Inside Charlize Theron's Tragic Real Life Story

In 2004, Charlize Theron became the envy of every woman in Hollywood when she was named Best Actress at the 76th Academy Awards, writing her name into the annals of film history with her harrowing performance as prostitute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. The statuesque South African blonde directly addressed her mother Gerda during her acceptance speech, and while most actors do tend to dedicate at least a fraction of their win to loving and supportive parents, rarely are they speaking as literally as Theron was when she talked of the sacrifices her mother made to get her to America. It might have all the ingredients of a Tinsel Town drama (illness, abuse, even murder) but sometimes fact is even crueller than fiction. It's time to get inside the tragic real life story of Charlize Theron.

​She was really sick as a child

To look at her today, you'd think Theron has always been the kind of woman who skates through life being beautiful, though for the first decade of her existence she considered herself to be quite the opposite. "My early childhood was quite devastating," the A-lister revealed (via The Sun). "I had no teeth until I was 11."

She had teeth at first, but they had to be removed on account of long-term illness. "I had these fangs because I had jaundice when I was a kid and I was put on so many antibiotics that my teeth rotted," she clarified. "They had to cut them out. So I never had milk teeth." This made her time at school harder, especially when it came to yearbook day. "That was tough, you know, being in school having photos taken while I was pretending I had teeth. It was hideous."

Her father was abusive

According to his daughter, Charles Jacobus Theron was a tall, big-bellied man who would subject both her and her mother to a torrid time after having too much to drink. "He was a verbal abuser," the actress said when she shared her memories and recollections of her father with ABC News, telling them he "could be very serious but loved to laugh as well, and enjoyed life. He also had a disease. He was an alcoholic."

It was his alcoholism that lead to an incident in June 1991 that would forever change the lives of the Theron family. After a night of heavy drinking, Charles and his brother set off for the Theron household, and when her aunt called ahead to warn that her drunken father was particularly agitated that evening, Charlize knew to expect the worst. "Nature gives you instinct," she said, "and I knew something bad was going to happen."

​Her mother murdered her father

"The terrible thing is that everybody in South Africa has a gun," Theron said when revisiting the horrific events that unfolded that night. According to her mother's testimony, Theron's drink-crazed dad shot the locked gate to their home open, then did the same to the kitchen door. Gerda told police that her husband began angrily banging on her 15 year old daughter's bedroom door (she had barricaded herself inside) shouting that he was going "kill them both with a shotgun." To show he meant business, Charles allegedly fired a shot through his daughter's door, which, according to Gerda, was the last straw. She pulled her own gun and shot him dead while wounding his brother.

In Theron's own statement to the authorities, she said that when she emerged from her room her mother explained what had happened, though she wouldn't fully process what she saw for some time. "I think, for me, it took a long time to sink in, what had really happened because you just don't think stuff like that will ever happen to you. You always think it happens to somebody else." When the dust had settled on the shooting, Theron was able to see that her mother had acted out of nothing but love. "I know that if my daughter was in the same situation, I would do the same thing," the Mad Max: Fury Road star said.

Bizarrely, the house became the scene of another grisly murder 21 years later when new owner Barry Newland was tortured to death by a gang of five sadistic intruders. The unlucky victim was burned with cigarettes and suffocated, according to a Daily Mail report.

​She left her mother in South Africa to face questioning alone

In the aftermath of the Theron family tragedy a number of question marks hung over Gerda—if her version of events was true, was she then justified in using deadly force against her inebriated husband? According to South African law, the answer is yes. The attorney general eventually ruled that Gerda had no choice but to fatally wound Charles, as clipping him would have given him a chance to retaliate and potentially murder his entire family. In the end she was never prosecuted, but while that was being decided and Gerda was faced with the prospect of a police investigation, she told her daughter to forget about that house and go out into the world to chase her dreams.

"For her to say 'Go, go make something of your life, go, go do something'—that was an extremely brave thing for her to do," the grateful star said of her mom. "Those are the sacrifices, you know, that I think you do for your children, and she always did that. She always put me first." It was a long time before Theron would reveal the way in which her father died, claiming he was killed in a car crash in her early interviews. "It was a way, at the time, of explaining his death," she said, addressing that fact that she had lied about it in the past. "I didn't want to go into the reasons or the event itself. I have now come to terms with that and have been able to move on."

​She fell into depression when she had to quit dancing

Acting wasn't Theron's dream line of work when she decided to take her mother's advice and head for the States, it was another of the performing arts she had her heart set on. "At 16, I won a modeling contest and moved to Milan," she told The New York Times. "Even though I was modeling, I always thought of myself as a dancer. I had the capability to be a bigger model than I was. They were always telling me, 'Lose five pounds and you'll be a supermodel.' But I saw modeling like waitressing—it was a way to pay for another career, and that career was dance."

Her dream of making it as a pro came crashing down for her in the exact place she had hoped it would take off—New York City. Theron was doing what she had to do, sleeping in a friend's basement so should could study at a nearby prestigious academy, though her body had other plans for her. "I spent a winter in New York in a friend's windowless basement apartment. I was broke, I was taking class at the Joffrey Ballet, and my knees gave out. I realized I couldn't dance anymore, and I went into a major depression."

In the end, it was Gerda who steadied the ship and set her daughter on a course for Hollywood. "Stop wallowing," her mother said (via Daily Mail) after hearing about her knees. "Figure it out. You like to tell stories, you like movies—try that."

She struggled to break onto the scene

Theron made the move to Los Angeles, but breaking into the movie business is tough, even if you look like her. The young starlet (whose first language is not English, let's remember) struggled to get an agent and was beginning to reconsider her movie to Tinsel Town when a chance encounter in a bank gave her the break she needed.

"My mother had sent me a cheque to help pay my rent and I was trying to cash it in a bank on Hollywood Boulevard," she explained to Indie London. "A clerk refused and I just went nuts. After the shouting was over, a man handed me his business card and told me to get in touch. I thought he was just another guy with bulls***, but he turned out to be a genuine talent manager called John Crosby. He introduced me to some casting agents."

Before long she had landed her first gig as Eli's follower in 1995's Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest and she won her first named part the following year, playing James Spader's blonde bombshell of a girlfriend Helga in black comedy 2 Days in the Valley. But even then she didn't really believe she would become a world renowned name. "I never thought that I would be particularly successful as an actress," she added. "I just wanted to earn a living."

She used her trauma to her advantage

After establishing herself as a genuine Hollywood star with her Oscar win, Theron was offered the chance to make a movie that touched on topics that were very important to her, one that would force her to relive some of her past traumas should she decide to take it. That film was of course Dark Places, the 2015 mystery thriller based on the novel by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn that didn't do very well at all with the critics, but was still a special project for the leading lady because she got to draw on real life experience.

"There's definitely an acknowledgement on my part that I had a very traumatic experience, an event in my life and somehow it's formed me," Theron told TF1 (via Us Weekly). "In the film, my character goes through this event when she's 8 years old, and it really is examining what a trauma like that would do to a child, especially when she's expected to speak about it. And that's definitely something that I can relate to, that's definitely something that I've experienced in my life. As far as events go, they're very similar. There's a murder mystery, and my situation was a very unfortunate incident with self-defense."

​Her aunt called her mother out as a liar

In 2008, South African true crime writer Chris Karsten released a book called Killer Women: Fatal South African Females. One of the cases he focused on was that of Theron's beloved mother Gerda Maritz, whom he suspected might not have been entirely truthful about the events of that tragic evening in 1991. The author claims that Theron's official police statement mysteriously "went missing" from her local station after she won her Academy Award, only resurfacing after Karsten went digging for it. His book is said to have infuriated Theron, particularly because it contains interviews with family members who had previously vowed to keep what happened between them.

Theron's aunt Elsa Malan told Karsten that her late brother was a "benign and mild-mannered man" who adored his wife and daughter and would never dream of raising a hand to them, never mind a firearm. "We want to set the record straight," Malan said (via Daily Mail). "All those perceptions that Charles was some kind of a monster at home were very hurtful to our family and everyone who knew him. He was a dedicated family man. His wife and daughter were the most important things in his life."

She went on to cast doubt on claims that her brother drank too much, painting Gerda as the problem in the marriage. "She could be testy and grumpy and never hesitated to speak her mind. Charles always knew when he overstepped the mark with her and then he would meekly try to patch things up. As for his so-called alcoholism, we all know that he loved his drink but I never saw him drunk."

​She's had a string of mental and physical health problems

Having your teeth rot and fall out as a child can't have been much fun, but Theron's battle with jaundice wasn't the last health issue that would take a heavy toll on her, far from it in fact. The Fate of the Furious star has been a long sufferer of obsessive compulsive disorder, which really messes with her head at times. "I have OCD, which is not fun," Theron revealed on Australian radio show Kyle and Jackie O (via ABC News). "I have to be incredibly tidy and organized or it messes with my mind and switches off on me."

The actress has discussed her "serious problem" with the disorder on a handful of occasions, admitting that what really keeps her awake at night are "cabinets being messy and people just shoving things in cabinets and closing the door. I will literally lie in bed and not be able to sleep because I'll be like, 'I think I saw something in that cabinet that just shouldn't be there,'" she is quoted as saying by Daily Mail.

Theron was also hospitalized after contracting "an unknown and serious virus" overseas. Believing she just had a bout of food poisoning, the South African beauty tried to ignore her symptoms, but as her stomach pains began to get unbearable she decided to call for help and was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. A report in the National Enquirer (via Fox News) confirmed that doctors kept her there for four days while they ran various tests but were unable to identify the foreign mystery virus.

She's had bad on-set injuries, too

Theron was almost paralyzed when a stunt she performed for 2004 sci-fi dud Aeon Flux went wrong and left a disc close to her spinal cord damaged. The South African was trying to pull off a sequence of back flips when she lost her balance and landed hard on her neck, leaving her in a bad way and shutting production of the film down for eight weeks. Doctors feared the injury would leave her with limited mobility in the future, though she recovered fully and is now rightfully cautious when it comes to stunt work.

"What I learned is that back then I was like, 'I'll do it! I'll do it! I'll do it!' and now I know there's a time and a place," she told Total Film (via StarPulse). "You have to be smart about it and I've definitely come to a place in my career where I would be the first to say, without feeling guilty or not badass enough, 'You know what? I don't need to do this.' It's wise because I felt guilty for shutting down a production 10 days into shooting for eight weeks. That injury scared me—I was almost paralyzed."

She later did permanent damage to her voice box while filming the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy novel The Road, rupturing vocal cords during the birth scene. Director John Hillcoat told her that he was going to dub over her labor pain noises with those from a real birth, which made Theron go all out to "prove a point" in the scene.

She had to adapt to becoming a single parent

After her decade long relationship with Irish actor Stuart Townsend came to an end, Theron found love again with long-time friend Sean Penn, though they didn't last. There were many reasons behind Penn and Theron calling it quits, though at the end of the day she already had a man in her life—her son Jackson. Just because her love life wasn't working out the way she wanted it to didn't mean she was going to forget about being a mother, though she was the first to admit it wasn't ideal, telling Elle Canada that nobody aspires to be a single parent.

The blonde stunner told the women's mag that she wasn't "trying to prove anything or become a symbol" by adopting children (she later added daughter August to the clan), insisting that things just worked out that way. "When you adopt, you have to do it unconditionally. I threw myself into the adoption process because I was convinced that I could fulfill the role of mother and give my children all the love and attention they need. No one aspires to become a single parent, but I learned a long time ago that you can't control everything in life. I have adapted to the situation because I am pragmatic."