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Brown is also an author. In 2008, her autobiography, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive (Harper Paperbacks, $14.99), was published to rave reviews. And over the years, she has appeared on countless television shows, appearing on MTV, BET, America's Next Top Model, and even the Oprah Winfrey Show. She has also spoken at colleges, universities and other venues throughout the world.
This is Warren Tong, reporting for TheBody.com. If my guest today had a nickel for every time she said the words "I'm HIV positive" to a group of strangers, then she'd surely be a millionaire or pretty close to it. Marvelyn Brown, welcome to This Positive Life.
Thank you for having me.
Can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive?
Certainly. I found out I was HIV positive on July 17, 2003. At the time, I had been sick in the hospital for about two and a half weeks. The doctors did a series of tests. I was given a CT scan, MRI, spinal tap; and every test they gave me, it just kept coming back negative, negative, negative. They actually had told me I had 24 hours to live. The priest was called in to give me my last words.
Then it was discovered that I had pneumonia. I think what people should realize is, I had pneumonia, and it had absolutely nothing to do with HIV. I just happened to be sick with pneumonia, but was tested for HIV at a time, which I'm really grateful for. Because I never cared about HIV. I did not care about it until they told me, right then, I was positive.
How old were you?
I was 19 years old.
Wow. I pulled a quote from your book that very much highlights this. It says, "How did I not know that this virus was sexually transmitted? I felt I had been robbed by my community, my school and my church. The mantras I had heard over and over again growing up -- 'Don't do drugs; don't get pregnant; don't smoke' -- suddenly seemed so worthless. Never had someone mentioned the possibility of me, Marvelyn Brown, contracting HIV from unprotected sex. I had seen it as something only Africans or gay men got." Could you expand on that a little?
I had only heard about HIV on the news, when I'd see this helpless kid in Africa. I knew that white gay men were getting it. I remember Philadelphia, you know.
Yes. At that time, I was very irresponsible, too. I was selfish. I felt invincible. So HIV was everyone's issue but mine. I really didn't care who got it. As long as it wasn't me, and it wasn't affecting people like me, I just didn't care.
Did it register at all with you?
Not at all. I had other stuff. I had prom. I had Mom issues. I was into guys. I had other issues. HIV wasn't one of them. You know? [When you're a teenager, the first thing on your mind, that you're concerned about, is not health.]
So, in the hospital bed, when they told you that you were positive, what was your reaction?
I really didn't have one, because I didn't really too much know what to think. Because I truly did not know what HIV was. I could tell that it was something more serious than I had ever took it for. But that was it.
Did you realize that you were at risk at all?
Not at all. The funny thing about it was, I had no idea how I contracted this virus. At the time, I was working at a daycare. You know, kids constantly come in, and they're sick, and they're ill, and all these things. So the thing I'm thinking, on my mind, is: I got it from one of the kids.
I really did not know how that virus was passed, so the last thing [on my mind was that I got it] through sex. I had always heard "STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] and HIV." And I'm like, "Why is HIV so close to STDs, but it's not under the umbrella?" And I said, "Oh. That's because gay men get it, and prostitutes get it."
Eventually, you did find out who you got it from, right?
Yes, once I had been told, "You got this virus through sex."
And then it started going through your mind, "These are the people who put me at risk?"
Were you able to talk to whoever infected you about it?
Well, once I had been told, "You got it through sex," and told the amount of time the HIV had been living in my body, I knew who I got it from. And it was the guy that I was dealing with.
But I did not want to tell him.
Why is that?
Because I still didn't think I got it from him. He looked too good. He smelled too good. This was my Prince Charming; this was my everything. So I did not want to believe that he and HIV could even be in the same sentence.
So even when I called him, it was still this thing that, in the back of my head, that it's no way. You know. It's no way.
But I called him and I told him. And he wasn't surprised.
No, he wasn't. I told him, "The doctors just told me I'm HIV positive," and he said, "I'm sorry."
Just like that? He's sorry?