Escape to Survival
Magician, escape artist, HIV activist and survivor Daniel Bauer unveils the magic of making a cure appear
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile many may believe in magic, many more may doubt its infinite powers. This past summer, I found myself facing Daniel Bauer, magician, motivational speaker, and also HIV activist and survivor. We debated the magic of finding a cure for HIV, in his apartment, over a platter of cheese and grapes, and a glass of iced tea.
Daniel Bauer is a fascinating and complex human being who, today, is reclaiming his dream of becoming an escape artist, and a Houdini successor. From the young age of eight, Bauer knew that he wanted to become a magician, when his parents gave him a magic kit. “It was love at first sight,” the now forty-two-year-old magician tells me.
In 1998, he left his parents’ home in Poughkeepsie, to move to New York City. Between 2000 and 2002, his career started to flourish. He got his first off-Broadway show, and made it on the cover of HX Magazine. He was about to start a new show called Piranha Peril, which was going to establish his legacy and capture the essence of an escape artist—that is, like Harry Houdini, to risk his life and create an escape from the ordinary for those watching him, so that they would forget about their problems, if only for a few moments.
A huge media event was organized to introduce his new show and launch Bauer as the successor of Houdini. And Daniel Bauer found himself on the verge of being on top of the world. But then everything was pulled out from underneath him.
Around that time, his boyfriend—the only man Bauer had trusted—packed up and left. Bauer had to get tested for insurance purposes for the show. The test results came back revealing that he had contracted HIV. At the time only a handful of people knew about it, but they were the ones controlling his career path, and they refused to continue funding his show. In a quick series of events, Bauer lost everything and was also abandoned by his family, as a result of his HIV status. And so he completely gave up on himself.
There were many nights when he wanted to numb the pain and feel nothing at all. He recalls one of those nights, when he went out to a nightclub, where he got introduced to several drugs. One of these drugs, crystal meth, stayed with him for an entire year. “I smoked my entire life away,” Bauer says, explaining that meth makes you think that you’re the greatest thing in the world, but day by day, while on meth, you’re losing your entire world—he got evicted, and had to live on the streets for a brief time. And then he received what he calls a “forced intervention.”
He had gone back to see his parents, but hid in their basement, hoping to eventually show himself and ask for a second chance. But one night he woke up to state troopers and their dogs. The last words he heard from his father were, “Never come back.”
After that intervention Bauer got his life back together. He went through rehab, graduated, and got his first job. Then he became the marketing guy for the mayor of Albany, New York, and was put in charge of raising millions of dollars for city-sponsored events.
Today, Daniel Bauer is not the same person he used to be back in the day. “I love to motivate young people to never give up,” he says, “because I had a redefining moment in my life the night that I tried to take my life.” And he shows me the scars on his wrists when he attempted suicide.
“Nobody knows the story,” he begins, and then pauses for a moment, as if reflecting on what he was about to say next. “My baby brother had also been diagnosed with HIV,” he finally continues, pointing at a picture of his brother. “He was diagnosed in 1989, I believe, and passed away from AIDS-related complications.”
Bauer’s brother, Andy, had such a bad reaction to AZT that he stopped taking it, and refused to go on any other medication from fear of having the same side effects. He called Bauer from Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. He was at the end, battling PCP, getting to that point where he couldn’t breathe on his own anymore. Doctors were going to intubate him. So, he begged his older brother to come down and stop them from doing that, because he wanted to die.
Bauer falls silent for several moments then shakes his head. “I was too late,” he finally says. “I got there, and they’d already intubated him.”
Doctors could not reach Bauer’s family, and Daniel couldn’t make any decisions about his brother without his parents’ consent. When they finally got his mother on the phone, she told them that he could do whatever he wanted. “So we had the tubes removed,” he says, “and they doped him up on morphine as much as possible, and then [we] waited out until he took his last breath.” Andy died on October 9, 2010, in the afternoon. He was thirty-five years old.
The experience sent Bauer into a deep depression. He had stopped taking his Atripla, because he was experiencing horrendous side effects. He thought he was going to die, too. And so he tried to take his own life. Luckily, a friend found him before he bled out.
Bauer became a motivational speaker because he knew that he didn’t want any other person to feel the hurt and pain that he’d gone through, but, rather, to feel that, if they made mistakes at some point in their lives, they could pick themselves up and move forward.
Later that same year, in 2011, Bauer received a phone call from Staten Island Technical High School. They wanted him to speak to their students on World AIDS Day. He’s been speaking at the event each year, ever since.
Bauer speaks at high schools across the country, to thousands of students. One year he was back at another high school, and had just finished speaking, when a student came up to him and hugged him, as a tear started coming down his cheek. He wanted to thank Bauer for saving his life. “When you came to this school a couple of years ago,” Bauer remembers the student say, “I was ready to end my life, and because of you, today I am the captain of my wrestling team, and I am happy.” And stories like this happen every time someone, student or not, hears Bauer speak.
Yet, Bauer doesn’t consider himself an HIV activist, but rather a motivational speaker. “I have a greater impact getting into schools and making sure these kids, when they get silly with their willy, they wrap it up,” he explains. “I desperately think that our world is missing magic today,” Bauer adds. “I think everybody is beating up on each other, [and] I think there’s a better way to treat each other [and] bring the magic out in people.” And Bauer does just that, through his profoundly inspiring and enlightening speeches, during which he candidly shares his own life story, his experience with HIV, and mental health related to living with HIV.
He explains that there’s a mental shift that comes with an HIV diagnosis, with being abandoned, rejected, and feeling not worthy of anybody’s love. Over the years he has learned to deal with his HIV and depression. Nowadays, he’s teaching others to do the same, because, he explains, he might not be perfect, but he refuses to be knocked down, because, he says, “it took a very long time for me to get comfortable in my own skin, to stitch a new set of armor.”
Nowadays, one cannot mention HIV without bringing up the topic of PrEP. So I have to know what Bauer has to say about that. And his answer is an eye-opener. “Maybe we need to change behaviors, instead of relying on a pill to solve all our problems,” Bauer says, explaining that preventing HIV is more about having the discipline to take the pill every single day, put on a condom, get tested on a regular basis. “If [not],” he opens his arms, “I’m living proof of the consequences.”
And then he adds, as if addressing the students, “If you don’t want to have [that kind of] discipline, you [can get HIV]. And then you need to find [the money] for your HIV treatment, and for the related depression, because everybody I know living with the virus went through depressive moments—self-grieving, denial, and anger. You are going through it all, so get ready! You have to go to the doctor every three months and have your blood checked, worry about your employer finding out [about your status] or of being criminalized. And if you’re not taking your medication, you can end up in the hospital or dead, like my brother….You can have [all that] or you could be a cool dude and have some discipline.” He pauses, and then his face opens up in a broad smile, “The kids love to hear it that way,” he explains.
While Bauer is, after all, a magician, and while we’re discussing HIV and AIDS, I wonder about the magic of making the virus disappear. When it comes to fighting HIV/AIDS, Bauer believes that we are fighting two wars—finding a cure for the actual virus, and also for the related stigma. And he might just have a solution for both.
Bauer has had the honor to moderate a panel at an International AIDS Conference, where he got to meet scientists, and also notice that they do not really share their findings with their peers. So he proposes a “think tank,” in which scientists could spend a short time to share the good and the bad of their research studies. He believes the reason we’re still lacking a cure is a lack of communication. “If we want a cure,” he says, “we have to start having a conversation about how we are going to achieve that together, worldwide.”
In order to cure stigma, Bauer encourages those in the HIV community “to stop being afraid of our own virus, and stand tall on our own two feet. Then [others] will stop being afraid [of the virus, too].” Bauer has seen this transformation. When giving speeches in high schools, some people are afraid of him, at first, and then after his speech, they wouldn’t leave without a hug, a handshake, or taking a selfie with him.
“So now that I revealed the secrets [of finding a cure for HIV], we need to let the magic happen,” he says with a smile. And Bauer does just that, through his motivational speeches, and also through his new show, Beyond Belief: Escape to Survival, which he hopes to bring to audiences soon.
These days, Daniel Bauer has a new perspective on life, and also an apology. “I hurt some people in the HIV community,” he confesses. “I think we all would be foolish to say that we haven’t hurt somebody at one point in our lives. But I think it’s important for us to take ownership in our mistakes, and to find pride in our very present moment, so that we can have a better tomorrow.”
He advises those living with HIV and depression to find the magic in their lives. “It is not going to be an easy road,” he says, “but when the first glimmer of sunshine pops through the fog [of depression], it is the most amazing transformation that people will ever experience. So, go for the sunshine. Your life matters.”
To find out more about Daniel Bauer, inquire about speaking engagements or check out tickets for his new show, Beyond Belief, please visit www.danielbauer.us.
Alina Oswald wrote about the new Larry Kramer documentary in the August issue.