Viola Davis Opens Up About Bullying, Trauma in New Memoir: I Was 'Hiding a Huge Part of My Story'

The First Lady star's new memoir, Finding Me, will be released April 26

Viola Davis has never been afraid to live her truth.

The Tony, Oscar and Emmy winner, 56, grew up in deep poverty with her parents and five siblings. "People are constantly asking, 'So how did you get from Central Falls, R.I.? Oh, you grew up poor? Really?' And then you start your story," she tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story. "And you'd say it again and again."

While Davis' parents struggled to make ends meet for the family, she endured trauma and heartbreak: living in a dilapidated, condemned building infested with rats; dumpster-diving among maggots for food; reeking of urine at school because she had wet the bed and the family had no clean laundry; incessant bullying by boys who threw rocks at her for being Black.

For more on PEOPLE's cover story with Viola Davis, listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.

And then there was the physical and emotional abuse her alcoholic father inflicted on her mother, as well as the sexual abuse she and her oldest sisters survived. Yet Davis insists: "I count it all as joy. I do," she says. "All of those things happened to me, but I own it. And it's a part of who I am."

Viola Davis Cover Rollout
Peggy Sirota

In her new memoir Finding Me, Davis, now married to her husband of almost 19 years, actor Julius Tennon, 68, and mom to their daughter Genesis, 11, offers vivid details about her journey out of poverty.

"Everything I've experienced is what connects me to the world. It's given me an extraordinary sense of compassion. It's reconciling that young girl in me and healing from the past — and finding a home," she says.

Viola Davis Cover Rollout
Peggy Sirota

The actress admits she had "an enormous existential crisis" before deciding to write her memoir.

"I always thought acting defined my life, and it doesn't," she says. "What people in the world tell you is that if you find that thing that you do, that you are great at, then that's it. And you have money in the bank, and you have a house, and you have a cute husband, and he loves you and your kid, that's it. And it's not."

"I was still hiding a huge part of my story," she adds. "It's almost like I reinvented all the things that I wanted to and tossed away the rest of it. You know when you look at pictures down memory lane, and you see it differently. I'm looking at little Viola, and I see how strong she was and how she was just a spitfire. I think that's why I wrote the book, that if I somehow explored it, unpacked those memories, resolving them, that somehow I could find my peace."

Genesis Tennon and Viola Davis
Viola Davis/Instagram

Finishing the book made the actress feel "terrified but great," says Davis, who next stars in and exec-produces the Showtime series The First Lady.

"That's what happens when you just go out on the limb, and you live your truth, is that you risk exposure. You risk shame. You risk criticism. But boy, there is absolutely no other way to live."

Finding Me will be released on April 26.

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