The oscar-nominated 2009 film Precious was bleak. The protagonist, in addition to being a poorly educated teen mother, was a victim of sexual abuse, impoverished, and infected with HIV in the early 1990s, a time when the virus was still often a death sentence. Life could have been very similar for Merle “Conscious” Soden, but equal parts determination and intelligence wouldn’t allow it. In fact, she takes issue with Precious for that very reason.
“[My life] is not like the end of Precious, where she’s HIV-positive, she’s walking up the hill in Harlem, she’s still down-and-out, and she’s still uneducated,” Soden says. “That’s not the reality of people who are HIV-positive. And this is my message. You can be like me. You don’t have to be uneducated. You don’t have to be trash-talking. You don’t have to be drug-selling and in the street. You can be a productive member of society.”
Soden tells the riveting, tumultuous story of her life in her one-woman show, Getting Unstuck: Homeless to Hollywood. Soden decided to present her life in her own words, from the crib through drug addiction, HIV infection, sobriety, and then her college graduation just last year.
At age 5 in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, years before Soden donned a cap and gown, she took her first sip of whiskey. Two years later she took her first hit of cocaine. She says her father was a cop, but her mother was a robber—and this led to a childhood of difficulties.
“She got arrested, and their relationship went south really early on. I was left to live with my mom, and I saw the grimier side of life,” Soden says.
Fortunately, Soden was academically gifted and athletically talented. Despite having a mother who would leave her for days or weeks on end to go on drug benders, and despite jumping from foster home to foster home throughout her adolescence, Soden excelled in school, ultimately receiving a full athletic scholarship to Syracuse University. She eventually left to attend the New York Institute of Technology back home. In her spare time, she played basketball at the West 4th Street Courts, known for a high caliber of street ball.
“That’s where I met Queen Latifah,” Soden recalls. “At that time her name was Dana Owens. We played basketball together, and we’d hang out in the clubs together, and we had a ball.” One day Latifah said she wasn’t going to be available to play with the team anymore. She wanted to be a rapper.
“I asked her, ‘What do you mean you’re going to be a rapper? There are no female rappers,’ ” Soden says. “The next time I saw her, literally, she was Queen Latifah.”
After Queen Latifah’s big break in 1989, Soden decided she needed to do something else with her own life. She did a stint in the military, followed by work with New York’s Con Edison. At one point she was admitted to a hospital to treat a case of pneumonia. While she was in the hospital, a routine HIV test came back negative.
Right after leaving the hospital, Soden received a phone call from her sister, telling her that her mother needed help; she was out of jail and abusing drugs again.
“That’s when my life took a downward spiral for three years,” Soden says. “So here I was, the talented, athletic one, sitting in a drug den with my mother, trying to get her out, and I get sucked back in.” It’s also where she met Justine, a woman with whom she carried on a three-year relationship.
After those same three years with Justine and a steady flow of hard drugs and alcohol, Soden realized it was time to get away. She entered a rehab program and started seeing a therapist who helped her confront many harsh, repressed memories from childhood, including sexual abuse. It was also in the rehabilitation facility that she tested positive for HIV.
Soden realized the only way she could have been infected would have been through sexual contact with Justine. Once she found out her status, she called her sister to inquire about Justine’s health. “She said, ‘I didn’t want to tell you,’ and I said, ‘You don’t want to tell me what?’ and she said, ‘She’s dying of AIDS, and her ex-boyfriend is dying of AIDS too.’ So he infected her, and she infected me.”
This pivotal moment has become a hallmark of Soden’s work—she seeks not only to heighten audiences’ awareness of HIV but also to open their eyes to the fact that women can transmit the virus to each other. Soden learned that her girlfriend had a viral load of a million, meaning she had AIDS. While transmission between women who have sex with women (or WSW) is rare, it does occur. For Soden, rough sex or sexual activity during menstruation was most likely the source of her infection.
“It’s not about the gender. It’s about the act of sex,” she says. “Granted, it’s a little harder to happen, when we’re talking about female-to-female transmission, but as soon as you introduce blood to the equation that risk goes up exponentially.”
Once Soden achieved sobriety in 1996, she decided it was time to turn her life back around. Through her friendship with Queen Latifah, Soden went back to work in the entertainment industry as a bodyguard and then in various behind-the-scenes positions at the Oxygen television network. Hollywood producers showed interest in her life story after she self-published a memoir, but she felt few of them knew how to get her story right.
Instead of waiting for Hollywood to figure it out, Soden, who was by then finishing up her electrical engineering degree at Florida International University, decided to try writing her own autobiographical one-woman show. She tested the show at FIU and Florida Memorial University to rave reviews. That’s when she contacted her brother Troy Carter, who was raised by their father and now manages pop superstar Lady Gaga.
“He asked me to fly out to L.A. over spring break, and he said, ‘Let me see what you can do,’ ” she says. “So I sat right with Troy on Sunset Boulevard and I told him all about the show. He loved it and he cut me a check right there on the spot and he told me to perform all over the United States, anywhere that I could get a gig.”
Carter’s investment resulted in a show where Soden walks the audience through her journey, complete with 24 tracks of music and a short film that she produced. She says she’s most fulfilled when she hears from audience members who say her story has helped them better understand friends and family members with HIV, or people who are also survivors of drug use or sexual assault.
“I just want to inspire people,” she says. “I came from the gutter. Now I live in Los Angeles. I own property in Miami, I drive a Mercedes-Benz, and I’m an electrical engineer. I was a drug addict. I became HIV-positive [and was] in a lost world with my family. I turned my life around.”