By Lawrence Ferber
David France’s Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague brought to light how AIDS activists, through the ACT UP and TAG coalitions, helped push medical breakthroughs forward by becoming part of the process. Constructed from hundreds of hours of incredible archival video footage via a technique now known as “archival vérité,” that powerful documentary helped reignite interest in this terrible yet profoundly important chapter in LGBT history.
Four years later, France—a journalist who covered the AIDS beat since its early days for publications like the New York Native, NY Magazine, and Newsweek—has just completed his expansive, intimate, dramatic, and elegantly penned book of the same name.
Released on November 29, How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS traces HIV from its mysterious emergence in New York to the game-changing and lifesaving 1990s protease-inhibitor breakthrough (as well as more recent developments covered in the epilogue). It’s a gripping, engrossing read—the most essential text of its kind to date—that tells the stories of key players in the epidemic, from the scientists to the activists and allies, politicians, celebrities (including Rock Hudson, for one), and, of course, the afflicted.
To a degree, the book corrects some of the mistakes found in the late Randy Shilts’ 1987 account of the early AIDS years, And the Band Played On—most notably, the account of Gaetan Dugas, aka Patient Zero, who was recently exonerated as the “villain” who brought AIDS to North America.
“My first impulse for going back to this story was [that] Randy had accomplished a sort of historical misdirection,” France admits. “He presented AIDS as a San Francisco story, and although San Francisco has a story about AIDS, the story of the community’s response—and literally the epicenter of the global epidemic for 10 or 11 of those 15 years of plague—was New York. Shilts also made mistakes of judgment. He was sex-negative—his reporting carried a lot of shame, I think. And then there was the enormous error of Patient Zero. I should also point out Band’s last chapter ends in 1985, so he missed many things happening on the ground that were going to produce something. And because HIV took him away in 1994, he missed the historical long view and ability to look back 15 years later and assess what happened, what it meant, and what his legacy will be.”
The NYC-based France says that he actually attempted to get a book going prior to the documentary’s production, but found the publishing world disinterested because of the recession-era economy and, more importantly, the perception that the tale of AIDS had already been told. “I said, ‘It hasn’t been told—it’s been wrong in certain ways, and nobody has ever told the story about what was accomplished and what the legacy of AIDS activism was,” he recalls.
In researching his initial book proposal, France revisited archival videos of ACT UP meetings and demonstrations—many of which he attended—to place himself back in that era. But after it became clear that the book was going nowhere, he ultimately realized that “I could do something with [the videos], because nobody can ever stop a fool from making a documentary on a credit card.”
The enthusiastic 2012 reception to that Plague documentary, and David Weissman’s San Francisco-centric We Were Here, proved that audiences did in fact hunger for these personal stories and AIDS history, and that a dearth of information and personal accounts about those first, critical years in fact existed.
After finally being green-lit for the book, France commenced a whole new wave of research. He was fortunate to gain access to a trove of material from which he could not only reconstruct the lives of key individuals, but also recreate dialogue word-for-word. The book provides especially detailed accounts of Dr. Joseph Sonnabend (one of NYC’s first physicians to focus on the strange and deadly opportunistic infections) and HIV-positive singer Michael Callen (who co-authored an early safer-sex advice pamphlet before HIV was even confirmed as the plague’s culprit). Today, New York has an LGBT community health center named after Callen and lesbian activist and poet Audre Lorde.
“Starting in 1981, they were smart enough to tape-record everything,” he explains. “They knew something remarkable was happening, and that history might attempt to discredit what was really happening on the ground [by creating] an artificial narrative. [We have the tape] where Sonnabend sits down with one of his patients and says, ‘There are people who are going to pervert this for their own means and rewrite this history—we need to keep a record for it ourselves.’ Conversations between Callen and his family are on tape. It was incredible for me to discover I could tell these stories with the same kind of archival vérité veracity, going back to the first minutes of the plague.”
While France regards the documentary and book as separate works of scholarship (thanks to their differences in scope and the individuals featured), there is still some crossover. Longtime HIV survivor Peter Staley—who France grew to know during the documentary and its reception, and who has since become a robust activist, educator, and PrEP treatment-as-prevention advocate—is heavily featured, as is legendary firebrand Larry Kramer, who co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis and scribed the scathing autobiographical play The Normal Heart in the wake of his GMHC ouster. France notes that he doesn’t let Kramer off easy in the book, characterizing him as “an essential pain in the ass.”
“I don’t think he wants to be let off easy,” France elaborates. “I think Larry deserves to be treated seriously by history. Not romantically, not angrily, but taken at face value. What he accomplished moves forward the entire AIDS narrative from the first day. If anyone wants to take the experiences and accomplishments of the AIDS movement and [apply] them in another field, they’re going to need to know how Larry Kramer did what he did.”
One of the book’s major players is Dr. Robert Gallo, who was engaged in a bitter feud with Dr. Luc Montagnier of the French Pasteur Institute. That dispute over which one of them actually discovered HIV led to tragic decisions, chaos, and delays in testing advancements. (The feud also figured into Shilts’ And the Band Played On and its 1993 HBO film adaptation.) France has been interviewing Gallo since the ’80s—and as recently as this year—and credits him as a great science mind, despite the ugly skirmishes. “He was the person who first suspected a retrovirus, and discovered retroviruses,” France says. “He made every advancement in the HIV discovery process except for the discovery of HIV itself. I believe it drove him nuts that somebody could come in and stumble on the virus the way Luc did. He’s still upset he didn’t get the Nobel Prize.”
Research material for some of Plague’s other prominent subjects proved more elusive, however—to wit, a series of diaries kept by outspoken “Kaposi’s Sarcoma Poster Boy” and Sister of Perpetual Indulgence Bobbi Campbell, whose conservative family had all but one volume incinerated following his death in 1984. “That really broke my heart,” France admits. From that one surviving diary, which ended up in the possession of a nurse, France was able to build some scenes. “The brother who had them destroyed is no longer alive, and I spoke with his widow and I asked, ‘Do you realize what his family took from the historical record?’ It did frustrate me remembering back then that our stories were considered so unimportant.”
One of the most important and revealing accounts committed to the book, however, was France’s own. While he had started out writing a strict history, “the more I wrote, the more I was realizing I wanted to interpret what was happening, and wanted people to know I was making interpretations,” he says. Although it proved to be a painful process that even caused France to consider stopping, his determination to bring back that era—and give a voice to the disenfranchised LGBT community that existed prior to the founding of groups like ACT UP—motivated him to keep going.
“It’s just shocking,” France reflects, “and I would think especially for younger LGBT people who [assume we have always had a] connection to civic life in America. We had no connection to civic life then.” France studied many polls that revealed Americans’ changing attitudes about gay people during that 15-year period. “That change in attitude I credit to AIDS activists, whose first [challenge] was to convince people that they deserved to live. There was humanity to gay people, and once they started getting traction on that, they could begin dialogues.”
Interestingly, November 29 was also the release date of a memoir by longtime HIV survivor and NAMES Project AIDS Quilt founder Cleve Jones, When We Rise, which chronicles the Harvey Milk protégé’s firsthand experiences before and after the plague era. France, for one, is happy about that coincidence, and hopes there are more such tomes to come.
“We should all be telling stories,” he emphasizes. “There has not been a way to teach the history of the AIDS epidemic in college. We need books for people to carry these stories forward. That’s what I’m hoping people will start to produce, so our history can go on the same shelf as all those other dark and triumphal histories that make up the American past.”
Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning 2010 gay rom-com Bear City and author of its 2013 novelization.