. Henson – including how she went on to struggle as black single mom in Los Angeles before conquering Hollywood – pick up the lasted issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Henson was 17 when she first met Mark Johnson in the lobby of a movie theater in 1987. “He had a smile that lit up the room,” she says. “He was a good guy with a good heart. You could count on him.” The two were in “puppy love” and dated off and on for years while Henson attended college, eventually majoring in theater at Howard University.
“He made me laugh,” she says.
But shortly after she gave birth to their son Marcell, now 22, in 1994, the laughter gave way to heated screaming matches.
One day after he was late returning home, the two began yelling at each other.
“The next thing I knew, Mark’s balled-up fist was coming straight for my face,” Henson writes of the blow that he delivered. “I pulled my hand from my mouth and looked at the blood on my trembling finger.”
The actress credits her own dad’s honesty with her for giving her “the strength” to demand that Johnson pack his bags and leave.
“I said, ‘You know what? I don’t have to do this — and I don’t have to hate you for it,’ ” says Henson, who allowed Johnson to remain a part of Marcell’s life. “If [my father] had hidden what he’d done and tried to pretend he was perfect, maybe we wouldn’t have had the conversations we’d had, I wouldn’t have had the strength to walk away.”
Around the Way Girl is on sale now, and Empire airs Wednesdays (9 p.m. ET) on Fox.