Mena Suvari on surviving sexual abuse in her teens: ‘I didn’t know how to say I was raped’

In 1999, Mena Suvari became a household name after taking on the role of Heather in American Pie. Her character was a good girl who followed the rules, but behind the scenes, Suvari was struggling to keep her life on track.

In her new memoir, The Great Peace, Suvari opens up about her past experiences with sexual abuse and drug use that started as a teen. In its opening pages, she reveals to readers that she found a suicide note that she had written at the age of 16.

“It was strange because upon looking back, I knew that my life only got worse after that. So that was a little upsetting,” Suvari tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And I'm only grateful that that was just a note that lived in the back of my diary.”

Mena Suvari attends the premiere for
Mena Suvari pictured in 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni) (Mario Anzuoni / reuters)

Through vulnerable and honest stories, Suvari, 42, shares what life was like growing up in Rhode Island with her parents and three older brothers. Her early days were charmed in many ways, until, she writes, that a friend’s brother “stole her virginity.” She was just 12 years old when the rape occurred.

“I only share because it was important for me to share. This is how I saw it. I was the other person in the room, and that was important for me to have out there. I feel like that was truly when things set their course into disconnect fight and survival,” says Suvari.

At 15, Suvari moved to Los Angeles to pursue modeling and acting. She writes about how people commented on how she looked older than her age, but she also found herself catching the attention of older men who at times preyed on her vulnerability.

“I talk about moving to Los Angeles and meeting a man who's no more than 11 years older than me. I'm 15, he’s 26 and I'm somehow in his apartment and he's kissing me and that's OK. And I didn't tell anyone. No one was really asking, but I didn't think that that was important. I just thought that that was part of it ... it was part of my job,” says Suvari.

Actress Mena Suvari comes to terms with past sexual abuse, drug use, growing up in Hollywood and how those experiences helped her reclaim her power in her new memoir, ” The Great Peace.”
Mena Suvari's new memoir, The Great Peace. (Photo: Hachette Books)

She soon started a relationship with a man named Tyler, who would encourage risky behavior and, as a result, damage her self worth. For years, Suvari says she self-medicated with drugs, beginning with alcohol and marijuana and progressing to meth (which she would snort in her high school bathroom) to cope with his sex addiction and controlling behavior.

At 18, when she booked the role of Heather on American Pie, it provided a routine escape from Tyler and his daily abuse.

“Work saved my life in a lot of ways because it gave me that release. It gave me that outlet,” says Suvari. “I mean, everyone was wonderful. It was incredible. I always said that I felt like working on American Pie gave me my high school experience.”

While choirgirl Heather was a departure from Suvari’s personal life, her subseqent role, as Angela in American Beauty, also release in 1999, allowed her to dig into the complex inner world of a teen girl who uses sex appeal to get attention. Suvari writes that she instantly understood the assignment.

“Because I'd already been living in that life more than once. I learned how to play that card…you want me to be sexy? Oh, you want me to flirt with an older man? I know that dynamic,” says Suvari.

On the set of American Beauty, Suvari was preparing to shoot a scene with Kevin Spacey, she recalls, when he suggested they prepare alone. In a small room, the two lay on a bed with Spacey holding her in his arms. In the book, Suvari writes that nothing sexual occurred, but that the moment was “strange and eerie.”

“When I talk about that moment, my focus is to show that it was just another moment where I ended up in a room as a young woman with an older man, and I was comfortable with that. I was okay with that,” she says.

“And that's my biggest question. ... Why was it that I ended up in these rooms so casually and comfortably with older men, at so many different moments?” says Suvari. “I didn't necessarily feel empowered.”

As the #MeToo movement gained steam in 2017, Suvari reveals that it helped her to process her own experiences in a new light. “For sure that influenced me into feeling that I have the right to talk about what I wanted to talk about, because all I’d been doing is just sort of excusing it away,” says Suvari. "I thought I was alone and I didn’t think I had any other options. I didn’t think anyone would really care and nobody was really listening anyway, so why talk about it?

“I didn’t know how to say I was raped. I didn’t know if I could say it that way because I didn’t end up in a hospital. So I lived with that for so long," she reveals.

In The Great Peace, Suvari opens up about her two previous marriages and why they ended. She also shares how she met and fell in love with her husband, Mike Hope, and the healing work she’s done to reclaim her power. One person noticeably missing from the book is the new man in her life, her son Christopher.

“I ironically enough found out I was pregnant after I finished writing, which is so strange. And it's really been a process of incorporation for me, because I'd come to believe that I would never have those things in my life. And so now I do, and it's incredible,” says Suvari.

Today, when Suvari thinks about that note she wrote at 16, she's proud of the fact that she continued to fight. Though reliving certain periods of her life has been painful, Suvari says she is proud to share her story in hopes of empowering others who feel like no one is listening.

“What’s important about this existence is to communicate with one another to hopefully inspire one another to grow, learn from one another. And you know, none of that is going to happen if we all stay silent,” says Suvari.

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