John Bentley Mays was born in rural Louisiana on June 22, 1941, in Louisiana, United States to John B. (a plantation owner) and Anne (Smith) Mays. According to his biography, he was born “into an old family of cotton planters, small-town merchants and local politicians in the American South.” Both his parents died when he was a child, his father in a car accident and his mother of cancer, Mays and his siblings were raised by a succession of often neglectful relatives. Soon afterward began the symptoms of depression, which would affect him profoundly into adulthood. At the age of eight, he considered suicide.