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COPING: AIDS and the Doctor's Daughter

New York Times Article by Robert Lipsyte, March 12, 1996

IN the middle of her Ph.D. party eight years ago, Cydelle Berlin found out that her daughter was H.I.V.-positive. Other family members could tell that something was wrong -- the two women were crying and hugging in the garden of Dr. Berlin's apartment -- but it was almost a year before most found out just how wrong. Evan Ruderman swore her mother to secrecy; she was 28 years old and it was enough for her to publicly deal with being a pioneering female construction worker without having to wear the scarlet letter of the 90's.

Dr. Berlin needed more time, too; her Ph.D. was in health education and the H.I.V./AIDS prevention program she had founded at the Mount Sinai Hospital Adolescent Health Center was new. She did not tell anyone at work.

I didn't want people to think that I had made the program such a great part of my life because I was on a personal mission. That simply wasn't true. The mission came before I found out about Evan. And I didn't want people saying, 'How can she teach other people's kids when she can't teach her own?'

"But now I think there's a lesson that people need to learn from this. Evan feels the same way. It could happen to anyone."

This, of course, was the lesson Dr. Berlin had started out to teach, first in one-on-one counseling sessions, then in ever widening circles as her Star Theater performed its musical psychodramatic skits, "On the Edge," in schools, dance clubs and community centers around the city. The post-performance discussions between the young actors and their audiences are candid, from techniques to avoid sex to mutual masturbation as a form of safer sex.

"Kids know less than they did five years ago," said Dr. Berlin, "because there's more fear and myth and censorship."

Intense, glamorous, theatrical, Dr. Berlin seems to have been training all her life for this crisis; she was born in Brooklyn, began giving plays in her backyard at 7, attended Tilden High because her parents wouldn't let her go to Performing Arts. She married while at Brooklyn College and became one of those nontraditional public school English teachers in touch with their own adolescent souls; she directed guerilla theater, got arrested in anti-war demonstrations, tried to counter the "fear and loathing" of standard high school sex courses.

Toward the end of her 17-year marriage, she began taking courses in the sexuality program at New York University, where her husband was a professor. While three of their four children went to college, Evan, the "maverick," went to alternate high schools, and never graduated. Eventually, she earned a general equivalency diploma and joined the electrician's union. She had had a series of gynecological problems, and Dr. Berlin insisted she be tested for H.I.V., ostensibly to rule it out. Ms. Ruderman had not had many sexual partners, according to Dr. Berlin, and was in an 11-year relationship with a man.

Because of her deteriorating physical condition -- she has been spending weeks at a time in the hospital in recent years -- the death of her partner from AIDS and her own need to share lessons of survival and of political activism, Ms. Ruderman disclosed in a very public way; she became a featured player in a film that the noted documentary producer, Roger Weisberg, was making about the Star Theater. "Sex and Other Matters of Life and Death" will be exhibited in various film festivals before its eventual TV broadcast. On June 3 it will be shown at the Roundabout Theater in a benefit for Dr. Berlin's prevention program. Much of the remarkable film's power emerges from the inter-action between the young actors -- who have been trained in health education -- and their audiences, whose lack of knowledge about disease transmission and even about their own bodies would be hilarious if it were not so dangerous. The reaction of their elders, at school board meetings and during impromptu confrontations, sometimes seems to be from a "Spinal Tap" mockumentary. How else explain the medical doctor at Covenant House, responsible to some of the most endangered kids in the city -- runaways, prostitutes, addicts -- refusing to allow Dr. Berlin and her troupe to mention, much less demonstrate, condom use. She said she was afraid that her funding from the Catholic Church would be jeopardized. But would all that information have saved Evan from infection ? Dr. Berlin takes a rare pause. "We can provide information, but ultimately, for reasons of love and trusting and the need for human connection, kids will make their own decisions, good or bad. Parents can't just say, 'Don't have sex.' You have to give them options. "You teach them all you can, and you hold on as long as you can, and then you have to let them go."

A version of this article appears in print on May 12, 1996 , Section 13, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: COPING;AIDS and the Doctor's Daughter.

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