"I don't think I ever felt safe as a child," Tyler Perry tells PEOPLE

By Gillian Telling
October 02, 2019 08:00 AM
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Credit: Mike Smith/NBC/Getty

Tyler Perry is one of Hollywood’s most successful and inspiring moguls, with an empire worth more than $1 billion — including his own 330-acre movie and TV production studio in Atlanta. But before he could create his most famous character, Madea, Perry had to overcome a childhood marked by abuse, trauma and depression—and eventually forgive the man who caused that pain, his father. “Holding on was hurting me more than him,” he says.

In the newest issue of PEOPLE, the writer, director, actor and producer, 50, opens up about surviving his brutal childhood and how his determination, faith and creativity led him to success. He recalls how when things got really bad at home, he’d hide under the front porch of his house and let his imagination transport him to a world without fear. “I could escape and be somewhere else,” he says.

For more from Tyler Perry, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.

The New Orleans-raised Perry’s late mother, Maxine (who would later help inspire Madea), was married to Emmitt Perry, a construction contractor. Emmitt, says Tyler, was an abusive alcoholic who once beat Tyler so severely with a vacuum cord that it ripped the skin off his back. (Emmitt Perry could not be reached for comment.)

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Tyler Perry, streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

“I don’t think I ever felt safe or protected as a child,” Perry tells PEOPLE.

His mother once tried to leave her husband, but the situation was complicated. “He had a job and was a provider,” Perry says.

Credit: Shayan Asgharnia

Physical abuse wasn’t the only horrific part of Perry’s childhood. He also says he was sexually abused by three different men and a woman, all family acquaintances, by the time he was 10 years old. “It was rape,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going on or the far-reaching effects of it. I just moved through it.” At the time, he adds, he believed “Boys don’t cry, shut up and move on.”

His mother took him to church and opened him up to a world of deep religious faith. “I’m so grateful for that,” he says. “If I wouldn’t have had that, I don’t know where I’d be. That was our North Star, the Bible, faith, church.”

Perry and his mother remained extremely close until her death in 2009 from complications of diabetes. “Sometimes I wake up from crying because I miss her so much,” he says.

His relationship with his father was a different situation. Perry found out when he was 41 that Emmitt was not his biological father. Perry now supports him financially, though they don’t have any other relationship — and he has forgiven his father.

“[It took] a tremendous amount of prayer,” Perry says. “But the biggest thing that helped me understand it is that me holding on to what I was holding on to wasn’t hurting him…but it was killing me.”

Since forgiving his dad, Perry says he’s felt a burden lift. “I’m telling you, the shift and forgiveness in me left me raw because it was a weight inside,” he says. “Once I let it go, I literally felt lighter inside.”

Perry says that he decided to follow a more positive path.

“I chose to be as positive and inspirational and I can, because I don’t want to feel that again.”