Thick-skinned, bold, and daring—that’s how one would describe several of the roles that Charlize Theron has played in her films. The braveheart that she is often shown to be onscreen is quite similar to the woman she is in real life, having overcome some of the most dangerous horrors that one can endure.
Theron’s childhood was one composed of abuse at the hands of her father and watching her parents suffer through a troubled marriage. It was reported by Elle that her mother, Gerda, was physically abused at the hands of her father while she was often subjected to verbal abuse by him.
“My dad was a big guy, tall, skinny legs, big belly,” the South African actress told an interviewer from ABC News. “[He] could be very serious but loved to laugh as well, and enjoyed life. He also had a disease. He was an alcoholic,” Theron said, adding, “he was a verbal abuser.”
Growing up in a troubled house, she knew what it was like to wake up as a child and never be able to guess how the day might go. “I think what more affected me for my adult life that happened in my childhood was more the every day living of a child living in the house with an alcoholic and waking up not knowing what was going to happen,” she said. “And not knowing how my day was going to go and all of it dependent on somebody else and whether he was not going to drink or drink.”
Once when Theron was 15 and had just returned home from boarding school in 1991, she experienced a traumatic night that changed her family in a way that cannot be undone. Just before her drunk father and his brother had returned home, her aunt had rung up to inform them about his mood at the time. Recalling the night, Theron said, “Nature gives you instinct. And I knew something bad was going to happen.”
As her father arrived home, he started firing shots from his gun, shooting at the house’s locked gate, then as he passed the kitchen door, and then he stopped at Theron’s bedroom door, banging and saying “Tonight I’m going to kill you both with the shotgun,” according to the testimony that her mother later gave.
When her father shot into Theron’s bedroom, her mother picked up her own handgun and fired at the two men, wounding the brother and ending the life of Theron’s father.
It was ruled that Gerda acted in self-defense to protect herself and her daughter, and wasn’t prosecuted.
While court proceedings followed the course, the aftermath of that night isn’t something that can go away with a verdict. For so long, Theron told people that her father lost his life in a car accident, caging the painful truth inside, according to HuffPost.
“I just pretended like it didn’t happen. I didn’t tell anybody — I didn’t want to tell anybody,” Theron said, as quoted by People. “Whenever anybody asked me, I said my dad died in a car accident. Who wants to tell that story? Nobody wants to tell that story.”
She felt that talking about it would only make people uncomfortable, saying, “They don’t know how to respond to that. And I didn’t want to feel like a victim. I struggled with that for many years until I actually started therapy.”
It was only her “late 20s, early 30s” that she started therapy. Through everything in her life, the one person who stood by her was her mother. “I was blessed to have a parent that kind of guided me towards very healthy time period of mourning, of going through the confusion, going through the shock, going through the anger, going through all of the emotional things that you do when you — when something like this happens to you. But really kind of guided me towards not being a victim and not going through my life feeling victimized,” Theron told Piers Morgan, according to a CNN transcript.
Now that the actress is a mother herself, she is grateful to Gerda for not letting that one night define the rest of Theron’s life. “I have an incredible mother… She’s a huge inspiration in my life,” Theron shared. “She’s never really had therapy. So a mother who never really had therapy dealing with something like that — trying to get your child out of that. Her philosophy was ‘This is horrible. Acknowledge that this is horrible. Now make a choice. Will this define you? Are you going to sink or are you going to swim?’ That was it.” Looking at her life now, it’s safe to assume that she did swim, crossing lengths to become a stellar actress with so much to admire.
While that dangerous night may be one that’s impossible to forget, she said, “I know what happened. And I know that if my daughter was in the same situation, I would do the same thing.”
Today, she is able to say, “It’s a part of me, but it doesn’t rule my life.”