DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince broke out in the late 1980s with their fun, poppy, rap-lite tune “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” which earned them a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989 and the devotion of tweens everywhere. But for anyone who reads Will Smith’s new memoir Will, which arrives next week, the title of the song may take on a new—and much darker—meaning.
This week’s issue of People includes an excerpt from the book, which Smith digs into some pretty dark territory—including the time he witnessed his father be physically abusive toward his mother. “My father was violent, but he was also at every game, play, and recital. He was an alcoholic, but he was sober at every premiere of every one of my movies,” Smith writes of the two different sides to his dad. “He listened to every record. He visited every studio. The same intense perfectionism that terrorized his family put food on the table every night of my life.”
But when Smith was a child, he says he witnessed an act of physical abuse that forever changed his life:
“When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”
Though he was just a child, Smith says that that moment—and his response to it—has tainted some of his greatest achievements. “Within everything that I have done since then—the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs—there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”
Smith’s parents separated when he was a teenager and officially divorced in 2000. And while the actor-musician-producer remained close with his father, he admits that the anger over what he had seen that day always haunted him and was bubbling just below the surface of every smile.
When Smith’s dad, Will Sr., was diagnosed with cancer, it was his namesake who cared for him. But doing so apparently brought those past feelings closer to the surface, and Smith recounted one particularly dark thought that crossed his mind.
“One night, as I delicately wheeled him from his bedroom toward the bathroom, a darkness arose within me. The path between the two rooms goes past the top of the stairs. As a child I’d always told myself that I would one day avenge my mother. That when I was big enough, when I was strong enough, when I was no longer a coward, I would slay him.
I paused at the top of the stairs. I could shove him down, and easily get away with it. As the decades of pain, anger, and resentment coursed then receded, I shook my head and proceeded to wheel Daddio to the bathroom.”
Smith’s father passed away in 2016, but the incident taught his son an important lesson: “In the end, it will not matter one single bit how well [people] loved you—you will only gain ‘the Smile’ based on how well you loved them.”
Will will be published on November 9th.