By Mena Suvari
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The Great Peace is a harrowing, heartbreaking coming-of-age story set in Hollywood, in which young teenage model-turned-actor Mena Suvari lost herself to sex, drugs and bad, often abusive relationships even as blockbuster movies made her famous. It's about growing up in the 90s, with a soundtrack ranging from The Doors to Deee-Lite, fashion from denim to day-glo, and a sad young woman dealing with the lasting psychological scars of abuse, yet knowing deep inside she has and desires so much more from life.
Within these vulnerable pages, Mena not only reveals her own mistakes, but also the lessons she learned and her efforts to understand and grow rather than casting blame. As such, she makes this a timeless story of girl empowerment and redemption, of somebody using their voice to rediscover their past, seek redemption, and to understand their mistakes, and ultimately come to terms with their power as an individual to find a way and a will to live—and thrive. Poignant, intimate, and powerful, this book will resonate with anyone who has found themselves lost in the darkness, thinking there's no way out. Ultimately, Mena's story proves that, no matter how hopeless it may seem, there's always a light at the end.
The thoughts of the silent in heart,
Turning while wandering, then tearing apart.
Apart from the norm that used to be,
• Something that is routine to you and me.
Call to the skies that lie in the heavens above.
Raise your arms and offer your love.
Acceptance will then come to thee.
• Something that is routine to you and me.
Gaze upon the mirror of sea,
Submerge your thoughts for eternity.
The moonlight subjects to set one free,
• Something that is routine to you and me.
The gentle sways that move your soul,
Around and spinning ’till death takes its toll.
The shadow that appears, not hard to see,
• Is something that is routine to you and me.
Even before I arrived in this world, my ability has never been in doubt. One morning when my mother was newly pregnant with me but didn’t know it yet, she descended the stairs in our home in her stocking feet with the youngest of my three older brothers, a baby at the time, in her arms, she slipped and fell.
Rather than grab the rail to break her fall as she might have if solo, she clutched my brother tightly to her chest and submitted to the loss of balance and pull of gravity, rolling down the last few steps, before coming to a hard landing at the bottom. My brother was unscathed, but my mother was badly bruised and required a trip to the emergency room for good measure. According to X-rays, she had miraculously avoided breaking any bones.
Apparently she wasn’t out of the woods. At a party, weeks later, she started to hemorrhage and subsequently learned she was pregnant. She immediately questioned the doctor about the effect of the X-rays. She worried they had damaged the fetus, caused her to bleed, and endangered the viability of her pregnancy. She was sure she was losing the baby if she hadn’t already lost it.
The doctor reassured her everything was okay, and it was. I held on, and when I was born, on February 13, 1979, her doctor declared, “Well, she’s a little small, but she’s got everything. You got your girl.”
We lived in a beautiful, regal home built in 1870 off Ruggles Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. My parents moved into this grand residence shortly after the birth of my second-oldest brother. It included a ballroom and its own name, Hilltop. My father, a psychiatrist, was in his early sixties when I joined the family, and my mother, almost thirty years his junior, was a homemaker. I grew up thinking all of life was magical.
We lived on four acres of land. My brothers built a tree fort on one end of the property where we were surrounded by woods. We walked around all day picking blackberries, which we cleaned and smothered with cream later on and ate for dessert. I wanted to be an archeologist and I established a four-foot dig in a corner of the backyard, which I tended to every morning after breakfast. I collected all my treasures, mainly china, but also a real bullet. I glued these precious fragments together in an effort to re-create the lives and lifestyle of the families who had lived there before me.
I was most content when I was on my own and able to teach myself. My mother discovered that I could read one day when we were sitting in a dentist’s office waiting room and I picked up a book and started to read it. I was photographed on the first day of first grade at the New School holding a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins. There were moments when teachers weren’t sure “what to do with me,” as they said, because I finished my work so quickly. Since they didn’t want me “disrupting the rest of the class”—again, their words—I was sent to second grade for reading and other subjects.
My mother came to school one day and found they had sent me to the library to sit in an area they deemed “Mena’s Corner.” This was where I read and entertained myself while the rest of class went on. My mother was infuriated. People didn’t know what to do with me, so they set me aside in whatever way was most convenient.
Later, my mother said I’d been invited to join Mensa, but she held me back out of fear that being too smart would make me seem too different. Decisions like this backfired and ultimately made me feel separate from the crowd and never part of the norm, no matter how hard my mother encouraged me to “fit in.”
To that end, she got me into modeling. I became a client of a modeling agency in Boston and they created a “go-see” card for me. It included a cute little head shot. I worked right away on a regional commercial for a politician in Rhode Island, but once I lost my two front teeth, the agency put me on a hiatus.
Not a problem.
When I was eight years old, my parents wanted to move to a warmer climate and they chose St. John in the Virgin Islands. I went there with one of my brothers and my mother, who opened a tiny general store in town and supervised construction of our new home right on the bay. My father and my other two brothers stayed back to watch over Hilltop. My parents hired a tutor to teach me and my brother so we could keep up our studies, but she went rogue and my brother and I found ourselves not attending school for the year.
Somehow I convinced my mother to let me help her run her store, which she’d named Mena. I maintained it would provide enough education until we could find another option. I used my childhood cuteness to great effect on the tourists who wandered in during their strolls from their cruise ships. If not in the store, I explored the bay where we lived, collecting shells, swimming in the tide pools, and learning about all kinds of magnificent creatures I’d never seen. I stepped on so many sea urchins in the process of collecting shells that my father, at one point, said he wasn’t going to take them out of my feet for me anymore.
One of my favorite things to do with my brother was to walk along the reef to the hotel at the center of the bay and sneak in to use their pool. Around the pool area, they would serve little hors d’oeuvres and my brother and I spent hours hanging out there, pretending we were hotel guests and enjoying all of the luxuries. Acting came naturally, I guess. One day I was swimming in the pool when I saw a ginormous bow attached to the head of a beautiful woman. It was bright purple and I had never seen such glamour. Full of excitement and confidence, I swam over to her and as I got closer I said, “I know who you are!”
She asked, “What’s your name?” I told her, and then she smiled. “Well, now I know who you are.”
She was Whitney Houston, and she was as lovely as everyone ever said. It was an incredible moment, made more so by the struggles I later imagined she ultimately succumbed to, which were more real to me than I would have preferred.
Our house in St. John was perpetually under construction, progress being imperceptible for long stretches that first year. It turned out there was a reason. Our contractor was using the money my father sent him on drugs and partying. The attempt at island life a failure, we returned to Rhode Island and lived at Hilltop for a while longer. Then money issues caught up with us. The funds squandered in St. John combined with my father’s dwindling practice (he saw a few patients in our ballroom) and an unsuccessful attempt to sell Hilltop would eventually force us to move into a smaller residence in another part of town.
Like most kids, I possessed the resiliency and optimism of youth, something perhaps better called blissful ignorance. While in St. John, I had weathered news of the death back home of our beloved family dog, Jesse, who was poisoned by a neighbor, something I still hear about and that makes me wonder what kind of cruelty drives a human to such a dastardly action. Back at Hilltop, my brothers and I played in our yard and rode our bikes to the park, where we amused ourselves on the swings and slide. I befriended a girl who became jealous of another friend I made, and her older brother made a point of threatening and bullying me every time he saw me in the neighborhood.
One day, as I was riding back home from the market, they came upon me on a side street and cornered me. Her brother picked up the front wheel of my bike, which threw me off the back and onto the ground. As I got up, he slapped me across my face calling me a “rich bitch,” and proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike in the neighborhood anymore and if he saw me out, he would hurt me even more.
From then on, I was terrified to go out. I took long back routes to the market or anywhere else I had to go in order to avoid him.
It wasn’t enough. I was pedaling back from the market one afternoon and as I came back up to my street, I looked to my left toward the park and there they were: the brother with his friend on their respective ten-speeds. I knew I was done for. As they raced toward me, I pedaled as fast as I could and thought I might be able to make it home. But then the chain came off my bike. I couldn’t believe it.
I tried to coast. I was so damn scared of what they were going to do to me. They’d hit me before and promised worse the next time. I moved my body back and forth, trying to urge more momentum into the bike. Somehow I made it to our gravel driveway, swerving in just as they were about to catch me. Out of nowhere my brother appeared, the one just above me in age, and the other kids saw him, too. They turned around and rode away.
I was an emotional wreck. I told my brother all about the situation and not long after that day he did one of the most amazing brotherly things of my life. He got on his bike and rode with me to the neighborhood where the sister and brother lived, and we parked ourselves in front of those two creeps’ house and waited for them to see us. Without uttering a word, my brother let them know the jig was up. I remember the look on the bully brother’s face: astonishment, helplessness, and surrender. It was, indeed, over, but it was followed by a stern reminder I’d always heard from my father: “You ask for trouble, you get it.”
Soon after that confrontation, we moved to an apartment near the marina and then to a small home in another suburban neighborhood, where my brother and I cut down our own little Christmas trees for our bedrooms. At Hilltop we’d usually had a gigantic one for the whole family, but I think all the relocations and a slight awareness of my parents’ struggle to hang on to some kind of stability left me always trying to create a little world of my own that was safe and comfortable and filled with the wonder of my early childhood there.
Whether or not I was aware of it, forces much greater than me took me away from that place I was desperately trying to re-create, and more so as time went on, until it was a dot on the horizon that seemed like a dream rather than anything that had once been real. Good or bad, life was an inevitable sailing away from childhood. I just wish it had happened to me more gradually instead of through such forceful jolts.
NO ONE TOLD ME
After I finished fifth grade, we moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where I started middle school at Ashley Hall, an all-girls school steeped in Southern traditions. We had visited my brother at military school in Virginia Beach, and my parents had grown fond of the South during frequent trips to see my ailing grandmother. Before she passed away, they started looking for a place of our own. At first, we lived in a back guesthouse of a beautifully remodeled traditional Charleston house in the center of town.
But Charleston was a place rooted in tradition and history. And because I wasn’t from there and came from the North, I was instantly branded “the Yankee,” and it was easily decided that I wouldn’t fit in, no matter how hard I tried. I poured all of my energy into my studies because that was the one thing I could control and lose myself in. I spent a lot of time with myself, riding my bike around to see the few friends I did make, including a new girl who came midyear and said, “I’m glad we’re friends, because when I first came here, everyone told me not to be friends with you.”
I felt pretty lost and such pressure to fit into a box I couldn’t squeeze into. I wanted to be expressive and weird, but I felt I needed to shop at the Gap and Express in order to be accepted. My mother even decorated my room in all Laura Ashley, and I hated it. I felt stifled. I was never the frilly, delicate girl everyone expected and wanted me to be. But I learned to pretend and play the game. I made one good friend while I was there, a girl named Jennie. One day I invited her to sit next to me in class and we became fast friends who remain close to this day.
I have no explanation why that was, but I was grateful. Jennie was fun and sweet and smart. She knew everyone in Charleston and helped me feel less alone. I feel like she gave me a safe space to be myself and I probably helped her express her wilder, more adventurous side. Her family and their beautiful home downtown reminded me of Hilltop and confirmed my belief that such places were real and possible.
Jennie and I became best friends and soon developed a shared passion for the film Beaches. We sang and danced to the songs in the movie, convinced we were just like the two characters with their intensely deep expressions of love and friendship. She was the first of the many friends I would have whose home lives replaced things lacking in my own.
Around this same time I met my middle brother’s friend Kenny James Thorn. We were living downtown, in our back guesthouse off Queen Street, and KJ, as he was known, was frequently there, hanging out with my brother. He was my brother’s age—about three years older than me—and in high school. I might have been one of the reasons he was at our house. I don’t know why he would have been attracted to someone so much younger, but he was, and though it might have annoyed my brother, I didn’t mind the attention.
My first hint that he liked me came one night when the three of us were alone at the house. My mother and everyone else had gone out. It was late, and I had said goodnight to the boys and gone to bed. I don’t know how long I had been asleep before I was jolted awake to the sound of the Police’s song “Roxanne” blasting from my brother’s room. It was so loud the speakers might as well have been in my room. Then they burst into my room like naughty pranksters, and the next thing I knew KJ hopped up on my bed and hovered over me.
It was typical adolescent behavior and not that far removed from the way my first so-called boyfriend in grade school let me know he liked me with a sharp kick. He always picked on me, and I hated him for it so much that he became my first kiss.
KJ would be different, very different, in the sense that his “kick” ripped whatever was left of my childhood from me and put it out of reach forever.
I was approaching the end of my twelfth year. We were living downtown while my family built a home in a new subdivision on a lake. It was a busy, consuming time for my parents, who made frequent trips back and forth to check on the work. One morning I woke up in our guesthouse and realized I had started to bleed. It wasn’t much at first and I wasn’t too alarmed, but I had no idea what was happening since my parents had never spoken to me about the changes I would experience as I began adolescence and my body matured.
However, as the day went on, the flow of blood coming out of me got redder and redder and more and more. Alarmed and afraid, I went into my mother’s room. With tears pouring out of my eyes, I told her what was happening and said I thought I was dying. I wish I could say she consoled me and offered comforting, positive reinforcement about becoming a woman and the power and responsibility that went along with that amazing transformation. But she didn’t, and I don’t know why. Instead, we had a brief, awkward conversation, and I was told to expect more of the same every month.
Needing to look elsewhere for the warmth I craved, I found KJ ready and waiting. He had started writing me love letters that spoke of his deep affection for me. In these letters, he described in great detail what he saw in me and what he loved about me and how much he wanted to be with me. He was clearly obsessed, but it was the kind of attention I wanted as I took this new step into womanhood feeling disappointed in my mother and uncertain and alone.
Here was this guy who thought about my hair, went to sleep thinking about my eyes, woke up hoping to see my smile, and felt like his day was always better if he got even a short glimpse of me. What young, insecure girl wouldn’t respond to such positive attention from a boy, and an older one at that? How could I resist?
“I DON’T WANT TO DO THAT!”
KJ called me every day or came over to our house, or both. No one stopped him from being alone with me in my bedroom. No one cautioned me. No one inquired when he became more my friend than my brother’s. No one asked what we talked about or what we did together all day. I was always left to my own devices. Even as a small child, I never had a curfew. As I got older, my parents never asked where I was going or who I spent time with. They never peeked in on me and KJ or told me to leave the door open.
Then the new house was completed and we moved in. It was grand and painted canary yellow. My room had its own balcony overlooking the lake and beyond, which was where KJ lived with his parents. They were directly across from us, on the other side of the lake, and had been living there for many years. They had a small white paddleboat. Sometimes KJ took me out on the boat and we pedaled around the lake, where he inevitably steered us out of view and tried to kiss me.
At first I resisted. I wasn’t ready the way he was, and I was a little scared, but his persistence and insistence that I was ready (he said he could tell) wore me down until I kissed him back. It began a pattern.
Every day KJ professed his love in some way or another, and I came to trust him as a best friend, protector, and boyfriend, though I was still of the age when I thought of him more as a friend who was a boy than my first steady boyfriend. I was naive and still a kid, almost thirteen but not quite, and caught up and confused by the changes I was experiencing.
I loved to rollerblade. But always geared up with every kind of protective pad imaginable, to the point that I looked like a wild derby queen in pink and purple as I flew through the neighborhood. One day KJ was with me. I was wearing my favorite rollerblading outfit, a T-shirt and cutoff jean shorts that were frayed at the hem and fell sort of mid-thigh, not even close to the short shorts that some of the other girls wore.
I was self-conscious about my body. I was curvy for my age, and my brothers taunted me by calling me “big butt.” I developed hips and thighs early on, and I hated it. I felt like I could never wear the types of things that other girls were wearing, because they never fit me the way I wanted. I didn’t want the cellulite on my thighs to show. That was all I saw when I looked in the mirror, and I was sure that was all everyone else saw, too.
Except for KJ. As we caught our breath on a curb, he sat across from me and touched me. First his hand was on my knee. Then it moved up to my thighs. And as he slowly continued to move his hand up my leg, he said, “You’re so hairy.”
As with any body-conscious young woman, the smallest comment always had the biggest, longest-lasting effect on me, and later on I found myself locked in my bathroom, shaving the baby blonde hair from my legs and the more tender area farther up. KJ probably never again thought about the remark he made to me. Why would he? I was smooth from then on.
But it made a deep and lasting impression on me and left me feeling at this terribly vulnerable time in my life that I was somehow unacceptable and undesirable and needed to change myself, even this most intimate, personal area, in order to be better and more desirable, as if I even knew what that meant.
What I did know, though, was KJ gave me attention and I was willing to do anything I could to get it.
At home, the loudest voices at the dinner table were those that got heard, and I remember many times when my brothers and parents were talking and I wanted to add something to the conversation. But every time I tried to interject a comment, my voice felt too small and went unheard. Only after I gave up did someone finally ask, “What is it, Mena?”
By then, I was done and shook my head, defeated.
“Nothing,” I said.
But KJ was always interested in me. Even if he was mostly interested in my body, I told myself that was okay. That was still me and it was better than being ignored.
I don’t know where KJ’s parents were this one day when we were at his house making out on the living room couch, like we had done many times previously. As always, he played with me and took it as far as we had gone before and then a little bit further. By this point, he had gone down on me, more interested, I think, in satisfying his own curiosity than pleasing me. I had not reciprocated, which he’d seemed okay with up until now. This time he sat back on the ottoman and pulled out a condom.
“I don’t want to do that,” I said, fearfully but with unmistakable clarity.
I don’t want to do that.
I was fine to continue what we were doing, but not that, not all the way, not yet. I was about a month shy of my thirteenth birthday and didn’t feel ready for that. KJ put the condom away, with a dejected “Okay,” and I was relieved. I had been clear, and it seemed that he had understood and could be trusted to respect that limit. He had pledged his love to me for most of the year, so why would I think otherwise?
After making out a little longer, he persuaded me to follow him up to the guest room above their garage. He wanted to get out of the living room to someplace more private. The guest room was large enough for a bed and a bathroom, like a hotel room. I agreed, thinking we were going to continue what we had been doing in the house, with the same understanding. However, after a few minutes of kissing on the bed, he took out the condom again. Like before, I said no—and I said it with a tinge of fear, because I sensed something was different.
I was right, too. This time, sequestered in this small room away from the large house, with the door locked and no one likely to hear us, he didn’t say okay. Instead, he kept showing me the condom, talking to me about what he wanted, and pressuring me to acquiesce, kissing me, touching me, all the while pressing his weight on top of me, until I felt trapped, suffocated, unsure of what to do, and scared, very scared.
I didn’t understand why he wasn’t listening to me.
Was I going to have to fight him?
Should I run?
I saw him put on the condom and felt my heart sink into a dark abyss. And just like at the dining table back home, my voice disappeared. No matter how many times I said, “No, I don’t want to do that,” and implored him not to do it, he didn’t hear me.
I shut my eyes, and when I opened them again, KJ was climbing off me and walking into the bathroom to take off the condom.
I turned over onto my side, facing away from him, and cried.
So full of shame and fear.
So absolutely terrified that I could be pregnant, because I really didn’t know the first thing about sex except that I would never be the same. I wished it hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been ready. I was too young to even know what being ready was; I hadn’t wanted to do it. And now it was too late. My virginity was gone. Stolen. The most precious part of me was taken from me by this person against my will. He had satisfied his own desire. Countless times he had professed to love me, but would he have done that against my will if he truly meant it?
I went into instant survival mode. I told myself everything was okay, that he really did love me, and maybe I… No, I didn’t love him. And I was no longer sure he loved me. He didn’t even look at me. He didn’t notice my tears or hear me cry. He didn’t see me curled up on the bed. How could he have seen me, though? Yes, my body was present. But the rest of me was gone, fleeing through the dark, looking for a safe place to hide, to think, to cry, to recover, to eventually shut down the emotions and tell myself that this was normal and I would be all right.
I never was all right again, because in that moment I became what I believed I had allowed to happen to me.
KJ took me up to that guest room above his garage a few more times. Each time, he put me on top and thrust into me while laughingly calling out, “Speed bump!” His love letters had stopped coming. In this new dynamic, he was, in fact, the only one coming and I was simply the vehicle helping that happen for him.
Then I got a bladder infection. I had never had one before, so the symptoms were strange and serious, though it’s common for women to get one after having sex for the first time or even with a new sexual partner. I was taken to the doctor for remedy, and after receiving treatment for the infection, I was also given birth control pills. Medicate the physical problem, ignore the emotional scars.
I can’t imagine the difference it would have made in my life if someone had asked me how I was doing and what was going on. Where had I been? Was I okay? Did something happen? Did you have sex? Are you okay with that? Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about the risks of pregnancy, what those birth control pills mean, and where you see this relationship going. All I got was a doctor writing on his prescription pad.
“Here’s some medication to cure that bladder infection. And we’re going to put you on birth control, too.”
Welcome to womanhood.
I expected KJ to do something special for my thirteenth birthday, as well as Valentine’s Day, which was the next day. It was a milestone birthday, and spending the day with me seemed appropriate and as much as I wanted and hoped for. I even missed his touch. But I found myself alone on both days. I didn’t hear from him on my birthday, which was painful, and when he did see me the next day, instead of a happy Valentine’s Day and an apology for missing my first day as a teenager, he said he had spent the day with a friend from high school, a girl who he had occasionally mentioned as his best friend.
Which made me what?
I didn’t have to ask. After giving me Pearl Jam’s new CD Ten as a birthday gift, KJ said, “I have something else to tell you.”
“What?” I asked.
“I’m breaking up with you,” he said.
- On Sale
- Jul 26, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Books