The subtle moment came during the second segment of Matt Lauer’s explosive interview with actor Charlie Sheen. It impressed me so deeply I actually backed up my recording and watched it twice more.
Sheen had already endured the first segment of his time with Lauer, during which he resembled an uneasy hostage trying to charm his captors. Gone were most of the features of the train wreck we have come to know as Charlie Sheen: the mania, the twitches and glazed eyes, the bloviated pronouncements delivered with the bravado of a crack cocaine messiah.
That public meltdown was in 2011, a millennia in celebrity years. The humbled, visibly nervous man on The Today Show had his back against a wall, forced to reveal his HIV positive status on the eve of venomous tabloids doing it for him.
And so, the immensely privileged actor found himself in a position known all too well by those of us who live with HIV: having to disclose our status and pray to God the response will be at least civil, if not empathetic. Except, of course, Sheen did it under the blaze of studio lighting, with high definition cameras searching for any betraying signals on a face layered with makeup and apprehension.
The moment that transfixed me came after an endless commercial break – several minutes of corporate pigs at the trough, lapping up the ratings slop of Sheen’s misfortune. Sheen had already made his HIV disclosure and had begun building a case against the extortions of his former sex partners and confidantes. It wasn’t the most relatable storyline with which to lead, but it was presented through a veiled, undeniable personal agony.
And then, Lauer announced he had messages from Twitter he wanted to share, fresh off the internet presses, containing reactions to Sheen’s HIV disclosure from the town square of cyberspace. Sheen’s face changed. On live television, in front of a blockbuster audience the world over, Charlie Sheen would now hear exactly what people thought of him, his story, and most unnervingly, his HIV status.
Lauer began to read. “Laura says, ‘You have brought me to tears. I am profoundly touched by your honesty…’” The camera had moved to a graphic of the tweets and Sheen was not visible. Lauer was continuing with a second message. “For the first time in a long time you can be proud of yourself,” he read, “Now you’re really winning.”
The camera cut to Sheen, who fumbled out a “wow… that’s lovely,” although he still seemed to be holding his breath. Lauer continued with a third message. “Now you own your truth,” the message read. “Good on you, Charlie Sheen. Respect.”
And it was in this moment, as Lauer finished the third of three consecutive responses, all of them supportive, that the camera revealed something barely perceptible but achingly human.
Charlie Sheen raised his shoulders slightly in a shallow intake of breath, and then let it out, shifting in his chair as if to mask it, while his eyes found a place of exquisite, emotional relief that no mere actor could ever muster.
It was the sigh of a thousand gulps of air, the release of months of secrecy and loneliness, of doubt and the very real fear of what lies beyond the words “I am HIV positive.”
It was then that I recognized the man on the television screen. He was every HIV positive person who has ever had to make a revelation that holds the acceptance of our loved ones and co-workers and friends in its precarious balance. And, at least in that instant, fate was merciful to Charlie Sheen.
The backlash, as if duty bound, has begun. Much has been breathlessly reported about the veracity of Sheen’s statements, the lawsuits, the blame and recriminations, and even his residual tiger blood bluster that he might be the man to deliver a cure. None of the nonsense to come can nullify the fact that the critical words “undetectable viral load” have been written, spoken, and defined more in the last few days than in the entire history of HIV advocacy.
There will be plenty of time to assess the fallout of Charlie Sheen’s disclosure, for better or worse. For now, I remain struck by the eyes of a vulnerable man during his singular, desperate moment of grace.
And in them, a glimmer of hope for us all.
There has been so much inspiring public advocacy and reporting amid the obscene hysteria of much of the media firestorm. Some of the media pieces I especially appreciate include a USA Today piece on this teachable moment, a Daily Dot article on the insanity of HIV criminalization, Lambda Legal’s critical reference guide to speaking about Sheen, the CNN Headline News segment I did with Rae Lewis-Thornton about what it is like living with HIV in the here and now, TheBody’s insightful fact-checking of the Sheen interview, and Gus Cairn’s Huffington Post piece about our new, reluctant HIV poster boy. There are surely many more to come.