Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic
By Randy Shilts
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Sometimes, it’s tough to belly up to a big, heavy history book.
You know the kind of book I mean: a magisterial, dense tome dealing, in depth, with some somber human chapter. Hundreds of pages on a topic about which serious adults always seem to know more than you.
You feel that you should read them, the way that you should eat well and exercise, but every time you contemplate actually cracking them open, you think, ‘Yikes, I’m not going to laugh once during this,’, and so go and watch another episode of ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ instead.
‘And the Band Played On‘ has been weighing on my conscience for a year or so now, squatting on my ‘To Read’ shelf and glowering at me. Every time I reach for a novel, it’s red-letter title gleams at me, as though it were asking, ‘Do you really need to read another Graham Greene novel? Don’t you care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic?’
Well, I do care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic, and I’ve run out of Graham Greene novels, and so I finally buckled down and read ‘And the Band Played On‘.
First of all, let me say that ‘And the Band Played On‘ is not what I thought it was going to be. It is not a dry, magisterial history; rather, it’s part narrative history, part journalism, part advocacy. It does endeavor to tell the story of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (and a little in Western Europe), but it does not pretend to objectivity. It has a viewpoint, and it is forthright in assigning blame and giving praise.
Randy Shilts was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1980s and, as the epidemic developed, he became one of the first reporters in the country to cover AIDS as a full-time beat. San Francisco did not have the largest absolute number of AIDS cases in the United States (New York City did), but it did have the largest and most civically powerful gay male population, and the largest number of cases per capita. Shilts was therefore witness at one of the population centers hardest hit, and most responsive, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and he manages to imbue his book with the sense of creeping dread and unnameable fear that he himself must have felt.
It’s not a book for the faint of heart, or for the easily outraged. If Shilts is to be believed*, then the unfolding of the AIDS crisis in America was a clusterfuck of every kind of human recalcitrance, incompetence, and malevolence. Racism, classism, homophobia, cowardice, complacence, narcissism, over-weaning ambition, and bureaucratic inertia all combined to slow realization of, and effective reaction to, the crisis. And many, many people died because of it.
That is the most difficult part of ‘And the Band Played On‘: most of the characters to whom you are introduced, the real people for whom you root and to whom you become attached, perish. They die, slowly, and in agony, and there is nothing you can do to help them. You, from your vantage of thirty years on, know exactly what’s killing them, but there is no way to alert the people around them, to persuade them to abandon their biases and their prejudice and to see what’s really happening. It’s heart-breaking, because so few of the obstacles in the way of an effective response to the AIDS crisis in the United States were, in hindsight, legitimate. Most stemmed from human bungling, callousness or, worse, evil. And this powerless on your part to alter the past makes the reading of this book claustrophobic, and very upsetting.
This is not a book which will leave you with good feelings about your fellow man. Of course, it’s not a chapter in our history which was going to leave you feeling good about your fellow man, and you probably knew that going in; I certainly didn’t expect this to be a fun read. Nevertheless, there are details in here which are so dismal, petty and caustic to the soul, that they will stay with me for the rest of my life. This, for example:
‘Haitian Americans suffered multiple indignities in the two cities where they were most concentrated, Miami and New York. Just trying on a pair of shoes in Florida sometimes became a traumatic experience, because salespeople declined to let anyone who looked Haitian near any merchandise.’ (p. 322)
‘The guide to British aristocracy, Burke’s Peerage, announced that, in an effort to preserve ‘the purity of the human race,’ it would not list any family in which any member was known to have AIDS. (p. 565)
‘Two AIDS sufferers were scheduled to be part of an ‘A.M. San Francisco’ segment whose goal was to ‘demystify’ AIDS and calm the fears. However, the two patients couldn’t appear on the show because studio technicians refused to mike them. Then, cameraman said they would not shoot the show if they had to walk onto the same sound stage as the two gay men. The two patients instead talked through a telephone in a separate room.’
But just because something is emotionally difficult to read isn’t an excuse for avoiding it. It’s important to know about our national moral failures as well as our glorious successes. And I would argue that, if you’re determined to learn about the AIDS crisis, or about modern epidemics in general, this is a good book to read.
There are arid portions – there is a lot of policy building, lots of CDC budgets, which will alienate non-wonks – but, for the most part, Shilts has made this subject matter as riveting as possible. The focus is almost entirely on individuals, which, while distressing, will help you stay focused. It is exhaustive; there is an astonishing amount of information in this book – the amount of reporting work Shilts must have done boggles the mind. In that sense alone, it really is a colossal achievement.
But though it has a clear point of view, I think that the best compliment that I can give this book is this: I did not even suspect until I looked him up when I finished – it didn’t even occur to me to ask the question – that Randy Shilts was a gay man. He refused to be tested for the AIDS virus until he had completed this book, fearing that a positive diagnosis would compromise his objectivity. He tested positive in March, 1987.
Randy Shilts died of AIDS complications in 1994. He was 42.
*I don’t mean to imply personal disbelief; I mention it only because I am aware that there has been some controversy surrounding the book. As I understand it (and my understanding is superficial at best), the controversy involves Shilts’ treatment of Gaetan Dugas, a gay man who came to known, in part because of Shilts’ work, as Patient Zero of the AIDS epidemic. Genetic studies conducted nearly 30 years after his death exonerated Dugas.