Zachary Levi: How 'Radical Love' helped actor forgive abusive mom – USA TODAY

When most people think of Zachary Levi, the suave, confident superhero he plays in 2019’s “Shazam!” might come to mind.
But if you ask the actor what makes him feel like a hero in real life, he’ll likely cite a combo of intensive therapy, his ongoing pursuit of self-care and radical acceptance – three things he says have helped him put his past experiences, even the painful ones, into healing perspective.
In his new book “Radical Love: Learning to Accept Yourself and Others” (Harper Horizon, 224 pp., out now), Levi, 41, pulls back the curtain on his Hollywood lifestyle. The actor opens up about his struggles with anxiety and depression, the trauma he suffered from his abusive mother and the three weeks he spent at a mental health facility after having what he cheekily refers to as a “whole big fun breakdown” weeks before getting cast in “Shazam!”
“When we were promoting ‘Shazam!’ I felt very compelled that I needed to talk about that part of the story because I wouldn’t have even gotten that role had I not gone and done this very important work,” Levi says over Zoom from his kitchen in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he’s working on building a film studio. “You gotta heal, and that’s a whole life journey.”
To help readers along this journey, Levi sprinkles sidebars of mental health tips and exercises throughout his book. The purpose, he says, is to encourage readers not just to reflect on their own traumas, but to empower them to take active steps to heal.
“You gotta get the story out, and then you gotta also be like, ‘OK, what do we do with that?’ ” he says. “If you really care about changing your life, you really got to unpack all of that trauma and understand who you are outside of it and get the healing that you need.”
Levi knows the road to healing is far from easy.
Among the struggles detailed in his book, one of the most difficult was the abuse and neglect he experienced from his parents, especially his mother.
Though Levi’s mom never got full the mental health treatment she needed before her death in 2015, Levi writes that his therapists speculate she likely suffered from a borderline personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies.
Levi doesn’t sugarcoat the cruel words and actions his mother inflicted upon him throughout his life, but he says he didn’t set out to paint her as a monster either. During one particularly painful exchange, Levi writes that his mom told him, “I’d be happier today if you were dead.”
“My mother was a product of the environment she was in,” he says. “How could I possibly think that she is some horrible, evil, wicked person knowing full well that the only reason she behaves in the way that she behaves is because she was first abused by her own mother?”
Levi says he had two guiding principles when deciding which parts of his mother’s story to include: Is it true, and is it necessary?
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According to Levi, looking at his mom with empathy was key to finding his own peace of mind. It’s also the core of “radical love,” the concept he used for the title of his book.
“I can’t tell my story honestly and really allow people in on whatever my particular trauma was unless I can really go to those places and talk about the abuse that I suffered as a child or as an adult,” he says. “But knowing full well that my abusers were also abused themselves, I’m not just trying to throw them under the bus. I love my mom, and I love my stepdad, and I love my dad.”
Levi adds: “It’s very difficult to look at someone who has abused us and say, ‘Oh, but you’re worthy of love as well because you are also an extension of God. You are an extension of life, which means you’re a miracle.’ “
Levi also writes of positive figures in his life, including Beth, an employee at the mental health facility in Connecticut where the actor underwent three weeks of intensive therapy.
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According to Levi, Beth was instrumental to his healing by offering prayers and spiritual support outside of his assigned treatment.
“She wasn’t supposed to be praying for me, but it saved my life,” Levi says. “It broke me on levels I didn’t even know where I was capable of breaking, but in the most beautiful of ways. Feeling that love from God through her, it’s something that was just incredible. It makes me cry almost every single time I talk about it.”
Beth was one of the first people to read Levi’s book – and she’s “very happy” with how it turned out, he says.
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One of Levi’s goals with his book, he says, is to encourage people to embrace “radical love” in their own lives, a concept he defines as the belief “that every single person on this planet is doing their very best with the tools that they have at their disposal.”
“Imagine the beautiful world we could live in, the amount of conversations we could have, (if) we could come together at the table and say, ‘Hey, I recognize where you’re afraid. Let’s get to the bottom of that,’ ” he says. “And then we can live in a much more cohesive, loving, accepting environment.”
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