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What Shia LaBeouf Taught Me About Empathy and Forgiveness

From the moment I learned that “Honey Boy” explored a complex father-child relationship — how pain and abuse can transcend generations — I knew that interviewing Shia LaBeouf, one of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch, would be an emotional experience for me.

I just never expected for it to change me.

As someone who’s exhaustively dissected her own father-child dynamic, the ways in which she’s followed in a destructive parent’s path and been impacted, I felt that gravity that grips a writer when broaching a topic of personal importance — the responsibility to do it justice. But mostly, I felt shaken because speaking with Shia about “Honey Boy” meant having to confront my own family history of trauma.

I knew Shia had written this mostly true account of an alcoholic father and child star while undergoing therapy in rehab for his own struggles. I knew he’d largely avoided press in recent years, and imagined he’d be terse, guarded. What I wasn’t prepared for though, was his almost haunting candor — exhibiting the tremendous amount of work he’d done on himself, to understand himself, and heal himself. I was awed by his maturity and spirituality and forthcomingness, but most of all, by the fact he had something I didn’t — a desire to forgive.

It would have been so easy for him to hold onto blame.

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I certainly did.

I’d spent the last decade of my life in therapy, striving to pick apart the influences of a man who was altogether the most brilliant, charming, manipulative, terrifying and effective person I’d ever met. My six-foot-tall father felt larger than life if he were in a room beside you. Many would describe him as handsome, but more defining, my book-and-street-smart father could resolve my every dilemma — he could get anything from anyone. When you were with him, watching him kiss people’s hands like Robin Hood and pull off the rings, receiving the privileges others didn’t have the smarts or the balls to finagle, you felt like you were on the winning team in life; you felt untouchable. My father made me believe in magic.

I wanted to be exactly like him, modeled myself after him in every way. But what it took me thirtysomething years to comprehend was that I was also immensely afraid of him.

He was unthinkably hard on me: He expected his eldest child to be “perfect” in every way, and came down on me for a pimple, an extra pound, a score of 99 rather than 100, for graduating as salutatorian rather than valedictorian. Which I knew was somewhat due to the fact his father — who hailed from Transylvania, Romania, like Dracula — had been unthinkably hard on him, the eldest of five, who was born in Central America on a detour his parents took to escape the Holocaust before landing in New York. He’d told us the horror stories of how his father would make him strip down naked and balance books upon his head for hours, or how he’d stick his son’s hand into the stove flame, or have him sit naked on a stool in fully displayed ridicule while the family ate dinner, awaiting the beating he’d hours later receive.

My father had only been physical with me a handful of times, but it was enough to condition a lifetime of fear.

Though I hadn’t seen them, I was never unaware that my father kept guns hidden in the upstairs closet . Once, I’d heard him threaten a construction worker on the phone, yelling about how, if he didn’t finish the job, my father would show up at his door with a bat (something I had previously spotted in his trunk, and perhaps not in hopes of an impromptu ball game). But scariest of all was the look in his eye — that of a pit bull, which, once provoked, will lock its bite around your flesh and never let go. It was a look my mother, younger sister and I knew better than to test.

Here’s that dichotomy “Honey Boy” director Alma Har’el has referenced: I both loved and feared my father. With him, I felt frightened, but protected. His opinion mattered more to me than anything else; I lived for his approval. He could both tear me down and build me up — could make me feel like everything was my fault and that I could never be good enough, but also like I was omnipotent and invincible and could achieve anything at all. He was “my gas,” as Shia would say. He conditioned me to be both the victim and the pursuer of danger. Eager for the validation I’d never gotten, I unknowingly involved myself with a procession of narcissistic guys like him, strived to re-create a familiar power struggle in which I could finally triumph.

Until one night, when I was covering a “Dancing with the Stars” after-party in 2010, and an aggressive, beguiling promoter brought me over a glass of champagne. I initially refused it — I’d just made a drink — but he grew agitated, and, accustomed as I was to responding to a man’s bullying with compliance, I took it. I woke up naked and sore and sexually assaulted (by this man who was arrested a year later for drugging and raping another woman).

I moved home to Brooklyn seeking comfort, and it was only then that my sister and I uncovered our father’s long-term web of lies and liaisons and law infractions and deceit — his work reputation for being a “womanizer,” someone with whom females were afraid to be left behind closed doors. My parents had been married for 33 years. We discovered the assembly of mistresses to whom he’d referred by numeric code, including one of nearly eight years, whom he’d situated blocks away from our home. She was a Mexican woman from Texas; in my teens, we’d learned my father had a half-sister, the product of my late grandfather’s affair with a Mexican woman from Texas.

The three of us were perpetuating a cycle of trauma.

The anger and resentment I felt for my father lessened from a boil to a simmer over the years, but it burned, nonetheless. How had Shia been able to resolve such feelings and not only write, but step into the shoes of a man like his father, identify with and portray him?

“I got to the point in my life where I was sort of a seed,” he said. “They were throwing dirt on my back, so the acting thing was off the table for me for a certain period of my life. I felt like I was going to go join the National Guard or something like that. My management, my agents, were basically like, ‘You’ve done it this time, this is a full-blown [screwup] and that’s game over.’ And then I went into this court-ordered rehab, I’m sitting in there for maybe a month, and they said, ‘Hey, we think you have PTSD, you have to do exposure therapy.’”

At this, I froze. I’d also suffered from PTSD — most severely in the months after being raped, when I battled nightmares and woke each day feeling like someone had drilled a hole in the back of my head.

“Exposure therapy is a bit like an exorcism where you turn on a flashlight, you go into the attic of your soul, you start looking around, try to find yourself,” he said. “It’s trying to trigger you, to see how you react, how you can be mindful, so they take everything from you — they take pens and paper from you — and then they slowly start giving it back to you, the goal being, you’re trying to push yourself to that place in a safe environment so you can deal with it objectively.”

He took two books with him to rehab. “I took a bunch of Sam Shepard plays, because he had just died when I got arrested, and when we were in Georgia, [“The Peanut Butter Falcon” costar] Jon Bernthal had handed me a collection,” he said, “and then I also had a Bible, and specifically, the book of Matthew. And in the book of Matthew, there’s a line that says, ‘Only the father will know the son, and only the son will know the father.’ I was in rehab and they were basically like, ‘who are you?’ And at that point, I had no idea. So I started traipsing through my own pain and trying to explore that, and then also coming to a place where, I didn’t really know much about myself, but I felt like I knew a whole bunch about my dad.”

Shia had previously looked at his father, whom he depicts in the film as abusive and an alcoholic, “like scum.” “I didn’t have much empathy for him or love for him, or wasn’t questioning where his pain came from or what motivated him, or why,” he said. “And then when you’re a seed looking up from the dirt, you’re thinking, ‘Well, who else do I know who’s been here?’ My dad has been burdened with not the same kind of shame, but a similar shame. And I just found myself in a position like my father, where I had the whole world looking at me like, ‘this woeful piece of [crap]!’ And I had been looking at my father like [that] for so long, it just put me in a place where I could empathize. I don’t think I’d lived enough life to be able to empathize with that kind of pain up until that point. …. I was just in the right setting and around the right people to be able to develop empathy for a man I had never really looked at in that light — like a wounded man.”

Understanding his father then enabled him to reconstruct his understanding of himself, as well as the character portrayed at different ages by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges. “Through Otis’ eyes — who was like a proxy to me — I was able to see my dad from a distance, and it made me fall in love with my life again,” he said.

In my own writing, my father is the most developed and dominant character (where is my mother in this essay, you might ask?), and in early drafts, Shia also found this to be true. “I feel like every character except my father was woefully underwritten; I didn’t care about any other character,” he said. “The whole purpose of [exposure therapy] was to dive in on this very specific topic, and to empathize with my father as a way of overcoming the pain of my father. So I wrote my father very densely, and every other character served as like the questioner, the placeholder.”

He developed the other roles by riffing and talking things out with the cast: “I had 60 pages coming out of rehab and we had a greenlight off those pages, and then we all got into a room. I had gone to Costa Rica to see my father for the first time in seven years and recorded all these conversations on my iPhone, and then came back with like 16 hours of audio, and we all sat in a room and started picking pieces out. And Lucas is like an investigative journalist — he’s constantly questioning things, he’s constantly asking these hard-hitting questions. So that felt like a whole nother part of therapy that I hadn’t dealt with yet, and he’s looking at me with empathy I didn’t have for me.”

A common tendency in trauma victims is to not slow down — to speak quickly as a means of preventing your body from feeling and processing what’s being described by your mind; trauma is like having your gas pedal stuck down. I’m instructed to “slow down” in nearly every therapy session. I asked Shia what Lucas helped him understand about himself. “He’s like, ‘You know, you don’t take a breath,’” Shia said. “And the way that I had written dialogue, I didn’t write sentences. I wrote like full-blown soliloquies, where you’d have run-on sentences that would go for paragraphs, and just how I would hear it. He would say things like, ‘You know, the fact that there’s no punctuation here is purposeful — that is what you sound like when I listen to you.’ And these kind of things started like, informing my personhood. A good actor in many ways is a mirror, and so I was surrounded by mirrors, and it was the first time I had ever really looked at myself this way, so clinically.”

Shia never intended to write a film before having to journal his trauma in therapy. “We zeroed in on a certain timeline of my life where a big bulk of my trauma was, but the only way I knew how to write was how I had read most of my life, so everything came out in script form.” He penned 50 pages of a conversation between him and his father during a time in his childhood when they lived at a motel and sent it to close friend Alma. “This was survival for me; this was how I could breathe,” he said. “So it didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I’m going to join the WGA!’ It felt like I was just trying to keep my head above water.” When she wrote back that this was a movie, it served as “the first bit of light” he’d found in treatment. “Art, love and God — it felt like all three things hit me at once,” he said. “It activated something in me I didn’t know was there, it gave me my own agency. It’s sort of like singing your own song for the first time, finding your voice.”

There’s a line in “Honey Boy,” in which Otis tells his therapist that the greatest thing his father ever gave him was pain. The greatest thing Shia LaBeouf gave me is perspective. I still hold my father accountable for causing me much pain in my life — a pain I feel like I’ll always wear, that you’ll always see, if you ever look hard enough — and I still don’t believe he’s a healthy influence. But since our conversation, I’ve tried a bit of method acting myself.

While walking in the park, I’ve wondered what it would feel like, really feel like, to have been so violently abused and castrated and humiliated by a role model in monstrous ways I could never fathom. I thought of the horror stories we hadn’t heard, because they were too painful for my father to even tell. I imagined he’d likewise looked to the opposite sex for validation, longed for the control he never had and to prove he could be equally powerful — that he was good enough. I considered what motivated him, which moments damaged and changed him. I recalled the aspiring baseball player who pitched a “perfect” no-hitter at the one game he’d gotten his dad to attend — until my grandfather stood up and left, claiming he was bored and unimpressed.

Have I depicted my father as a rounded and complex character in my work, someone an actor I admire would want to play, or have I cast him off as an incorrigible “sociopath” and simply villainized him? I’ve attempted to view him as a victim — as a wounded man.

Maybe I was just in the right setting and around the right people to be able to develop empathy for a man I had never really looked at in that light.

Jasmin Rosemberg is a contributor and former editor at Variety. Her novel, “How the Other Half Hamptons,” is being developed for television by Kelly Ripa, Aaron Kaplan and Freeform, and she’s currently working on a memoir.

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