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The Plague Years

Even before we knew what to call it, AIDS had the power to change forever a generation’s way of thinking about sex and life and death

AIDS

An AIDS patient in the mid-80s.

Michael Ward/Getty Images

The week the first installment of “The Plague Years” appeared on the stands, I was crossing Fiftieth Street at Sixth Avenue in New York City when two men stopped me. One was someone I’d interviewed for the article. The other, his friend, was a stranger.

“Interesting piece,” the man I’d interviewed said. And he shook my hand. “You’re the son of a bitch who wrote that?” his friend said. And he slugged me in the face.

Which just about sums up the response to the article.

By the time the story was published, I’d spent nearly a year and a half of my life on the piece. Every few months my editor would call up and tentatively inquire how the article was going.

“Fine, fine,” I’d lie. And ask for another $1000 for research – which the magazine sent. Usually, with a somewhat concerned question about the article’s delivery date.

In fact, I was overwhelmed and terrified by the subject. I had obsessively filled a dozen cardboard bankers’ boxes with files. For months at a time, I was doing three to five interviews a day. I was so exhausted and disoriented that once I collapsed on a flight out of Los Angeles, roused myself off the plane, ducked into a taxi, asked to be taken to the Marriott and woke realizing something was wrong.

“Is this the Marriott in downtown Houston?” I asked.

“Mac,” the taxi driver said, “this is the Marriott in Denver, Colorado!”

It didn’t matter. Houston, Denver… Everywhere I went, AIDS centers and support groups were springing up, many managing only a precarious existence – like centers of resistance in an occupied country. At the centers, I was treated like a war correspondent, a witness to frontline devastation, someone who could bring the brutal truth home.

When I’d call friends from the road to report what I was seeing and hearing, I was accused of exaggerating.

“You always were an alarmist,” one friend said. “If this disease were that bad, we’d hear more about it.”

Back then, much of the press was keeping a decorous silence on the subject. And when articles did appear, so much information was couched in euphemisms, it was hard to know what was being described unless you already knew.

The night I read Larry Kramer’s play on AIDS The Normal Heart, I was so shaken, for the first time in years I wept, sorrowing for those who were dead, dying and destined to die from the disease – and moved by the heroism with which so many people were responding to the tragedies caused by AIDS. The heroism of everyday life.

Another midnight, after gorging myself on medical terrors, I calculated that at the rate AIDS was reported to be spreading, by the end of the decade everyone would be dead. The only benefit of such a forecast was it put the dread of nuclear war in perspective.

More than any other article I’d ever written, the piece on AIDS shattered my comfortable journalistic detachment and forced me to think about the uses of reporting, the assumptions I shared with others – and my own death.

“I GOT SOME COLD CUTS, BAGELS, FRUIT… You want a cup of coffee?” The guy I was interviewing had been out of work for almost a year, but he’d blown what looked like a hundred dollars at Zabar’s to lay out a spread for me. He also had just come back from his third stay at St. Vincent’s Hospital. He was the first person I’d met with full-blown AIDS.

This was when some researchers I talked to were still – privately – worrying about how infectious the disease was. I’d been assured that it was “almost certainly not casually contagious,” but as one doctor said, “We don’t know enough yet to give any guarantees.”

The meal was a gallant gesture – there was a lot of gallantry back then – and whatever my fears, it would have been insulting to turn it down. Also, I was hungry. Toward the end of the meal, the guy asked me how learning about AIDS had changed me. AIDS, he said, changes everyone.

It was a question I hadn’t thought much about. A reporter reported what he learned – and in this case, I also hoped to use the subject to explore what then seemed to be a new public acceptance of homosexuality, the past decade of increasing sexual freedom and the response of the state to both.

I’d thought about the impact the piece might have on the magazine’s readers. But not about its impact on me.

Researching and writing about any subject was always an education – but what I was learning while doing the AIDS article was less about the subject than about myself: my own fears, biases, paranoias and assumptions.

AIDS first challenged, then shattered, the journalistic distance I usually kept from a subject. I have not written an extended piece of journalism since.

When Rolling Stone called me up to ask if I was interested in writing a long piece on this new disease – it was still commonly called GRID – that was spreading amid the gay community, I decided to turn down the assignment. I hadn’t had a vacation in years and had promised my family I was going to take two weeks off. But the editor offered a long lead time: six months, nine months, to research and write the piece – which he was convinced was a major story.

At first it didn’t seem like a major story to me. I dug up the few newspaper clips I could find on the disease. Very little had been written about it. And I made some phone calls.

“A new sexually transmitted disease?” said a third-year medical student. “Great! That gives me a better excuse than herpes not to fuck around!” That call persuaded me to accept the assignment.

For the past few years, I’d noticed a growing concern about genital herpes, chlamydia, venereal warts – a concern that seemed to be edging into controlled hysteria. The overreaction came with a sense of relief: The generation that had spent the past decade enjoying unprecedented sexual freedom – or license – finally had a reason to put on the brakes.

It’s hard to remember the yawning gulf of sexual freedom presented to us back then. Almost everyone was experimenting. At parties couples discussed safaris to Plato’s Retreat or more exotic sex clubs. Sometimes it felt like we were taking baby steps back to Eden – a world of nudity and appetite as simple as an infant’s. Sometimes it felt like we were depraved – or at least, working hard at being so.

We’re healthier, saner now, under the New Puritanism. The Fun Police are there to enforce new rules we have made for our own welfare. In the past decade we’ve learned to ask what our excesses cost us. Is it heretical, now, to ask what our moderation has cost?

AIDS IS NOT JUST A STORY OF A DISEASE. Not just a story of medical economics, involving the greed of pharmaceutical companies. Not just a story of medical politics, involving the ambition of researchers. It is also a story about the relationship between the gay and straight communities in America, about the way the medical establishment responded to health emergencies, about the ambivalent attitude of society to the sexual revolution, about America’s feelings about death and its obsession with health as a nearly constitutional right, about the growing power of a New Puritanism among both liberals and conservatives and about the connection between public policy and individual freedom.

Most of all, AIDS is the story of a transformation in social attitudes. In a period of a little more than a year, sex changed. Instead of promising life, it promised death.

The story of AIDS, finally, is me story of a profound – and far-reaching – alteration in consciousness.

We are a generation whose rallying cry was “Make love not war! Life not death!”

Because of AIDS – or rather because of our attitude toward AIDS – we have deprived ourselves of that alternative. Now, there is only death.

AIDS is a terrible disease. People die horribly from it. But we have been sold a bill of goods. Before World War II and the advent of the miracle drugs, there was no truly successful cure for syphilis – which has killed more people than AIDS and has killed them just as horribly. And yet, despite the ravages of syphilis, people did not succumb to the kind of despair that has made our generation buy the equation Sex Equals Death.

With the medical advances of World War II – wonder drugs, new surgical techniques, improved anesthetics – doctors suddenly could intervene in ways never before possible. And with the next generation’s advances in understanding preventive medicine, suddenly it seemed as if humankind was on the verge of, if not immortality, at least a kind of life extension that would make us feel immortal.

Media and advertising fed this myth because it flattered a large, young population just entering marketplace. Youth became the coin of the realm. It was all we traded in.

But we can’t escape mortality. People die. Some die young. Every previous generation has known this. We thought we had a pass.

If we don’t smoke, don’t drink, avoid cholesterol, jog enough, resist sex, we can not only be immortal but stay forever young. Young and ascetic.

Before AIDS, the sexual instinct was a force for life. It was a specific against all the horrors – political and personal – we endured. It allowed a last refuge of hope.

After AIDS, we have allowed ourselves to surrender that refuge. We no longer have the power to deny death by an act of love. Even making love is tinged with doom.

I don’t know how to reverse this despair. But part of the story of AIDS is a tale of social control.

Part of the effect of AIDS has been to end the sexual revolution, hobble the gay-rights movement and increase governmental intervention into private morality.

If we allow ourselves to be frightened enough by death – a fate none of us will escape – we make ourselves vulnerable to the forces that can seduce us by offering to trade some of our freedom for an illusory safety. And we surrender to a hopelessness, a denial of life, a rejection of a liveliness and optimism that was a gift our generation offered the world.

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