Rae Lewis-Thornton has been living with HIV for 36 years and AIDS for 26, and she is a living, breathing symbol of strength, courage and determination. Throughout her life, she’s overcome abuse, neglect and a devastating diagnosis to become a political influencer and outspoken activist for HIV and AIDS in our community. And now she’s sharing her story with the world in her recently-released memoir, “Unprotected,” We spoke with Rae Lewis-Thornton about her book and how she found the courage to let the world know she was living with AIDS.
Publishing a memoir ain’t for the faint of heart. And for Lewis-Thornton, things definitely got off to a rocky start. Even after she found a publisher, she had, let’s just call it, “creative differences” with the writer. “When Viking wanted a sample chapter, the writer didn’t have time. So it just started to go downhill after that,” she said. “And when she did write it, it was a piece of shit.” What should have been a six-figure book deal for Lewis-Thornton wasn’t, and she saw her dreams of sharing her book with the public begin to slip away. As she continued to pursue publishers, Lewis-Thornton grew frustrated that they wanted to sensationalize her story. “They wanted that little Black girl who had a horrible life who was a whore messing around, got AIDS, but made good on life,” she said. “That was their only focus. And it didn’t feel right.”
So she decided to take matters into her own hands, writing and publishing the book on her own. “I made a huge announcement on Facebook that I was going to rewrite my book my damn self,” she said. Reliving memories of her past were often triggering. But with the help of her therapist, an amazing network of friends and a little time off the grid, she got the job done.
The finished product, “Unprotected,” is both emotional and scientific as Lewis-Thornton connects her story to scientific research on the effects of trauma on a child’s development. “The book is about how unprotected and violated I was as a child. And how it shaped the trajectory of my life. How it shaped my sex life. How it shaped my education and my thought process. How it made me into this person that I am, both for good and for bad,” she said.
In her book, Lewis-Thornton writes about being raised by her step-grandmother as her mother struggled with drug addiction. She felt lost as she suffered physical and sexual abuse, until she found purpose as a political intern during her college years. Lewis-Thornton made a name for herself in politics, rubbing elbows with the likes of the Rev.Jesse Jackson and former Chicago mayor Harold Washington. Then, at age 24, she was blindsided with a diagnosis of HIV.
Her diagnosis came in 1987, a time when information about the disease was new, and there were all sorts of stereotypes attached. She struggled to keep it a secret until 1994, when she decided to share her story with Essence, appearing on the December cover with a headline that read,“I’m Young, I’m Educated, I’m Drug-Free, and I’m Dying of AIDS.” But that wasn’t the end of her story. Nearly 30 years after that cover story, Lewis-Thornton is still an outspoken advocate for HIV and AIDS awareness and says her memoir was something she felt could be a gift to others.
“I did all of this because I knew it was a story that God wanted me to tell,” she said. “It’s not just about HIV prevention. It’s about soul work. Little girls with low self-esteem grow up to be women with low self-esteem. And I’m ready to have that conversation.”
You can purchase, “Unprotected” on Amazon and other book retailers.