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Unprotected: A Memoir is Rae Lewis Thornton's captivating story of what happened to her as a child and how it shaped the trajectory of her life. This story begins on the South Side of Chicago at the age of six with the death of her paternal grandfather—her caregiver and protector—after which, darkness descends over her life like the sky before a storm. Born to drug-addicted, interracial parents in the sixties, Rae's father is dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Her mother is somewhere lost to drugs, and her maternal grandmother doesn't want her. She is left to be raised by her grandfather's third wife, the woman she calls "Mama." In Mama's care, Rae's life is charged with rejection, violence, and childhood sexual molestation.
Rae situates her story within the research on childhood trauma. That is, high doses of trauma cause a deregulation of the stress response system. This disruption of normal cortisol patterns during a child's developmental stages can change the biology of a child's brain and body, causing a short attention span, hyperactivity, learning disabilities and also lead to poor social and medical outcomes through adulthood. Rae's story fits squarely into the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, published in 1998 by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control, which demonstrates the connection between childhood abuse and household dysfunction to leading causes of death and dysfunction in adults. Deregulation becomes Rae's reality, and she gives you a front-row seat to Little Rae as she treads through a world of abuse, where her abnormal environment becomes her normal existence.
Homeless at the age of seventeen, Rae never gives up on herself. She believes that her pain situates her to help understand the suffering of others and commits her life to social justice at the age of nineteen. By the age of twenty-four, she is diagnosed with HIV. Rae chronicles her journey from HIV to AIDS and situates her life in the dichotomy between the early days of the AIDS pandemic and as a major force and political organizer for notable giants in politics. Her diagnosis of HIV is shrouded in secrecy and shame as she navigates dating, disclosure, and the first generation of antiretroviral drugs.
After years of keeping "the secret," Rae turns her mess into a message and tragedy into activism. She becomes the face of AIDS for Black women in America with her groundbreaking Essence magazine cover story in the December 1994 issue. Today, nearly three decades after Essence and almost forty years of living with HIV, Rae tells all—the trauma that shaped her life, and how she survived the odds and continued to soar with a broken wing.