Meditation in Action
When the Glaser family was looking for a press agent who could maintain silence, they couldn’t do much better than a former Zen priest practiced in quiet meditation.
Josh Baran was running a small public relations firm in Venice, Calif., in 1987 when his friend Jody Uttal approached him and asked if he would be willing to manage the media for a Hollywood family living with the secret of AIDS. Among publicists, Baran stood out for his compassion, integrity, and mindfulness. A decade previously, he had walked away from his vocation as a priest in a Buddhist monastery to take the path of social change.
“I didn’t start out trying to be a PR guy; I started out getting involved with causes,” said Baran, who has managed media for such clients as Amnesty international, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Dalai Lama. “When certain things call out to me, I just can’t find a no,” said Baran, “I find a yes—and the commitment to it.”
Elizabeth and Paul Glaser knew Baran from charity events and thought that he might be the person they could rely on to control rumors that Elizabeth and their two children, Ariel and Jake, had been diagnosed with HIV—a truth that they wished to keep private.
Baran met with Elizabeth and volunteered to help the family manage its secret. Baran’s job would be to keep his ear to the Hollywood grapevine and quickly squash any rumor before it could grow.
Yet, Baran knew that no publicist could control such a story forever.
“As I left their house after that first meeting, I knew some things for certain,” Josh recalls, “First, eventually their story would come out, and when it did they would be embraced, not shunned. Also, Elizabeth was a warrior at heart and had the potential to become a major activist.”
“She had a different timetable,” said Baran. “There was a sense that she had to save her children. I couldn’t argue with that.”
Frustration over slow progress against HIV pushed Elizabeth to form the Pediatric AIDS Foundation with friends Susan De Laurentis and Suzie Zeegan, with Baran providing support. Elizabeth learned everything that she could about the virus. Within weeks they were sitting in the office of Sen. Alan Cranston. Within six months, they were explaining pediatric AIDS to President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan.
“Elizabeth was incredibly focused. She was Joan of Arc. She wasn’t going to hear no or wait,” said Baran.
Despite, Elizabeth’s lobbying—often including disclosure about her own family’s fight with HIV—Baran and the Glasers managed to keep her personal connection to the virus secret for two years.
But one day in August 1989, the National Enquirer called Baran to confirm that Ariel had died from AIDS-related illness and that Elizabeth had AIDS. Baran had been expecting such a call.
“The Glaser home and the Foundation office were being watched and photographed,” said Baran. “The pool cleaner and housekeeper were asked, ‘How does it feel to work for people who have AIDS.’ A man pretending to be the Glaser’s rabbi visited the hospital where Ari died and tried to interview the nurses, claiming to be putting together a memorial service.”
Baran and the Glasers decided that it was time to get ahead of the story. Baran did not want the world to learn of the Glaser’s HIV status from a tabloid newspaper. On Monday, he called his friend Janet Huck, an editor at the Los Angeles Times, and set up an interview. That Friday, the Times broke the story, allowing the Glasers to tell their story with dignity. The response, as Baran had predicted, was compassion.
“It was a relief to get it out,” said Baran. “For me. For Elizabeth.”
With the world finally aware of HIV in her family, Elizabeth realized that the media played a big role in winning support, and Baran shifted from guarding the secret to arranging media interviews; making contacts to support Elizabeth’s 1991 book, In the Absence of Angels; and setting up speaking engagements, like Elizabeth’s 1992 speech to the Democratic Convention.
“Elizabeth’s story, her passion, and her naïve belief that goodness will win out were contagious,” said Baran. Traveling to New York for her Democratic Convention speech, Baran told Elizabeth that her work with the Foundation amounted to “meditation in action, a powerful expression of spiritual values.”
On the day that Elizabeth lost her own battle to AIDS two years laterlater, Josh paid tribute to those spiritual values by going to work.
“I headed to the Foundation office to put out the press announcement, respond to the many media calls, and get a quotation from the White House. It is what Elizabeth would have wanted us to do—use the opportunity to keep the Foundation’s effort going. We wanted the public to trust that the the Pediatric AIDS Foundation would continue as long as there are kids affected by AIDS.”
Months later, Baran did take the time to say goodbye to Elizabeth in his own way. At a Buddhist monastery in Nepal, amid colorful Tibetan scrolls, incense, and chanting lamas, he dedicated a memorial service to Elizabeth, honoring her warrior spirit.
As Baran reflects on the quarter century that has passed since he and Elizabeth sat at her kitchen table and discussed starting a foundation to save children, he said that she would be pleased to see her legacy in the millions of mothers who have not transmitting HIV to their children and in the millions of children living with HIV who are getting treatment—through the work of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
“It’s a terrific expansion,” Baran said. “When a founder dies, you never know if the foundation is going to survive.”
“Elizabeth could make it happen, and she did.”