On Her Public Troubles, Private Joys & Sudden Desire For A Baby
EVEN now she can't remember. Not just the details of the car accident that forever changed her life. What Halle Berry insists she can't remember about the collision in which she was involved last February is the accident itself.
The collision isn't just a blur, Halle says; it's a blank. Though she has tried repeatedly to recall what happened, she says she has "not a clue how I got from driving from my friend's house to being a bloody mess with a crashed car." Though Halle has accepted the judgment of doctors that, because of the head injury she suffered in the accident--a bond-deep gash to her forehead that required 20 stitches to close--she may never remember, she acknowledges that she did leave the crash site before authorities arrived. Which is why, she says, she agreed to plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge of leaving the scene of a traffic accident.
"It was important for me as the woman I say that I am to take some responsibility," says Halle of the accident in which the driver of the other vehicle broke her wrist. "I think that was the right thing for me to do."
What she didn't think was the right thing for her to do was to plead guilty. "To be guilty I had to have knowingly and willfully left that scene, and I did not do that," says Halle who, in May, was ordered by a Beverly Hills judge to perform 200 hours of community service and to pay a $5,000 fine, plus court and other costs totaling $13,500. "I did the best I could given what happened to me, and I was woman enough to take responsibility for my physical actions even though I did not intentionally do it."
Until the misdemeanor charge was issued, however Halle says her life was "a living hell." For one thing, she faced the very real possibility that she would face felony hit-and-run charges and go to jail. For another, while authorities investigated the accident, she became the target of venomous rumor-mongering that charged her with everything from driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs (investigators concluded that there was no evidence of either) to being involved in other hit-and-run accidents (allegations which were thoroughly investigated and found to be untrue).
"Those days of waiting to know my fate were just indescribable," she says. "I didn't eat. I didn't sleep. I just could not face life."
More than anyone, Halle knows how incredible her total lack of recall seems. "I know people find it hard to believe because I couldn't believe it, and it happened to me," she says referring not just to the accident, but to the fact that she drove herself home afterward. "I was filled with more whys and hows than anybody because I had to live through it and explain it. I would sit for hours and hours hoping and praying that something would jog my memory."
Nothing has and, if what the experts have told Halle is right, it is unlikely anything ever will. "Now that I understand medically what happened to me, I know that people who suffer head injuries like mine often suffer [permanent] memory loss," she says. "So I have had to accept that as the only explanation I am ever going to get."
She also has had to accept her doctor's judgment that the scar on her forehead is, in all likelihood, permanent. "I've had a plasticsurgery procedure to straighten it out," reveals Halle, who may have to undergo more surgery because her skin develops keloids easily. "I have six months to wait to see how it's going to heal."
While Halle doesn't pretend she isn't conscious of the scar ("I have a really good makeup artist," she says with a wink), for a woman known the world over for her heart-stopping beauty, she seems surprisingly accepting of the flaw.
"Beauty is not just physical," she says. "It's about what you stand for, how you live your life. And as long as I don't veer too far off from the woman I want to be, then I don't think this"--she runs her finger over the mark--"can make me any less of what I was before I got it."
Though it isn't common knowledge, the accident-related wound that caused Halle the most pain wasn't to her head; it was to her heart. "People I thought I was very close to distanced themselves from me," she says, referring to the many "friends" who deserted her after the accident. "It was very subtle. No one put me down or belittled me. It was the things that people didn't say. The support that wasn't offered. They were real happy to stay around when things were great, but when this happened, it was like I had the plague."
It was an eye-opening experience for Halle, who just a month before the accident was at the peak of her popularity after winning the Golden Globe Award for her starring role in the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. "I got to see who loved me--not Halle Berry in Hollywood, but Halle Maria who grew up in Cleveland," she says. "I got to see who liked being around for the parties and the accolades and who was really invested in me."
As much as she learned about the people around her, in the weeks following the accident, she learned far more about herself. And the lessons, while deeply painful, were life-changing. "I learned this wasn't about a car accident," she says quietly. "It was about facing fear."
Long-standing, deeply rooted, life-ruling fear. "My whole life I've had the fear that I was going to be abandoned," Halle confides. "It goes back to my childhood and not having my father. I dealt with it in my divorce [from baseball star David Justice]. And, when this unfortunate thing happened, I had to face that fear again."
She closes her eyes and shudders. "I thought the public would abandon me. That I'd lose everything I've worked so hard for. That I would be tainted goods." And she thought Eric Benet, whom she planned to wed this month before the accident "stopped my life," would leave her too.
"I've always felt like I get put on this pedestal where people fall in love with `That Girl' on the movie screen or the magazine cover and when I prove that I'm less than perfect, people leave," she says. "And so when the accident happened, I thought, `OK, here we go. Eric's going to be out the door.' And I was afraid. I was really afraid."
She needn't have been. Not a day went by, Halle says, that Benet didn't just deal with the myriad of, as she puts it, "my out of control emotions," he showed her just how much he loved her. Not "That Girl." But her.
"As the weeks went by, I thought, `Wow, he's still here,'" she recalls. "And not just loving me. Loving me hard. He showed me when I was too weak to stand, he would hold me up. When I was too fragile to think, he'd help me figure it out. When I was too scared to face another day, he'd be my rock."
He will also soon be her husband, although the accident changed not just the date of the wedding, but Halle's entire view of it. "This experience has made me much more focused on what's really important, and it's not about having a big wedding," says Halle, who says she hasn't yet chosen a new wedding date. "I'm not knocking people who do that, but who designs my dress, how many flowers I have, it's just so unimportant to me now."
What is crucially important to the 33-year-old actress right now is motherhood. First being a good one to Eric's 8-year-old daughter, India. And second, becoming one very soon. "I am so ready to be a mommy," she says, her face lighting up at the thought. "I can't wait! I notice every little baby dress, every little baby toy, every little baby thing."
Halle's intense baby-lust set in last year when she and Eric became engaged. "I became very maternal almost in that moment," she says. "I didn't just want a child. I wanted his child. Our child. Not long after we get married, that will be one of the first things on our agenda."
Already Halle is immersing herself in the experience of motherhood--happily bonding with Eric's daughter--and she's loving every minute of it. "People say to me `Oh, she's so lucky to have you in her life,' Halle says of India, who lost her mother in a car accident when she was just a toddler. "Well, I'm the lucky one. India sees me as unstoppable and when I'm with her, I feel that." Halle stops and gazes outside her living room window at the stars twinkling above the Hollywood Hills. When she turns back, her eyes are filled with tears. "It is such an incredible, wonderful feeling, she says softly.
So is getting back to her normal life. To regroup, Halle has taken the summer off and says she plans to do little more than relax, spend time with Eric and India, and plan her "very small, very intimate" wedding. In between, she'll work on her new Web site, www.hallewood.com, and help promote her new movie X-Men, 20th Century Fox's $75 million adaptation of the popular comic book about human-looking mutants with superpowers.
"The mutants face many of the same obstacles that we do as African-Americans," says Halle who plays Storm, a supermutant who can control the weather with her mind. "They're struggling to find equality within a society of nonmutants who fear them out of ignorance. Storm reminds everyone that, if anything is to change, we have to educate people out of their ignorance. That's the substance of who Storm is for me."
The substance of who she is--not on the screen but off it--is the greatest lesson Halle says she learned from the accident. Not because it meant conquering stark terror. Because it meant proving something to herself about herself. Something important. "Sometimes I wonder just how strong I really am," she says. "And this accident put everything I had to the test. I had to ask myself, `What am I really made of?' I can say I'm a certain type of woman--a woman of integrity and faith--but when the chips are down, could I put my money where my mouth was? And I got to prove to myself that I could. That I am the woman that I say I am. And that felt really good because once I know who I am, then I don't need that validation from other people so much like I used to. This has been a big step for me in that direction."