The image of her in American Beauty — a naked, ivory-skinned, blonde teenager, smiling knowingly at the desire she is provoking as she lies on a bed of rose petals — is as unsettling as it is iconic.
It is surely as powerful a depiction of forbidden lust as has ever been committed to film.
But behind the striking pose by actress Mena Suvari lies a story every bit as disturbing according to her new memoir, one of the most extraordinary and depressing to have emerged from Hollywood.
In The Great Peace, published this week, she reveals that by the time the Oscar-winning film was released, she had survived eight years of physical and sexual abuse — an horrific ordeal which she says destroyed her life for decades afterwards.
She details what happened to her with a frankness so unsparing that it makes deeply uncomfortable reading. It was, she says, ‘my secret world of embarrassment, shame and guilt’.
Suvari, 42, says she was raped aged 12 by her 16-year-old boyfriend, who went on to give her a bladder infection and dump her the day after her 13th birthday.
At 16, her acting manager, who was in his 30s, was having sex and smoking pot with her.
The image of her in American Beauty — a naked, ivory-skinned, blonde teenager, smiling knowingly at the desire she is provoking as she lies on a bed of rose petals — is as unsettling as it is iconic
That was the year she wrote a suicide note.
A subsequent boyfriend encouraged her descent into daily drug abuse and gave her herpes.
He would take her shopping for sex toys and when he insisted she used them it made her feel ‘violated’ and ‘dead inside’.
He also forced her to pick up other women for threesomes on a regular basis.
Much of this was going on when she played teenager Angela Hayes on screen in American Beauty, which came out in 1999. She said that going on set, where she was treated with politeness and respect by British director Sam Mendes and his crew, offered her a holiday from her intolerable life. At the time she was just 19.
‘The whole time I worked on American Beauty I was grinding on empty: working to perfect my part, submitting to [my boyfriend] Tyler’s demands for kinky threesomes at least three or four times a week, and pretending in both cases that everything was okay.
‘Except it wasn’t.’
Despite her starring role in the film alongside the now disgraced Kevin Spacey, Suvari says she never actually wanted to act, and should have had some other career such as astronaut or archaeologist — although in High School she did not get the grades because she was drinking and taking drugs at break times.
It did not start like this. She was born into a wealthy family in Rhode Island, when her father Ando, an Estonian psychiatrist, was in his early 60s and her mother Candice 30 years younger.
By her own account, she was a prodigy at junior school who taught herself to read and was so ahead of the class that she was given ‘Mena’s corner’ in the library so that she could teach herself while the rest plodded along. She was also a great beauty, she says immodestly. Indeed, she claims her looks set her apart from the crowd and meant she had few friends.
One person who did take an interest in her, however, was a friend of her brother’s who was three years older than her. This was after the family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and she was only 12. He started writing her love letters and spending time alone with her in her bedroom.
She is angry now that no one was concerned by this turn of events — not least because their kissing sessions led to the devastating incident where he took her virginity despite her protests. ‘The most precious piece of me was taken against my will,’ she says. The sexual relationship continued and she ended up with a bladder infection and being prescribed the contraceptive pill by a doctor who failed to inquire into the circumstances.
When the teen dumped her and called her a ‘whore’, he told everyone in town about the relationship. She was devastated. It was, she says, his way ‘trying to rationalise away the reality of raping me’.
By this time her modelling career was taking off and she was winning competitions. Even though she was a petite 5ft 2in, she was soon being cast in television adverts.
Although she is none too complimentary about her parents in the book, they made considerable sacrifices for her. In order for her to launch her film career, they moved to a small apartment in Los Angeles and she was sent to an expensive private school there where she claims she was insecure and misunderstood.
This was when she developed an enthusiasm for drink and drugs. Meth, she says, made her feel as if her brain had melted.
‘My days moved with a frantic mix of meth and marijuana,’ she writes. ‘I took drugs to numb myself from the pain. Alcohol. Pot. Coke. Crystal meth. Acid. Ecstasy. Mushrooms. Mescaline. It was my way of detaching from the hell of my existence — and surviving.’
Meanwhile, her family life fell apart as her mother left her father and he then had a stroke. Suvari took refuge in even more drugs and ever more relationships with men.
One was Tyler, a lighting engineer and sex and drug addict. She moved in with him.
He was 26, she was 17. They slept on a soiled mattress on the floor and smoked pot daily in a relationship that lasted for three years. ‘In retrospect, it was abuse,’ she says now.
Her self-esteem was whittled away. She stored her clothes in piles on the floor of the wardrobe and cooked for him and his friends.
She also submitted to his sexual demands. ‘I don’t think he ever asked what I wanted or what would make me feel good or happy, she writes. ‘It didn’t involve my consent. I was not being loved, I was just a body, a receptacle for his desires.’
Faithfulness on his part was out of the question. ‘He was a sex addict and wanted to get laid the way I wanted to get high.’
Inevitably, perhaps, she ended up with herpes.
Tyler then started to suggest threesomes. She recalls weeping while he was making love to another woman and writes: ‘I believed all I had ever had going for me was in my looks and the power they had over people. Now that power was gone. I was on the sofa — he was with the woman with the enormous t*ts.’
Despite her starring role in the film alongside the now disgraced Kevin Spacey, Suvari says she never actually wanted to act, and should have had some other career such as astronaut or archaeologist
Yet astonishingly, she felt she couldn’t exist without him.
Work became a refuge. Cast in her first big film, American Pie, as a wholesome choir girl, she went back to her ‘hellhole’ at the end of every day.
She felt complicit in the degradation. Going away to make a film, she slept with three people in the production. While making American Beauty she packed up to leave Tyler a dozen times, but never did.
Angela Hayes, the provocative cheerleader in American Beauty who eventually confesses that she is a virgin and feels unattractive, was a character who Suvari ‘felt in her soul’.
The next film she made, about an all-girl bank heist, involved being out of LA for two months. It was then that she finally found the strength to break up with Tyler.
Disastrously, though, she leaped straight into marriage with the next man she met, Robert Brinkmann, a director of photography who was 16 years older than her.
She gave him a lift home from the airport when the film wrapped —and on impulse moved straight into his house. He was ‘caring, passionate and loving’ and her date to the American Beauty premiere.
‘People told me I was lucky and I nodded, only I was thinking about the hellhole I had escaped and not about American Beauty.’
They were married when she was 20. She ‘smoked a big bowl’ of marijuana before and after the ceremony in 2000. ‘Life felt better high,’ she writes.
Before long, he helped her to stop her pot habit, though not her addiction to a Hollywood spending habit — her credit card bill was over $40,000 a month.
Now that she was clean, she could not stop mourning her lost innocence, and cried for days on end.
But soon she was on the move again. In 2005, she told Robert she wanted out. He was over 40 and she only 25. ‘I let him save my life. I loved Robert,’ she explains.
‘Our life was peaceful, prosperous and easy, then one day I knew I had to leave it.’
She had to figure out who she was and learn how to sustain a loving relationship and, while he was ready for children, she says, she was still ‘hungry for life’.
Healed: Suvari in 2018. She details what happened to her with a frankness so unsparing that it makes deeply uncomfortable reading. It was, she says, ‘my secret world of embarrassment, shame and guilt’
That translated into a passionate romance with her hunky Australian Pilates teacher Jay Bulloch.
Jay, who was studying Chinese medicine, came with her on a romantic trip to make a film in his home country.
On the first night in their hotel, she confessed some of the situation with Tyler to him, and added that she had herpes. She was furious at his appalled reaction and dumped him, only for them to make up.
More trouble lay ahead, though. She had been taking Chinese herbs for bladder pain on Jay’s advice but they made her feel bad.
During an ‘emergency’ meeting with her nutritionist she was told that they had thrown out her pH balance and included ‘heavy duty detoxfiers’. Jay felt she was questioning his expertise as a healer.
They broke up and she proposed an open relationship which he didn’t want. She was soon smoking pot regularly again.
Two on-set romances followed. Suvari does not name her co-stars. One of them gave her ‘the hottest, most amazing sex I ever had’. She was left with ‘good memories and a tender friendship’ — both knew that it was just an on-set liaison.
The second took place on a film in Europe; this co-star was ‘tall and handsome’ and they started an affair, but it was curtailed when she had a one-night stand with a DJ after a night out.
‘I couldn’t get past the idea that I had wrecked something special for myself,’ she writes.
It was in 2007 that she met Simone Sestito while attending the Toronto Film Festival promoting her film Stuck and eventually married him.
‘I made another desperate attempt at marriage, repeating past mistakes in the process.’
He seemed like a prosperous concert promoter but turned out to be mystifyingly short of money and had fibbed about his age — he was five years younger than her.
Suvari, who was paid $800,000 by Lancome for adverts and up to $1million a film, was funding everything — ‘and I couldn’t afford it’.
She had to dip into her pension to keep them in style. She started to drink heavily, bingeing on Red Bull and vodka until she vomited.
He gave her an enormous diamond engagement ring — then she had to give it back so he could borrow money against it.
He was jubilant to be able to get it back temporarily for their wedding in Italy.
Meanwhile, she was busy ignoring the red flags. ‘I kept eating what he was feeding me and ignoring the fact that bullsh*t was on the menu,’ she said.
The end came after he visited her on the set of the TV series American Horror Story. She was embarrassed that he showed up in a noisy Lamborghini and polished off snacks from the catering table.
He stayed out all night and told her something — she never says what — which made her tell him to get out.
There were yet more relationships and one-night stands before her long search for a lasting partner ended when she was cast in a made-for-TV film, I’ll Be Home For Christmas. On set in Toronto she met Mike Hope, a lowly prop master and set dresser.
Suvari was impressed by his long lashes and writes that she couldn’t believe her luck that he was another Scorpio. Two years later, in 2018, they were married.
She calls him ‘a really great guy. Old school, really considerate, old-fashioned.’ She was overjoyed to fall pregnant at 41, and they have a son Charles.
‘I came to the conclusion that no one had inculcated more damage on me than I did and that realisation was crushing,’ she writes.
‘I spent almost my entire life feeling disgusted, ashamed and in denial about what happened to me and what I had allowed myself to do and be a part of.
‘Then one day, I stopped. I stopped running away and I looked at myself. I looked into the pain and what I saw was that I was ready to leave it all behind and heal.’