Journalist David French arrived in New York City just as news of the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS made national news. He had left the midwest to find a place where he could live openly as a gay man; New York was one of the few places that he could do so. Just as soon as he found a new home and community, HIV/AIDS began to devastate the gay community. French’s historic book, How to Survive a Plague discusses the AIDS epidemic from 1981—when the New York Times published their first article on the disease—to the mid-1990s when effective treatments started to become widely available. French captures the apocalyptic fear people (especially gay men) had, the homophobia that was almost as deadly as HIV/AIDS, and the way the LGBT+ community rallied through anger and activism to push for treatments.
French occasionally inserts himself into this story briefly, like grace notes to remind us that all those statistics represent real, frightened people. The bulk of the book is about AIDS and LGBT+ activism. One of French’s first jobs as a journalist was for the New York Native, a news magazine that specialized in news about the LGBT+ community and LGBT+ issues. It rapidly became one of the few places to get news about HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s. French’s work gave him a front row seat to the epidemic. French talks about the struggle to find reliable information, as well as Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen‘s efforts to spread information about safe sex to help slow down the spread of the disease, Larry Kramer and the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis activist group, and the later ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) movement that was incredibly effective in speeding up drug testing and getting funding for medical research. The people who worked to get attention and funding for AIDS research are heroes. In the face of widespread death, apathy, and homophobia, they were able to work miracles for the people who were able to get treatment. There are millions of people alive now who wouldn’t be without their work.
I think what fascinated me the most about How to Survive a Plague (apart from the heroism of the people who fought back against the disease), was the power of information. This is probably because I’m a librarian. French highlights the efforts of activists to get more information about what was going on inside the cloistered labs that might hold a cure, or at least a treatment for HIV and its attendant opportunistic infections. Not only did ACT UP literally storm the FDA at one point, but their ongoing efforts changed the way medical labs operated. Activists pushed their own research plans, developed alternate methods for clinical trials so that more sick people could at least try something. But on the other side, there was so much false information floating around. I remember being a kid in the 1980s and hearing the myth that kissing or close contact could spread AIDS debunked. I hadn’t realized, before I read this book, that there was a lot of false information about potential cures or treatments that ran through the LGBT community as desperate people looked for just a drop of hope.
French tells the story of AIDS activism chronologically. He introduces people, like Peter Staley, years before they become important to the “story.” He also shows us people who, sadly, did not live to see the miracle drugs of the mid-1990s. The chronological approach doesn’t feel as trim and sleek as most nonfiction I read. This book sprawls. That sprawl, however, helps French truly captures the emotional landscape. His writing is astonishing, honest, and fair. He shows the foibles (especially Kramer’s) of the people fighting for AIDS research and some of the dead-ended research that fizzed after raising AIDS patients’ hopes. Because of the sprawl, I feel like I experienced an entire slice of history. This book is simply incredible. I strongly recommend it for readers who are fascinated by medical history, social history, or LGBT history.