Lee Daniels Opens Up About His Difficult Childhood: 'I Descended Into Drugs and Sexual Bathhouses to Die'
By Hillary Bautch
Lee Daniels has quickly made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most celebrated writers and directors through his work on Empire and the film Precious. But, in a recent interview with Loyola Marymount University's School of Film & TV, he opened up his troubled childhood and how it made him into the man he is today.
After growing up as the son of a cop in Philadelphia, Daniels explained that he never dreamed his life would be what it is now.
“I thought I was going to end up like most of my friends, in jail,” Daniels said. “That was the way the world was for me. I didn't think I was going to die, but I imagined myself in jail. And when you have to steal to eat, yeah, I thought I was definitely going to — I mean, that was just the norm.”
Daniels also recalled a very heartbreaking interaction with his father when he was 8 years old.
"I walked down the stairs with high heels on, and he put me in the trashcan," Daniels recalled. "I think that's where Precious came from, because I remember the stench. I remember the dark, the cold, my mother trying to fight, and then me, thinking that I was Aladdin on a carpet escaping. And I think that's why I so related to Precious. But that was just one of many times."
"I have no hate in my heart for my father at all," he continued. "I think that he didn't understand [Daniels being gay]. He completely didn't understand and he knew that it was hard enough being a black man, and thought that if he scared it out of me, in hindsight, I think he thought that if he scared it out of me, that I wouldn't be gay, because he just couldn't imagine what my life would be."
Thankfully, Daniels said his grandmother was always there to support him, even when his parents weren’t.
“Yet my grandmother could [accept that Daniels was gay]. And she saw greatness, and she said that I was going to have greatness far beyond hers, which was incomprehensible to me at the time," he said. "My dad told me I was going to be nothing. [But] she says, 'Listen, you know, you're not like all the other guys around here. You are a fa***t.' I said, 'What's that?' And she says, 'Don't worry about it, but you're going to get used to — people are going to call you that. But you have to remember, as long as you are strong, as long as you are fearless, as long as you are honest, you have nothing to worry about.'"
Years later, after dropping out of college, Daniels came to Los Angeles, "and then something called AIDS hit. All my friends were dying. … I was making an enormous amount of money [operating an agency for nurses]. I came from extreme poverty. I didn't know what to do with the money, so what do you do? Houses, clothes, I don't know. Drugs, parties, at 22, 23-ish. And still directing theater. And AIDS hit. And again, it wiped away all of my friends. I had no friends. And we were all together because their parents weren't taking them in. And we were burying each other, because most parents, 90 percent of the parents, were not taking them in.”
“It hit the community hard,” he continued. “It was terrifying, because we never knew whether you could drink from glasses or what it was. It was the most terrifying thing ever. And I didn't understand why it was that I wasn't [dead], because there were far better souls than me that were going. I thought that I needed to go. And so I descended into drugs and into sexual bathhouses to die. That I don't have AIDS is a miracle from God. I don't understand it. I really don't understand it. Because I should have had HIV. Everybody else did."
After all the hardship that Daniels has survived, he admits that the hardest thing he’s ever done is believe in himself.
“Learning to love myself, learning to believe in myself. You know, I only did it as a vendetta to my dad, to show him that I was going to be something,” he explained. “I mean, it was about survival, showing him, but knowing deep down that I wasn't worthy of it. So yeah, I think that myself would be, I am my worst enemy. But, I'm learning, that's why I'm in therapy now. And I want to do something about that, because, you know, black people don't believe in therapy. I was like, all of a sudden I'm 57 and I'm going to therapy. That's some heavy stuff, you know?”