When Larry Kramer called one of his books about AIDS “Reports From the Holocaust,” he was accused of hype. But what the new memoir by AIDS activist Sean Strub confirms, 25 years later, is that at least in one regard the comparison is apt: The story may be familiar, but it never loses its power to astonish and appall.
Strub begins on a light note — in a “Senators Only” elevator in the Capitol, which he operated as a teenage intern from Iowa City. Soon, however, as a gay man who dreams of a career in politics, he is so disgusted by the Washington closet that he drops out of Georgetown University and moves to New York. There his life acquires a Zelig-like quality; not only is he walking past John Lennon’s building the night Lennon is shot, but he’s in Manhattan when all the early actors in the AIDS drama are coming onstage. Young, attractive and bright, he is taken up by older men including Tennessee Williams, falls in love — and then learns he is HIV-positive.
What makes “Body Counts” a page-turner is that it’s both the chronicle of a young man’s experience of the disease and the memoir of an activist who witnessed a great deal of history. “Body Counts” has the suspense and horror of Paul Monette’s memoir “Borrowed Time” and the drama of Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart.” Soon, our hero is ruining an advertising executive’s dinner party on the Upper East Side by telling a guest who’s been claiming that infected gay men only get what they deserve: “One of these days you’ll open the New York Times and read that I’ve died of AIDS. When that happens, I want you to know it is people like you who killed me!” By the time the AIDS activist group Act Up “zaps” Cardinal O’Connor during mass at St. Patrick’s for his campaign against condoms, Strub is taking communion in an Act Up T-shirt; when the priest giving him the host says, “The body of Christ,” Strub replies, “May the Lord bless the man I loved, who died a year ago this week.”
Catholicism, Strub says, is the source of the shame he felt about his body — a body he’s forced to contemplate as he is dying (just before protease inhibitors come to the rescue). But though this revives memories of sexual abuse at his Jesuit school, he has put his abusers behind him. It’s politicians he can’t forgive. Ronald Reagan is dismissed early on; but what still infuriates is the refusal of Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services secretary, Donna Shalala, to endorse needle exchanges, even though they were proven to reduce HIV transmission.
Strub’s experience touches every issue of the plague years, including the squabbling in the gay community and the fatal inertia of the government’s response. An expert in direct-mail fundraising for Act Up, he goes on to found POZ magazine, produce an off-Broadway play, “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me,” and become the first openly gay, HIV-positive person to run for Congress. The main accomplishment of these years, however, in Strub’s view, was gaining the right of people with AIDS to participate in their own treatment: an idea that has changed medicine.
Today, gay men are still infecting one another, and the disease has moved more heavily, without much publicity, into the African American community, but some things are better. No doctor, certainly, can say today what Strub heard when he questioned the physician in charge of his dying lover: “I take one call per patient per day. If you do not like that, I can have you kicked out of here because you’re not related to him.”
He was related to the dying man, of course, in ways society is only now recognizing. The heart of Strub’s memoir, the AIDS years, is such a harrowing account that, 30 years later, one doesn’t know whether to weep or laugh — at the doctor’s arrogance, at the workers on Long Island who refused to put Strub’s fundraising letter into envelopes because they were afraid of getting AIDS or at Strub’s admission that, when he acquired Kaposi’s sarcoma (purple lesions on the skin), dogs barked at him on the street.
Yet the voice of this memoir is that of the congressional intern, upbeat, practical and problem-solving, even after the loss of lovers and friends whose deaths constitute the most moving element of the book. Perhaps this is the style that made Strub’s fundraising letters so successful, which may be why, at the end of the book, you still do not quite know the person who wrote it. Unflinchingly personal, “Body Counts” is equally impersonal; total honesty can sometimes have that effect.
In fact, no memoir is more entitled to an eloquent peroration than this one, but after turning briefly reflective in the last chapter, Strub draws back by changing the subject to his latest project, a campaign against the criminalization of people with HIV. This may illustrate either the sort of personality drawn to politics or his typically honest self-assessment: “One of the lessons of Catholicism that stuck with me, even through the periods when I was most furious with the Church, was that life’s meaning is found in contemplation, penance, service. Of these three, my only real talent is service. I’ve always been more interested in action than reflection.”
But what a lot of action — and life — there is in this gripping book.
A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS,
By Sean Strub
Scribner. 420 pp. $30