At Peace with the Past
MARY FISHER STANDS IN THE living room of her sprawling house in Bethesda, Md., surrounded by her sculptures. Fisher’s life has taken on an urgency, and even her artworks, which she is unpacking after a recent exhibition in Washington, show it. Among them is a lectern covered in gold leaf and newspaper clippings on AIDS. In burgundy paint across the front are the words “I’ll not go quietly.”
And, as audiences across the U.S. can attest, Mary Fisher, who is HIV positive, has not gone quietly. She spends more than 100 days a year speaking on behalf of AIDS research and decrying what she believes is growing government apathy toward the disease. Now, Fisher, 47, has turned up the volume on her message with her candid new autobiography, My Name Is Mary.
Until four years ago, the adopted daughter of real estate mogul Max Fisher lived a life of quiet affluence in Boca Raton, Fla. But on an August night in 1992, she rocked the Republican Convention in Houston with a searing speech in which she talked about having contracted the virus from her husband. Exhorting the party to “lift our shroud of silence” about AIDS, she challenged the audience to cast aside prejudice and to treat AIDS with tolerance and compassion.
It was a landmark speech, and its greatest impact may have been on Fisher herself. “Mary Fisher has become probably the most important spokesperson [on AIDS] we have to Middle America,” says Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), one of Congress’s three openly gay members. “She breaks down all the Republican and conservative stereotypes.”
She continues to break them down in her autobiography, which discusses not just AIDS but a number of other issues not often addressed in the party of family values. She talks for the first time about her parents’ divorce, her troubled relationship with her biological father and her mother’s alcoholism. “I had qualms. It was difficult,” says Fisher of the book. “Hopefully my story will help.”
The story began in Louisville, Ky., where, when Mary was 4, her mother, Marjorie, and father George Frehling, a builder of movie theaters, divorced. (Frehling, who died in 1990, saw his daughter infrequently thereafter.) One year later, when Marjorie married Max Fisher, Mary and her younger brother Phillip moved with her to Fisher’s home in Detroit. After attending the elite Kingswood School, Mary went to the University of Michigan but dropped out after a semester to work as an unpaid fund-raiser for the local public television station. In 1975, Fisher—whose stepfather was and still is a prominent Republican fund-raiser—landed a job as an “advance man” in Gerald Ford’s White House, becoming the first woman to hold that position.
Life at home had been comfortable—on the surface. But Marjorie Fisher was an alcoholic, and with her husband frequently away on business and fund-raising trips, she drank to ease her loneliness. “We were a typical family,” says Mary. “We didn’t talk about our problems. We walked around them like the elephant in the living room.” When Marjorie finally agreed to enter the Betty Ford Center in 1984, the rest of the family joined her for a week of counseling. It was then that Mary realized that she too had become dependent on alcohol. Six weeks later she returned to the clinic on her own.
It was during her rehabilitation that Fisher discovered a talent for art. She moved to New York City in 1985 and fell in love with an artist, Brian Campbell, whom she had met several years before. “He was really handsome, funny, charming and creative,” she says. “We had a wonderful time together. I knew he used drugs occasionally, but I never saw any of that.” Neither, says Fisher, did it cross her mind that Brian might be bisexual. “He was very much a heterosexual man in my world,” says Fisher.
The couple married in 1987 (Fisher had a brief, previous marriage in 1977) and moved to Boca Raton, where Campbell began making plans to open an art gallery with Marjorie. Nine months later, Mary and Brian’s first son, Max, now 8, was born. Three miscarriages followed, and in 1989, the couple adopted Zachary, now 6. But by then the marriage had begun to deteriorate. In 1990, Brian, often ill—though at the time he didn’t know why—and increasingly unhappy, asked Mary for a divorce.
One year later, Fisher’s privileged life exploded. In July 1991, Brian called to tell her he had tested positive for HIV and suggested she be tested too. Fisher went to a clinic using the pseudonym Cher. Two weeks afterward, en route to join her parents for a vacation on the French Riviera, she called for the results from a pay telephone at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. “The conversation was-probably only 2 minutes, but it. seemed like forever,” she says. “I don’t know what I did. I know I cried, because my face was wet. It was the most devastating moment of my life.”
Inspired by the examples of Magic Johnson, who had announced he was HIV positive in 1991, and of family friend Betty Ford (who has spoken-openly about breast cancer and alcoholism), Fisher decided to go public with her diagnosis. A moving frontpage story about her in the Detroit Free Press in February 1992 led to an invitation to speak at the Republican Convention in Houston. Says Fisher: “I went public to be used, but I don’t think anyone realized I would get this kind of attention.”
Fisher made effective use of her fame. Following the convention, she founded the Family AIDS Network, a support group for families and healthcare providers. But she remains bitter about what she sees as a lack of political action. “Nothing changed,” she says. “The public thinks AIDS has gone away. Wherever I go, I see more people infected.”
In June 1993, Fisher learned that Campbell was near death at his home in Provincetown, Mass. She immediately booked a flight and stayed at his bedside until he died two days later. “By that time we had talked and patched up our lives,” she says. “I felt more sorrow than anger. In forgiving Brian, I forgave myself—and found peace.”
Still without symptoms, she divides her time between AIDS work, making art, and family. “There’s always conflict,” admits Fisher, who calls home twice a day when she is on the road. (Her sister-in-law Tina Campbell lives with the family and helps care for Max and Zack, both of whom are HIV negative.) “I don’t want to be away, and the kids want me to be there, so I always feel guilty. But I have to go. What I’m doing is important, and I hope someday they’ll understand.”
Fisher’s courage has earned her a loyal and diverse group of friends, among them playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer, the late Arthur Ashe and entertainer Rosie O’Donnell. O’Donnell, who met Fisher in a hotel lobby in Washington, says the two have become “like sisters—she’s the bossy, older one.” When O’Donnell adopted a son last June, Fisher insisted on moving in for 40 days to help. “Mary is always there for you,” says O’Donnell. “We discuss her concerns about health, life, death, the disadvantages of facing your own mortality. She’s thoroughly honest.”
Fisher says that her hardest times come late at night—”the aloneness, wishing everything was different. There are moments when I would like to be doing something that isn’t related to AIDS.” But in the next instant she is talking about a coming event. “Speaking out has helped me achieve a sense of tranquility,” she says. “Writing the book helped me as well. It was very cathartic to go through all the pain. The end result is, I’m happy about me.”
SANDRA McELWAINE in Bethesda