Article - Sally Helps People with HIV/AIDS
Sally Kirkland is ready for my call.
Sally Kirkland has been acting since the time she attended an all girls high school and she went on to become the youngest person to be accepted at the Actors Studio in New York. Her performance in Anna (1987) won her an Oscar nomination as Best Actress, the Golden Globe the L.A. Film Critics Award, and the Independent Spirit Award. The film won the Women in Film Award for 1987.
A few of her many other starring roles include Cold Feet, Revenge, Best of the Best and a star cameo in JFK. As a young girl she appeared in The Way We Were and The Sting. Her film Cheatin' Hearts, which she also executive produced, was picked by Robert Redford for the Sundance Film Festival a couple of years ago.
She's a professional producer, acting teacher and theater director, yoga master and ordained Minister of Light in MSIA, (the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness). She just appeared this past July on Oprah, teaching her yoga and meditation, and starred recently with Sherman Hemsley in Good Behavior and with Fran Drescher on the hit series The Nanny.
Am I ready for Sally? She already puts me at ease by answering her phone, "David Waggoner?" For two hours, Sally and I talk about how AIDS has touched her on all levels of her life.
David Waggoner: I know you're In the middle of shooting The Westing Game for Trinity Films and SHOWTIME television. I'd like to thank you for taking time out to share with our readers.
SK: Sally Kirkland: I love what I've read from your magazine so far, and I have to be completely honest; I wasn't aware of your magazine but I should have been. It's sensational! It's great that someone is doing this work. I'm glad that I now know about it, and that more people will now know about it, given my propensity to love what I do (laughs).
DW: What gives you a personal stake in AIDS?
SK: My interest is to reach as many people dealing with AIDS or any terminal illness as possible. My life has been a roller coaster of staying alive and being with people who are staying alive .
DW: What makes Sally tick?
SK: "Father, Mother, God, Jesus, Christ, Saint Joan, Saint Francis, Lord Shiva, the Mystical Traveler Consciousness" and a whole lot of close calls. In 1966, my heart and lungs stopped and I was pronounced dead and I had a life after life experience in which I understood "Christ Consciousness" and "karmic balancing" truly for the first time (at least in this lifetime). I saw people in their "soul forms" as opposed to their personality forms ... the Light... the Sound...the ecstasy, the bliss, the face of God... I'm writing a book about it now.
DW: What was your upbringing?
SK: Well, I had an identity crisis as a kid. Sally Kirkland Sr., my mother, was the fashion editor of Vogue for ten years, and LIFE Magazine for twenty-five and the first woman Henry Luce allowed to be a senior editor. It was a hard act to follow. I was brought up very much in the glare of the spotlight from a terrifyingly young age. So that it had to backfire at some point. As a young child I was hanging out with Christian Dior, Helena Rubenstein, Chanel, Irving Penn, Scavullo, and all of that. The fact that my father married a working woman was very frowned on by Philadelphia mainline society. He did something that just wasn't done and the price he paid for it was alcoholism. The price my mother paid was joining him in that. (As well as a pack of Camels a day.) So I basically came out of her body at six months, weighing four pounds, expected to die. Dr Spock was the doctor and neither my mother nor I were expected to live, so it was a total miracle and that was my first awareness of miracles; that both of us lived, and quite well.
DW: Do you view your life after life experience as a miracle also?
SK:Yes! An amazing amount of grace. I had been pronounced dead from a suicide attempt -- I was underage at the time, hadn't gone to college, was Off-Broadway with James Earl Jones and then Sam Waterston. Went straight from boarding school and being a debutante to living on Avenue B on the Lower East Side. The suicide attempt came after medical doctors were working with me using LSD as a form of psychoanalysis before it was out on the street. So let's say I was an experiment and the worst thing that could happen, happened. It all backfired six months later, and I had a nervous breakdown, tried to jump off three buildings and eventually overdosed. But the good news is, Christ gave me Grace on the other side in my life after life experience. I got to see the face of God.
DW: That's also central to living with HIV; finding life through death. Living with AIDS is like saving one's own life day after day.
SK: Exactly. That's what is so inspiring about today's news about AIDS, that one has really hope of living. And the community itself never did lose hope. So it's the spirit of these souls, some of which, I guess, agreed with God before coming into their bodies -- I don't know how else to look at it -- to be sacrificial lambs for the higher consciousness of all humanity.
DW: I think the people who were very sick keep but on surviving, are perhaps thriving now because of the new drugs, are really a special group of people on the planet.
SK: They are, I think, teachers.Angels,even. I'm not living with AIDS, but I have come out the other side of about seven years of really bad Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I'm out of the woods now, I'm fine and that's in the past. I learned from that how important mega-vitamin and nutritional therapy has been for me, homeopathy, acupuncture herbs, massage lap swimming three days a week, daily Hatha Yoga and Pranayama (deep breathing), juice fasting, lots of chanting of spiritual tones, meditation, retreats and service.
DW: You mentioned "Angels."
SK: I think there are a lot of angels on the planet now but then isn't there a line somewhere that 'An angel sees an angel, and a pickpocket sees a pickpocket?' My teacher of twenty five years, John-Roger (Founder of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness) has made me profoundly aware of 'holding the Light' for as many people as possible, and simultaneously 'Taking care of myself so I can take care of others' and 'Not hurting myself so I won't hurt others, 'striving for Soul Transcendence in this lifetime and seeing divinity in all. I believe we must have a spiritual revolutionary 2010. We must have gender equality. Everyone deserves a fair shot no matter what race creed, color, circumstance or sexual orientation. I don't believe in "against-ness," I don't believe in judgment. I think we have to keep forgiving it all. My seven favorite words are Forgiveness, Compassion, Equality, Diversity, Divinity, Joy, and Peace.
DW: Is it difficult for you to balance your spiritual life, and activism, with your career?
SK: I am a teacher, a minister and a seminar leader first, and then an actress. But I use art, and performing arts, as the basis for trans- formational work and communications skills workshops. The fact is that Art is the quickest way to God. At one point I went through two years of intense training and celibacy studying to be a Swami. I was kind of lured away from that by falling in love with Robert De Niro and Raul Julia. Some what simultaneously, but not together (laughs). I had gotten Raul on the path of Yoga; he eventually went himself to India, and he was the first high profile person to really see what I was doing as a Yoga teacher in New York at the Integral Yoga Institute.
DW: Your workshops seem to focus on emotional and spiritual healing.
SK: What I do is to teach people that everybody on the planet is talented, its just that some people haven't yet taken the time to express their souls artistically I teach drama, comedy, improv, theater games, singing, dancing, poetry, painting, psycho-drama and healing of memories...yoga and meditation. I have coached or taught at this time between three and four thousand people, including emotional recall work with Barbara Streisand, Roseanne and Liza Minelli. My most recent success story is Sandra Bullock; in 1987 she was in the New York Sally Kirkland Workshop and I got to teach her a lot about the 'wisdom of insecurity,' and how vulnerability is her greatest strength, and continues to be mine. And one must never lose it, and, if anything, one can always make fun of it, have fun with it, and be a comedian.
DW: How do you incorporate your teachings into everyday life?
SK: How do we all make love in the world? We play. If we forget how to play and how to be children then its all over One of the things I teach people is to be able to be outrageous.Because if you believe the role you're playing, then you can transcend your own limitations. Whether its theater per se or being President of the United States or Mother Theresa it doesn't matter what role you're play, what matters is the joy and the ecstasy in playing the role. I'm also a believer in making people laugh, however you do it, because laughter is also the fastest way to God.
DW: Ironically, it was your acting career and not your ministry which first brought you face to face with the AIDS epidemic.
SK: My first hit below the belt was in 1986; my best friend in the world, Obie-Award-winning Seth Allen. He was the top male actor when I was one of the lead actresses in the La Mama Troupe in New York City. We did many plays together. He taught me so much about being who you are and not living in other people's opinions. When I found out he had AIDS, and I didn't know what that was, I couldn't believe that he was going to die. And at that time you had to wear a mask and sit on the other side of the room, I went crazy. I went into the hospital and said, "Excuse me, can I sign some papers saying I'll take responsibility for my life, and I want to hold this person."And this is not against the hospital because they were doing the best they knew how at the time. So this a not judgement per se but I was told I could not bring him anything, no flowers, nothing, you know the story...and I went slightly crazy. I was very emotional. I guess I was having his fear because none of us knew what was going on. All we knew was there was not enough support and he was in such denial, but I went to him and said, "Seth, I'm a minister, you have to use me right now, you have to. You have to let me help you spiritually to get through this. Let's talk about it. It doesn't really matter as long as we all know how extraordinary the after life is. And how much love you have given people." That changed my life totally. But I have to say that in between Seth Allen and my friend Rick Sherrill, there have been thirty-five friends - including my former manager and publicist, Carl Parsons, and the playwright of my one-woman show, Neil Tucker who have died of AIDS.
DW: What I find frustrating is that, although A&U estimates reaching 300,000 readers a month, AIDS still seems to he considered a disease for "those people."
SK :Well, I don't have AIDS, but my understanding is that people with AIDS have had to deal with a lot of the stuff that I had to deal with: near death experiences, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, various illnesses..... I'm lucky that I had a lot of grace in my life. I've had nine lives because I've chosen to deal with my medical life with a spiritual path. When Rick Sherrill, who was a minister in my church, stood up at a ministers meeting and said that he had spent two days living in his truck sick with pneumonia and asked if anyone had a place for him to stay, I raised my hand. Rick hadn't said he had AIDS. But I knew from looking at him. When you're working with people in denial you try to find different ways of talking about it so they'll feel comfortable. So I talked to him about my CFS and how I knew what it was like to feel like I was an untouchable, and that the MD's did not have answers for me at the time. Do I have empathy? Yes. Do I understand pain? Yes I told him I wanted to help and that he could stay at my apartment. I was taking a year-long Masters program at Peace Theological Seminary. So I moved into the seminary and gave Rick my apartment for what ended up being the last eight months of his life.
DW:But your involvement did not end there.
SK: No, I quickly plugged us into APLA , Project Angel Food, Aid for AIDS, and Project Nightlight and every organization I could get my hands on, and learned day to day how to be the best caretaker I could be. Myself and other MSIA ministers ministered to him and he ministered to us. The more service I performed for Rick the more spiritual enlightenment I received. The last few weeks of his life were spent in the AIDS ward of Cedars-Sinai (Hospital), and the Chris Brownlee Hospice, and finally the Carl Bean Hospice which were all extraordinary. (I had helped Edward James Olmos raise a million dollars two years in a row on a telethon on TV for these hospices but had never been there until Rick). At the Carl Bean Hospice ironically right next door to my church, I moved my mattress onto the floor next to Rick's bed and stayed up with him almost 24 hours a day the last seven days and kept prayer communion going, spiritual chanting, and John-Roger's Meditation Tapes, as he had requested. It was extraordinary because not only was it helping Rick but it was helping me to learn who I am! I also learned from Cassandra at Project Nightlight (where you assist people passing who have no family), how to breathe with him, when his lung capacity got low and his emotions panicked. In the last few moments Christ came through him so powerfully and we both had out of body experiences. I love doing this work. Recently I hosted an event for P.A.W.S. L.A. (Pets Are Wonderful Support). We raised money for volunteers to take care of 1,700 pets for 1,200 AIDS patients.
DW: You remind me, in many ways of Elizabeth Taylor.
SK: Well that's about the highest compliment I could get and I was just with her working for AmFAR for "Passport96." I said to her, "Elizabeth, I need to say to you that that was one of the most inspiring speeches I've ever heard, let's run you for President!" Anything I can do to help that woman, I will.
DW: Unfortunately, people like you and Elizabeth are few and far between. I think a lot of people have really turned their backs.
SK: I disagree with you, because I've seen more and more people doing active service work with AIDS. One of the main reasons society will continue to grow is because of the courage and spirit demonstrated by the AIDS community. The AIDS community has educated the world with courage it's shown people how to stand up, hold one's head up and say, "You're not going to take away my heart and my soul or my laughter and joy. No matter what is happening to my body I am not my body, I am my soul." And the souls that have understood what I'm doing, for the most part have been from the gay and AIDS community.
DW: You are a well known figure In the public eye, do you consider yourself a role model?
SK: I hope so. I hope I'm a good role model. I want to be able to keep on helping as well as doing my work.
DW: Speaking of work, what have you been up to lately?
SK: I've entered a film, Amnesia -- which I associate produced, starring myself Ally Sheedy, and John Savage --in film festivals and it will be aired on SHOWTIME TELEVISION in the spring. I have a co-star role with Alicia Silverstone and Chris Walken in Excess Baggage due out in August, '97. Renata of Wilbur Falls starring Danny Aiello and myself is currently in editing, as is Little Ghosts -- a children's film I was in. I'm currently shooting a movie for SHOWTIME , The Westing Game, with Ray Walston, Diane Ladd and Cliff DeYoung for my friend Julie Corman. And I look forward to teaching transformational workshops in 1997 for the gay community produced by my two best friends Steve and Allen, a gay couple of seventeen years that I know through M.S.I.A.
DW: You also had a guest spot on a recent episode of The Nanny with Fran Drescher.
SK: Yes, as a lesbian tattoo artist. There was a little bit of an upset because it was shown during the family hour, so the network asked me to take out the lines where my character gets to talk about her lesbian partner of fifteen years
DW: Do you think we need more cultural activities emanating from the AIDS crisis?
SK: We need to be more public about AIDS. We need more support for the arts in the gay community and support for more medical information to get out. Because if we can get people to go pubic with their process of living with the disease it would give the masses another way to think about it. I think AIDS is still an isolated issue In this country. I don't think we're dealing with AIDS as a world, issue even though there's half a billion people, perhaps more, who are being threatened by this one virus. SK:But you know and I know, why. It has to do with people's fear of their own sexuality much less anyone disease. But people are more and more open to homosexuality, bisexuality and talking about their own heterosexuality. But there's still our fathers and mothers before us, the genetics of it all. Everybody's doing the best they can with what their parents taught them. So it's time for us to take spiritual and physical responsibility for where we place our consciousness and our bodies and "take care of ourselves so we can take care of others" and focus on compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others.
DW: Is there anything more that I can do?
SK: Well. David I think you're doing it. What you're doing with this magazine is getting information out to the world, and bringing up very real issues. And I think it's really tragic that so many of my friends, my friends' friends and strangers that could have been my friends have died. You and I are plugged into the media, so we do it that way. Everyone has different ways of doing it. As long as we keep getting the information out, there will be less and less fear and more and more people wanting to participate in supporting the AIDS community. I love doing this work and I hope I keep getting asked. I will keep saying yes.
David Waggoner is the author of the novelHuston Blue and the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of A&U. Several of his short stories are featured in the upcoming AIDS anthology, Help For The Living, due out from Irvington Publishers in the fall of 1997.