The Truth About Tyler Perry's Tragic Childhood

Tyler Perry is perhaps best known for his iconic character, Madea. The sassy, rambunctious grandmother and star of the Madea movie series was Perry's creation and was also played by the 51-year-old actor. But while Perry's countless Madea movies may be the hallmark of his career, he's created a fortune doing much more than just that. The actor is also a producer, screenwriter, and director and has dabbled in television series as well as plays and other movies. And his Atlanta-based Tyler Perry Studios is rewriting what it means to create and consume movies. All in all, Perry's empire has earned him a net worth of approximately $800 million and even landed him in the history books as the first Black person to individually receive the prestigious Emmy Governors Award.

But behind his wildly successful career — one that has made Perry one of the industry's highest-paid men, according to Forbes – is also a tragic backstory.

A history of physical and emotional trauma

Tyler Perry, forever branded as the unforgettable Madea, has hardly had it easy in life. As a child, Perry endured physical abuse from his father, who also played "mind games" and called him names, and sexual abuse from his other family members, according to a conversation he had with Oprah Winfrey. "[It was] a living hell," Perry told Oprah. "I feel like I died as a child." To escape from it all, Perry recalls using his imagination. "I could go to this park [in my mind] that my mother and my aunt had taken me to. ... I'm there in this park running and playing, and it was such a good day," he says. "So, every time somebody was doing something to me that was horrible, that was awful, I could go to this park in my mind until it was over."

The beatings from his father came in different forms, with Perry even recalling one instance where his father used a vacuum cord. "To this day, I don't know why he did it," Tyler says. "When he fell asleep, I ran to my aunt's house, and she was mortified when she saw it." Perry's aunt confronted his father, who is still alive, with a gun. "I knew that [Perry] couldn't stay there with him," his aunt said. "And [his mother] took him everywhere with her after that." But not before Perry attempted suicide.

Perry was sexually abused before ten years old

In addition to the physical and emotional scars left by his father, Tyler Perry also survived instances of child molestation, according to his recollection during an interview with Oprah. The actor had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of three different men and one woman by the tender age of ten years old. Tyler said the traumatic experience left him confused sexually in the long-term. "How could it not?" he said. "I knew I liked the little girls in the neighborhood, but this man was doing something to me and my body kept betraying me." 

Even decades later, Perry still has triggers from his past. "All of these people had given me something to carry," Tyler says. "I think that everyone who's been abused, there is a string to the puppet master, and they're holding you hostage to your behaviors and what you do. At some point, you have to be responsible for them." 

Tyler Perry's road to recovery and forgiveness

Tyler Perry says that despite enduring so much, he couldn't come clean to the world until his mother, Willy Maxine Perry, passed away. "She suffered so much horror in her life — surviving breast cancer, the abuse from my father, the belittling, the beatings. And I just could not be a source of pain," he said about why he chose to stay quiet until the time was right. "I knew if I spoke about this, that she would be hurt. So I didn't. ... I feel this tremendous sense of, 'Now it's time for me to take care of me and get some of this stuff out of me and be free from it.'"

And despite Perry's traumatic history with his father, the successful actor has forgiven him, buying him a mansion in Louisiana and even sending him a monthly paycheck. But still, his father has shown no remorse for his actions. "He sends a message through my brother saying, 'If I had beat your a** one more time, you probably would have been Barack Obama,'" Perry said. 

As for the sexual abuse, Perry has worked on undoing the damage others have caused. "What I started to do is untie the strings and chase them down to where they came from," Perry said. "And I was able to free myself and understand that even though these things happened to me, it was not me."

Perry faced more struggles achieving his dream

Tyler Perry also endured hard times later in life, as an adult. In fact, the self-made actor and producer once lived out of his car, a Geo Metro, according to an Instagram post. "After leaving my job, trying to do my play and it not working out, I had nothing. I was so broke and hungry I couldn't afford rent," Perry recalled. "I ended up homeless and sleeping in [the car]" He said that while his dream stayed strong, he was still "heartbroken." "I knew that my plays could work, but nothing I did was having any success. After another failed attempt at getting the play off the ground, I got a job," he said. But when Perry returned from collecting his paycheck, he discovered that even his car was gone.

"It had been repossessed. I was devastated," Perry said. "All I owned was in the car." 

The tides finally turned when a play Perry had written, I Know I've Been Changed, attracted viewers in droves. The production, which was about two adult survivors of child abuse and the power of religious faith, toured exclusively from 1998 to 2000 and featured Perry as the main character. Eventually, Perry transitioned into movie production after a groundbreaking deal with Lionsgate, and the rest is history.