I have read And The Band Played On... twice before, and I picked it up again this morning before I took Anna to dance class. And this is a bad thing because I have a book on hold at the library and a book that I only just started but am abandoning. This is to be expected, as this book grabs you from the very first page and doesn't let go of you until you finish it. I know that I have blogged this book before, but I just don't think enough can be said about this book.
The book opens by describing the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS and how it became a demarcation in American history - before that was America before AIDS and after that AIDS became a part of American history, for better or for (mostly) worse. Of course, this is completely wrong, as AIDS had killed thousands of people before Rock Hudson gave it a popular face and woke the rest of America up to a plague that was killing young people in the prime of their life. The difference is that before, instead of killing a famous movie star, it was killing what was perceived by most people as killing a part of the population that most would have rather had go away anyway.
Reading this book for the first time in 1995 marked a demarcation in my history as well. Prior to reading the book, AIDS was a casual interest in the way that I listened when it came on the news. After reading this book, I was appalled at the lack of action early in the epidemic when something could have been done, the criminal negligence of the blood industry and the unforgivable ignorance of the Reagan administration while people died by the thousands. It marked the first time in my life that I was truly passionate about something and while that passion may have faded over time, it's being resurrected big time these days. I am more convinced than ever that this is where my calling is and I am going to find a way to make it happen. I cannot move from where I live at this point in time, but it gives me something to aim for - and it also helps me deal with the daily drudgery that is what I do sometimes.
As that Post Secret postcard said so many months ago - Fuck convention. I want to make a difference.
This book never fails to get me fired up - mostly because it paints such a vivid picture of the early days of the epidemic. I get almost a visceral reaction to it - I get mad, I cry, I am overjoyed at times. No book that I have ever read has been able to do that to me time and again. (I would have said that John Irving at his best could accomplish that, but I am so over Irving that I'm not sure I'll ever be able to read him again.) What makes this book so powerful is that it is REAL and it actually happened. There is a lot of criticism of the book as being left-leaning and biased and this is inevitable - a human being cannot write about something like this an NOT be biased, especially someone like Randy Shilts who was so enmeshed in the gay community at the time. Shilts suffered hatred from his own community, with his work being characterized as "internalized homophobia." His description of Gaeten Dugas as Patient Zero has also come under considerable fire. But in the end - it's the history of the time period that he documented that remains. And it's a roller coaster ride.
If you haven't read this book, read it. If it doesn't make you outraged, check your pulse.
To say this book changed my life is not an overstatement. It's the truth.