For the past 24 years, it’s been the O-way or no way. When Oprah Winfrey declares her favorite ice cream on an Oprah’s Favorite Things episode, it’s sold out and on backorder by week’s end. Oprah says stop texting while driving- we sign a pledge and put the phones down (at least until we reach a stop light). Now, during the finale season of the show that has brought to light so many “Aha!” moments in our lives, someone is calling Oprah’s bluff.
Dr. David Malebranche is an Internal Medicine physician, public health professional, and assistant professor at Emory University’s School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. On Saturday, October 9, Dr. Malebranche posted an open letter to Oprah in a Note on his Facebook account. It was in response to the recent episode on the transmission of HIV/AIDS to a woman by her husband who was sleeping with men “on the down low”.
In Dr. Malebranche’s eyes, the story- while tragic- was depicted as one-sided. In his letter, Malebranche argued that “the show remained stuck in a metaphorical time warp.” During my interview with him this past Thursday, Dr. Malebranche pointed out that there is an incessant depiction of women as “innocent victims”, and of gay black men as the villains. “It’s HIV innocent versus HIV guilty,” Malebranche said. He argues that because of this sentiment, the rift between black gay men and women is irreparable. I asked if there was any way that this chasm could be bridged. “Not when shows like this keep airing," he responded. "I felt bad for the woman that was there. But, it was approached with a ‘this really shouldn’t happen to me’ attitude. Do you think any of these people across the world wanted [HIV]?"
Another area that was left untouched in the Oprah episode was why men feel the need to hide the truth from their heterosexual partners. At the root of these down-low brothers’ behavior, is perhaps a troubled past, and the fear and shame that are associated with being an openly gay black man. “How many people are just genuinely dishonest?” Malebranche remarked, “…you have to scratch beneath the surface a little bit.” Dr. Malebranche’s intention in writing the letter was simply to “be clear in my truth.” He received over 300 new Friend requests on Facebook, and 100+ messages in his Facebook inbox by the Sunday evening after he posted the letter. People thanked Malebranche for his voice, and for clarity, since many people got caught up in the sensationalism of the episode.
And where does the public health come into play? Dr. Malebranche suggests that, more so than personalized interventions, social media and mass marketing are the best ways to spread important information. His letter is a prime example- he posted the note at the suggestion of a friend, when he realized he had to stop waiting on “someone” to say something. That someone was him, and the response was viral (no pun intended). Dr. Malebranche’s letter allowed the public to gain a different perspective on a rarely visited, always divisive issue. “I got tired of it. I sat down and watched the show and I was bothered but the one thing that really stuck out in my mind was, 'Really Oprah? Have you really not done any research? Six years have passed by and you haven’t learned jack sh*t.”
“Ultimately, happiness rests on how you establish a solid sense of self or being. Happiness does not lie in outward appearances nor in vanity. It is a matter of what you feel inside; it is a deep resonance in your life. To be filled each day with a rewarding sense of exhilaration and purpose, a sense of tasks accomplished and deep fulfillment- people who feel this way are happy. Those who have this sense of satisfaction even if they are extremely busy are much happier than those who have time on their hands but feel empty inside.” – Daisku Ikeda