Hal Bramson interview (Part 2 of 4)

Uploaded by JohnFParis on 25.07.2011

And there's somebody from the community who was at that meeting
who may remember my saying that.
I said, we will at the Switchboard will have blood on its hands.
And my motion was defeated, 27 to 7.
What could you do?
Shocking. Well, the same debate raged in
San Francisco about the closing of the baths.
The Democratic Convention was to be held in 1984.
And the Harvey Milk Club, to its credit -- a gay club --
a gay and lesbian club ... political correctness, that's what
it's doing a lot of damage to ACT UP, or it was doing a lot of damage
to ACT UP, political correctness --
...came out in support of urging the Health Commissioner,
Silverman, who became head of the AIDS foundation, the American Foundation for AIDS Research,
he was urged to close the baths.
Because many thousands of people were coming in from all over the country, from Middle America.
Here's their chance, these bisexuals and homosexuals
who don't know -- 1984.
And the baths weren't closed.
That's my best recollection. And the controversy about the closing of the baths in New York
when that happened -- when Koch closed them, though three remained open --
three remained open, throughout, despite all the publicity --
my attitude then changed.
Leave the baths open -- it was now 1987, 1988, probably '87.
Leave the baths open and have them be a center of dissemination of information,
now that we know so much about the epidemic.
Anyway, what a tirade!
And I have a lot of anger about it.
I have a lot of anger toward the gay community
for their ostrich-like position.
And yet they were human beings.
I have a lot of admiration for Larry Kramer,
he was fighting. He organized the very first AIDS group to collect money
at the dock at Fire Island at the Pines,
I believe it was July 4th weekend, 1981.
The first report came from CDC in June of 1981.
And then there was the Lawrence Altman article on Dec. 3, 1981, in The New York Times,
which spoke about men who have sex with 9, 10 men at the baths
coming down with -- it was either pneumonia or the cancer
or both, I forget.
I have a lot of anger. I was operating alone!
There were no connections -- I wish that I had a connection.
I remember reading in the Native that
Larry Kramer was holding a fundraiser in his apartment
in August, to support the work of a Dr. Friedman-Kien
at N.Y.U., the dermatologist, who was
one of the first to speak about the implications of this disease.
And I sent him a check that was so embarrassingly small, I'm not
going to say what it was in this camera.
I can't believe that I -- well, I'll say it.
Let the truth be told!
I didn't go to his apartment for the fundraiser.
I wrote out one check, I tore it up -- I can't believe
that I was so God-damned cheap
I sent him a check in 1981, August, of five dollars.
I can't believe that's what I sent to him -- I sent something.
And then I made up for it within a couple of months
when there was a special collection for Friedman-Kien's work --
I hope I'm getting his name right, he's still around --
And I sent him $25. But then I continued to send money.
I had a lot of anger as to how the epidemic was handled.
I was writing my letters, not so much about the epidemic,
I was actually writing my letters to Abe Rosenthal,
to Sulzberger Sr. -- editor, managing editor, and publisher,
never once getting acknowledgment.
My letters were about their handling of gay issues.
My letters were about their failure to use the word "gay" except in quotations or the names of organizations.
And that policy changed when Max Frankel replaced Abe Rosenthal.
And now The New York Times may be the most gay-positive, gay-friendly newspaper in the country --
I don't read all the newspapers.
It's very sad that an epidemic
that might have been handled early on
wasn't handled because the news media
failed to give it attention.
I think very, very early on
Geraldo Rivera, and Donahue --
what's his name, channel -- NBC, talk show host -- Phil Donahue
both gave attention to the disease
in one-hour segments.
There was a demonstration, a silent demonstration
in Central Park, I believe it was the summer of 1983,
Geraldo Rivera was there, we each were given a number
how many people either had AIDS, how many people had died of AIDS.
And it was in the five hundreds.
Anyway, that's that story about being active.
I'd like to continue
talking talking talking
I'd like to continue and finish the story
of a pattern -- you mentioned character traits or emotional patterns.
Well, I was among those who wanted ACT UP to stay "pure."
To stay focused on the epidemic
and stay nonpartisan.
There was a significant group within ACT UP
that wanted us to align with the Left
in America, the Left organizations, the weak and powerless,
and join their demonstrations,
endorse their marches and have them endorse our marches.
A Left which wasn't able to get anywhere,
taking the focus away from our main concern.
And it really caused a division within the organization.
And it came to a head in the spring of 1988
when there was a peace march on the United Nations,
I don't recall what the peace march was all about, it was a march for peace.
And the proposal upon the floor was,
Do we, can we endorse this march?
And the march was a collection of left-wing organizations,
many of which I supported.
I mean, I voted for Jesse Jackson in the Democratic primary!
Nevertheless, I wanted ACT UP to remain nonpartisan.
And that was one of the last times I spoke at an ACT UP meeting.
And we -- those with whom I agreed --
lost by a 60-40 margin.
And I stayed in ACT UP into 1991.
I became a very, very good friend
of a man who was one of the unsung heroes of ACT UP.
He never sought publicity.
He was one of the five people arrested on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
He never got the acclaim that he deserved.
Most people don't know the name Lee Arsenault.
The first year of our friendship was wonderful,
he had a lover, he lived deep in Long Island,
he'd come in, we'd meet for dinner every Monday night
before an ACT UP meeting.
The second year, so-so.
"Well, gee whiz, I have this commitment every Monday night
he needs me, he has AIDS
his condition is deteriorating, he's a hero
I can't abandon him!"
And he would give me dish --
he was on the inside -- he would give me dish.
He knew the big people
though he was never a [gestures up] big person himself
in terms of name recognition.
Though, those who knew, who did the work,
knew that Lee Arsenault did the work.
If Peter Staley knew the work that Lee Arsenault did,
and I have a lot of respect for Peter Staley,
as well as having a crush on him.
As did a lot of other people.
Peter and I generally agreed about issues,
though I was not a personal friend of Peter's.
Anyway, with Lee
the third year became tyranny.
"Oh, God, I don't want to go to the meeting tonight,
Monday night." It came to a point
where, during the year I would speak with him or his lover
and when his lover would say to me, "Lee's too ill to come in Monday,"
I would be relieved.
I would call -- maybe I shouldn't have used his name --
I would call
At the time when, and I would call, I would want to hear Lee's not coming in
then I'd be liberated and I wouldn't have to go to the meeting.
And the final liberation had been when Lee died
in June 1991, and then I stopped attending ACT UP meetings.
A month earlier, I had started
attending meetings of Co-Dependents Anonymous,
when a friendship I had, dramatically changed.
And I've been attending 12-Step meetings since,
finding them to be tremendously rewarding.
A great gift I've given myself through my active participation.
Lee Arsenault was a hero, a true hero of the epidemic.
So what have you learned since 1991?
About people, about yourself?
This is a powerful question,
not easily answered.
I can give the results, which are ongoing,
they're always transforming,
getting richer, or becoming less important,
I am much more at peace with myself.
I'm increasingly aware that I'm not a bad person.
The idea of accepting one's dark side
and acknowledging the dualities,
that I'm powerless over my dark side,
and that only a Power greater than myself can restore me to sanity,
which is the Second Step.
And fortunately, the Program allows
participants to define Higher Power, God, for themselves.
When my life was going well, it was easier
for me to acknowledge a spiritual, traditional
God, though never in the form that organized religions used,
and I frequently would say
in regard to my life, "A miracle is something that happens only with God's intervention."
And I'll say that now, a miracle happens only with God's intervention.
And for me, God is the Program, the collective wisdom of the Program.
The collective, accumulated wisdom of the Program, my teachers are other co-dependents.
My teachers are other sex addicts.
SCA has been my dominant program for over two and a half years,
though I maintain my connection with CoDA with a meeting a week
and I do an ACOA meeting.
I have found SCA tremendously liberating.
My Higher Power? Other people in the Program.
They are my teachers. Other sex addicts are my teachers.
The literature, the Tools,
specifically the Steps.
The Slogans have been of terrific value for me --
"Easy Does It," "One Day at a Time,"
to some extent "Let Go, Let God,"
"Act As If" is important for me on many occasions --
"But for the Grace of God" when I saw people who I previously would have put down.
And I still have judgments.
Sponsorship: the idea that Higher Power speaks to me through other people.
All of these are not just verbiage that I'm using,
I've found that they're effective, and true,
and work, and I'm a pragmatist.
What have I learned about myself? Is that your question?
[Chuckles.] I can't say this!
I've learned I have a lot of nice qualities.
I see how often I used to put myself down in the past.
And I do it far less frequently.
And I've been learning to be gentle with myself.
"Feelings Aren't Facts."
"This Too Shall Pass," another Slogan.
The idea that "The Steps Work Us."
And I've done Fourth Step inventories.
And I learned from one person how to do specific-issue Fourth Step inventories
on a specific part of any relationship.
And the Tenth Step -- making amends that day,
clearing up the debris from the day, whether it's done that day or the next day.
Acknowledging my role.
Oh, I used to live a life that was full of fears.
Fears of what I said, what I did.
And I recently had that -- and then I was foolish frequently.
And I have tools now with which to handle them --
a phone call, a meeting where I talk about it, I can talk.
I was sure, some three, four weeks ago
that I had said things to people
that would cause them to act out,
that I encouraged one person to be more sexually free
and I was talking with another person about
drugs, and my sleeping pills, and I was mentioning them by names,
by naming them, and he said, "Hal, stop! I'm a drug addict.
I can't hear this."
And I was just afraid that he was going to act out,
as a result of what it was that I had said to him.
And I got home, called somebody
in Program -- actually somebody I met in CoDA --
very wise, he said, "Wait a moment.
If that person acts out as a result of what you said,
that person has then made you his Higher Power.
He has his own Higher Power."
Oh, I was so comforted by that,
that I actually forgot about it for the rest of the week.
And when I saw him the following week at the same meeting,
he came over, gave me a great big hug and kiss.
He probably hadn't thought about it a second time.
And if I hadn't gotten that feedback, if I hadn't been --
Is this that I'm so powerful that I could have another person act out
based upon something that I said?
That was illuminating! Three and a half years later
that person remembered how often I made other people my Higher Power.
Putting them on pedestals,
being terrified of what I might say to incur their displeasure,
What I didn't say that would incur their approval.
Yes, I've learned that I can't do it myself,
we can do it together.
And the paradox is, I've learned to be more self-reliant.
And I acknowledge the paradoxes that are allowing this.
So I've learned that there is another way of living a life.
And the Program has brought that about for me
through my participation in the Program.
In Australia, they say, "Never take credit for your own recovery."
I'm not going to explain that, I think it's self-evident.
"And never take credit for anybody else's recovery."
And I was disappointed when I read that, heard that.
And I spoke with somebody in New York, in Program,
he said, well, he sees it somewhat differently,
he sees it as a partnership.
So I did the legwork.
I went to meetings, I made the phone calls, I got a sponsor,
got some sponsees -- I was more successful
with the sponsors that I've had,
I'm on my second sponsor,
the first one lasted a year and a half,
and he gave me great gifts, even though he was half my age.
Now I've lost myself. Where was I?
You were talking about your gifts of sponsorship.
Before that.
Oh. Partnership.
The Quakers have a saying: "Pray with your feet."
I like that.
Before that, I was very much taken with
"Walk the walk as well as talk the talk."
It's easy to talk the talk.
Taking the action, and letting go of the outcome,
that's a wonderful Slogan,
taking the action and letting go of the outcome.
Well, I took some major actions
during my first year in Program,
in the first year of recovery.
One action I had delayed taking for 12 years,
another I had delayed taking for 7 years.
'Cause I was terrified taking either action.
And both I was able to do, following Program principles.
Break the action into small, manageable steps.
Don't jump into the future.
One st-- in hope, -- each individual -- one step at a time.
When you've completed everything that you needed to do,
let go of the outcome.
And boy, did I get positive results both times.
So I've learned a lot in Program.
I use the word Program generically.
That's fine.
I need to turn the light on to continue.
Well, now I'm going to get into a little more more-challenging stuff.
And now you've [been forewarned?].
Relationships with people?
Are there any that you are, that you feel that you're in a bad situation with right now?
I am taken aback at how much love there is in my life.
From longtime friends, and people I've known
only the last year or two or three.
I don't see any unfulfilled relationships.
I had a reconciliation with a sister with whom I had [we put up words?].
I'm glad about that.
That was one of my concerns. That's good.
So you feel at peace in your relationships.
[Nods.] My friends have been very, very supportive of me,
knowing what it is that I'm planning.
And I'd guess, some more so, and some less so.
To the extent that they're different.
So, the name Harry.
I was Harold in the Army -- I was in the Army for two years.
I wasn't about ready to declare that I was a homosexual.
And when I stayed after basic training
I was given an assignment at another base,
and there was a Harry who was in the office where I worked
and everybody started calling me Harry
just very naturally, so I became Harry.
And I was Harry from 1954 until 1972, 73,
when some of us rented a house at Fire Island for the summer.
And I didn't like the name Harry, I thought
it was a nebbish name, had no dynamism.
So I changed my name to Hal.
And it took some months for people who knew me well to fall into place.
And every now and then I still meet somebody who will say, "Hi, Harry."
And I'll say, "That person knew me in 1973!"
[Laughs.] I remember one of them the other day, well, several months ago
at Barnes and Noble.
Right. All right.
And you spent many years as a schoolteacher,
which you are not putting in your obituary?
I am not putting it in my obituary, as I don't consider it
a significant aspect of my life.
It paid the bills, gave me a wonderful pension,
summer vacations, and a lot of aggravation, a lot of tension.
I had some good years, I had some bad years.
I helped a lot of students, and I was nasty and cruel to others.
Basically, I did my best to be kind.
At times, I'd break into a rage
and say things I'm not proud of.
But basically, I was a decent person.
I don't regret it.
I just heard the word "regret," so I'll ask you if you have any regrets.
No, I do and I don't.
I mean, I'd like to say I have no regrets
about the past.
I couldn't have lived my life
any differently from the way that I lived it.
I wouldn't have been who I am.
And yet, this morning, or yesterday morning,
was it the afternoon -- it doesn't really matter --
I was talking with somebody from Program
who was talking about
the difficulties he used to experience
before he started Program.
And how effortless he handles them now.
And I started to cry
'cause I realized how true that is for me.
And gee, but that's who I was.
I couldn't have been anybody else.
Regrets? I regret that I'm not going to be around another 10 or 20 years
to enjoy the life that really became a wonderful life for me.
I had the best of two cities, in New York and Sydney,
wonderful friends in both,
a New York apartment,
more than enough money
for my lifestyle to live a really good, enjoyable life.
I had no money problems.
Then, out of the blue, there was a cancer diagnosis.
At first, it was a misdiagnosis
based on a botched biopsy, an ineffectual biopsy report
which indicated one kind of cancer.
And anyway, my cancer is kidney cancer.
It's one of those cancers that's very difficult to treat.
Its five-year survival rate is one to two percent,
with the emphasis on one percent.
And who knows what quality of life
those people who are alive in five years have?
So I was on treatment, interferons.
And the side effects were devastating,
and I hadn't yet taken the full dosage,
because the side effects were so difficult.
So I decided to stop treatment and let the disease play out.
That was over a month ago,
close to a month and a half ago.
And the esteemed oncologist, bright,
well-informed, said, "Well, you have about six months,
maybe a year and a half, maybe four months.
My best estimate is about six months.
And if you had stayed on the interferon,
you had about a year."
So it was my -- Hobs -- is it called a Hobson's choice?
So I made the choice that was best for me.
And I stopped treatment.
And I knew 20 years ago that I wasn't going to stay alive
for the end stages of a terminal illness.
And as soon as I learned about
the formation of a group called the Hemlock Society,
in the very early 1980s,
I became a member,
when the group was still in its infancy.
And I used to say to friends,
oh, the only non-gay or -AIDS organization
to which I contribute money
is the Hemlock Society.
I always knew. Little did I know
that it was going to be me.
So my action, in securing, my action is
based upon a philosophy
that has been mine for a great many years.
The action that I am contemplating.
I haven't as yet taken the action.
Maybe a week ago,
maybe two weeks ago, there was a letter to the editor
in the New York Times that described
the experiences of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist
who left a note after he put a gun to his head.
He left a note, how barbaric that our society
that I had to do it this way.
He had terminal cancer.
He was living through the agony,
that was the word in the letter -- he didn't write the letter --
that was the word, and that he was living
through the agony of terminal cancer
motivated by a project he was doing.
And when he completed his project,
he put the gun to his head.
And our society is barbaric!
And, oh, authoritarian, anti-libertarian
that I don't have, legally, the access
to end my life, as they do in the Netherlands,
as they now do in Oregon,
though the referendum, while passed,
is being challenged in the courts and is being held up.
Did you see the television show last night?
I didn't watch it. The Sunday Times, five or six weeks ago,
had an article on that television show.
And I said, there's no way an American commercial TV show is going to show that.
And here it was.
And there it was.
But that's not my situation.
That's assisted suicide through lethal injection
with the man's wife with him.
And after reading the review in the Times yesterday,
I thought, "How co-dependent is that relationship is!"
That woman and that man,
they were never apart!
This is the first time he's going to be alone.
My God, the quintessential co-dependent relationship!
Do you have a sense of a project being completed?
I don't know a project, I was working on myself.
Which in effect -- which has that ripple effect on all the people with whom I have contact.
And obviously, I've done something right
for there to be as much love in my life as there is
expressed by as many people
as express it.
Friends that go back 20, 25, close to 30 years.
Boy, I was not the bad guy that I always thought I was.
And I was a bad guy -- I lied, I cheated, I manipulated,
I deferred, I was inauthentic.
But maybe the inauthenticity was an aspect of my authenticity.
And that's the shadow, that's the paradox.
And now I can acknowledge it
and not put myself down for it.
I like the idea of the spirituality of imperfection,
it's the title of a book
based on A.A., it's a wonderful book.
Hold on.
And I do endorse it,
though I haven't looked at it for a very long time.
"The Spirituality of Imperfection,"
It's really -- oh, I was -- you can see it's well-thumbed.
Well, maybe not as well-thumbed as some of my other books.
But I accept that principle totally.
It works for me.
So you're still able to laugh.
[Wistfully.] Yeah.
Feeling sad at all these days?
Yeah, I do feel sad that my life is coming to an end.
I'd rather not have cancer.
And in a way, I'm at peace.
It could have been much worse.
I could have had a 30 or 40 percent chance of survival
and undergone the rigors of chemo and radiation,
surgery, dependency, pain.
And who knows what was awaiting me down the pike in old age.
You often spoke of how you didn't want to be dependent on our health-care system
and the hospitals.
Oh, I got home today and I was LIVID --
LIVID! -- at a bill that I got.
I mean, the $200 is meaningless to me.
But that I should get a bill?
For work done for St. Vincent's Hospital?
When I severed my relationship with St. Vincent's Hospital at the end of August?
And here they have, "Starting Balance,
Cytology Consultation Service,"
they have starting balance as of 11/2/94 --
maybe I shouldn't have said the name because I could be wrong --
"Submitted slides for doctor, Vincent's Hospital --
for Doctor, St. Vincent's Hospital, $200"?
And that's the only explanation?
And an opening balance of zero on November 2nd?
And now they're billing me for $200?
I was furious!
And this is what I wrote:
"I am not paying this bill.
I don't have the slightest idea what it is about.
2) (That was 1.) I stopped using St. Vincent's Hospital in August.
How can I be sent a St. Vincent's statement for work done
at St. Vincent's when I haven't used St. Vincent's
for over three months?
3) I think it outrageous that I be sent a $200 bill
without any details.
4) How can this be a new charge
when I have a starting balance on 11/2/94 of 0.00?
5) Take me to court.
Turn this over to a collection agency. I'll be dead long before that.
Then, my conciliatory mode.
6) Or, send me a greatly reduced bill
quickly, and with an explanation.
7) Your telephone is busy, busy, busy."
It was not possible for me to get through!
Fuck them!
They send me a reduced bill, I'll pay it, my executor will pay it.
My executor will pay the $200 bill.
I do not want any difficulties for my executor.
I want to make it as easy as possible for him.
They send him a bill, I get a bill, he opens it, it's $200, I will tell him in advance, pay it.
I'm not causing him any problems.
So am I at peace? No. I'm angry.
Well, this gets to what I guess will be my final question.
Thank you, I'm exhausted!
Which is about the timing of what you are going to --
I can't, I'm not going to discuss the timing here.
My final question for you, then, is
I can't go into the future.
I can't discuss the timing.
It's sooner rather than later.
I just wondered if --
I know those are vague terms.
No, that's O.K.
You seem to be busy, you seem to still have some anger,
and I'm just wondering if this is something that's too much, too soon.
Now you, as the interviewer,
has changed his hat.
And you're now speaking as John, a friend,
as opposed to John the interviewer.
You want me to turn that off?
No, I'm going to respond to it.
I'm allowed to change my mind.
No one will think the less of me if I change my mind.
I may let the disease -- it's possible that I'll let the disease play itself out.
Taking increased dosages of painkiller --
you mentioned morphine earlier.
When codeine stops working,
and the dosage has escalated with the codeine,
then I move to a more potent painkiller,
which is morphine-related, either Percodat or Percodan.
I believe they're two separate drugs.
And then morphine.
And I must say that the morphine drip
is very appealing.
Very, very appealing.
And, op-ed article in the New York Times ...
You don't have to get it.
There's an op-ed article in the New York Times
several months ago -- are you shutting it off?
No, I want to videotape this.
An op-ed article in the New York Times had a
tremendous impact upon me.
Anyway, I'll tell you about the op-ed article,
rather than search for it, I have copies.
There is a cardiologist
who spoke the truth.
Who said, everybody knows that the morphine drip is being used
as an act of compassion to put people out of their suffering.
However, everyone has to lie about it
and say we're using the morphine to alleviate pain
when the dosages are increased.
And he says, let's come out of hiding.
Let's tell the truth, it's being done,
let's let people acknowledge that it's being done --
with safe -- and then we can have safeguards.
Oh, I just found that so reassuring,
the way this doctor described it.
The patient goes into a coma.
And they say the hearing is the last of the senses to go.
I don't know if that's scientifically accurate.
And the process takes them eight hours.
And it gives family and friends --
and my friends constitute a family
other than the biological family --
it gives family and friends
an opportunity to come in,
to come by and say their goodbyes.
Ted Koppel on "Nightline" a few nights ago
had a segment on the Oregon referendum,
where the voters narrowly approved
doctor-assisted suicide, in that the doctors can write the prescriptions
but cannot actually give a lethal injection
or administer the pills to their patients
but they can provide the pills to their patients
with certain safeguards.
Two requests orally, one request in writing.
An illness that's terminal, subjectively, within six months.
And one of the panelists said,
"All the Oregon law has done is bring from under the table
up and out into the open what's always been done in Oregon."
And an article in that same paper, the New York Times,
said that a search of Oregon's judicial records
state records, has shown that never once in the history of Oregon
has any charge been brought back against anybody for assisted suicide.
So for all practical purposes, it's a non-event.
It just legalizes what's always been done.
And I'll tell you, once I secured what I needed,
and it was not a personal physician who provided it,
what I needed,
once I was able to go into a network
and get what I needed,
it brought about a tremendous sense of relief,
and comfort and ease and peace, for me,
knowing that I had the means to do it,
should I choose to do so.
Then I saw a quote from Nietzsche,
and it goes this way:
"Thoughts of suicide have been a great consolation.
They have seen me through many a difficult night."
Amen. And that's my truth, too.
Seen any good movies lately?
[Laughs.] O.K., thanks, John.
Thank you, Hal.