Sharing Black Life, Statewide
Web of Deception
LaJoyce Brookshire, ‘Soul Food’ author, tells of betrayal she felt after learning of husband’s ‘down low’ life
BY STARLA VAUGHNS CHERIN
In the 1980s and 1990s, not many people fathomed the thought of purportedly straight men having sex with men. Many still looked at HIV/AIDS as a gay White man’s disease. But when author LaJoyce Brookshire discovered her husband was dying of AIDS, the idea was all too real.
Brookshire’s professional success as author of the book “Soul Food” and the first African American to novelize a major motion picture did not diminish her pain. It has taken her more than 10 years to heal from her husband’s betrayal.
During that time, she has heard and talked to many women who found they were in the same situation—in a relationship with a “down low’’ brother. It prompted Brookshire to tell her story in “Faith Under Fire: Betrayed by a Thing Called Love,” her first non-fiction work.
Married four years before her husband’s death, Brookshire said that when she met him he had just been in the hospital for bleeding ulcers. He was 31 and attributed it to a bad marriage and stress on the job. When he died, his T-cell count, one of the measurements used to gauge the body’s ability to fight off infections, was four. (People without HIV infections have ‘normal’ T-cell counts of 700 to 1,000.)
“That means you have to count back 10 years,” Brookshire told the Florida Courier. “I realized he knew all along and had been trying to infect me. He had some idea we were going to die together, but God had something better in store for me.” Later she found out his mother and sister had known all along.
Brookshire looks back at what she now calls “signs” that indicated her husband was living a ‘down low’ lifestyle.
“He was extremely homophobic. My gay friends never got a chance to put their “gaydar’’ on him because he would always leave. He never wanted me to be out of his sight. Putting a wedge between family and friends, eavesdropping and the disappearing acts.
“It doesn’t sneak up on you. I was able to piece it together,” she said. “Sores that won’t heal, shortness of breath, colds, bronchitis, recurrent pink eye, diarrhea. There are so many opportunistic viruses that prey upon a person with HIV or AIDS.”
He never told her about his sexual orientation, and Brookshire had no concrete proof her husband had sex with men. She would remember the times when two of his best friends would come to town and he would stay out all night with them, sometimes not coming home and going straight to work. After his death in 1995, she never saw these best friends again and they didn’t come to the funeral.
“All of the women who were caught say they were wined and dined and swept off their feet,” Brookshire said about those who admit they were in “down low’’ relationships. “That is a smokescreen and most likely in the excitement of it all, you are not paying attention to a lot of things.’’
Brookshire said a marriage proposal came five months after meeting her “honeydip.’’ She realizes a lot of her focus was on planning the wedding, not on the relationship she was entering.
“When you’re planning a wedding, there is no courtship,” she said. “I was swamped. Your mind is on the details of the wedding. I saw he had a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality. He was sweet and then the opposite. Constantly complaining. Nothing was ever good enough. He would rant and rave to get his way and his road rage was out of control. Several times I got out of the car and took the subway home.
“This is how crazy I am about getting married. I would make excuses for him and his behavior. Like he’s under stress. Telling myself, ‘Once we get married it will all go away. Everything will change and get better.’ Lie, lie, lie, lie.”
It got worse. On their honeymoon in Hawaii, the campaign to destroy her self-image and self-esteem began.
“He complained about the way I looked, my clothes, my hair, my weight and mocked me because I brought books with me. He was sadistic and selfish; it was all about him,” she added.
Brookshire also takes responsibility for the part she played in allowing her love and desire to be married overshadow what was in front of her.
“I was ripe and ready for a relationship. When they prey, they prey on those that are the most needy. I was 28 and had always been the bridesmaid and
never the bride. He looked to be everything he wasn’t,” she said.
“I thought he was a victim of his own promiscuity. He had proved to me over and over again that he was a womanizer. I thought, ‘See, this is what happens to you.’ It wasn’t until shortly before he died, I found out he had known all along, and I wanted to kill him.”
‘Down low’ gospel truth
J.L. King, author of “On The Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of ‘Straight’ Black Men Who Sleep with Men,” says most men on the “down low” don’t know or care if they have the HIV virus.
At the National Conference on African Americans and AIDS and Prevention last year, King said those men say, ‘I sleep with men, but I am not bisexual, and I am certainly not gay. I am not going to your clinics, I am not going to read your brochures, I am not going to get tested.’
“I assure you that none of the brothers on the down low are paying the least bit of attention to what you say,” King explained.
The 67 percent of African American women with HIV contracted it from heterosexual sex. The two ways that the virus is contracted heterosexually to Black women is through intravenous drug use and African American men on the down low.
King writes in his book that many of his partners were pillars in their local churches.
“There are gospel conventions throughout the nation for churches. There is one for ushers, Sunday school departments, music departments and ministers. These events allow men to meet men and to have sex while away from their hometowns. Many midnight concerts turn into affairs where brothers are cruising each other. I’ve been there, seen it and done it,” King states in his book.
Brookshire says before marrying her husband, he always thanked God he met her.
“I was impressed by that because God has always been a special part of my life. I call myself ‘God’s Girl’ because He delivered me through this with my physical and mental health. I did not contract HIV.” She later married her childhood sweetheart and the two have a daughter.
Chosen for ‘Soul Food’
Brookshire credits her writing success to her love of reading and journaling.
“My husband Gus gave me my first diary when I was 12. That was in divine order. It is where my real storytelling skills began to come out. I wrote blow by blow what my friends and I did. You don’t realize that something you do habitually as a child can become a profession,” she said.
“They do this with White movies all the time. This was the first time it had been done for a Black movie,” she said.
Career started early
She always wanted to be an author and received her first recognition at 11 when she won the Ebony Jr. Magazine prize for a story about friendship. She jump-started her career in communications while she was still in high school.
The Chicago PBS radio station, WBEZ, held citywide auditions for a two-year course that would have students produce a weekly radio show. Brookshire was one of just 15 chosen out of thousands.
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in speech and Spanish from Eastern Illinois University before moving to New York to work in radio at Sheridan Broadcasting Networks as an entertainment reporter, covering the party scene for the syndicated show, “On the Beat.’’ Later, as director of publicity at Arista Records she promoted performers like Aretha Franklin, P. Diddy, TLC, Tony Braxton and Usher.
In 1997, she was chosen by HarperCollins Publishing to write the novelization of “Soul Food” from the movie script on the strength of her novel, the suspense drama “Web of Deception.” Though the book sold 180,000 copies, Brookshire says her experience with the major publisher was disappointing.
“I had to plan my own tour for that and raise my own money,” she said. “I got four national sponsors. I sold most of those books hand-to-hand. Twenty-five cities, 40 events.”
With “Web of Deception,” she eschewed the major publishing route and went independent, duplicating the model she’d used for “Soul Food.’’ She sold 100,000 copies. She plans to follow a similar path with “Faith Under Fire,’’ her third book, using print-on-demand services from Author House.
“My attorney was a little concerned with me going with print-ondemand. This story is too important. I need it to be taken seriously in the publishing business,” Brookshire said “I said, ‘You know what, let the publishing business come to me.’ This story has sat in every publishing house, has been to every Black editor and many others, and not one of them thought it worthy enough as a body of work to be published.
“They’re publishing Black erotica by the handful. …The publishing industry is falling victim in many ways to what they think Black people want to read. …But there are some of us who want to read things that truly help us, empower us and set us free.”