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[whitespace] New Age writer Shakti Gawain shares her thoughts on 'Philadelphia'

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. Five years ago, he saw Tom Hanks' and Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning Philadelphia in the company of best-selling author Shakti Gawain; with her groundbreaking book Creative Visualization, Gawain is perhaps the most influential of the so-called New Age writers that followed her into the personal-growth mainstream. Owing to the subject matter of the controversial, emotionally harrowing film--a gay lawyer, dying of AIDS, sues the firm that unjustly fired him--this piece was not run at that time (Talking Pictures was then carried by a different Sonoma County newspaper; shortly thereafter it began being featured in the Independent). Even CBS, the broadcasting company that originally purchased the television rights to the film, was unwilling to exercise those rights--until now. Ironically, the dailies have spent considerable ink in recent days on CBS' announcement that it will finally broadcast Philadelphia--on Sunday, Aug. 9. It is fitting, then, that this never-seen column of Talking Pictures be published online in this week's Independent, coinciding with this long overdue event.

"I couldn't tell you how long it's been since I've gone to the movies," laughs Shakti Gawain, climbing into the cab of my girlfriend's pickup truck. "I've been wanting to see Philadelphia, but haven't had the time, so this is a real treat." Susan backs the truck down the driveway and heads toward the theater in downtown Tiburon. Gawain--who now lives in Hawaii--returns often to the Bay Area, where she keeps an apartment.

Gawain is the best-selling author of Creative Visualization (it has sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide since publication in 1983), the ground- breaker that made the term "visualization" into a household word, paving the way for a host of writers, philosophers, and New Age theologians. Still the most practical and down-to-earth of the personal growth gurus--the gist of Creative Visualization is that we can attain our desires by a conscious practice of imagining those desires in meditation--Gawain has also written Living in the Light and the autobiographical Back to the Garden. She is also a co-founder of Novato's New World Library, an independent publishing company specializing in work of a spiritual nature.

Philadelphia, one of the first theatrical movies to deal with the issue of AIDS and homophobia, stars Tom Hanks as a hard-working member of a powerful law firm who is unexpectedly fired when it becomes clear that he is seriously ill with AIDS. Forming an unlikely alliance with a homophobic, ambulance-chasing lawyer (Denzel Washington), he sues his former employers, throwing himself into the battle even as his condition becomes increasingly worse. The film has been criticized by pro and anti gay activists, saying either that it doesn't go far enough in its portrayal of gay relationships (Hanks' and his lover, played by Antonio Banderas, never share so much as a kiss onscreen) or, conversely, that it goes too far in presenting Hanks' gay lawyer as a hero.

Even so, it is a powerful, emotionally gripping film that is not, and should not be, easily shaken off afterwards.

Gawain--whose father, it turns out, passed away less than a month ago, after a long illness--was especially moved by a hospital scene in which the family members of a dying AIDS patient line up in single file, each attempting to say a meaningful farewell as their mother, apparently anxious to keep everyone's spirits up, uncomfortably hurries each brother and sister through their goodbyes.

"It always amazes me," Gawain admits later, "how people will think it's reasonable to deny tears at someone else's deathbed. I'm thinking of the one brother, holding his dying brother's hand, who starts to cry, and they both lock eyes, they seem to want the reality of the moment--but the mother is standing there going, 'Oh no, honey. It's OK. It's OK.' That was very painful to watch, but I thought it was very realistic."

Asked if she was able to say her own goodbyes to her father, Gawain says, slowly, 'Well ... yes and no. I was never really able to talk to my dad about it. I mean, it was never really acknowledged on his part that he was actually dying. I tried once, and I did have conversations in which I was able to say the things I needed to say about our life, to kind of clear things with him, and to leave things with him, but as to actually admitting that his death was close by, he'd brush it aside. 'Well ... yeah, but ...'

"I ultimately decided it wasn't appropriate to push something on him that he didn't want."

Susan, whose own father died of cancer a little over a year ago, had the same experience.

"Even up the end, when he was in the hospital," she explains, "he wouldn't really discuss it--and then he went into a coma for the last few days and never came out. It seemed that there was an act of defiance in that."

"Right," Gawain laughs, nodding. "'Pipe down, or I'll go into a coma.' In the film tonight, Andrew [the Hanks character] was in the same kind of denial. I mean, what a lot of denial! He kept denying how sick he was, that he needed to rest, that he needed to rest.

"The thing that struck me," she continues, "was, if I were dying, would I want to spend my last months sitting in some courtroom?"

"He was a lawyer," I point out. "And a workaholic lawyer. He loved the courtroom."

"That's true," Gawain replies. "His life was his work, so maybe that was an appropriate choice. I suppose it had something to do with his empowerment." She pauses, considering this for a moment. "Yes, that's probably it. As a homosexual, he would have always been dealing with that homophobia, in himself and in others. That would have been a lifelong battle, to support himself and say, 'I'm OK. I'm OK.' That's probably why he had to go to court. To stand up, once and for all, against that patriarchal, oppressive, judgmental rejection that he'd felt coming at him all of his life."

"So Andrew is obviously there for his personal growth," I remark, "but he's also there to see justice done. To try and change what's wrong in society, while he has the chance."

"Sure, your higher purpose is always intimately involved with your own evolution," Gawain agrees. "If you commit yourself to your own learning, growing, healing, evolutionary process--and you do whatever you need to do to accomplish that--then you just naturally make a contribution to the evolutionary process of humanity.

"The basic essence of my work," she goes on, "is to support people to really listen to their own sense of truth, to really live it, and to really act on it. To the degree that we can do that is the degree to which we find ourselves in balance with ourselves, and with others, and with our own lives.

"And, I imagine, with our own deaths as well."

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Web extra to the August 6-12, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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