I just completed a YA memoir: THE OTHER PANDEMIC: AN AIDS MEMOIR by Lynn Curlee. I couldn't stop thinking about the 2019 masterpiece, THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai. Now these two books are married in my mind. What I've decided to do is to grab excerpts from the review I wrote for that book and incorporate my thoughts from The Other Pandemic. If you'd like to read my whole review of The Great Believers, here is the link.
Lynn Curlee is a gay man who lived in both New York and L.A. in the late 1970s and 80s when the AIDS epidemic starting hitting the gay communities very hard. No one knew what was happening, they just knew that the un-named disease (at the time) was striking gay men, Haitians, and needle-drug users the hardest. It was often referred to as "Gay Cancer."
I started teaching in the fall of 1980. I was a junior high teacher at the time teaching health and PE. As a college student majoring in health education I learned everything there was to know at the time about what we then called STDs or sexually transmitted diseases and I was prepared to impart my knowledge onto my students in hopes that they wouldn't get one of them...I remember the moment in 1983 or '84 when a parent questioned me about what I was teaching about AIDS. At the time I had no inkling of how serious and life-threatening the disease was and how it would dominate my curriculum for years to come. In 1988 or '89 our state required mandatory AIDS prevention lessons for every student from grades 5-12, every year. In my schools those required lessons often fell to me, though not always. Not only would students' eyes glass over during those lessons but so would the teachers'. An important topic became boring and tedious. I did a lot of personal education on the topic of HIV and AIDS, attending conferences, visiting AIDS hospice houses, interviewing people who were HIV+ about the drugs they had to take and the symptoms they were hoping to thwart. I remember throwing around terms like cytomegalovirus, histoplasmosis, thrush, toxoplasmosis, Kaposi sarcoma, and HIV-wasting syndrome. I knew more about HIV/AIDS on the educational level than the average person, but not much on the personal level.
As I started reading The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai this past week I was hit head-on with how very little I really understood about the AIDS crisis on a personal level.
As a health educator I knew a lot about AIDS and became very creative in my teaching techniques, trying to help my students understand how complex the treatment for AIDS was and how important it was to always practice Safe Sex. What I didn't know on a personal level was how devastatingly difficult it was to be a part of the gay community due to the fear and sorrow. Fear of catching the disease personally and sorrow/grief for the huge number of friends who were dying. Curlee said that he kept count in the beginning of how many people he knew who died from AIDS. He stopped counting at 41 because "what was the point?" Can you imagine losing 41+ friends to death in less than ten years? It is mind-boggling to think about, yet so many gay men lived through this reality.
When the AIDS epidemic begins to race its way through the gay community in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood in 1983, Yale Tishman and Fiona Marcus become good friends. Fiona's brother, Nico, was the first of the artsy friend group of gay men to die of AIDS. Since Nico was disowned by his parents, Fiona became his caretaker at the end of his life. Yale, who is employed at an art museum, was in the same group as Nico so he got to know Fiona.
In the Great Believers Fiona not only takes care of her dying brother, but many, many others in his friend group who have no one else to care for them in their last days. It takes a life-long toll on Fiona, it was such a draining, all-consuming activity. Lynn Curlee, too, talks about the caretakers in his community. When John Martin, his life-partner, gets ill from AIDS and is placed on hospice, other friends step up to help care for John in his last days. Many of those men went on to die themselves from AIDS.
Survivors of WWI were considered the "Lost Generation". This generation of people came of age during WWI where 40 million people died. The term "lost" also refers to their aimlessness and disorientation after the war.
In a lot of ways survivors of the AIDS pandemic are like the survivors known as the lost generation, disoriented by what has happened in their life. And though we don't often hear much about it these days, especially with so much focus on our recent COVID-19 pandemic, AIDS is still out there. There is still no cure for it, or vaccine to prevent it.
Fiona stands for all those women [and men] who ended up being the caretakers for AIDS patients. Fiona later become aware of their role in preserving memories which were never documented.
I was blown away by The Great Believers. The title comes from a quote in My Generation by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “We were the great believers, I have never cared for any men as much as for those who felt the first springs of life when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved — and who now walk the long stormy summer.” I saw for the first time a new take on a topic which had dominated my life for the majority of my teaching life---a very personal take. I realize now that with each death there were friends, relatives, and caretakers who were asked to shoulder the lion's share of the burden. We also have been robbed of all of their memories.
When Lynn Curlee was approached about writing a memoir of his experiences with the other pandemic, he balked at first. What would it be like to dredge up all those old memories and hurts? But when he started doing the research for the book he realized that he was helping preserve the memories of those friends, most who died in their 30s, since many had no one else to do it for them. It became a sacred opportunity for his to be the memory keeper for those men, those friends who had once partied together at Fire Island Pines off Long Island so happily and carefree.
Though the book isn't a joy to read, it is real. At first I thought I might just sample the book but found myself compelled to read on, to allow myself to feel a bit of the pain and loss that came with the other pandemic. Published as a YA nonfiction memoir, I found myself wondering if that is the appropriate audience for the book. I probably feel that way since I had such a hard time getting teen readers to pick up any nonfiction books during my time as a teen librarian. Let's just say this, there is nothing about this book which screams YA! Look for it at your public library and pair it with The Great Believers by Makkai. You will be touched, I promise.