WE LOVE SOAPS TV: It is so great to speak with you again. We are acknowledging World AIDS Day this year by commemorating the stories on daytime that impacted the audience. You were head writer at ANOTHER WORLD in 1987 when the Dawn Rollo story began playing out.
Thom Racina: I’m a blank about some of it. And maybe some of that has to do with the frustration of trying doing an AIDS story for so many years. We were up against so many walls. Maybe I blocked it out because it was such a bad experience [laughs].
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: NBC seemed to have taboo against telling socially relevant storylines on all their shows since the 1970s. With ANOTHER WORLD you had the additional conservatism of Procter & Gamble.
Thom Racina: But that was the shock for me. I had really worked on Ken Corday [at DAYS] and Al [Rabin], trying to get them to just listen to me tell them about the kind of story we could do. And they did listen to me explain it. Of course I wanted to do a gay story. It was still called the “gay disease” in 1984, even though it was a few years after we learned that it was spreading and it was not just a gay thing. I finally won them over to my side. But no one beyond that would allow it. The network just flat out turned it down every time I brought it up. And I brought it up a lot. I was very passionate about it.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What kind of story would you have told on DAYS?
Thom Racina: I don’t remember which characters, but it fit into the story beautifully. I had so many ideas back then. The one that I sold Al and Ken, but never Brian Frons, was going to be somebody’s friend they had been extremely close to in their childhood. It would have been a guy who had AIDS who had been abandoned or thrown out. It fit into someone’s back story. Some people would freak out when they found out what was wrong with him. It would have been a love story of some sort, probably similar to what happened with Dawn on ANOTHER WORLD. It was going to be a gay guy which would have been really groundbreaking.
When I got to ANOTHER WORLD I thought, “I’ll try this again but it will be worse here because of Procter & Gamble.” And they said yes! I think the only reason they bought it was because it was written for a woman. In a way, that was probably very good. It made people see that this wasn’t just a gay disease, it broadened their horizons a bit.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: So Procter & Gamble agreed. But did they impose limitations?
Thom Racina: Yes, they did. I remember being very frustrated. We couldn’t say this, we couldn’t say that, we couldn’t do this, we couldn’t do that. Oh she had a gay boyfriend, no that can’t be. We couldn't really say how she contracted HIV. I remember battling with them over that. Did we ever actually say that? Did she have a relationship with an IV drug user?
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I think she got it from a blood transfusion from her prostitute mother.
Thom Racina: Oh yes, I remember that version out of many convoluted possibilities. I actually knew someone who had gotten it from a blood transfusion several years before. I was drawing on that history.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: The story lasted exactly six months. Was that timeline dictated to you by Procter & Gamble or was that a creative choice?
Thom Racina: I don’t know, didn’t she die off screen in Italy? I think we only had the actress for so long. Either that or they didn’t like her enough to want to keep her and renew her. It could have been something like that. Whoever really knows what goes on at the network? They could mean something like, “We’ve had enough of this story, let’s not even tell them that we don’t want to do any more of that AIDS story. We’re just going to tell them we don’t have the actress any longer or that we don’t like her and don’t want to renew her so they’ll have to write her out.” I don’t know, I’m cynical.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Would you have wanted to show an ongoing character living with AIDS instead of dying right away?
Thom Racina: Sure, I would. But don’t forget that back then everybody died. It was still at the time that we only had AZT, that was it. The cocktail meds didn’t come out until 1996. This was 1988. Everybody died. It had to be a story that resulted in death. I wish there had been some hope of any kind at that time in order to do a story that gave people hope. But at that time it was impossible.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What was your intention for telling this story?
Thom Racina: To do a story that brought this issue to light in the minds of viewers who tended to be more Midwestern and conservative. ANOTHER WORLD did a lot of groundbreaking stuff over the years but still appealed more to older people. I recalled hearing from the focus groups that it had an older audience, hence all the stories about Felicia, Rachel, and Mac. There weren’t as many young stories on ANOTHER WORLD as there were on other shows.
I wanted to do something that would enlighten people and make them care about someone living with this disease. They probably in their own lives didn’t know anybody yet who did. And if they did, they were probably keeping it secret, or telling everyone they had “cancer.” Very few people let their families know they had AIDS back then. I wanted people to care about this character and have their own guts turned over when they knew they were going to lose her. I wanted them to be devastated and have compassion for her. I was on a soapbox! And of course, you have to have an entertaining story as well, so we did the love story [with Scott played by Hank Cheyne]. But I wanted them to be hooked on this story, to care about this girl who was infected by no fault of her own, who carried this disease that came out of nowhere, and that we should know more about it, we should hate it, and we should have great sympathy for the people who contracted it .
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What kind of feedback did you get from viewers?
Thom Racina: It was always good. I really thought the story was half-assed. We could have done so much more. But it was daytime, and I think it was remarkable that Procter & Gamble and NBC let us do it at all. The feedback from the audience was positive. They said it was very brave. I remember a woman wrote, “I hope this enlightens people because I as a mother was enlightened two years ago when I found out my only son died of AIDS in Europe.” She hadn’t seen him for a couple of years and couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t come home. He was too ashamed to let her know. This story helped her understand more. That’s the letter I remember, it broke me up.
The other letter that affected me like that was a response to my book, "Tomcat." It came out the year I started writing GENERAL HOSPITAL (1981) so that was my last book for many, many years. It was a coming out story. I was very proud of it. Even Gloria Monty said, “That was pretty damn good.” And Leah Laiman loved it and I didn’t think she would like it all. I got so many letters from people who said it had touched them. But one night the phone rings. It was a girl asking me if I was the Thom Racina who wrote "Tomcat." She was in Oklahoma. She worked in a 7-Eleven store, at 3 a.m., was dusting one night, and saw my book while she was bored. She started reading. When she finished, she called her brother, whom she had not spoken to in over three years, since her parents threw him out into the street when they discovered gay magazines under his mattress. She had been told he was evil, a sinner, and dead to the family. She said to me, “Your book made me realize he was none of those things.” She had never read a gay story in her life. It took some doing, and she found her brother. And she said, “It’s because of you.” I just thought, “Oh my God!”
I mean, you do this stuff, and you have every intention of touching people’s lives and hearts but you don’t really think you have the power to do something like that. Even right now I have tears in my eyes. The power of the word, whether on the screen or on the page, is simply astonishing, and that’s what makes all the hell you go through worth it. You get one of those letters, one of those phone calls, and then every bit of sweat and tears was worth it. It was the greatest phone call I ever had in my life.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Given that kind of feedback, did you then want to incorporate HIV stories into SANTA BARBARA or GENERATIONS?
Thom Racina: I always did and I always got turned down. Sally [Sussman Morina] and I did talk about it for GENERATIONS. I don’t really remember if we turned in a full story outline for that show. And then I did try on SANTA BARBARA. Pam Long seemed kind of into it, but nothing ever came out of it, and it was really up to her, she was the head writer.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: One of my jobs is to do outreach and education about the current HIV vaccine trials taking place across the United States at this time. Could you imagine ever incorporating a story like this into a soap plot?
Thom Racina: Absolutely! It would be a fascinating element of watching one’s life, seeing them volunteer for a vaccine study, or seeing their hope around the preventative pills. It would depend on who the character was. It could be someone who felt invincible and felt like nothing could ever happen to them. It would be great education and the dramatic possibilities are endless.
EDITOR'S NOTE: To find out more about Thom Racina's books, visit his website at www.thomracina.com. Please go to HopeTakesAction.org to learn more about the current HIV vaccine trials, or write Damon at Shouldless@gmail.com
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Therapist now accepting new clients in New York City. He is also the author of the popular book "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." For more information about scheduling an appointment, please email him at Shouldless@gmail.com.