Since the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in America its been often said that AIDS is a "test of our humanity." What is reflected upon far less often is the far more important question: how are we doing?
How are we doing on the medical front? To which succeeding generation of AIDS patients is directed the encouraging slogan, "Be Here for the Cure?" How are we doing on the prevention front? Would we still prefer to swaddle ourselves in wishful thinking about our teenagers sexual activity, our drug addicts behavior, the viruss virulence, than to give out condoms in high schools and clean needles on street corners?
And how are we doing on the social front? Now that "Gods punishment" is being meted out increasingly democratically, devastating not only the stigmatized but the successfulhow much longer will it take us to realize that stigmatization is itself the most risky behavior of all?
Two new books give us the bad news, and the good, about our test results. Each is a personal account of the effects of the AIDS crisis on its author: one, a poet and the daughter of a closeted gay man who died of HIV disease in 1983; the other, a doctor in a small Tennessee town who unexpectedly finds himself tending a burgeoning AIDS practice. Surprisingly, it is the doctor who delivers the good news, and delivers it well. His is a story of self-examination, healing and compassion, masterfully told. The poet, on the other hand, seems stuck in a quagmire of recrimination that debases both her book and the social progress that has been made in the first decade of the epidemic.
Anonymity: the Secret Life of an American Family by Susan Bergman (née Heche) is a wandering, impressionistic account of the discovery, in the aftermath of his AIDS diagnosis, of her fathers covert gay identity. In overlapping, overly lyrical, and often difficult-to-piece-together segments, Bergman recounts the history and ultimate disintegration of her family and its members.
Bergmans parents met and married in college. Susan, their first daughter, was born before they graduated; three more daughters (one died in infancy) and one son came later. A Normal Rockwell-esque family life ensued, with two rather significant flaws marring the picture: Susans father, Don Heche, proved as untalented at earning money as he was gifted at losing it. And, unbeknownst to his wife and children, Don Heche was living a double lifefirst, as a gay man; later, as a gay man with AIDS.
The unraveling of their fathers secret unravels his wife and children. In the wake of the revelation the Heche son drives his car into a tree and dies. Mrs. Heche is hit by a car and severely crippled. The middle sister, Abigail, battles bulimia. Anne, a soap opera actress (who, ironically, plays a set of twins: one good; one evil) distances herself geographically and emotionally. Susan copes by throwing herself into a posthumous investigation of her fathers secret lifea process that seems to generate more bitterness, anger, and homophobia than forgiveness or even understanding.
"The homosexual father," Bergman writes of her own, "prays before dinner and compares his calamity to Jobs...is so frightened of his daughters ordinary development that he finds a way to torment her for menstruating...contracts hepatitis and insists it was the seafood he ate...lives as though his were the only life."
Meeting the people who cared for her father when he was dying, his ex-lovers and gay friends; even recalling a near-lesbian relationship in her own past seems only to fuel Bergmans revulsion for gayness in general, and gay men in particular. She quotes her sister Anne: "Every time I start getting close to a man physically, I cringe to think, Oh, now Im feeling toward him the way Dad would have." Susan adds, "Its hard not to picture him humping the hair-weaver, the piano mike. We disgust ourselves." Later, she describes gay men with AIDS as, "...men who fed their disease into blood banks for a meal..." And she summons up long-discredited fears of casual transmission, remembering with an almost audible shudder a final restaurant lunch with her infant son and ailing father: "Hed ordered split-pea soup, which he fed the baby from his own spoon."
The best thing about Anonymity is Bergmans poetic, lyrical writing. But the books structureor lack of itdiminishes the power of the prose. Although peppered with passages that are hauntingly evocative, the books trajectory is so elliptical that its near-impossible to follow. Even the denouement, in which Bergman decides to counteract her fathers life of deception by exposing her own, is obscure. Its clear that shed lied, but its unclear what exactly it was that she had lied about, and to whom, and why.
Anonymitys subjectthe tragic phenomenon of gay men hiding out in heterosexual familiesis a timely and important one. For the most awful of reasons, legions of gay men are being forced to reveal their sexual identities to their unsuspecting parents, wives and children. These families experiences deserve far more of our attention than they have yet received. But while Bergmans anger at her father is understandable, her failure to explore the causes of his deception, and of her own unexamined homophobia, diminishes what could have been a ground-breaking book.
Whereas Anonymity is part of the problem, shedding darkness where light is sorely needed, My Own Country is an informative, enlightening, and highly readable part of the solution. Abraham Verghese takes us with him as he travels the bumpy road from innocent, foreign country doc to seasonedbut still open-heartedAIDS specialist.
Born in India, educated in Ethiopia, Verghese and his new wife, Rajani, landed in the U.S. at the same time as the HIV virus. Determined to avoid the "urban war zones" of big American cities, he arranged to serve his residency at the VA hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, population 40,000. In 1985, while Verghese was in Boston completing his training in infectious disease, the first AIDS case arrived in Johnson City. Ray, a young gay man who had left town years earlier to protect his family from shame, returned home to die. The town treated Rays death as "a freak accident, a one-time thing...this was a small town...of clean-living, good country people. AIDS was clearly a big city problem. It was something that happened in other kinds of lives."
But within the next few years AIDS came barrelling into Johnson City, spreading simultaneously through its gay and heterosexual communities. A drag queen, a religious leader and his wife, a factory worker and her bisexual husband, a gay male couple who fell in love in first grade and lived together for thirty yearsall became HIV-infected; all became patients of Dr. Vergheses.
What is most remarkable about My Own Country is that a foreign-born, heterosexual doctor with scant exposure to American culture, Appalachian culture, or gay male culture manages to make himself at home within all three. In the process, he cares for his patients as only a small-town doctorand only a hugely human doctorcan do: with personal attention, continual self-examination, openness, tears, and properly directed rage. Unlike Susan Bergman, Verghese fights AIDS, not people with AIDS. He searches for and exhumes homophobia when he finds it in himself, his wife, his patients, and his neighbors, and welcomes his opportunity to visit the gay world.
"Safe sex was a cerebral concept that sounded good in my office," Verghese writes, following an appointment with two gay patients. "Yet it was not the cerebrum...that took over when a good-looking man cruised them in the grocery store...Of course, this was far from a problem confined to gay men: no cerebral abstraction involving sexthe need for contraception, proscriptions against adultery, or the need for safe sexhad ever in human history fared well in the face of raw lust."
There is, of course, a price to be paid for Vergheses immersion in the parallel universe of the HIV-infected. Although most townspeople and hospital staff are astonishingly accepting of this foreign doctor and his mostly gay practice, some blame him for bringing the epidemic to Johnson City. Fellow members of the towns Indian community ostracize Verghese because of his low-status, high-stigma specialty and his apparent lack of interest in financial gain.
And Rajani, at home with their two young sons, grows increasingly resentful of her husbands long, unpredictable hoursand increasingly fearful, especially after a needle stick incident, that he will bring the virus home to their family. In one poignant scene, she asks Verghese if he is attracted to the gay men whose company he seems to prefer to hers. The deterioration of the marriage is touched on but never fully explored or resolvedone weakness in an otherwise thoroughgoing book.
There is much to be learned from both Anonymity and My Own Country. Anonymity reveals to us the shadowy world of secrecy and the prejudice that perpetuates it. My Own Country reveals the possibilities of life livedand an epidemic enduredwith an open mind and an open heart.