To Beat AIDS, the Unbeatable Foe
“To me it’s never been an issue,” he says simply. “If I was in love then, I’m in love to the 10th power right now.”
On a visit to New York from Chicago, where she lives, Rae Lewis-Thornton sits across the desk in a Manhattan office, smartly dressed in a fine-gauge wool pantsuit, and pulls out a swatch of fake hair from her purse. She’s explaining how the elegant gray-accented mane that frames her face has just been installed by “the best” hair weaver in town. At 45, Rae doesn’t mind exposing such privacies: She’s used to hanging out the most intimate details of her life like jaunty bits of lingerie on a clothesline for all to see.
Verbally speed dialing through her résumé—magna cum laude from Northeastern Illinois University, national youth director of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign—Rae periodically brushes the new long strands of hair off her face with the gesture of a woman who knows the power of her appeal. In the same sweep of hand she reveals a Rolex and a pair of Van Cleef & Arpels onyx earrings, which match her necklace, as well as a bracelet that leads the eye to the other jewelry on that wrist—a beloved antique diamond piece and the silver and gold bangle she calls her “until there’s a cure for AIDS” bracelet.
Rae attributes her rapid-fire attention—which served her well as a young hot politico working presidential campaigns—to the Gemini in her. It could also be the legacy of starting life in a womb full of heroin. “My mom’s white and my dad’s black. They were two junkies. They hooked up together,” she says, knocking back the information like a straight-up shot of whiskey. “My paternal grandfather took me from them.”
Her story unfolds like a made-for-TV movie. When she was 6, her grandfather, the one steadying force in her early life, died, leaving her to the care of his third wife, Georgia, “the mama who raised me,” as Rae calls her. “She told me nobody wanted me, ‘Not even your white grandmama, and I’m stuck with your ass.’” Georgia, who worked as a maid, was a functional alcoholic, according to Rae. “My mother cooked a dinner every evening. My mother never staggered. My mother never slurred. But she beat me when the sun was shining, and she beat me when the sun wasn’t shining. Typically it was with an extension cord but it could have been a camera, whatever was close. And my mother was dark, so I was always ‘a white bitch.’ We never watched TV together, we never had family outings. It was a very troubled life.”
At first the two of them lived on Chicago’s South Side with a man who had seven children. One of the sons was about 19. “I was 9 or 10, and he abused me,” Rae says. “I’d felt rejected my entire childhood, and then my stepbrother showed me attention. It started out slowly with sitting and watching TV, and it escalated to touching, then touching me with my panties to the side, and then eventually penetration. It was so normal that I thought this was something that I was doing. And I understood it as I’m fast. I was never told that people aren’t supposed to be touching you at this age.
“It wasn’t until I was 31 in a therapist’s office and she said, ‘How does a 9-year-old have sex with a 19-year-old, Rae?’ I said, ‘Oh, because I’ve been a sexual person my whole life,’ and she said, ‘No.’ And I cried for two weeks. It was like, 'Oh my God, I wasn’t participating.'”