An AIDS Story from the ‘80s. How far have we come? Part I

John Herlin

John Herlin

About a week before John died, he demanded I take him out for a drive, against doctor’s orders. The nurse who came to his house every day to administer an IV drove him nuts, he said, by being overly polite and tiptoeing around his room in her red high heels. He couldn’t wait to get away from her and experience real life. As I drove on an overpass on our way to 4th Street for coffee, he ranted about how he craved the truth. Then his voice became serious and gruff. “Elizabeth! Tell me something you don’t like about me!” I recoiled from the challenge, but this could be John’s last request and so fervent, I felt I had no choice but to squeeze an answer out of myself. “You’re too opinionated sometimes, John… And what don’t you like about me?” I asked quickly to change the subject. “You’re too naturally conciliatory,” he said. “I can’t get you to argue with me.” (John was a type 4 on the Enneagram – a Romantic.)

That stung. Just what I most didn’t like about myself in 1988. Why had nobody ever said it before? Painful as it was, John really saw me. Damn! The one person who perceived my private hell was going to die any minute. I parked, and we sat on the sidewalk, leaning against a building for about 20 minutes, while John gathered his strength to cross the road to the café. He insisted on fetching his own coffee. Then he took the most agonizing steps of his life, he told me, yet he was exhilarated to be out one last time.

In June 1986 John Herlin was weary from twenty years balancing being the best teacher he could be with taking nature photographs, writing poetry, debating friends, hiking the regional parks around Berkeley, California, and traveling the world. So he took a vacation in Hawaii. Two weeks after coming home early with what he thought was the flu, he was still sick and short of breath. His lungs contained 48 percent of their normal oxygen and were clouded. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumocystis pneumonia, which could only mean AIDS, and kept him in the hospital for 18 days. Eighteen months later he died in the AIDS epidemic at almost 48.

John was one year younger than I was and one of the best friends I ever had. I admired him for demanding authenticity in himself and his friends. The conscience his rigidly religious mother instilled in him drove him to do good deeds, such as taking elderly neighbors grocery shopping regularly. At the same time he rebelled from her teachings. He was a maverick and flirted with the dark side—a trickster with a smile to match.

John told me he had a repressed childhood. He suffered angst over his sexual identity, and tried to resist being gay in his home state of Wisconsin. As a young man, he moved to Berkeley, where he found a sense of belonging and freedom. He joined a gay support group and felt at home. Years later, he plunged into helping others with HIV-AIDS, volunteering to answer phones at the AIDS Project and speaking publicly on the epidemic. He used himself as an example of a person with AIDS to help educate health workers and those vulnerable to getting the disease.

This is Part I of an expanded story from Chapter 4 in The Enneagram of Death. Part II will appear on April 9. Read reviews of The Enneagram of Death – Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying and Elizabeth’s 6 other books and CD:

Using “The Enneagram of Death” for Healing

EnnDeathCover7inches copyRuthie Landis and I presented a workshop based on my book, The Enneagram of Death – Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear of Death, and Dying. Among other activities, actors read one story from each of the nine type-chapters as I played piano pieces suited to each story. The piece most people asked me about was Li’l Darlin’, which I used to accompany the Achiever story.  Each participant was given a copy of my book.

This is a review of the workshop by one of the participants:

“On February 9th 2013 I attended the Finding Your Way Home workshop hosted by certified Body-Psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, Enneagram teacher, life coach, and Reiki master, Ruthie Landis. Joined by about 50 fellow spiritual seekers, I was moved, entertained and educated by Ruthie, along with a variety of performers and guest musician, speaker, and renowned Enneagram author and expert, Elizabeth Wagele. While I’ve been introduced to the Enneagram personality system, I have never delved into studying it. This humorous illustration was written by one of the attendees, Reverend Liz Stout:

DE GUSTIBUS NON DISPUTANDUM (Latin Translation: No Accounting for Tastes)

ONES always chew more than they have bitten off.
TWOS offer a bite to someone else first.
THREES take a bite of the best-selling, most popular brand.
FOURS take a bite slowly and dramatically, hoping that others are watching.
FIVES hide the wrapper so no one else will know what bites they are enjoying.
SIXES check the expiration date or read the list of ingredients before taking a bite.
SEVENS do bite off more than they can chew, and proceed to chew it.
EIGHTS may take possession of someone else’s bite, putting up a fight if necessary.
NINES can’t make up their minds what to take a bite of—they take a little of everything so as not to show partiality.

To further assist you on your journey of self-reflection: Type 1: Perfectionists, Type 2: Helpers, Type 3: Achievers, Type 4: Romantics, Type 5: Observers, Type 6: Questioners, Type 7: Adventurers, Type 8: Asserters, and Type 9: Peace Seekers. When I first arrived, I was wary of labeling myself as a definitive type, however as the day progressed, I could clearly see how we each portray one of the nine dominant features. You can, in fact, be a combination of two types. For example, I am a Romantic with an Achiever wing.

As I entered the workshop hall, I was struck by a figure that stood at the front of the stage. It was life sized and wrapped in a dark and somewhat daunting black hood. It brought images of the grim reaper up from my subconscious; indeed, the theme of the workshop was death and grief. While many avoid these subjects at all costs, the attendees delved right into their own pain and fear around loss. Ruthie opened the event by honoring her recently deceased father. Her heart was wide open as she shed tears in remembrance of her beloved dad. This heartfelt memorial set the mood for the rest of the day. Laughter, tears, pain and joy were all a part of the smorgasbord of emotions that were shared throughout the event.

After Ruthie’s introduction, we were privileged to watch one of the participants, Dr. Ann Cusak, do a somber and dramatic Death Tango with her dance partner, Peter Maslej. We then watched monologue readings from Elizabeth’s Enneagram of Death based upon the nine Enneagram types that reflected both their inner descriptions and their transformational journeys. The performers were powerful and true to their type. Most of the actors were the type they portrayed and shared anecdotes and insights on their own personal dances with death and loss. After each performance, we participants shared our own moving insights and experiences. It was evident that, while we may all have different ways of dealing with death (or not dealing with it!), we all share the mutual pain loss brings.

One of the most touching moments took place near the end of the morning. Having once been a professional dancer, Marylou Tromanhauser took to the stage and shared a chair dance that was truly inspiring. She had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; however this debilitating disease showed no signs of stopping her. She remains a magnificent creative force!

The afternoon was interactive. We broke into groups, joining with fellow Enneagram types. I supped the sweet nectar of creative expression with fellow dramatic, creative 4-Romantic types. After we each shared what our recent experiences were with grief and loss, we wrote our own private phrases on a long scroll of paper. The scroll was later read out loud as a compilation of our thoughts and feelings.

One of my favorites of the day was our final project. Ruthie spread art supplies, magazine pictures, ribbons, and fun items out on tables around the room. Each Enneagram group had a blank mural to fill in whatever ways their imaginations saw fit. The room was all a clutter with busy bodies, finding manifestations of their soul messages among the art supplies. These were placed on each blank mural, and ultimately became montages that spoke our heart and soul messages on grief and loss. After we finished the exercise, we walked around the room observing the messages of each mural. A very distinct personality emanated from each. For example, the Perfectionists’ was thoughtfully constructed—symmetric and orderly. The Adventurers’ pictures reflected faraway places in distant lands. The Romantics used few words. On the other hand, the Achievers used hand-written messages, indicative of an organized, corporate layout, award ribbons and all. The pictorials and messages of the Helpers, were about caretaking and healing, serving as they do so well.

The event was a feast of inspiration and creativity. Laughter and tears, combined with stories of joy and pain, were honored and shared, as we waded through the delicacies and delights that go hand in hand with fond farewells and new beginnings.”

Edited from  “The Monthly Aspectarian” article called All About Town… Finding Our Way Home – Ruth Landis – The Ethical Humanist Society. March 2013. By Theresa Puskar.

See for information about The Enneagram of Death and other books.