How to Buy a Will to Live

There are two radical choices when faced with a death sentence: jolt into a potent sobriety and fight to live. Or, sink into despair so deep that drugs are a greater solace than fighting the monster killing you. Ron Woodroof, played brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey (Golden Globe Best Actor), in Dallas Buyer’s Club, chooses the former. But Rayon, a transgender woman, played with magnificent pathos by Jared Leto (Golden Globe Best Supporting Actor) can’t stop her harmful behaviors. What are the driving forces (emotional ones, that is) behind an out-of-character transformation versus self-destruction?

Ron Woodroof, whose real-life story Dallas Buyers Club tells, is a rodeo cowboy who loves his liquor and all the uninvolved sex he can get. It’s 1985, the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and not surprisingly, he’s also a homophobic redneck. Ron’s personal crisis, though, transforms him into an almost poster boy for gay rights. Why? Seemingly out of the blue, he’s diagnosed with AIDS and learns firsthand what it means to be ostracized by so-called friends. In the bar, one taunts him: “Go get me a drink, Sugar Cake.”

And so it begins. In spite of the fear-based rejection that leaves Woodroof completely alone, he embarks on the fight of his life. He doesn’t want to die. What makes it possible to love life, research his disease, and establish one of the first Buyer’s Clubs in the United States?  How does he manage to say: “Screw the FDA – I’m going to be DOA”, fight their power tactics and threats, and brashly travel the world for alternative unapproved drugs? Why can Woodroof fight when Rayon can’t?

The Devastation of Shame in Dallas Buyer’s Club

He isn’t drowning in shame. He’s angry. Sure. But, he believes in his rights and convictions. And, he’s something of a rebel, which serves him well. No one is going to tell him what to do or get him down. Not even AIDS. Nor is he going to kowtow to doctors just because they have the higher degree and act like they know what they’re talking about. He’s smart, he’s non-conforming, he takes his disease into his own hands, and he FIGHTS.

Rayon can’t fight. She can’t be angry. She’s broken by her family’s shame and now her own. A child can’t develop self-esteem (and, certainly, can’t easily learn to surmount cultural intolerance) without a parent’s understanding, acceptance, and love. It’s particularly challenging to find self-acceptance for someone like Rayon who, as Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. writes, in Gender Made Gender Born, goes against society’s “norms” and makes her own gender. Woodruff says it well: “God didn’t know what he was doing when he dressed the wrong doll”. But, with her family, she must apologize for who she is.

In one of the most devastating scenes in Dallas Buyers Club, Rayon dresses as Raymond when she goes to plead with her wealthy father. She needs help.  She wants to support the Buyer’s Club and repay Ron for his kindness. The dialog goes like this: Father: “God help me.” Rayon: “He has. I have AIDS.” Father turns away and refuses to help. Rayon’s shame wins out: “I’m sorry, Dad”. Rayon loses the battle long before AIDS kills her.

The Heartbreak of a Father’s Rejection

In the scene that follows, we witness the heartbreak of a father’s rejection as Rayon tearfully prays before the mirror: “God, when I meet you, I’m going to be pretty.  If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll be a beautiful angel.”  What she really wants to plead is: “love me, Dad”. Where Father fails, Ron Woodroof steps in.

Both are locked out – Rayon by her family and Ron from the life he’s known. Ron Woodroof, the callous cowboy, is so alone he cries. He, too, prays to God: “Give me a chance to catch my breath, OK? I’m not ready to call the coroner. Show me a sign.” The first sign is a doctor in Mexico. Perhaps the real sign is Rayon – who teaches him the anguish inflicted by bigotry. Their hard-won mutual understanding changes them both.

The magical butterfly scene in Mexico confirms Ron’s change when hundreds of butterflies flock onto him. There’s a new drug made from the secretions of caterpillars for protection during their incubation that offers newfound hope. Yes, the drug is a non-toxic antiretroviral for humans. But, more importantly, butterflies are symbols of transformation. In the end, Rayon succumbs to her drug habit, her only escape from shame. For Ron Woodroof though, because of his gradually increasing love and appreciation for Rayon – his friend – compassion wins out. He becomes an unwitting hero, fighting for people of all kinds to live freely as they ARE.

Posted in

Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.