A New Testament to the Fury and Beauty of Activism During the AIDS Crisis
A New Testament to the Fury and Beauty of Activism During the AIDS Crisis
By Parul Sehgal
May 4, 2021Updated 4:53 p.m. ET
The mass deaths in America from 1981 to 1996 — have you heard of them?
In her 2012 book, “The Gentrification of the Mind,” Sarah Schulman delved into the silence still surrounding AIDS in America. “Where is our wall of white marble with the names of every New Yorker who died of government neglect?” she asks. “Where is our special prosecutor?” “Where is our post-traumatic diagnosis? Where is our recovery?”
There is still no permanent memorial. No special prosecutor, no federal aid to survivors. But there has been the indefatigable work of advocates like Schulman, whose work now involves preserving the memory of a movement at constant risk of distortion.
As a character in her novel “Rat Bohemia” admits: “I’ve had a sneaking suspicion lately that I’m gonna live a lot longer than most of the people I meet. If I’m gonna be the only one still around to say what happened, I’d better pay close attention now.”
Schulman has gone from witness to a sort of living archive. She is a former member of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, the influential direct-action group committed to ending AIDS. Her new book, “Let the Record Show,” is based on 17 years of interviews she conducted with nearly 200 members of the organization.
There were ultimately some 148 independent chapters of ACT UP around the world. Schulman sets her history in New York in the years between 1987 and 1993, when the Monday night meetings at a downtown lesbian and gay community center attracted hundreds. The effect is rather like standing in the middle of that large room, where anyone could speak up and share an idea. Everyone is talking; small stories branch off, coalesce pages later. Speakers shade in one another’s stories, offer another angle, disagree passionately. You turn a page, and the same people have their arms linked together at a protest. Shadows start to fall; in squares of gray text, deaths are marked, moments for remembrance. So many people leave the room.
I understand but can’t quite accept that this book is about 700 pages long — not when I tore through it in a day; still now, while fact-checking this review, I can scarcely skim it without being swallowed back into the testimonies. It’s not just the cumulative power of the voices gathered here, but the curious slant of the story itself.
This is a book about the past, written in the fury of the present — in the midst of another epidemic — but its gaze is fixed on the future. “Let the Record Show” doesn’t seek to memorialize history but to ransack it, to seize what we might need. The dedication — “to us” — feels like an invitation: What are you doing with your Monday nights?
This is not reverent, definitive history. This is a tactician’s bible.
The organizational brilliance of ACT UP emerged out of necessity. The group was founded in 1987, incited by Larry Kramer’s famous call to action. The members were infected, their lovers were sick and dying. There wasn’t time to obsess over process, to contest every comma in a letter. The anarchistic framework asked only that members be “committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” Independence nurtured bold action: Unfurling a giant condom on the home of Jesse Helms, who fought against any federal spending on H.I.V. research, treatment or prevention (the condom read: “Senator Helms, deadlier than the virus”), storming the New York Stock Exchange and protesting The New York Times’s coverage of AIDS.
Schulman’s own political awakening came early. Many members of her family had been killed in the Holocaust, and she grew up listening to the stories of neighbors and friends who had stood by and done nothing. The figure of the bystander haunts her work. In the 1980s, she began working for the gay press, all the while writing fiction.
Sarah Schulman, whose new book is “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993.”Credit…Drew Stevens
The novels are bottled lightning. All grit and guns, cockeyed verbs — and the girls. Imagine if Patricia Highsmith hadn’t had to hide behind male characters, if Djuna Barnes’s hothouse flowers had to be at work (or frankly anywhere) in the morning, if Jean Rhys’s women drank themselves askew sitting on an upturned milk crate in the back of a seedy deli.
Schulman’s novel “After Delores” remains my personal defibrillator. When I feel myself going numb or complacent from reading too much, too quickly, too professionally, this is the book that shocks me into feeling. It’s fast, funny lesbian noir — and a powerful AIDS novel in which the disease is rarely mentioned but stalks every page, is felt in the cosmology of a fictional world in which people suddenly go missing and there is no guarantee of safety, only the small solaces we can offer one another.
I tarry here, on the novels, because they are crucial to understanding Schulman. She writes nonfiction as an artist, she insists, not as a historian or academic. She does not measure her success by proof of her arguments but by their usefulness, plenitude and provocation.
The organizing principle of “Let the Record Show” derives from the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel “Enemies, a Love Story.” Schulman was inspired by how Singer felt no compunction to create virtuous Jewish characters as if to emphasize that virtue wasn’t a prerequisite for compassion. In calamity, “people just become themselves. But ever so much more so,” she wrote in “Rat Bohemia.”
But the story of AIDS has been profoundly distorted — gentrified, Schulman might say. There is an ignoble tradition of keeping straight people at the “heroic center” of the story: See “Philadelphia,” “Angels in America” and “Rent,” which appeared to rip off, and weirdly warp, Schulman’s novel “People in Trouble.”
The other grave misrepresentation she perceives comes from accounts like David France’s 2013 documentary, “How to Survive a Plague.” France gave the impression that it was a few white gay men who sustained ACT UP. According to Schulman, he ignored the contributions of activists who were women or people of color and how their backgrounds in Black liberation movements, the labor movement and reproductive rights profoundly influenced strategy. France’s focus on a few “heroic individuals,” Schulman writes, “could mislead contemporary activists away from the fact that — in America — political progress is won by coalitions.”
When Schulman herself returns to the individual, it is to think again about the figure of the bystander. Why did these particular people rise to the moment and not others?
What thread connected an H.I.V.-positive stockbroker, a retired chemist from Queens, addicts, art students, lifelong activists, people who just happened to be in the next room at the center and wandered in, What was going on in there? For some it was their first experience of gay community; for others it was where they went when the community began to vanish. All of them became autodidacts in drug research, policy, media relations.
It seems to me that some of what converted people to the cause was ACT UP itself — its energy, the way it got things done, the magnetism of the activists, their fury and their beauty. For one mother whose son died of AIDS, the group became her comfort (“ACT UP made me feel there was something that could be done”). They came out of fear, out of grief, to get a date (the meetings were “the first place you could celebrate sexuality after AIDS hit,” one member recalled).
One line winds through the interviews. The interviewees report, often with surprise, that those were the best years of their lives, despite the death, despite the suffering. How is this possible? Schulman shows us; each of these people, working together — “they were the best that they’ve ever been.”