Today’s guest post comes from actor and writer, Thom Vernon.
This is a brave and fearless tale. I have a feeling Thom wouldn’t agree. But, that’s certainly how I see it. I bet you will too.
This is also as blunt and honest a tale as ever been published in this space. Thom could argue that one with me all day, but he’d lose the fight, which, after reading this story, you might find difficult to believe, because Thom has more fight in him than most, and I can’t picture him losing at anything.
Some people walk through life with their eyes closed. Some turn a blind eye to what stands before them. And some choose to plow forward, no matter what the circumstance, with eyes wide open.
Thom Vernon is one of those people. And he’s reaped the rewards.
Now we do as well.
Recently, I wrote a critically-acclaimed novel, The Drifts (Coach House Books, 2010), and have been staging excerpts with two major New York Theater festivals. Bully for me that the Globe & Mail called the book “magnificent”; audiences have said very nice things (“hilarious and heartbreaking…stricken and dangerously poetic”, etc.) and I’ve gotten some nice press. Unfortunately, one festival got wind that another fest was announcing my participation and selling tickets. The first (you know who you are) decided to penalize me (and others) $500 because the second announced my participation. You’d think that two major theatre festivals could navigate a turf war somewhere besides on the backs of artists. But, no. Of course, news of the fine took the bloom off my rose. I was very distracted, demoralized and angry. But, with the help of Maura Halloran (@maurahalloran) and others, I kept my eyes on the prize. I know what I’m there for. The turf war and penalties are likely more of an expression of the pathetic state of arts funding in America. According to the most recent NEA data, most non-profit arts orgs get around 1% of their budgets from federal funding. It’s not personal.
But this is. War story. The reason that sun streaming through that rear windshield is key to my longevity is that it has been an unbreakable burn leading me through long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While being an actor apparently came through the rear window, self-respect did not. While I have always had a core of undimmed Self, I came up in a family whose parenting strategy was humiliation, diminishment, and abandonment. This, my folks would tell you today, is how you raise strong independent people. Maybe. But, not in my case.
Everyone experiences stress. But some of us have endured long-periods of sustained and unrelenting trauma that we re-live, fight like hell to avoid through numbing (through work, busy-ness, drugs/alcohol, sex, etc.) and that causes our hearts and brains to seize—like deer in headlights. To breathe, think clearly or have faith that you’re not falling off the edge of world is next to impossible. Or so it seems. When we are triggered, the world can collapse into a cone of terror. At the apex of that cone is a trigger. A comment, a look, a loss, a success. Good or bad it doesn’t matter. If it triggers, we leap from the train. Until we figure out what’s going on.
Everybody’s got their stuff. My own life was, until a few years ago, one of doing everything I could to outrun four sites of long-term trauma. First, my parent’s idea of good childrearing was humiliation, mocking, suspicion, demonization and terrorizing my three siblings, me and each other. Shame was the game. Getting out with skin intact meant sucking it up, shutting your mouth, looking the other way and a lot of ducking. I was, and am, good at all of that. Much better than my poor siblings who, in adulthood, took to alcohol, depression, food and other addictions. My drugs of choice have been work, running, writing and acting. And cigarettes (I remain a devoted non-smoking smoker). My parents believed that the worse we felt about ourselves, the stronger and more independent we would become as adults. The universe seems to love a good chuckle. You can see how the idea of ‘play’ or improvisation might have been akin standing in front of a firing squad. Now, the two places I am most at home is on an empty stage with no script in front of a full house or in front of blank page. I’ve come a long way, baby.
Second, I grew up in central lower Michigan. Maybe Lansing was the state capital but it was a very homophobic environment. I’m writing other pieces about this period and it finds its way, transmuted, into my fiction. I’ll let your imagination gather you a picture of our local paper regularly publishing the photos and names of men caught seeking cold comfort at the rest stops out I-96 or elsewhere; of derision, mocking and sexual abuse. Enough said. My eyes were opened.
Third, on July 14, 1987 I tested positive for HIV. Those were early days in the epidemic. Increasingly, I meet folks coming up who have no idea that for most of the time HIV/AIDS has been here, there has been no treatment. We’re on a good roll now with the anti-retrovirals out there but every single one of us know there are no guarantees. I have the stamina of a horse, run for up to two hours on a go, can do a whole one-person performance (up, down and around) and am still ready to go after my so many of my colleagues tucker out. But, funnily enough, it hasn’t been the physical that’s been my challenge with HIV.
Nope, it’s the 27 years of institutionalized demonization that confirms everything my parents and every other homophobic asshole has spit into the world. That will drain the life out of you. For instance, when my mom said that me and my sister-in-law (our lovely Susan who’d tested positive when she married my brother) belonged in concentration camps, I saw that sentiment echoed by television pundits and discussed openly. I told Mom, hurtling down a dirt road in the back seat of my parent’s car, that she should work as hard as she could to make that happen. I would work much harder to make sure it didn’t. And it didn’t. Susan — and so many others — didn’t make it. I did.
On a profound level, it’s a life of terror (is that red bump it?), fear of exposure (Try being a gay, positive actor in Hollywood in the early 1990s. Although I’m sure there were thousands of us, we sure as hell didn’t tell anyone.); the loss of friends, family and lovers, the rejection by the government (we weren’t worth mentioning, let alone finding a treatment for) and so on. It wasn’t just that, but those were the parameters governing anything I did or hope to do. My eyes were opened.
And lastly, having to go into exile as a sero-discordant couple (I’m positive, my guy is not) to stay together. There is nothing like being utterly rejected by your own country and being forced out. Trust me, there are two kinds of people nobody wants. Africans (my guy’s from Zimbabwe) and HIV+ people. We spent years looking for a country to go to. It was impossible to continue in the business at that point heading off to France here, back to Canada and back to Los Angeles there. Under the gun and my guy on the verge of being picked up in the War on Terror at any moment. Sobering. We don’t choose who we fall in love with, we choose to live authentically.
Each of these sites of trauma have lasted years. It is only now that I am in a place where I am not being subjected to constant trauma and can even imagine what it is like to live without being subjected to more or wishing I was someone else. Part of that is being more public about my status. I no longer seek safety in hiding.
The truth is, everybody’s got their HIV. Everybody’s got trauma. Trauma shape-shifts, moves right or left, ducks out of sight and leaps up in the middle of a call back. But my parents and the haters were wrong. Their efforts don’t diminish me. Nobody forgets trauma, no one forgets abuse. Fingerprints remain. If that’s the case, then now what? Then I get to step up with the experiences and life I have had. End of story. Today, I understand the richness that I bring to the table. I have been allowed more access to my capacities, not less. It’s true, I can’t manage the survival traits (approval-seeking, doubt, fear, etc.) that I developed to cope with life then. But I can see them, acknowledge them and maybe integrate them. I’m a work in progress. Today, I accept my fantastic journey and am spiritually sober enough to hold it as the gift it is. This is the essential key to longevity to life in this business (or any other). We put one foot in front of the other, led by intuition, impulse and interest. That’s all we’ve got. That’s all anybody else has got too. We’re all feeling our way forward through the dark. Isn’t it terrific?
At 23, I tested positive two years before I even got my first professional acting job. Everything I’ve done professionally has happened since I tested positive. Back then getting cast bolstered a sorely wounded ego. But when that doctor looked into my eyes, told me I was HIV positive and then said, ‘You’re going to die.’ I had a decision to make. It wasn’t if I was going to go, but how I was going to live. I knew that if I was going to survive, I had to take care of myself the best I could and that meant (and means) staying firmly and actively engaged in what thrills and interests me. Perhaps, I do not have the luxury of disinterest. I understand that the universe saw fit to put me here, in this situation, in art and creativity and exploration in order to move the whole project of life on this planet forward. Our intuitions, interests and impulses are all we’ve got to go on. Every single person has something unique and particular to offer this human project. We are on the planet to nurture and express this. Our intuitions, impulses, interests are the flashlights lighting our way. We’ve got nothing else. So stop looking and stop listening to other people. They are as much in the dark as you are. My eyes are open.
Now we’re safe in Canada, my guy’s a citizen and I’m plowing forward. I shot a Lifetime movie this summer and am getting into voiceover. My second novel, a book of essays and a Young Adult novel are on deck. I teach at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and in a growing private practice. Where I am today—versus when I was on the lam from the mob all those years ago — is that I consciously accept that beam of light streaming in the window. It’s not an accident, cruel hoax or misguided ego. It is what it is. I keep the focus on myself, and my work. People will or won’t approve of me. My beautiful parents did the best they could given that they had no idea what they were getting into. Me too; I’ve done the best I could and let myself off the hook. I take no prisoners for the crime of being human. When Richard asked me to share, I thought the only reason I would is if one of you — especially those who’re positive or who’ve suffered some trauma — might see a little of themselves reflected here and take a little water for your own journey. Eyes open.
Thom Vernon (Seinfeld, Grace Under Fire, The Fugitive, etc.) is an American writer and actor who lives in Toronto. Recently back in the acting saddle with a Lifetime movie, he will bring The Drifts Live: the novel onstage to New York City’s United Solo Festival on Nov. 6, 7pm (unitedsolo.org). He teaches screen and fiction-writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and privately, while auditioning, finishing his second novel, publishing critical and mainstream essays and causing trouble wherever possible.
Thom is available for remarks and questions in the Comments section below...
|RB's Stage 32 News, Notes, Discussions, and Other Fun Stuff (October 25th, 2013)|
|Part I: Stay Interested. Eyes Open.|