Tonight I watched "The Normal Heart," the HBO movie based on Larry Kramer's play. It brought back a lot of memories, namely reading And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic in 1994 when I was 14.
Kramer is a pivotal character in Randy Shilts's comprehensive masterwork of journalism, and one of the many names I carried around on my tongue as an impassioned ninth grader. Others included Cleve Jones, Anthony Fauci, Gaetan Dugas. I wasn't discriminating in my enthusiasm; I talked about the activists, the doctors, and so-called Patient Zero with equal intensity. It was the first book I had read where I memorized information eagerly, of my own volition, the way some kids memorize baseball card stats, and I went around talking about Factor VIII and Kaposi's sarcoma to anyone who would listen. A lot has faded, but enough has remained that when I was watching an episode of Veep recently, and the vice president introduced her assistant as Gary Walsh, I thought, Really? You gave him the same last name? Walsh was a psychotherapist described in Shilts's book, and he died in those early years.
When it was all going on (Shilts's book focuses on 1980-85), I was a little kid in North Dakota; born in 1979, I was totally unaware of the medical fear and bravery, political stonewalling and activism, and all the other facets that played out and on and on, especially in major American cities. In 1994, when I truly became aware, it was already an old disease in some ways; Life and Time were naming it as the cause of death in their year-end issues with photos of the famous who had died. I had saved the issues from 1992 and 1993, and I taped the men from those years to my bedroom walls alongside a painting my brother had done of a cheeseburger and fries, alongside my poster for the film It's a Wonderful Life. My room became even stranger than before, a fangirl-shrine-museum for Rudolf Nureyev, Arthur Ashe, Tony Perkins, Denholm Elliott, and others. I went further back in time and taped up Roy Cohn's obituary, even though he was a known asshole. And I taped up Randy's.
When I finished his book, in January or February of 1994, I wrote Randy Shilts a letter to thank him for his work and to ask how I could help, but instead of hearing from him, his assistant wrote back: he was too sick to reply himself. Shortly later he died; my father handed me his obituary one day when I came home from school. I was stunned, blinking back tears. "People with AIDS die," he told me. "They die." Maybe he was merely trying for directness, honesty; maybe my attachment to these faces, the display of gay men in my bedroom, irritated him. Either way, I had to get out of the house. I went for a walk. The roads were lined with pristine snow, making the sudden sight of a squirrel's crushed body all the more vivid and jarring. Of course it wasn't just a dead animal; it felt significant, and I went home and wrote a bad poem about the whole thing.
Back then I wasn't allowed to volunteer at the Southeastern Connecticut AIDS Project (SECAP) because I was a minor, so I wore a red ribbon until that felt flimsy, and then I took it off and did nothing at all. Soon another phrase entered my vocabulary: protease inhibitors. AIDS, while still deadly, ceased to be the same kind of disease, and sentences like the ones my father uttered became relics of a particular time.
"The Normal Heart" is good and sad. It reminded me of a time when I was passionate and single-minded and young and sheltered enough not to know anything of the true fight. It reminded me of those names, of the people who did the living and fighting and dying. I didn't know what to do with these feelings, so for now I'm just writing, again.