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Rae Lewis-Thornton: A Diva Talks About Her HIV Diagnosis and Childhood of Abuse (Video)

September 12, 2012

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Really, for a no-name black woman? This is a cover that's reserved for entertainers, for actors, for famous people, you know. And she said, "We would like to put you on the cover of the magazine."

And I said, "Miss Taylor, you know nothing about me. You heard me speak for three minutes; and why would you want to put me on the cover of your magazine?"

She said, "Because I believe you have a story to tell; and I want to tell it."

And you have to understand something. Susan Taylor received a lot of criticism for putting me on the cover of the magazine at the time. Here it is, this little bitty black girl from a working class family, with AIDS, nonetheless, on a cover -- for the holiday issue -- that's reserved for people of importance. It was brave. I say it all the time. It was incredibly brave of Susan. And it was incredibly brave of me.

"I'd stand in the grocery stores, and listen to people have conversations about me. They'd say, 'She's not the woman with AIDS; the woman with AIDS is on the inside. This is the model. She can't have AIDS!' But I did."

They sold the most December issues that month, from what I understand, in the history of the company at the time. Because people didn't know.

And it was really interesting because I cut my hair off, right after the photo shoot. You know, it was a six-month lag between the photo shoot and the issue hitting newsstands. I'd stand in the grocery stores, and listen to people have conversations about me. They'd say, "She's not the woman with AIDS; the woman with AIDS is on the inside. This is the model. She can't have AIDS!"

But I did. And what we did for black women was we told a different story of AIDS. We told the story of heterosexual monogamous relationships: looking for Mr. Right! You meet a man; you think he's wonderful. The relationship is great. Then the bread molds, and you move on to the next Mr. Right. And the cycle keeps going until you get married.

And we told that story through my life. And women still bring their copies of the magazine to me, in mint condition. I mean, the one copy I have, the eyeball is scratched out. And women bring it to me and they say, "You changed my life." And I am, honest-to-God, I'm so honored for that place in history. It's an awesome place in history to be.

What was your family's reaction?

My mom who raised me, Mama, who is really the one that I talk about the most; Mama didn't understand it. Because, for Mama, I was a whore. For Mama, I was this nobody. My mother had rationalized my life through her own life.

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When I told my mother that her husband was grabbing my breasts, she told me to go sit down somewhere; she wasn't going to let me mess up her stuff. And when a woman decides to stay in a relationship with a man who's abusing her child, she has to explain it. And her explanation is, if I wasn't fast, he wouldn't want me.

And so my mother could never quite reconcile what she made herself believe about me to the person that I really was -- a person that had really spent a good portion of my life, and even somewhat today, as an overachiever trying to meet Mama's approval. And here I am, at this one level, I've done this incredible thing for black women ... but my mother could never see beyond me being that little whore. And she died that way. By the time my mother died, I had an Emmy award. I had been featured on Nightline three times, on Oprah; I mean, Jesus, I couldn't have been more famous. She never could get there.

My childhood's interesting. My parents were heroin addicts. And my paternal grandfather took me, to raise me. He died when I was 6 years old. His wife kept me, and raised me. That's the woman that I call Mama.

Prior to my mother's marriage, my uncle raped me when I was 7, repeatedly, for about a school semester. Because he picked me up every day from school in kindergarten, and he taught me my ABC's. And when he finished teaching me my ABC's, he took me in the room.

Then my mom met a man; they lived together in a common law marriage, and he had seven kids. And the oldest son in this family raped me for a school year. I was 10, 10 to 11; and he was 19.

And then my mother met and married a man when I was 12, 13. They were together at 12; she married him when I was 13. He never penetrated, but he hemmed me in corners. It was sexual intimidation. He grabbed my breasts. He grabbed me between my legs. That went on until I left my mother's home, which was October of my senior year of high school. The intimidation never stopped.

I was afraid. My mom had took a job once, working a midnight shift; and I would sleep in my clothes. I would always get in the back seat of the car when he drove me somewhere. One day he said to me, "Your mama said that you're scared of me. If I wanted you little ass, I'd get you in the back seat or the front seat."

I lived with this, and it was torture. But it became even more torture when there was no protection whatsoever in my home, when my mother didn't protect me.

And even with your uncle? Even with the stepbrother?

They didn't know.

Oh, you didn't say anything.

"I was 29, in a therapist's office; and I said, 'I've been having sex all my life. I'm a sexual being. I've been having sex since I was 10 years old.' And the therapist looked at me and said, 'How does a 10-year-old have sex with a 19-year-old?' And I cried for two weeks."

They didn't know. I kept those early ones a secret. And in fact, let's be honest, I didn't even understand that I was being raped. I was 29, in a therapist's office; and I said, "I've been having sex all my life. I'm a sexual being. I've been having sex since I was 10 years old."

And the therapist looked at me and said, "How does a 10-year-old have sex with a 19-year-old?" And I cried for two weeks.

Because you had no idea.

I had no idea. There was still a disconnect. I accepted that I had been abused. I could name off the abuse. But I didn't work through it and cry, and hurt for the little girl, until I was in my late 30s, early 40s.

Wow.

Yeah. And I have another abuse in there that I didn't talk about. I was raped by my mom's stepsister for a summer.

Did you ever tell your mom about that?

I didn't, because I thought I'd get in trouble for being fast. Because by then my brother had raped me for a year, and I understood what "playing house" meant. And I understood what it was like to receive attention ... You see, the abuser locks you into the secret. They spend time with you, and it becomes your special relationship. My brother used to pop popcorn; we used to watch TV. And then he would get the covers, you know? And we would watch the scary movies. And the covers would protect us from the scary man. And, you know, it starts with a hand on the thigh; and it goes from the thigh to the vagina, over the panties. And then when he's comfortable with that, it's the vagina, bare.

And the fact of the matter is, it's that your body betrays you. It doesn't matter who's touching the clit; it feels good. And so your body betrays you, as even a little girl.

So you don't even think it's abuse.

You don't. But once they penetrate and it does hurt you, you're locked into the secret. Because you know, then, this is being fast. And you've been taught in your family that being fast would get you in trouble.

And then the reality is, you don't want your brother to take his attention away from you. And so you take the good with the bad. And they lock you into the secret. But the time my aunt raped me, I had already experienced my brother. And so I knew what this meant.

I was 11. And I thought I'd get in trouble. I was on vacation in New Jersey. And being at my mother's father's house was wonderful. And I thought I'd never get sent away to a vacation again, that Granddaddy wouldn't love me anymore, and that I would be a bad girl, and that I'd be in trouble.

You get locked into it. I mean, it is a torturous world. That's why a lot of times children who have been abused don't understand the abuse. They think that they're participating, rather than being raped.

How has this abuse played out in your relationships as an adult?

Well, the fact of the matter is that I was taught very young that sex was love. This is what you do when people love you. And so by the time I was dating by my own will, it was a natural thing for me to have sex with my boyfriends because this is what you do.

"When you grow up in an unhealthy, abnormal life, it becomes your normality. It becomes the way of life. And so you first have to learn what normal is, and then you have to work to get to a place where you can practice what this normality is."

And you exchange sex for love. You do. And when the relationship doesn't work out, you go to the next Mr. Right, and you exchange sex for love. And you may pick your partners very well. It really has very little to do with promiscuity. It has to do with the normal course of the cycle of meeting a guy, thinking he's wonderful ... and you move to the next Mr. Right.

But understanding that sex is not love becomes something that you have to get to. You see, when you grow up in an unhealthy, abnormal life, it becomes your normality. It becomes the way of life. And so you first have to learn what normal is, and then you have to work to get to a place where you can practice what this normality is. Because what was normal for me was abnormal.

At what point did you decide that you needed to go into therapy and work out some of these issues?

I started therapy for the first round in my early 20s, when my biological mother tried to commit suicide. I was in for about six months. And this therapist identified some other issues. Obviously, I was an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I had grown up in a house with an alcoholic. I mean, there were some clear characteristics of an adult child of an alcoholic. And we kind of put those in a corner, and we left them there. And I just left them there.

When I made a transition to AIDS, I became clinically depressed -- and I knew it. I knew that I was not good. And so -- I will never forget this -- I was in graduate school, working on my master's in political science. My boyfriend dropped me off to school. And I left his car and went straight to the nearest school campus phone, and picked it up and said, "Do we have a Counseling Department here?" And they made me one of those emergency appointments. Instead of going to class, I went to therapy.

They told me that there was a waiting list for eight months. And I sat with this woman for an hour. And the next day, they called me and gave me a permanent person. And that was in my late 20s. And then I stopped for a while. And then somewhere in my 30s I knew that I needed help. I wanted to be healthy.

And it took a lot of work to get here. My last four years in therapy was about learning what, understanding what, healthy was; and applying that to my life. I'm there now.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.


Copyright © 2012 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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This article was provided by TheBody.com.

See Also
Rae Lewis-Thornton: A Diva Talks About Living With HIV/AIDS (Video Series)
Sexual Abuse of Children and HIV


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