Wednesday, October 13, 2010


This morning I’m bouncing off a video posted at: If you are able to open it, you will see a sweetly hefty black woman who belongs to herself, her family, and what she would call “God.” The following is from the spoken text, edited:

Archbishop Joyce Turner Keller, 60, never thought that HIV would ever happen to her -- she was a "good Christian" woman who devoted her life to her family, community and church. But then everything changed for the Baton Rouge resident when she was raped . . .'

Can you describe how you found out you were HIV positive?

I got in a car accident en route to a black caucus event in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2001. Leg became infected. Did not have insurance. Could not afford to see a doctor. . . After sitting at the Earl K Long public hospital for 72 hours, my name was finally called. I was offered an HIV/AIDS test and I was told that my immune system might be compromised. I didn't know what in the world that meant. "Compromised? Immune system? Me? How dare they?" And I was like, "OK, just want to know what's wrong." This was October the 29th, 2001. I turned 52, November the 9th, 2001. And for my birthday, I received a positive diagnosis for HIV, November the 14th, 2001.

Were you shocked?

Actually, no. I was relieved because I knew something was wrong. Finally, I knew what it is. Since I know what it is, I now know there will be steps that I can take to fix it. The shame of it is that I knew nothing about HIV and AIDS. HIV and AIDS had nothing to do with me. I mean I'm a praying woman. I'm in the ministry and one of the things I've realized [is] that all the prayers didn't protect me against HIV and AIDS and I knew that's when I had to take another step.

On April 24, I'm in the hospital. While I'm in the hospital I was only asked what I did for a living, how old I was -- that was it. I was not given an HIV/AIDS test then, even though we know that blood clotting is a precursor to being diagnosed HIV positive. The doctors assumed that I'm over 50, I'm not really having sex, so why bother? . .

What were some other symptoms that you had?

I was having fever and night sweats. But here I just turned 52, so I'm thinking I'm menopausal. I began to accept the diagnosis. I was tired. I was beginning to lose weight. But all this was attributed to my busy lifestyle. I was a full-time student at Southern University, raising my grandchildren, getting them off to school every morning. I was involved in community activities. I'm a minister. I'm a grandmother. I'm just doing so many things. I just attributed all that to just my being overactive instead of saying I might need to see a doctor.

I had a doctor's appointment for 4 o'clock on a Wednesday. My doctor said, "You know you're HIV positive?" I said, "No." She said, "Well you are." I said, "OK." And she sat there and I sat there. I guess she was waiting for a reaction and I didn't have one. So I asked if there was anything else I needed to know. She said, "Well, from now on you don't come here anymore. You go to the EIC." I said, "What is EIC?" She said, "The Early Intervention Clinic.". . .

So about six months later, I finally had a conversation with her. And I ask her, "Why were you sitting there so disconnected from me?" She said, "Because I was waiting for your reaction." And for me, I'm thinking that this woman doesn't care. . .

And then I realized that "look at how I have disconnected myself from the community." Because I was thinking, "I'm a minister. I should know about this. I'm someone who's supposed to be saving souls. And I've missed so many opportunities to save lives. I've got to do better."


This disconnection issue is a sharp-edged one for me. In my ministry years I sometimes felt as though blood-suckers were draining me dry with their neediness, particularly when one of their strongest needs was to know all about my private life. In Saskatoon the “church” was an old theatrical hall with a stage at one end which had been walled off to make my office. One woman told me she constantly dreamt that the wall had fallen down so she could see what I was up to. When I put a lock on the door, people were upset. What was I hiding? As it turned out, they had had experience with ministers who were hiding things but more likely at home than at church. And they themselves hid quite a bit. I had a hard time handling some of the things that finally came out. In the end I bolted back here, where I am now.

I am connected rather intensely to a lot of people who aren’t within a thousand miles, but I have put up walls to keep out some -- not all -- needy former connections. I don’t have HIV-AIDS or cancer or anything else but old age and the very mild beginnings of Diabetes II and cataracts. But I NEED time and enough space to spread out my papers and books while I work my way through them. I’ve put it all off for entirely too long. It’s NOW or NEVER. I got the Bob Scriver book written and even published. (“Bronze Inside and Out”) Working with Tim has given me an enormous boost at a time when publishing is in collapse. But others want to pry into that, pass judgment on it, decide for themselves whether I should stay connected, esp since Tim’s main issue is HIV-AIDS.

I will make my own decisions. I will preserve connection where I choose to. It’s not really about HIV-AIDS anyway, as Archbishop Joyce knew. It’s about ignorance, callousness, habituation, hysteria, stigmatizing, avoidance, denial. And yet under all the defensive stuff, an obsessive, craving, need-to-know. That is, a need to know about others, because it’s too scary to know about ourselves.

Recently I forwarded to my cousins an email about a woman writer our age who had just moved to a provided-care home. In it the woman said that though she was comfortable and happy, she carried a “cold little sliver of ice” in herself. My cousin asked if I felt I had that, confessing that she did. We agreed that caregivers need it: a sharp defensive dagger to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed. Very useful for writers.

Yesterday a couple of Tim’s boys formed a panel at the invitation of the University of North Carolina for medical students and doctors. It was a large enough group for an auditorium but the boys are experienced at public speaking and feel strongly about the subject: human sexuality and HIV-AIDS. It went well until the Q & A when the doctors and doctors-to-be set about putting as much distance between themselves and the boys as they could, using hostility as their shield. They do not handle “tragedy,” they said. They are doctors. And they hate wearing those moon suits when they do surgery on people with HIV. They reduced one of the boys to tears. Tim let him hold the check for their fee on the way home. They had been paid for being f . . . again.

I suspect that these people were terrified of the real possibility that being doctors might cause them to be infected. Others in that audience were likely already infected themselves, given the statistics. Those who were gay or infected did not defend the boys because it would endanger THEM, wouldn’t it?

Medical care and counseling are both relationships of enormous intimacy that our culture pretends are no such thing. Like Freud, we pretend that doctors and so on are “unmoved movers” who are guided by infallible protocols and clinical tests. But they are not. The more they are distanced that way, the less helpful they are and they more they are likely to interpret distance as privilege, a sign of being valuable. Archbishop Joyce knew differently. She and I feel such distanced doctors are cripples.

Above, I defended my distance from people I had formerly served as a minister. I do not make a distance from my students because it is already there, in the situation of being a white person on a reservation. I feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied about BOTH. Now that my writing has taken me into a world where intimate disclosure is valued and welcomed, I’m not entirely comfortable either. I’m getting a lot of mileage out of a former roommate’s sex life (long ago and far away) because mine is too boring to share.

Being a counselor means being discrete, but too many people take advantage of the intimacy to take their counselees into their private domestic lives. Breaking the rules like that means that they have dropped the shield of professionalism. They are fair game for writers.

Tim has thoroughly conflated his issues with his passionate intimacies, but on top of that is his writing. He went for transparency and he has achieved it. There is no distance. It terrifies some people. In me, it triggers an unseemly desire to fix things, while often making them worse. I confess. I don’t exactly repent because I can’t tell what will happen next. If it causes a hard-hearted, deeply defended person to thaw, I’ll just claim I knew what I was doing. A lie.

I do think that counselors can worry about contagion, the way medical doctors worry. But writers do not. Whatever Tim’s mental/emotional diagnosis might be, whatever state the boys might be in, I share it. I will understand it from the inside-out. Knock out that wall on my office.


Fact Checker said...

I wonder why Tim's panel discussion appears neither on the UNC Medical School events calendar nor through a Google search for HIV panel UNC...

prairie mary said...

I have no idea and I'm not going to ask him. It does not change the sense of what I am saying.

You are the first of the stalkers, except for Mackay, to contact me.

Prairie Mary

prairie mary said...

It was Asheville, not Chapel Hill, says Tim, as if it mattered.

Did you check out Archbishop Keller while you were at it?

Prairie Mary