Theory of Aliveness
Why activist, therapist, writer and muse Robert Levithan rejects expiration dates.
Robert Levithan is the kind of man who wears all white on a dreary day in New York in late December. In his SoHo apartment, he’s dressed in a cream turtleneck with white Levi’s 501s and leather loafers. His signature color is also reflected in the painted wood floors and white walls, which, to be fair, are gridded by black and white framed photographs by the likes of Duane Michals, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lee Miller, Karen Fuchs and Irene Kung.
“When I want to feel absolutely at ease, I put on all white,” Levithan says, crossing his long legs and leaning back into a white settee. “It’s my most comfortable outfit. I’ve worn white jeans for most of my adult life.”
Though white is the dominant color, Levithan’s home isn’t cold; orderly stacks of books and magazines are piled up in sections of the small space, espresso bubbles on the stove and Levithan is ready with Italian cups and cookies neatly lined up on a porcelain serving tray. If Hollywood had a casting for “dapper, 60-something gentleman,” ... well, you get it.
Having the right look is a luxury Levithan has been afflicted with since his 20s, though he thought of himself quite differently. “In my 20s, I was harshly aware of my flaws,” he says. “I was considered too ethnic for modeling and all-American boy roles as an actor. I realize now that my flaws are what make me distinctive and make me who I am; I’m so glad I didn’t eliminate the ones I could have because cultural concepts of beauty keep changing, as have my own.”
Born in Manhattan in the 1950s and raised in Englewood, New Jersey, Levithan went to the University of Pennsylvania and studied abroad in Italy, majoring in history and graduating magna cum laude without a firm idea of what he would do with his life (elementary school teaching and law school were two options). Returning to New York after graduation, he started acting and performing, which led to producing plays and concerts. And, as one does with a thin, 6’1’’ frame and a mess of curly dark hair in the
1970s, Levithan was a muse for photographers like Peter Hujar (a former lover) and Clovis França; he also posed for Mapplethorpe.
The pinnacle of Levithan’s performance career was being cast as a dancer by Twyla Tharp for 1979’s Hair. He auditioned as an actor, but Tharp tapped him for the role based on his look (and when Twyla asks you to do something, you go for it). “It was a great challenge, but Twyla and I clicked on some levels,” he says. “She knew I was willing to give 140 percent and that’s what she demanded.”
It’s a work ethic that served him well in the next challenge of his life. While going strong in his arts production career, Levithan was tested as part of a study of the incipient HIV/AIDS virus in 1984. It was a few years later that he was confirmed as positive. “The moment was a bit of a shock, but it was what I expected,” he says. “I’d already been looking at how to live a life [with the virus]. Everything had to become about ‘aliveness.’”
By his own definition, “aliveness” means living life in a way that focuses on the present; it was a coping mechanism to deal with his own mortality. “It helped me feel like: ‘I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, so I want to be truly alive for the rest of the time I’m here,” he says. “That’s a win-win.”
Levithan took calculated steps to make this happen: he began taking Eastern and alternative treatments—herbs and vitamins (“What worked, I don’t know,” he says)—and won a lottery in the fall of 1995 for early access to the first workable antiretroviral medications, which suppress the virus and allow the immune system to rebuild. (He continues to take a different form of the meds today, as well as the homeopathic regimen.)
After his diagnosis, he also began working with severely ill patients, co-founded The Healing Circle support group and plotted a career change. “I didn’t plan on being a psychotherapist, a group leader, a workshop leader— those things were interesting to me, but none of that was on the board when I was 35,” he says.
But by the time he was 40, Levithan was on his way to a graduate degree in transformational counseling from Southwestern College in Santa Fe and a new sense of purpose centered around activism, writing and helping people with life-threatening conditions. “My life has been one where things have unfolded,” he says. “I’ve not been on a clear-cut course, and I’ve ended up doing many varied and wonderful things.”
Now, 32 years after his initial diagnosis, Levithan is in private practice as a psychotherapist, has authored THE NEW 60: Outliving Yourself and Reinventing a Future, and is a part-time facilitator at Friends In Deed—The Crisis Center for Life-Threatening Illness.
“I’ve done a lot of things I think are really cool, but they don’t matter as much as what I’m doing now,” he says. “That’s the key to aging: in order to do it gracefully and feel fully alive, now has to be the most exciting time. What I’m doing now is what feeds me and also gives me a sense of purpose and excitement about the future.”
It’s also allowed him to reject the conventional notion that beauty has a “use-by” date. “I reject the boxes and the internalized devaluation of self based on a cultural norm—body types, ages, colors, races, everything,” he says. “Let’s throw out all our definitions of beauty and look at it really creatively.”
And as a therapist and group leader, Levithan aims to live as he teaches: “If I say to people, ‘don’t take yourself out of the game because you’re older or because you’re HIV-positive,’ then I have to keep myself in the game also. Am I in the game? Yes I am. Let me keep playing. I’m my own laboratory.”
Editor's note: After this interview was published, Robert Levithan died peacefully at home on May 13, 2016 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 65.
Photo © Zoltan Tombor