Recently I watched the movie Lincoln, an epic film that was based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tome Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and adapted for the screen by the brilliant Tony Kushner. It was not lost on me that this remarkable film’s script was created by the same Pulitzer Prize winning playwright responsible for Angels in America. I got chills seeing Kushner’s name appear so boldly at the end of this film that was all about our ability to progress beyond our prejudices. Beautifully depicted in the film was the messy nature of progress. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was anything but a pure endeavor; it was laden with compromise and backroom deals—in other words, politics. It seems entirely fitting that Kushner would write this screenplay; his ability to compress vast historical ground into something powerfully intimate is what made Angels in America so compelling.
World AIDS Day was December 1 and it is hard not to think of the terror and tragedy that was part of the early 1980s. Since the CDC reported the first case in 1981, over 640,000 with an AIDS diagnosis have died. It’s a staggering number, but even more profound is the personal tragedy each case represents. For those who lived in the eye of the epidemic, the trauma of burying so many friends is unthinkable. In an interview with POZ Michael Cunningham said of his novel The Hours, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, “I’m a gay man who has lived through the epidemic for 15 years—and who will or won’t live through what’s still to come. And every book I write is, in some form, a gay book about the epidemic. It’s part of my consciousness. I’m infiltrated by it. I don’t think I could write anything else.” In an NPR interview with Cunningham, he describes the necessity of including HIV/AIDS in his 1990 novel A Home at the End of the World: “Oh, yeah. Writing a contemporary novel set in America without dealing with AIDS in some way would have been a little bit like, you know, setting a novel during World War II in London and not mentioning the blitz.”
It’s strange to think of an entire generation that has no memory of AIDS being the killer that it once was—that there are those for whom AIDS has had little personal impact. I recently read My Own Country, an autobiography of Abraham Verghese. Verghese was an infectious disease specialist in eastern Tennessee during the early years of the epidemic. Upon treating his first HIV patient, his career and life changed drastically. Verghese writes beautifully of the huge unknowns, frustrations, and hope that came from working in this field. He describes the alienation that he felt as a result of treating AIDS patients, and he honestly shares the fear that he and other dedicated medical professionals stared down in order to do their jobs with integrity.
Last Saturday evening the Circle Cinema screened a documentary chronicling this time in our country. How to Survive a Plague explores the work of two activist groups—ACT and TAG—who pushed for faster adoption of promising treatments and got lifesaving medications into the hands of patients with unprecedented speed. Again, the methods were not pure, but they resulted in desperately needed progress. The significance of this documentary and other forms of art that explore our past lies in our need to make meaning and to understand—to view global occurrences through a personal lens. These pieces allow us to see how our past has shaped the future, or as William Faulkner much more artfully wrote in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”