For the last four decades, Rae Lewis-Thornton — aka “The Diva with AIDS” — has spent her life advocating for HIV/AIDS awareness. After living with the virus since the 1980s, she’s shedding light on the childhood trauma that led to her contraction in her newly released memoir, “Unprotected.”
In a conversation with us, Lewis-Thornton shares why childhood trauma must be addressed and how it affected her life and affects others in the Black community.
WORD IN BLACK: Rae, what inspired you to tell your story?
RAE LEWIS-THORNTON: When God puts something in my spirit that I can’t shake, I move with it. I move into that space, no matter how long it takes…It was time to let the secrets go and to really be able to use my life — this book — to have a broader discussion about the impact of trauma on children. And the impact of rape and violence for a Black girl child, so that the end game could be how do we shift the narrative to live whole and healthy.
But you’ve first got to understand trauma and most people don’t even realize that they were living in trauma or that they lived in trauma because trauma was their normal.
WIB: How has trauma been normalized in the Black family structure?
RLT: We’ve normalized trauma and a lot of our Black families — and I’m not minimizing racism and poverty and the external factors of trauma — but what happens in our homes with generational trauma?
Growing up in a household with a parent incarcerated. Growing up in a household with a parent with a mental illness, especially one that’s undiagnosed. Growing up with drug abusers, alcohol abusers, and how that shapes a child.
And I think that the incredible thing about understanding trauma is that we can never reverse the adverse childhood experience, but we can reverse some of the effects — but we got to have a discussion to do it. And my life is an example of what trauma looks like.
WIB: As someone who navigated trauma as a child, why is this conversation about the impact of such experiences a necessary one to have?
RLT: We spend a lot of time talking about how people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or “that happened when you were a child, so get over it.” And we really do need to shift the paradigm. We need to shift the conversation because what happened to them as a child has impacted their entire life. And it creates poor health disparities as an adult.
And so, it’s not as easy as saying, “Just get over it. It happened. Move on.” It’s just like saying move on from slavery. For me, it’s the same discussion.
WIB: What’s one story in your book that you can share with us as an example of what you experienced as a child?
RLT: When I was a freshman in high school, my mother woke me up at like five in the morning out of my sleep yelling, “B*tch, find my brush.” I’m like, “Oh my God.” I wake up, of course, in a panic at five o’clock in the morning.
“B*tch, get out of bed. Find my f*cking brush.”
I go into her room.
“B*tch, find my f*cking brush. I know you had it.”
I’m looking all over for this brush. I’m trying not to get my a** beat. I’m praying. I’m talking to God, “Oh, Lord. Please help me find this brush.” I’m just looking and she’s yelling, “I know you had it. You better find it or I’m going to beat your a**.” And she’s screaming and hollering at me. And she goes into the kitchen to basically get her a sip of her liquor because that’s how she started her day on her way to work. She was getting dressed for work and she came back over to where I was by the dresser and threw the rest of the cold water that she had in the glass in my face.
“B*tch, find my brush. I know you had it.”
I say, “Mama, is the brush in your purse?”
“Naw, b*tch. It ain’t in my purse.”
And God just said, “Look in her purse.” And I looked in her purse and there was her brush. I pulled it out and I said “Here, mama, here’s your brush.”
“I thought you had it.”
And then I had to turn around and get dressed and go to school and pretend my life was normal.
WIB: Thank you for sharing that, Rae. When you got to school, how did those experiences shape your ability to function as a student?
RLT: Short attention span, learning disabilities. It was a lot for me to overcome. And people say, “what’s wrong with that child?” Ain’t nothing wrong with that child. What’s wrong with that child is that child has been deregulated. Their cortisol is working overload and everything’s a trigger for them.
That’s what’s wrong with that child. And putting that child on ADHD medicine ain’t going to solve what’s hurting in their soul that needs to be resolved and worked through.
WIB: You mentioned in the introduction of your book that you struggled to write because you had to relive traumatic moments in your life. What did you pull from to keep going and accomplish this goal that was 14 years in the making?
RLT: When I was in the thick of it, my therapist said, “You know, you don’t have to do this.” And I said, “Yes, I do.” She understands at the end of the journey why this had to be done. So I pulled from what I had available — my therapist, my psychiatrist, my psychologist, the piece of my home and my art, prayer, friends.
I just pulled from what I had and I kept going, even when I wanted to stop, even on my worst days, even in my worst triggers. I just knew that I had to do it, and I understood that obedience was better than sacrifice.
So I just kept going.