How did they survive a plague that killed millions?

“We’ll guarantee them their rights of free speech, but we won’t guarantee they’ll be loved” – Emory Folmar
(Sourced from the book)

It’s not hard to imagine how the people with AIDS (PWA) must have been perceived by the rest of the world, especially the heterosexual community back in 1980s. The question of struggling for cure rose years later, the unfortunate people had to first fight to make the disease seen, make the government even consider it worthy of its attention.

The “How to Survive a Plague” by David France is the first of its kind read that I have laid my eyes on. I knew little about AIDS before I started it and had no knowledge about the AIDS activism in America, (primarily in New York) during the 1980s. Call it magnificent, or unbelievable, or eye-opening, or brave – this historical chapter of humanity is all of it and much more.

The fear of unknown was the greatest among the PWA when this pandemic started in 1981. Initially, many people, including gay, denied this unknown’s existence because it was hard to fathom the havoc it was wreaking. People as young as 30 were dying of this unknown virus within weeks – it started off with 41 gay men and soon increased to hundreds, then escalated to thousands and finally exploded to millions. It all happened so rapidly that there was no time to think about it, hardly any to process.

The saddest part was that for a long time, these deaths went unnoticed, in vain.

“Half knowledge is dangerous” it is said. The propagation of this disease with terms as Gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), “gay cancer” and “gay plague” in the mid-1982 only led to stigmatizing the already marginalized section of the society and the surge in the lynching and attacks on gay men. These terms fed the beliefs of homophobic community rightly – and thus, this misrepresentation of the disease painted the times darker than they already were for gay people.

In contrast to the then prevailing reports, there were various heterosexual women of different ethnicities too who suffered from AIDS. But their cases went unnoticed by the press probably because its entire focus was on gay men and their “unhealthy” lifestyle.

Speaking of the lifestyle, people like Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz took it in their hands in the early 1980s to spread awareness about the ways gay men might be making themselves vulnerable to the virus. But this didn’t go well with the community – many ridiculed such advocacies and didn’t want to be told what to do and what not to do. So, the turmoil wasn’t exerted just from the external community, but the internal community wasn’t itself doing so well either. If simply put, they were scared – scared of the virus, scared of being robbed of their just found freedom.

So, the fight, on the surface, might have looked as the one against the virus, but it started off as the one against one’s own self, other humans, their denial, their ignorance, their prejudice, their religion and their beliefs. It took almost a decade for the fight to become humans versus virus. Unfortunately, millions of people had to die for it to reach at that state.

When even in 2020, homophobia is so real, I can only imagine how hard it must have been back in the 1980s for the LGBTQ community (especially gay men) to struggle for their rights to even just be, let alone fight for medical assistance from the hospitals and government.

Having talked about the struggles of gay men, their road to recovery, which then seemed impossible, could have never seen any hope if not for some doctors and scientists who considered fighting this virus as their personal motto since the early days.

How the then president of USA uttered the term AIDS publicly for the first time in 1985, how the groups like ACT UP, GMHC and TAG came into existence, how the patients taught themselves and became the scientists because the ones by profession weren’t doing their job, how the patients themselves worked with the scientists and doctors to find a cure, how, gradually, the world started coming to terms with HIV and AIDS, and how, eventually, in 1996, a drug that could prolong the lives of PWAs not by mere months but by years was discovered – HTSAP covers all of it and a lot more.

“One week after Doug died, I filled a paper bag with his unused medicine and headed for the People with AIDS Health Group. The young lesbian working behind the counter didn’t pause to offer condolences. “Good,” she said, turning to stock the shelves. “More Epogen.””
(Sourced from the book)

Coming to David’s approach for writing this book – it’s remarkable. The book reflects his flair for storytelling. You feel connected to the characters wherever the author decides to deep-dive. There’s no way you cannot feel the emotions the author is trying to project through a scene.

It’s also an epitome of a well-researched story. I may be entirely wrong, but I found this book the result of 70% research and 30% story. This book wasn’t only moving, it was highly informative too. There were some hundreds of names of virologists, oncologists, physicians, doctors, scientists, researchers, PWAs, activists, politicians, medical centres, pharmaceutical companies, drugs whose record was extremely hard to keep. The details of personal lives of many PWAs helped strengthen the emotional bond with the reader.

When you learn about the intimate details of a person’s life, it becomes hard to not feel their loss as yours. Peter Staley, Michael Callen, Spencer Cox, Larry Kramer, Richard Berkowitz, Doug Gold, Griffin Gold, Tom Blount and Mark Harrington are just a handful of names that fought not only for their present but for a collective future, which many had relinquished.

David covered the years from 1981 to 1996 generously, extensively and chronologically. Reading about those years transported me to the places I’ve never been to – the hospitals of Brooklyn, the streets of Manhattan and Washington, the homes in West Village and Chelsea that initially reeked of pain and death and hopelessness, but eventually saw the dawn of comfort and life and hope.

They might not have found a cure, but AIDS was no longer a death-sentence that it initially was. The journey ahead wasn’t easy but there at least was a journey to look forward to now.

Yet the pain was so deep and unbearable for many that after 1996, New York, their once beloved city, had now turned to an excruciating reminder of their heavy losses. They couldn’t continue to live in a city that took away their loved ones from them, that pushed their entire community to almost the brink of extinction, that, once again, reminded them that no matter what, they’ll always have to fight for their rights, that they will always be considered a part of the society that went wrong. It was hard, it was cruel, but, after years of struggle, it trudged towards hope.

HTSAP was just the beginning. Reading it has pushed me to explore more about AIDS. If the subject interests you at all, don’t miss out on this book. You’ve got to read it and live it!

If books aren’t your thing (though this one is highly recommended), check out below videos and movies:

Have you read it or any other book on the same subject? Or do you plan to read any in future? Do share your thoughts.


Copyright © 2020 by Idle Muser. All rights reserved except for both the images.


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Prashantt says:

    Hey Aditi! Trust you are safe & keeping great care of yourself & surroundings.
    Great to see you back with words however i’ll look for more stories.
    The book seems to be informative & the best part is that you’ve added the video links.
    Keep writing!😇

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Idle Muser says:

      Thank you, Prashant. I’m glad you got the right idea about the book from this review. I myself would like me to write more stories, so, we both are on the same page.

      How have you been though? Been long.


      1. Prashantt says:

        Yes, its been long time & professional commitments made me away from writing however I posted few stuff here.
        Since we are on same page, I will look forward to your blog for more stories.
        Take care & stay safe.


  2. Ste J says:

    I’m excited to know what this change will be, I can’t wait for more news.

    I have added the book to my library list, so will keep an eye out for that in amongst all the others I have waiting to come available. I like to keep up with my varied reading as you know so will await any other book reviews you have with interest, and delight.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Neha says:

    Really Informative & well written!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Idle Muser says:

      Thank you for your time, Neha!


  4. Ste J says:

    Welcome back, I’ve missed your posts! This sounds like a really good book, that is added to my wishlist now. I’m not too up on AIDS in general so this will help plug that gap and be another book that will push my range. Thanks for the review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Idle Muser says:

      I miss being here too, Steve! I’m planning a little change – will tell you once something substantial is on my plate.

      Yes, please do read the book whenever you can. This book, as you must have gotten the idea by now, is more about the activism during 1980s, and how the neglect of society and government lead to numerous avoidable deaths. But it surely is highly informative for people like us who aren’t much aware about AIDS.
      There’s another book that focuses on the science behind AIDS – I might pick it up after a while.

      You do let me know your thoughts if and whenever you read it.


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