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EQUALITY ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives Health Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES

When an Abortionist Dies

Dr. Spencer, 1889–1969: Last Trip to Ashland

One month, to the date, before his death last Tuesday, I was privileged to meet the legendary Dr. Robert Douglas Spencer. The trip to Ashland, which was more in the nature of a pilgrimage than a quest for an interview, had come about through the good graces of Dr. Nathan H. Rappaport. A chance to meet Spencer, and through the entree of another abortionist, was an unusual opportunity. Arrangements were made and carried out on a day’s notice. Rappaport drove us to the Pennsylvania coal country in his Citroen. The other passengers were Carol Kahn, a reporter for Medical World News, and her husband, Ira.

We were a high-spirited group, Carol, Ira, and I, and we must have sorely taxed the ego of our friend during the four-hour drive to the little town near Pottsville, pumping him as we did for details of Spencer’s life. It was a journey to Ashland that, I expect, was quite different from the more than 30,000 other journeys that travelers had made to this village, travelers with a secret, urgent mission.

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Spencer, I knew, was back in business again, at the age of 79. The justifiedly famous doctor had reopened his clinic on Centre Street and was now charging the incredible sum of $200, a concession, as he later told us, to the higher cost of drugs and supplies. At $200, Spencer’s price was still hard to believe, well under the going rate for such things. He was still unique in American history.

I tried to recall during our journey just when it was that Dr. Spencer of Ashland had first come into my consciousness. It was, I determined, about 12 years ago. A friend, a painter, had called one day to report that she was pregnant and desperate and did I know of anyone. The only abortionist I had heard of was one another friend, a model, had told me about. She had been taken to him blindfolded and he had charged her $1000. The model had not seen her doctor’s face without his mask and she did not know his real name. The painter, however, was able to make better arrangements. She called back to say that she had gotten wind of a Spencer in Ashland, Pennsylvania, who was supposed to be great, kind, and medically responsible, and who did abortions for practically nothing because he believed in them. A week later my painter friend came over to see me. Spencer in Ashland was a reality. He was, she reported with wonder, a kindly old man. His clinic was spotless. He had a nurse and an attendant. She had slept over at the clinic and had met some other girls who were in a similar plight. The next day, when she departed, he had given her an assortment of pills to ward off infection and build up her strength. He seemed concerned about her, downright fatherly. He didn’t make her think she had done something wrong. The operation hadn’t caused her much pain, and, the biggest wonder of all, it was only $50.

And so it was that Spencer went into my telephone book, under “A” for abortionist. I am poor at remembering telephone numbers, but Spencer’s old number is still in my memory. It was Ashland 404. I was an aspiring actress in those days, and much taken with Tennessee Williams. I remember once passing along the Spencer number to another friend and saying in my best “Summer and Smoke” voice, “Really, I think of it as the telephone number of God.” Young acting students are all over-dramatic, but there was good cause for such intense language when talking about Spencer. Spencer meant deliverance, it was as simple as that. Going to Spencer meant taking an alternative that the culture was doing its damnedest to hide or distort. The public image of an abortionist, through books, plays, movies, articles, or whatever, was of an evil, leering, drunken, perverted butcher at worst, and a cold, mysterious, money-hungry Park Avenue price-gouger at best. And then there was Spencer with his clinic on the main street of a small American town, who charged $50, who believed in abortions, and who was kind. Knowing about Spencer in Ashland was one irrefutable piece in the logic which led one to the conclusion that the culture was capable of the big lie.

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As the years passed, Spencer’s name would come up from time to time. The price had gone from $50 to $100. Some people remembered when it had been $25, or even $10. There were long stretches when the doctor in Ashland would go into retirement, and there were stories of treks to Ashland only to find the clinic boarded up and silent. There was, we heard, a death on his operating table from a reaction to the anesthesia. There was a trial and there was, miraculously, an acquittal. We heard misinformation, too. Spencer had become an abortionist, the rumor went, because his own daughter had died on the operating table of an abortionist-butcher. This story was untrue, unfortunately popularized in a bad novel based loosely on the life of Spencer by a lady novelist with one of those awkward three-name combinations. Maybe the lady meant it symbolically. Spencer’s real-life daughter, better information had it, was alive and well, and so was his son. Other information I absorbed about Spencer, I was later to learn, was quite accurate. He was a committed atheist and free-thinker who often pressed his literature into the hands of the girls along with the antibiotics and vitamin pills. He had gotten into abortion work during the ’20s through the supplication of the miners’ wives in the Pennsylvania coal country, and his work for the miners — he was a pioneer in the technique of bronchoscopy — won him a heavy workmen’s compensation caseload, and, some said, the protection of the United Mine Workers during the years when the protection of the mine workers was something that counted.

Ashland, Pennsylvania. Principal products: coal, homemade wine, and abortions. The sort of Americana that always evaded the Saturday Evening Post. The town of Ashland is in some parts as narrow as the width of two streets. One of those streets is Centre Street, which is also a state highway. For some romantic reason I’d pictured Spencer’s clinic as a rambling, gabled mansion with a front porch. It was, instead, a very ordinary three-story, brick-face structure, flat, characterless, and attached on both side to similar-looking units. Diagonally across from it was the local movie theatre, which bore the legend, “We Burn Coal.” Most of the private homes and business in Ashland resist installing oil burners, and show their defiance with a printed placard.

Spencer’s home was on South 9th Street, just a few blocks from the clinic. It was a little house with a storm door and no lawn. There was a Christmas wreath in the window. The hour was late when we rang the bell. Spencer’s wife, a tall, big-boned woman, greeted us and led us past the formal parlor to a back room: Spencer’s study.

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And there he was, a tiny wisp of a man, frail, dry as dust, with sharp, thin features and bright eyes. He was wearing a suit of some dark material and it hung on him loosely. Rappaport had told us that Spencer had more or less stopped eating this last year, convinced that his health was irrevocably failing. There were signs of his eating habits about: two opened packages of pistachio nuts. He sat in a rocker, with what looked like a bear rug slung over his knees. He hardly looked capable of the energy required to attend to three or four abortions a day, which was his current schedule. (In his heyday, he had handled 10 to 11 patients.)

We were introduced, and we gravely paid our respects to his reputation, which I think pleased him. The interests of the man were evident in his study. Books of every description, some still in their mail-order wrappings, lined the walls and were stacked on tables, fighting for space with the mementoes of his travels: large chunks of mineral rock, strange and beautiful Indian masks, a blow gun, and a fine collection of rifles. “Douglas likes to go boar hunting. Show them your boar-hunting pictures,” Rappaport said, and Spencer got up and obliged. The snapshots showed the tiny figure with a big, red hunter’s cap on his head, standing in a group with four or five other hunters, towering men, each with his rifle proudly stuck in the ground. Behind the hunting party, 11 large black boars were strung up in a neat row, quite dead. Dr. R. D. Spencer was, he informed us, firmly against gun registration.

Carol or Ira called attention to the microscopes. Several of them were about the room, some with camera attachments and light boxes, and one which Spencer himself had designed. Spencer’s training had been in pathology. Happy to show us the microscopes, he went to one of his cabinets and pulled out some slides. As we took turns at the microscope, intently viewing the various specimens of single-celled life that Spencer had prepared, the man grew increasingly more animated. He was entertaining his guests, and thoroughly enjoying it, and we in turn were thoroughly charmed and engaged, so much so that our friend Rappaport withdrew somewhat testily to the front parlor to converse with Mrs. Spencer.

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Warming to his audience, Spencer brought out further treasures. “This,” he announced of one exhibit, “is the life history of a fly.” And it was, from an insignificant speck to the insect as we know it. “Do you know what this is?” he queried, showing us a small, clear plastic block with something red and curled imprisoned in the center. It was, he told us, the embryo of a pig. We passed it from had to hand, marveling at its tiny perfection, examining it more closely under one of the microscopes. Spencer showed us another red, curled specimen in plastic. “A human embryo,” he announced. “Less than four weeks old.” Unbelievable, but there it was, tiny, more intricate than the pig, with a spot for the eye and the definite tracing of a spinal column. In all, he showed us three tiny human embryos, none more than a thumbnail long, but the third larger and more developed than the first. The only human embryos I had ever seen were those in a big picture layout in Life Magazine. These were in my hand, three-dimensional and real. I took the largest human one and compared it with the pig. A sentence from biology class popped into my head. “Well, ontogeny certainly does recapitulate phylogeny, doesn’t it?”

We were gripped by the human embryos and would have liked to see more, if there were any, but Spencer was digging in his cabinet for other exhibits. He showed us something pitch-black ad vaguely cloth-like in a glass slide. “I’ll give you a hint about this one,” he said, playing a game. “It’s animal and mineral and indigenous to the region.” We were stumped. “Carbon?” I ventured. “That’s the mineral part of it,” he admitted. “Well, a fossilized animal in coal?” I tried again. “This is a piece of a miner’s lung,” he stated simply. “The miner died, obviously.”

We didn’t leave Spencer’s house until close to 1 a.m., and we returned the next day. “He’s been expecting you all morning,” his wife said as she brought us to the rear study. We had thought, Carol and I, that we had better make a stab at a proper interview this time, particularly since Carol’s magazine was paying for her part of the trip. She set up her tape recorder and I reluctantly brought out my notebook. It seemed unfair to ruin a social visit. Spencer apparently though so, too. It was hard to keep him to the subject and several exasperated looks were exchanged among us as our host got involved in anecdote after anecdote, complex stories involving his diagnostic skills, but not at all about abortion.

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Trying our best to pin him down to his very first abortion, we discovered that there really was no such thing as a first abortion, a conscious decision to break the law, with trumpets. He had gotten requests from some local women, and he had obliged. “But why,” I persisted, “did you oblige? Most other doctors don’t. Why were you different? Why did you do abortions for women?” He rocked back and forth in his chair. “Because,” he said slowly, “I could see their point of view.”

For Carol, he attempted to describe his medical procedure. After using the packing method for a couple of years, one day he got a circular in the mail for Leunbach paste, manufactured in Germany. “By golly, it worked,” he told us. Later, when the Leunbach was taken off the market, he began manufacturing his own product in his laboratory, a mild soft-soap solution, which he used to dilate the cervix and loosen the conceptus in the first stage of his procedure. The following day he would complete the curettage. Spencer refined his own technique and he stuck with it for 40 years. The newer methods didn’t interest him.

Spencer told us that he was following with keen interest the recent attempts to liberalize abortion laws in several states. He himself had written Governor Shafer of Pennsylvania. “I told him that most of our laws are from the English,” he said spiritedly, “so why don’t we go to work and copy the one they just passed?” He talked about his letter-writing with the righteousness of an American Legionnaire or a Rotarian, which was not surprising, since he later told us that he was a founder of the Pennsylvania Legion and had been an active Rotarian all his life. His father had been the district attorney of the neighboring country. Did that explain his remarkable record of longevity in a career which is usually marked by the law crashing down on the practitioner’s head? “No,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve been here since 1919. I daresay I’ve helped out half the town. Even on the abortion end, there is probably one of my patients related to a family in half of the town. I think most of the town would stand up for me.”

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It was 4 p.m. and beginning to snow, and Rappaport was urging us to get going. We said our goodbyes reluctantly. “Please come back and visit again soon,” Spencer urged. I had noticed that among his vast collection of books was a Writer’s Market ’69. Had he been thinking of publishing something, I inquired. Spencer smiled wistfully. Did he want an article about him in a major magazine, with a picture, I pushed. He allowed as how once the New York Times had been interested, but his lawyer had thought that the time wasn’t right. He still had an indictment hanging over his head. References to Spencer had appeared in print, but usually he was “the legendary Dr. S.” Time Magazine, as far as I knew, was the only mass circulation magazine to print his name in full. I told him I thought the time couldn’t be more right for publicity. The idea seemed to appeal to him. Punctiliously he gave me the address and telephone number of his lawyer in Pottsville, and then, special privilege, his own private unlisted number at the house. “We’ll do it for your 80th birthday,” I promised. He had told us that his birth date was March 16, and he was going to celebrate by shutting the clinic for a month and taking his wife on a trip around the world.

Last week I got a call from Dr. Rappaport. Spencer had died that morning at 5 a.m. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Health NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

An Open Letter to Dr. Anthony Fauci

The Press of Freedom: A Column Open to Our Readers

I have been screaming at the National Institutes of Health since I first visited your Animal House of Horrors in 1984. I called you monsters then and I called you idiots in my play, The Normal Heart, and now I call you murderers.

You are responsible for supervising all government-funded AIDS treatment research programs. In the name of right, you make decisions that cost the lives of others. I call that murder.

At hearings on April 29 before Representative Ted Weiss and his House Subcommittee on Human Resources, after almost eight years of the worst epidemic in modern history, perhaps to be the worst in all history, you were pummeled into admitting publicly what some of us have been claiming since you took over three years ago.

You admitted that you are an incompetent idiot.

Over the past four years, $374 million has been allocated for AIDS treatment research. You were in charge of spending much of that money.

It doesn’t take a genius to set up a nationwide network of testing sites, commence a small number of moderately sized treatment efficacy tests on a population desperate to participate in them, import any and all interesting drugs (now numbering approximately 110) from around the world for inclusion in these tests at these sites, and swiftly get into circulation anything that remotely passes muster. Yet, after three years, you have established only a system of waste, chaos, and uselessness.

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It doesn’t take a genius to announce that you have elected to personally supervise the study of a broad range of new drugs. Yet, two years later, you are forced to admit you’ve barely begun.

It doesn’t take a genius to request, as you did, 126 new staff persons, receive only 11, and then keep your mouth shut about it.

It takes an incompetent idiot.

To quote Representative Henry Waxman at the above hearings: “Dr. Fauci, your own drug selection committee has named 24 drugs as high priority for development and trials. As best as I can tell, 11 of these 24 are not in trials yet. Six of these drugs have been waiting for six months to more than a year. Why the delays? I understand the need to do what you call setting priorities but it appears even with your own scientists’ choices the trials are not going on.”

Your defense? “There are just confounding delays that no one can help… we are responsible as investigators to make sure that in our zeal to go quickly, that we do the clinical study correctly, that it’s planned correctly and executed correctly, rather than just having the drug distributed.”

Now you come bawling to Congress that you don’t have enough staff, office space, lab space, secretaries, computer operators, lab technicians, file clerks, janitors, toilet paper; and that’s why the drugs aren’t being tested and the network of treatment centers isn’t working and the drug protocols aren’t in place. You expect us to buy this bullshit and feel sorry for you. YOU FUCKING SON OF A BITCH OF A DUMB IDIOT, YOU HAVE HAD $374 MILLION AND YOU EXPECT US TO BUY THIS GARBAGE BAG OF EXCUSES!

The gay community has been on your ass for three years. For 36 agonizing months, you refused to go public with what was happening (correction: not happening), and because you wouldn’t speak up until you were asked pointedly by a congressional committee, we lie down and die and our bodies pile up higher and higher in hospitals and homes and hospices and streets and doorways.

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Meanwhile, drugs we have been begging that you test remain untested. The list of promising untested drugs is now so endless and the pipeline so clogged with NIH and FDA bureaucratic lies that there is no Roto-Rooter service in All God’s Christendom that will ever muck it out.

You whine to Congress that you are short of staff. You don’t need staff to set up hospital treatment centers around the country. The hospitals are already there. They hire their own staff. They only need money. You have money. YOU HAVE $374 MILION FUCKING DOLLARS, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

The gay community has, for five years, told the NIH which drugs to test because we know and hear first what is working on some of us somewhere. You couldn’t care less about what we say. You won’t answer our phone calls or letters, or listen to anyone in our stricken community. What tragic pomposity!

The gay community has consistently warned that unless you move quickly your studies will be worthless because we’re already taking drugs into our bodies that we desperately locate all over the world (who can wait for you?!!), and all your “scientific” protocols are stupidly based on utilizing guinea-pig bodies that are clean. You wouldn’t listen, and now you wonder why so few sign up for your meager assortment of “scientific” protocols that make such rigid demands for “purity” that no one can fulfill them, unless they lie. And why should those who can obtain the drugs themselves take the chance of receiving a placebo in one of your “scientific” studies?

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How many years ago did we tell you about aerosol pentamidine, Tony? This stuff saves lives. And we discovered it ourselves. We came to you, bearing this great news on a silver platter, begging you: can we get it officially tested; can we get it approved so insurance companies and Medicaid will pay for it (as well as other drugs we beg you to test) as a routine treatment, and our patients going broke paying for medicine can get it cheaper? You monster.

“Assume that you have AIDS, and that you’ve had pneumonia once,” Representative Nancy Pelosi said. “You know that aerosolized pentamidine was evaluated by NIH as highly promising… You know as of today that the delays in NIH trials… may not be solved this year… Would you wait for [an NIH] study?”

You replied: “I probably would go with what would be available to me, be it available in the street or what have you.”

We tell you what the good drugs are, you don’t test them, then YOU TELL US TO GET THEM ON THE STREETS. You continue to pass down word from On High that you don’t like this drug or that drug — when you haven’t even tested them. THERE ARE MORE AIDS VICTIMS DEAD BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T TEST DRUGS ON THEM THAN BECAUSE YOU DID.

You’ve yet to test imuthiol, AS101, dextran sulfate, DHEA, Imreg-1, Erythropoietin — all drugs Gay Men’s Health Crisis considers top priority. You do like AZT, which consumes 80 percent of your studies, even though Dr. Barry Gingell, GMHC’s medical director, now describes AZT as “a cumulative poison… foisted on the public.” Soon there will be more AIDS patients dead because you did test drugs on them — the wrong drugs.

ACT UP was formed over a year ago to get experimental drugs into the bodies of patients. For one year ACT UP has tried every kind of protest known to man (short of putting bombs in your toilet or flames up your institute) to get some movement in this area. One year later, ACT UP is still screaming for the same drugs they begged and implored you and your world to release. One year of screaming, protesting, crying, cajoling, lobbying, threatening, imprecating, marching, testifying, hoping, wishing, praying has brought nothing. You don’t listen. No one listens. No one has ears. Or hearts.

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Whose ass are you covering for, Tony? (Besides your own). Is it the head of your Animal House, the invisible Dr. James Wyngaarden, director of the National Institute of Health (and may a Democratic president get him out of office fast)? Is it Dr. Vincent DeVita, head of the National Cancer Institute, another invisible murderer who lets you be his fall guy? Or Dr. Otis Bowen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, no doubt the biggest murderer on the list; Shultz and Weinberger would never take such constricting shit from the Office of Management and Budget. All the doctors have continuously told the world that All Is Being Done That Can Be Done. Now you admit that isn’t so.

WHY DID YOU KEEP QUIET FOR SO LONG?!

I don’t know (though it wouldn’t surprise me) if you kept quiet intentionally. I don’t know (though it wouldn’t surprise me) if you were ordered to keep quiet by Higher Ups Somewhere. You are a good lieutenant, like Adolph Eichmann.

I do know that anyone who knows what you have known for three years — that, to quote Ted Weiss, “the dimension of the shortfall is such that you can’t possibly meet our needs,” and, to quote the New York Times and their grossly incompetent AIDS reporter, Philip Boffey (whose articles read like recycled NIH releases): “Officials Blame Shortage of Staff for Delay in Testing AIDS Drugs” — I repeat, anyone who has known all this and denied it for the past three years is a murderer, not dissimilar to the “good Germans” who claimed they didn’t know what was happening.

With each day I realize a little more that the gay community has lost the battle. And that we haven’t begun to experience the horrors that still await us —  horrors even worse than you now embryonically signify. We have lost. No one important enough has ears. Or hearts.

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You care, I’m told (although I no longer believe it). I’ve even heard you called a saint. You are in essence a scientist who’s expected to be Lee Iacocca. But saints, miracle workers, good administrators, brilliant scientists have imaginations vivid enough to know how to spend $374 million in a dire emergency. You have no imagination. You are banal (a word used so accurately to describe Eichmann).

Do I want you to leave? (Yes.) Could you’re replacement possibly be more pea-brained than you? (Yes, it is possible.) Will this raving do any good at all? Will it make Congress shape you up? Will it make my own communities bureaucratically mired AIDS organizations finally ask the right questions? (Judy Peabody of GNHC please take note.) Will Dr. Mathilde Krim ever — as she indicated she would — get the American Foundation for AIDS Research to fund the desperately needed and desperately needy Community Research Initiative, which is valiantly attempting to do what you should be doing, so tired we are of waiting for you to do it? (Leonard Bernstein and Harry Kraut please take note.)

I have no answers to most of these questions. You may (God help us all) be the best that will be given us. You may, like John Ehrlichman, once accused, seek redemption and forgiveness by rethinking, retooling, and, like Avis, trying harder. Even more miraculous, those Supreme Murderers in the White House might tomorrow acknowledge that families simply everywhere have gay sons and daughters.

But I fear these are only pipe dreams and you’ll continue to carry on with your spare equipment. The cries of genocide from this Cassandra will continue to remain unheard. And my noble but enfeebled community of the weak, and dying, and the dead will continue to grow and grow — until we are diminished.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Health NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Specimen Days: A Personal Essay

Specimen Days: Scenes From the Epidemic
February 22, 1994

I DON’T KNOW where to go as I leave the doctor’s office. The shops and people seem two-dimensional. Sounds are muffled. I keep thinking: pay attention to what you feel. But all I feel is the wind.

I remember the museum is close by. The heavy woodwork, the leaded windows, the cavernous rooms remind me of elementary school. I head up the central staircase, following the path where the stone has been worn down by footsteps.

I’m impressed as always by the dinosaur bones. They are displayed in action — about to fight, about to feed.

A tour guide breaks my thoughts. She tells group of schoolchildren to ignore the signs in the glass cases; natural history is advancing so rapidly, she explains that the curator can’t keep up, and some of the information is out of date.

I’m disappointed to think that our science will some­day seem quaint and that I’ll never know what really happened to the dinosaurs.

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WE WALK INTO a glassed-in sidewalk café near Du­pont Circle. I make it a point to sit across from Daniel because I want to flirt without the others noticing. We talk about how the rest of the world seems so little aware of what we are going through and how much the neighborhood has changed. We order omelettes; I look around and realize it is lunchtime for the other customers.

Daniel has been traveling in the Midwest and says he’s impressed by how close knit gay people seem in small towns; he would trade some of the freedom we have in New York for that sense of community. We start to play the game, staring a bit too long, jerking our attention away. He apologizes for using Sweet ’n Low, and I confess I use too much salt. I look through the glass and say Washington might be a nice place live after all.

Then I knock my fork on the floor and bend down to pick it up, but I’m not watching and I slam my forehead on the next table. It’s quiet all around us. I look up to say, “I’m fine,” but before I get the words out I see two drops of my blood, bright red against the white linen.

I DRIVE TO the suburbs to visit my father in the hospital. My hometown seems too manicured, like those model towns we used to build for the train set. My father’s room is in a new wing of the hospital, with drop ceilings, sheetrock walls, and a small crucifix over every door.

My mother and brother are there. I tell them Dad looks good and my mother smiles. I begin to resent the attention he’s getting.

Later, I am alone with my father when he wakes up. We have small talk. Suddenly, he asks if people still get AIDS from transfusions. I’m startled just to hear him say the word. I want to tell him I understand how afraid and alone he feels, but I’m not ready for him to know about me. I tell him to not worry — they screen blood now. He doesn’t look convinced, but puts his head back and drifts off to sleep. I touch his hand and notice how much our fingers are alike.

A few weeks later he’s back home and I visit him again. He seems small and hunched over, but the quickness is back in his eyes. He gives me a key to a safe­ deposit box; his will and some savings bonds are inside. If anything happens to him, it’s up to me to take care of the arrangements. I’m the only one who would be calm enough to know what to do.

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I FOLLOW PETER out to the beach. Children from the village play off in the distance. The sun is already strong. Peter sits at the water’s edge and lowers his head. I sit a few feet away, wondering what to say. It was easier back in the city; here there is too much time to think. I look back at the guest house and notice again how shabby it’s gotten.

I touch his shoulder. He doesn’t want to die alone. He doesn’t want to die. I tell him I understand, I’m going through it too. That doesn’t calm him. He starts up again, telling me how his friend died. I turn away.

Further down the beach, someone has sculpted a life­ size person in the sand. The arms are crossed over the chest like a body in a casket. The face is peaceful. I start to tell Peter I heard these sculptures are part of an old folk religion still practiced on the island, but halfway through, I can’t remember if that’s true or I imagined it.

Suddenly, I envy his hysteria. I tell him that the frightened boy inside of him is the part I love most and that I would be there if he got sick. He calms down. We decide to go for a swim. The water’s too cool and the tide’s coming in, but we make it past where the waves are breaking and soak in the sun and the salt and the motion. When we return to land, the sand corpse has been washed away.

I’M MAKING every effort to keep up my friendship with Tom. He’s a connection to the days when everything was possible. Now that I’ve moved in with Peter, I worry that Tom may get lonely. And I know he’s attracted to Peter. He doesn’t hide his jealousy, and I don’t hide that I enjoy it.

But tonight he’s in one of his moods, smoking cigarettes between every course. He called to tell a friend about another friend and that friend told him about someone else. He’s thinking of taking antidepressants, but he’s afraid they’ll suppress his immune system.

Tom starts describing how he’s stopped going to memorials because they make him think about his own. I lean back, signal the waiter to bring the check and say, “Don’t worry, Tom. We’re not planning to give you a memorial.” I look into his face to see if he’s amused, but see only anger and surprise. It’s my turn, but he won’t let me pay for dinner.

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PETER COMPLAINS that I go to ACT UP demos just to cruise. I tell him I go for the sense of event. But today, in front of the Stock Exchange, the rain has muffled the protesters. I’m watching from under the canopy of the Federal Building across the street, listen­ing to a homeless man explain the scene to his companion.

Then I see Mark. I slip around the nearest column, hoping he hasn’t seen me. I remember reading in Alumni News that he’s a vice-president now. I’m embarrassed by my backpack and blue jeans. I tell myself he wouldn’t be surprised to run into me here. He must have suspected me back in college.

I feel a tap on my shoulder and I spin around and Mark’s smiling at me, extending his hand. As we’re talking, I notice his eyes darting over to the demonstra­tors. I ask about his wife. Beth had a miscarriage last summer, he says softly, but they’re trying again now. Then he leans toward me, whispers, “Be happy,” and disappears into the revolving door.

I’M STARING INTO a shop window when I see a familiar face in the glass. David. We smile. Six years? Seven? You’re looking good, he says, by which we both know he means healthy. What’s new?

I don’t know what to say. David and I had never gotten to know each other well. I throw out disjointed facts. New boyfriend, same job. And you?

David tested positive last week.

I reach over and put my arms around him. That’s not like me. In those weeks we slept together so long ago, we never touched in the street.

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AT LAST I would meet the extended family. Easter is a major Greek holiday, so there would be plenty of ritual to get us through the evening. Peter’s mother puts out a spread of lamb, spinach pie, and honey pastries. We crack open eggs dyed red in honor of Mary Magdalene and make wishes for the coming year. The older aunt never looks me in the eye, but sweet Aunt Kattina nods and smiles at me all through dinner. Later, the men laugh and argue over coffee while Peter and I help the women in the kitchen.

When we return home, Peter lights candles and we make love. Then he turns to the wall and we curl around each other. We will sleep with the window open because it’s almost spring. I lie still, waiting to hear him snore.

In the middle of the night, Peter cries out and I wake him and say it was just a dream, go back to sleep. We lie back. I look down at my body, thinking that all we are is inside our skin, but in this moment that thought doesn’t frighten me.

I’M TYING UP the newspapers. That’s become my job. Peter is mopping, singing along with the music. The apartment smells like lemons and ammonia. Then I spot Michael’s obit. I quickly shuffle it to the bottom of the pile, wondering if Peter knows. I decide to wait for the right moment to tell him.

But later, when I’m emptying the trash, I discover he’s already removed Michael’s card from the Rolodex.

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I NOTICE A SLIGHT awkwardness in my step. After a brain scan and biopsy, I’m told I have a brain infection, which the AIDS treatment handbook I pull down from my shelf describes as “largely untreatable, rapidly progressive, and fatal.”

Peter is scrubbing the turkey, twisting his face in disgust as he slaps the gizzards into the sink. Carol is rolling pie crusts, explaining the virtues of shortening over real butter. The cats hover wide-eyed in the doorway. Sage, rosemary, and lots of thyme, I remember my grandmother telling me as she violently shook the spice can over the bowl of stuffing. Peter’s mother bursts in, and they argue in Greek until he lets her peel the apples.

Later, my family comes. It’s the first time I’ve seen them since the news, and they sit across the table in their best clothes, huddled together, motionless and grim like the Romanovs waiting for their executioners. My niece crawls over and sits in my lap.

I SIT in the dark comer, wanting to get up to respond to the man who’s rubbing his crotch in my face, afraid to lose my seat. I rub saliva from my hand and reach up to touch a passing nipple. I’ve convinced myself the sex club is one of the places I feel safest. The corridors are too narrow and crowded for me to fall. It’s so dark, no one seems to notice the way I move, or maybe they think I’m just drunk. I’ve learned something about myself coming here: The fun was always in the chase.

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I’M STRAPPED to a table wearing a blue paper gown with a plastic cage around my head, being slid into the scanner. They shut the hatch, so I am completely enclosed, like an astronaut. The test lasts longer than I expect; I’m wonder­ing if that’s a good sign. They pipe in music to drown out the distant jackhammmer rumble of the scan. I had brought CDs — Bach and a pop song that reminds me of Peter — but when they ask what kind of music I prefer, I just want to get it over with and I say I don’t care. So they pipe in the radio. It’s rush hour, so I lie there listening to anxious traffic updates.

WE’RE IN A DAMP East Village basement, watching a play about nuclear holocaust. Strobe lights, screeching punk music, eager actors stumbling around with red Jello dripping from their cheeks. Later, in front of the theater, the lead walks by, without his makeup. He has a lesion on his face.

PETER YELLS “snap out of it,” complaining that my walk — dragging my left foot, my left arm curled up in front of me like a beggar — “looks like something out of Dickens.” He’s mad at my family today, after a message from my brother the priest informing us that I had upset my sister because I sounded “down” on the phone. I think back to the day two months ago, my birthday, that I told her, as she returned home from the butcher, watching while she slapped fistfuls of chopped meat into burgers, wrapping each with both Saran and foil to protect them. When I told my brother the night before, he described Pascal’s wager­ — that we might as well believe in God, because we’ll be better off if he exists and no worse off if he doesn’t. I told him I didn’t think God’s so easily fooled.

I NEVER WANTED to open gifts on Christmas, because when the boxes were all unwrapped, it was over. This year, I’m having trouble tearing the paper, so I just want to get through it quickly. We usually buy a tree that’s much too big for the room, but this year we buy a small one we can replant in the spring.

I LIE ON THE couch, thinking I should be reading Proust or sailing to Tahiti, strategizing whether to get up to go to the bathroom or hold it till Peter gets home. Suddenly, the roofers start to lift the skylight, two days ahead of schedule. A few flakes of snow fall into the room, sprinkling my blanket like sugar. I pretend to be asleep because I don’t want it to stop.

REMEMBERING ROBERT: Seven Writers Remember a Colleague and a Friend

May 17, 1994

A DIARY OF LIVING WITH AIDS

November 18, 1993, 9 a.m.
A few weeks ago, I began to notice a slight awkwardness in my step. A few days later, I was stumbling over the keyboard, a few more errors per line each day. Though I’ve been basically healthy, knowing what I know as a journalist covering AIDS, I rushed off to the doctor, and after a brain scan and visits to a few specialists, got the diagnosis: Progressive Multifocal Leukoen­cephalopathy, or PML. The medical book I pulled down from my shelf describes it as a rare brain infection caused by a common childhood virus that can erupt in people with AIDS, largely untreatable, rapidly pro­gressive, and fatal.

My response is to be stoic. That’s be­cause I’ve always been stoic, and because I’ve perceived that staying calm is the best thing for my health, which is the measure of all things these days. That may change: some anger or hysteria might be useful, or necessary, later on, but not for now.

The hardest question right now is how aggressive to be with treatment. My own research tells me early treatment might at best help slow down the infection, but treatment itself is a drastic step, involving the risky insertion of a device into my brain to deliver the medication. At the moment, I’m still able to maintain the semblance of a nor­mal life. At this stage, the infection has eaten away at my ability to move the left side of my body, more each day. I can type with one hand, walk if I stay close to the wall, still climb stairs. My definition of normal keeps expanding.

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The most interesting part of all of this has been the reaction of everyone around me. Of course, everyone is being extremely helpful and, taking their cue from me, remaining calm, at least in my presence. I find that each person’s ability to help is a func­tion not only of our relationship, but of their own relationship with mortality.

The central person of my life, my lover, my doppelgänger, my pal, is Perry, dear Perry. I’m so sorry to see you go through this. One of the complications of AIDS is negotiating the relationship between the lover and the family, but so far my family has followed my instructions that after me, Perry is in charge. Mom and Dad had to learn of all this on my 36th birth­day.

My friend Carol had the presence of mind to ask me a key question right away: What am I doing with my time? My answer has been to do what I’ve always done. But, in fact, preparing to die, perhaps abruptly, while maintaining a positive attitude, whatever that means, is quite time-consuming.

Do I want to travel, win the Nobel Prize, finally read Proust? Of course, but I don’t see that focusing on the never-dids will be much help right now. And nothing would be enough, so anything is enough, to be savored. And as I keep having to remind everyone, I’m not dead yet.

But I am tired.

7 p.m. 
Today I became focused on a question that has been nagging me since the beginning: what physically is happening to me? What are the facts? A brain scan has shown one large and several small lesions. Two doc­tors, one considered the leading expert, have written “PML” under diagnosis on their bills. Blood tests show my immune system is weak enough for PML to appear. But what does that mean? It’s not like I have shrapnel sticking out of my gut. The mind can create symptoms, and a brain infection is particularly tricky. I’m a prime candidate for having invented this. I don’t have a history of hypochondria, but I do write about medicine, so I could be making this up.

Is this denial? The body has tools to fight almost anything short of shrapnel in the gut. For reasons beyond what we under­stand, the molecules in my body are not working together the way they should.

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December 1, 1993, 11 a.m.
Why have I been so unfaithful in writing this? Fear that it falls so short. Being miser­ly with my time. Difficulty of sitting at my desk, working the keyboard. Wanting mostly just to sleep.

The last few weeks have been taken up by visits to the hospital for tests, visits from friends. Monday I was hobbling around the hospital going to rooms to fill out forms so I could go to rooms to fill out more forms.

Tomorrow is the biopsy. They make it sound like a tooth extraction. Local anes­thetic, one stitch. Assuming there are no complications — they always add that.

I managed to drag myself over to work a few days last week, to help orient my re­placement. How do you begin to explain something as ineffable and intuitive as story assignment? I left one cardinal rule: Print nothing that might mislead people to un­wise choices about their care. But what is wisdom in such a catastrophe?

I felt at work, as in the hospital, like I was in a black hole. Worried about my privacy, those I’ve told haven’t told anyone else at the paper. So everyone acted as if I’d been on holiday, maybe sprained my ankle skiing. But that’s why I went back — for some sense of normality.

Too much caution can be dangerous. The hardest thing about walking in the street is that I almost get knocked over because I wait for the light to cross — almost unheard of in New York City. I learned it’s safest to walk with a little more limping than neces­sary, so people don’t come too close.

Our friend David died two days ago. Frank had a tumor removed from his spine yesterday, will need to have a kidney taken out too. Events that would have shattered my equilibrium just a few weeks ago now seem like faint, distant echoes.

Dear diary, I’ll tell you a secret. What is still on my mind, near the core, when work, reading, writing, and even friendship seem too difficult, is sex. Much of my time right now seems to be focused on ways to create the illusion at least that sex is still possible. Will they shave my head tomorrow?

Will there be complications?

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December 5, 1993, 6 p.m.
Much as I’d like to milk this brain operation for maximum sympathy, I must confess that it was not at all horrible. All of us surgery patients being summoned from the lounge en masse, torn from our loved ones, did, as Perry later remarked, have a holocaust vibe, but after they gave me the intravenous Vali­um, they could have chopped my head off and I wouldn’t have minded. I remember only fleeting moments: having part of my head shaved, hearing them say they still had one spot to get. I ate saltines and apple juice in the recovery room.

My goal was to get out of the hospital as quickly as possible, not to wallow, to be free of the regimentation (which was oddly se­lective: breakfast the next morning consist­ed of decaf, skim milk, no-cholesterol butter, a tablespoon of scrambled eggs, and five strips of bacon).

Back at home I’ve been fine — except last night, when the anesthetic finally wore off, was rough. I wasn’t in pain, just felt com­pletely wasted, discombobulated, as if I had an electric current running through me.

Perry the snoop read through this and said it wasn’t good, that people want to read about emotions, not symptoms. I agree — that’s what good writing is. But I can only write what’s there. Better to be boring than dishonest.

December 9, 1993, 6:30 p.m.
Mary, one of the phone receptionists at the Voice, whom I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to except to complain about misdirected calls, stopped me in the street today asking if I was OK, ’cause I was walking so slowly. When I told her I was OK, but I’ve been ill, she looked horrified and said she would pray for me. I guess only a virtual stranger can show naked sympathy. I’m aware of nearly everyone around me looking past the wound in my head, past my awkward move­ment, trying to make me feel normal. (I’m also aware that my oh-the-biopsy-wasn’t-so-bad routine is in part an attempt to milk it for what I can. To look brave, so they can say he fought it.)

The doctor told me last night that the biopsy was conclusive — PML — but that I wasn’t deteriorating that rapidly, so she wanted to continue the antivirals and hold off on the chemo implant for at least a few weeks. So I went back to earth.

They all are being very supportive — will­ing to make arrangements to enable me to do whatever work I want, promising to not cut me off, bending to accommodate me. Of course, they don’t have too much choice — I could be a PR liability. But I also like to think that they are basically decent folks. Do I want to work? I need to keep my feet on the ground. But I’m haunted by the idea that it’s not the best use of my time — I should be home writing the great American novel.

Hearing friends talk about other friends in hysteria over this or that amazes me. Even the news of the great events shaping the world outside seems beside the point. Stop fighting. Feed people. Our attention should be all on picking up the pieces from natural disasters, like AIDS. Everything else we invent.

Shortly after he wrote these passages, Rob­ert Massa became unable to write or type. By March, he was unable to use his facial muscles to speak. He died on April 9. 

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READING ROBERT

WHY AREN’T THERE telephones in the here­after? In the stillness of the wee hours, with the cursor flashing mockingly on a blank slate screen, I’d call Robert. Or at two in the morning, when writerly demons were haunting him, my phone would ring. We’d try out ideas, read passages to each other, get advice on structure. Somehow we’d slide into chitchat, then into more intimate conver­sation. After an hour or two, we’d joke about our codependent writing-avoidance behavior. We’d hang up — and crank out a story.

Those were the days before either of us had found — and moved in with — the loves of our lives. The days, that is, when the phone could ring at two in the morning without detonating a domestic disaster. When both of us were figuring out that we needed to write about more than theater, when we both needed to talk about what it meant that we felt so happy to be succumb­ing, at last, to the coziness of coupledom.

Robert, much more calm and self-assured than I in both pursuits, was not only a nurturing and demanding editor of my writ­ing, he helped me shape my life.

It’s hard to come up with a snappy anec­dote or image that captures him. Robert was more intricate than eventful. Though as a writer he was a master of pointed conci­sion, as a subject he seems, strangely, to demand sprawl, or at least lots of scene setting. For Robert, magnitude and meaning resided in details. That’s one reason he was the country’s best AIDS journalist. That and his passion, precision, and principle.

And he was scrappy. Gloriously so. Though deeply shy and unassuming, Robert could be incredibly forthright. He had no patience for bullshit. I’m sure that people in press offices cringed when he called, knowing he’d ask questions that would shove them off their script. When he got sick, he displayed the same no-nonsense clarity. Re­specting his disdain for sentimentality, I tried to repress my mushy tendencies in his presence — and perhaps didn’t say aloud what pounded in my heart. But then, Rob­ert didn’t seem to want histrionics; he wanted someone to read him the paper. And though, increasingly, he couldn’t speak, he managed to keep hurling barbs at the Times. I’d visit on Thursdays and he’d joke that I would have to come a different morning — Thursday meant having to hear Frank Rich’s op-eds read aloud.

Years ago, Robert and I collaborated on a story about men’s and women’s bars. Given our diametrically opposed approaches to work — him sculpting sentence by sentence, me wanting to blurt out a messy draft and then go back and tinker — it’s a miracle we didn’t come to blows. Our research was “dating” each other — Robert dragging me into gay watering holes (he was careful to pick bars he didn’t frequent, lest I cramp his style), me strutting him into lesbian spots. Not long ago, he told me he’d reread the story and thought it was really bad — slight ideas, clunky prose. And looking it over, I had to agree. Still, Robert, you were the best boy date I ever had. — Alisa Solomon

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A TENDER TOP 10

ROBERT,

Here is our last top 10:

1. A kiss in front of the Blue Willow so that all the world would know.

2. Exchanging wedding rings over pastrami.

3. An apartment with green carpeting and pink walls that we knew we could make our own.

4. Sex!

5. A tub full of kittens and William meowing to be noticed.

6. Our first anniversary, I-95, and a tree that continues to grow.

7. A cold February day in Berlin searching for art and dealing with snow and torn-up combat boots.

8. March 26, 1993: City Hall, domestic partnership, and a nervous bride.

9. The Statue of Liberty — a kiss — and salt and pepper shakers.

10. My birthday this year when you struggled to light a candle and carry the cake yourself.

And of course watching you as you slept for 2204 nights. Guess what? I still do.

“Always on my mind.”
Perry

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PRIME TIME PALS

HOW COULD ROBERT DIE — and leave me to watch Nixon’s funeral alone? Well sup­plied with plenty of cigarettes, take-out eats, and gallons of caffeinated beverage, and sharing a mutual loathing for the suddenly sanctified former prez, Robert, his lover Perry, and I would have had a ball with his send-off. After all, with the possi­ble exceptions of the endless Menendez boys’ courtroom drama and the Tonya & Nancy variety show, this was the TV event of the season: Five-Presidents-and-First-La­dies-Five and Bob Hope, politicians galore and a bunch of cheap crooks (sometimes one and the same), and the incomparable Spiro Agnew. Oh, how the bile would have mingled with unbridled laughter as we re­acted to all that pathetic posturing and cant, not to mention Senator Dole’s Emmy­-worthy little breakdown at the end of his eulogy. And then we would have focused on the important stuff: Barbara Bush’s K­-Marché faux pearls, the Carters’ seeming dyspepsia, and whether Alexis Carrington Colby, oops, I mean Nancy Reagan has had another lift.

Not to dis Tricia’s and Julie’s grief, but — ­oh, please! — their pop had been planning his final farewell as a major TV comeback special ever since he split quick from the White House back in ’74, and that is exact­ly how Robert and Perry and I would have relished it — as yet another great TV event that added to the structure upon which we built and nurtured our friendship. For most­ly, over the past 15 years (and with Perry also working the remote since ’88), Robert and I watched television. At least once a week and, depending on what was on, sometimes much more often — I went over to Robert’s (and then Robert and Perry’s) apartment; I was home — you know, the place where you are always welcome. And while we chewed over everything from our own work to all the current issues and gossip, our primary activity was television, lots of it, all of it — the news, Mary Tyler Moore reruns, years of Dynasty, tennis, fig­ure skating, Murphy Brown, election re­turns, lousy dramas, awards shows, and, above all, beauty pageants. We took it all in, savoring the purest moments — Sue Sim­mons and Al Roker, anything from Delta Burke’s delirious Suzanne Sugarbaker, the self-referential brilliance of the final New­hart — and commenting upon, twisting, spitting back, and otherwise manipulating most of the rest for our own purpose: good con­versation. And maybe it was just an excuse to be together.

My favorite TV memory is of a beauty pageant a few years ago, in which a contestant was asked something like: In a hundred years, who do you think will be considered the most influential woman of the 20th century? That was exactly the type of thing we delighted in — and took dead seriously. After much hysterical laughter over the contestant’s response — Babs Bush (then First Lady) — we first had to deconstruct the question. What would be the best answer in order to win the contest? What would be the right answer? The most im­pressive? The most clever? Eleanor Roose­velt was the obvious answer — too obvious, we decided. Then Perry popped in with Madonna. We liked that, but nah. I thought hard and came up with Anne Frank. Ooh, they liked that. Impressive choice. And then, a couple of minutes later, Robert looked up, eyes twinkling, and said defini­tively, “Lucy Ricardo.” Ever the thoughtful, deliberate journalist, he had worked it through. And, of course, he was right.

But now, missing Robert, missing him ter­ribly, I find our choices somehow ironic. For while Perry and I have always carried on together in a manner that just might bring to mind Lucy and Ethel or, to switch to my medium of expertise — Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand carrying on in Enough Is Enough — Robert, well, Robert actually had more than a bit of Anne Frank in him. In both his work — as a theater critic and especially as a journalist documenting the horrors of AIDS and the fight for gay rights — and his personal life, he first looked for the good in others, for the positive and the possible. He could be cynical or angry (cf. Nixon), but he was essentially a kind, generous man who did his damnedest. And like too many of the best TV shows — say, I’ll Fly Away — Robert was canceled much too soon. Oh, Robert, we never got to say, “Hi, Roz!” — Jim Feldman 

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TONYA HARDING AND THE WEATHER

(For Robert)

I’m sorry, you said
in your E.T. voice,
the one you’d had
since your body companion
began its final campaign
for control of your body. 

It was the inconveniencing
that bothered you the most.
That, and having to express
your biggest fears by feeling
your way along a letter board. 

Months earlier, watching t.v.
(with the sound off, of course)
You observed that
essentially it all boils down to 
Tonya Harding and the weather.
After several hours, I
had to agree with you. 

Here’s what I remember:
The look on your face
when you first held Lucy.
Your need to talk about
love’s truths at 3 in the morning.
Your impatience with insincerity.
Your quiet ability to take care of
everyone. 

The last time I saw you
awake, you needed something
urgently. Water, I asked, Oxygen,
Juice, Raise the bed.
With a great deal of frustration
You finally spelled out
“New Yorker.”
I should’ve known. 

— Mala Hoffman

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CURSES!

OH ROBERT, goddamn it! — Eileen Blumenthal

SPEAKING SILENTLY

IN THE LAST WEEKS of Robert’s life, it was difficult for him to speak. He would dive into himself and force out words, repeating them until I understood. When he could still see well enough and coordinate his hands, he typed into a computer. After that, he pointed to letters on an alphabet chart. He communicated with his eyes, too, which were attentive, comprehending, and filled with a new intensity, a look of horror and empathy, as if he were computing his emo­tions and mine at a speeded rate. He made me feel understood and accepted, and I spoke without reserve.

He did not use our time to complain and one day, when I asked what was on his mind, he spelled out “I don’t feel cheated.” I said he inspired love in many people, in his odd, distant way. His kiss was the faintest brush, but he let you know, through a sort of sneaking merriment — his mouth lift­ing in a Cheshire cat grin, a blush blooming over his cheeks — that he was glad you ex­isted. His generosity did not come with conditions.

It was easier now to touch him, to hold hands and rub his back. I read aloud or talked about the world and events at the Voice, but even more Robert wanted stories about my life, which he said distracted him from the discomfort of his body. I was roller-coasting on a problematic love affair. “What happened?” would be the first words he would cough up when I arrived, and when I told him it was over, he said, “Better sooner than later, if it had to end.” So there I was suffering about the loss of love and coming out of myself with him, and there he was escaping his trembling hands and numb left side. We talked of the frustration of our pow­erlessness over his illness. Robert said he wished he had written more; I responded there probably wasn’t a writer who didn’t feel that every day. Robert said that, apart from work, the only consolation now or at any time was human connection. He did not stop building it.
— Laurie Stone 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Health THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Keep Dope Alive: Why Pot Is Hot

Reefer Redux: Why Pot Is Hot
June 22, 1993

Did you know we’re at the tail end of a drug epidemic? So says Dr. David Musto, America’s leading historian of what has come to be called “substance abuse.” (What a marvelous euphemism, suggesting that anything of substance can be dangerous.) From his perch at Yale, Musto has identi­fied two drug epidemics in American histo­ry: one at the turn of the century, when opiates and cocaine were devoured by mil­lions until government regulators stepped in; and a second in the ’60s, when, as we all know, the culture of narcissism, the death of God, and the breakdown of the family led to reefer madness, blotter burnout, and a lot of rolling around in mud. In both eras, Musto reports, dangerous drugs carried a mystique as harmless catalysts of pleasure and intensity. In both cases, an adept com­bination of enforcement and education res­cued America from its illusions. Never mind the inebriating properties of alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee, powerful drugs that are built into our economy. Never mind the signs that a new drug culture is rising from the ashes of Just Say No.

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The New York Times tells us that mari­juana and its technodelic cousin Ecstasy are now an Official Trend. Billboard docu­ments the chart-busting properties of bands that advocate pot smoking. There’s a new suburban scene, and its signature is the dance-and-trance rite known as the rave. Here, the sound is fast and heady — all the better to blitz out on X — but for a more reflective buzz, there’s a new pot music in the air. Dr. Dre sees the cannabis leaf as a symbol of resistance to vast ganja-phobic conspiracy; for the Lemonheads, it conjures up wry, plaintive ballads that recall the brief moment between folk- and acid rock.

This is a sensibility without a lot of icon­ic baggage, a movement that wants to rein­vent the psychedelic experience. And its insignia is the bright green cannabis leaf several bands — and countless teens — are daring to display. In its wacky, saw-toothed splendor, this is the perfect emblem of the New Pothead: hopeful, wary, and fragile, like a shoot.

Professor Musto hasn’t offered any comment on “My Drug Buddy” by the Lemonheads. But you’ll be glad to know that the end of a drug epidemic takes many years: according to his calculation, the ’60s plague won’t fully abate until early in the next century. By then, of course, we may be talking about virtual possession with intent to sell. But my hunch is that no technology will replace the appeal of getting stoned on a sunny day, and that every generation will find its way to chemicals that produce a roller-coaster ride of consciousness. Professorial paradigms come and go, but it’s in the schema of being human to get high.

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Perhaps the problem is in calling something so profoundly cultural an epidemic. We use drugs — and choose which drugs we do — for a wide variety of reasons, and the patterns our choices make are far more difficult to read than the progress of a germ. Reflecting this distinction, society deals very differently with disease and dependence. Consider what has happened to sex in the age of AIDS: the mad dash for “safe” behaviors, the Hollywood fantasy shift from free love to fatal attraction, the sublimation of promiscuity into politics. Now consider how drug chic has ebbed and flowed with the political tide, suggesting that our need to get high is somehow related to our enthusiasm for social change. Look closer and you’ll see a correspondence between the chic drug and the prevailing ideology.

The Reagan years, for all their pious remonstrances to the contrary, prompted massive cocaine use by yuppies who owed their status to the precariousness of a boom economy. Coke is the perfect accompaniment to culture that promotes quick killings and easy military victories — sadism and spectacle in the name of freedom and tradition. One look at William Bennett’s barbed-wire grimace and anyone would be driven to toot. By this measure, it was almost inevitable that the election of Bill Clinton would fuel interest in a very different class of drugs. Driven by a need to touch and hug; mellow, almost to the point of bemusement; saddled with the image of a head, even as he insists he’s never inhaled — this president is sending out stoner vibes. And the nation that elected Clinton did so in part because it wanted those vibes. After 12 years of coke-and-junk-bond consciousness, we’re ready for a return to con­templation and connection.

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The young, especially, have been shaped by an era that taught them all about competing; they’ve learned to clique up like dolphins and swim in perfectly synchronized strokes. But they’ve been denied the tribal sensation. They’re all connected by a hookah of technology, but that’s a very different kind of bond. And so is the solidarity of race, gender, sexuality. Useful as these categories have been in hard times, they’ve kept a generation from discovering its commonality. Marijuana can facilitate this experience in a way that alcohol and cocaine cannot. Booze turns a tribe into a mob; coke, into a hive of networking killer bees. But pot uncorks the genie of communion.

There’s a ’60s sci-fi word for this intense, undifferentiated empathy: grokking. If I’m right, the abrupt use in the number of young people experimenting with marijuana (and willing to tell a pollster about it) is a sign of the need to grok. So is the effulgence of pot leaves on shirts, shorts, and caps. Quite a shift from last year’s official fashion-rebel logo, the X, with its aura of intifada and its salute to race pride. The X is a sign of self-definition, but the pot leaf stands for a more anarchic consciousness. It points away from dogma and toward impulse, away from mobilization and toward beatitude. And it suggests a more essential basis for communion than the circumstances of caste. By rescuing the ’60s ideal that getting high is a tribal rite from the ’80s conviction that the purpose of drugs is to help you achieve, the pot leaf signifies the difference between networking and grokking: it tells the denizens of Generation X that the sum of all those dead-end kids in empty malls is not slackerhood but community.

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I suppose every generation must invent its own name for a drug that is as timeless, ubiquitous, and malleable as cannabis. So welcome to the wonderful world of hemp, as marijuana is currently called by discern­ing stoners. Hemp is a word for cannabis from the days before dealers realized that the plant could be smoked. In temperate climates, it was widely grown and used for rope, paper, fabric, analgesics, and even birdseed. The word hemp has returned as a way to place marijuana in a naturalist context, evoking a world of products and plea­sures that could be derived from its unfet­tered cultivation. This strikes me as a sounder utopian vision than the idea that soldiers wouldn’t kill if they got stoned. We were thoroughly disabused of that notion in Vietnam.

In the ’60s, we called it grass, herb, or weed to signify the fact that we were smok­ing a hearty, ordinary plant. We spoke of boo to connote the funhouse scariness of getting high; dope when we wanted to send up the idea that marijuana was a dangerous drug; or reefer when we wanted to tap its jazz-age roots. Back in the ’30s, a joint was also called a mezz (for Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, the jazz musician, who once fan­cied lending his name to a legal brand of marijuana cigarette). Still further back, at the turn of the century, marijuana entered American culture as an emblem of negritude, replete with exotic Creole names like mootah. Once this racialist mystique was in place, the drug attained an overlay of evil: Moocher, viper, even fiend all once referred to pot smokers. My generation preferred the sobriquet head, with its image of the user as a devotee, rather than an addict: no one ever spoke of having a pot habit, since that concept was reserved for narcotics, a class of drugs we abhorred almost as much as alcohol.

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When the counterculture collapsed, so did the tribal rationale for getting high. It didn’t take long for these finely honed dis­tinctions between good and bad drugs to break down. Many of us returned to the bottle — which was readily available and not so demanding on the ego — and some of us took to the needle. The result has been a proliferation of 12-step programs, spurred, I suspect, not just by the growing problem of dependence but by the need for some institution to replace the commune and the tribe. Others simply absorbed the psyche­delic experience into their identities, with no particular desire to keep on getting high. But for millions more, smoking a joint be­came part of a routine; something done in private, with a few close friends, or in the intimate setting of sex. The more successful pot smokers became, the less likely they were to admit it, even to a pollster; and so, I’m convinced, millions of casual users eluded the statistics, and much of what passed for success in the war on drugs was simply the silence of those who can func­tion on drugs.

I belong to this latter category. My rela­tionship with marijuana is a long-term, sta­ble one, and more or less monogamous — ­which is to say, I’m not drawn to other drugs, rarely drink, and don’t smoke tobac­co. My habit (which I guess it is) seems to regulate itself; a few tokes in the evening and the day’s tensions dissolve. I suppose I could get the same effect from a cocktail or two, but without those flights of intellectual intensity, those moments of joyous immer­sion in music, moonlight, and dinner. Not to mention that feeling of being susceptible to the touch of a significant other. As a bonus of sorts, I usually sleep quite sound­ly, making sedatives unnecessary. And if I smoke too much or too often, the groggi­ness and irritability are unpleasant enough to make me regret it. Am I drug dependent? I guess so, but as habits go, grass is a pet jones. I walk it; it doesn’t walk me.

I make this confession because our drug policy won’t change until everyone who uses marijuana comes out and says so. Only when accountants and schoolteachers, base­ball players and astronauts, report exactly what they feel when stoned and how they function when they aren’t will the killer­-weed mystique be shattered. And only when ordinary citizens march on legisla­tures and precinct houses will the spurious basis for classifying marijuana as a danger­ous drug and filling the prisons with small-time dealers, be apparent.

The government’s case against pot is so absurd when placed against most word-of-­mouth accounts that it’s tempting to extol the drug’s virtues, if only to strike a blow against unjust authority. The result has been a tradition of lyrical odes to cannabis, from Baudelaire’s lushly documented hallu­cinations (probably induced by hashish) to Mezzrow’s contention that reefer made him able to “hear my saxophone as though it was inside my head” to Allen Ginsberg’s simple claim that marijuana is a “useful” tool for aesthetic perception. That it surely is. But if I’ve demanded that every head come out, then it’s also incumbent on me to own up to my disappointments with the drug. The problem for me isn’t reefer mad­ness, but reefer mundanity.

I get high to suspend the rules of consciousness imposed by my environment and my housebroken ego. But in getting high, I also lower my capacity for exhilaration at other times. Sex, music, even ordinary relaxation seems vaguely dull without the company of cannabis. Over time, my feelings cor­respond to the rhythm of getting stoned. Life itself becomes a space to be occupied by activities that prevent or distract me from that catalytic experience. As for the ultimate trip, dreaming: when I go to bed stoned, I don’t dream, at least as far as I can remem­ber. This loss of intrapsychic connection produces a subtle numbness, sort of like living without weather. It may be a small price to pay for those perceptual goodies Ginsberg speaks about, but it belies the reason I get stoned, which is to put me in closer touch with my subconscious.

As for grokking: did you ever try to walk down a New York street in a state of red-­eyed empathy? Most of your energy is spent trying to act like you aren’t stoned. Times have changed since euphoria felt safe.

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Let me tell you about the first time I got high. It was 1966, and I was a young reporter convinced the music coming out of San Francisco would usher in the revolution. One day, a company freak — which is what we called hippies who worked for record labels — urged me to meet two unknown local bands he was about to sign. We drove to a house in a tract development on the edge of the city. There, sitting on the floor of an unfurnished living room, were Cree­dence Clearwater Revival and Big Brother and the Holding Company. I remember being introduced to Janis Joplin, who was holding a baby to her bare breast. A huge spliff was passed around. I had learned by then that toking up was a test of credibility, especially for a journalist, so I always took a few puffs, though it never did much for me. But this time the setting, and maybe the shit, were just right. My body felt suf­fused with warmth; the eyes of the people around me glistened and their faces seemed full of feeling. We sat there talking for per­haps an hour, and then it was time to go. They piled into a Day-Glo van, which coasted down an impossibly steep hill, long hair flying in every direction. “We shouldn’t be doing interviews,” I shouted after them. “We should be friends.”

I was thinking about that the other day when I lit up preparatory to attending a Ravi Shankar concert at Carnegie Hall. I’d skulked through Central Park in search of a refuge for this by no means decriminalized act, and ended up in a deserted close, where I could easily have been mugged. Then, when the drug kicked in, I tried to navigate the dinner-hour madness in the streets, cir­cumventing heavy traffic and voluble cra­zies. Seized by the munchies, I searched desperately for a greengrocer in that tour­isty milieu, and finally succeeded in buying an overpriced brownie, which I devoured on the run. Now I was ready to battle the box office and the crowds in a tiny lobby, maneuvering with great effort into my seat. Intensely aware of how cramped it was, and suddenly hungry again, I sat there in a stew of misfiring neurons as the Master ap­peared. By the time he settled into place, tuned up, made an explanatory speech, and began to play, the drug was taking me on a long, slow slide. I knew this feeling well enough to be patient about it, but I also knew it would prevent me from following a complex 40-minute raga, even as it made the first few cycles of notes sound like a rush of summer wind coming up from be­hind my neck.

It’s my own fault, I suppose, for getting caught in a time warp. Turning on at a Ravi Shankar concert has become archaic — and for that matter, getting stoned anywhere is an act of psychic sedition. It requires that you work in a profession where your urine is your own, and that you keep a very low profile. (I always douse my stash in cologne when traveling, on the theory that drug-­sniffing dogs will mistake it for a copy of Vanity Fair.) Over the years, I’ve located nooks and crannies for dope smoking in the vicinity of every major concert hall. But there’s no doubt that this stealth operation affects the quality of my high.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717018″ /]

Which is why the new satori-seekers have found it necessary to reinvent the scene. Whether it’s called a Be-In or a rave, the only way to create a safe space for getting stoned in public is to gather together in numbers so great that the law must be sus­pended. And there’s an ancillary benefit to making pot part of a social ritual. You’re less likely to let the drug run your life if you go someplace to use it, and more likely to have a mellow time if you don’t get high alone.

This is the rationale for the Dutch ap­proach to drug control. In Amsterdam, you can saunter down to a café and toke up in the company of friends. But back in the U.S.A. the strategy is to force users into a solipsistic relationship with their drugs. The aim is to assure that the worst-case scenario comes to pass: that pot leads to paralysis rather than growth, and that managing its effects is as difficult as possible. The actual result of this strategy is to preserve the marijuana mystique, and to assure that every generation will see this pesky weed as an emblem of rebellion.

To break this cycle, tell the truth: intoxication transcends the ordinary only when it isn’t ordinary. With marijuana — as with alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee — the less you use, the higher you get. Taken rarely, it can expand, relax, and stimulate. But taken regularly, even in small doses, cannabis loses its capacity to produce wonder, and the very act of assimilating its intensity ends up depressing the desired effect. The key to preserving what North Africans call al kief — “the blessed state” — is preventing the drug from becoming mundane. So, by all means, keep dope alive — but overuse it and you’ll lose it.

Categories
From The Archives Health Healthcare NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Emergency Room, 1977

Last December Robert Baldwin was brought to Kings County Hospital with lumps, bruises, and facial lacera­tions. The nine-year-old boy’s father wanted him treated quickly and released. The boy’s doctors wanted him kept at the hospital. They suspected Robert was the victim of parental abuse.

The doctors frantically tried to locate a Social Service worker to intercede on behalf of the state, having no power themselves to hold a child without the parent’s consent. But no one was on duty. Six of the 11 Social Service workers assigned to Kings County had been lost through budget-tightening attrition. Robert Baldwin went home.

A month later he was back in Kings County — dead on arrival. His head had been bashed in. His father was indicted for murder.

Robert Baldwin was one of over a million people who last year came to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush seeking medical attention. In New York City, if you are poor and sick, you go to one of the 17 city hospitals. In Brooklyn, for many, that means Kings County.

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At least 50 per cent of the patients at KCH, as it is commonly called, use the institution as their family doctor. The hospital treats them for anything, from a common cold to lung cancer. The majority of the patients are minorities on Medicaid, many are old. Few middle-class whites go there by choice. Those who do are usually accident victims.

On a freezing Friday night I visit KCH. Depression hits as soon as I walk through the front doors. The walls are chocolate brown, and hard fluorescent lights bathe the large lobby. Vending machines offer a selection of processed junk — soda, candy, potato chips, bad coffee. The information/registration booth is jammed with seven staff people watching television. Off to the left of the lobby is a door leading to the long corridor of the emergency room. A sign bears the legend: HOSPITAL STAFF ONLY: NO VISITORS ALLOWED. I walk through the doors, no questions asked.

The long corridor is in a state of commotion. An old man being administered oxygen through a face mask is wheeled by. Nurses carrying clipboards try to meet the demands of the patients and their friends and relatives, who are clogging the corridors. NO SMOKING signs are every­where. So are people smoking: cops, patients, doctors. Three doctors are leaning against the wall outside the X-ray room, waiting for negatives. A badly battered black woman is wheeled by on a stretcher. She looks like she has been beaten, for both her lips are badly swollen. She is wheeled into the Female Treatment Room.

“The chicks that come in here,” one young doctor says. “Christ, you’re lucky if you can find one that isn’t all used up. It’s as hard as finding a good car at a police auc­tion.”

The other doctors laugh.

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A Hispanic man in his mid-thirties limps toward me. He hands me a set of papers. He assumes that because I am white I am a hospital official. It isn’t a bad assumption. The only other white faces belong to cops, doctors, and nurses.

I take his papers. His name is Miguel Avilla. On the form his ailment is recorded in a chicken scrawl of medical jargon. But I manage to make out one word — kidneys. I ask Miguel if his kidneys are bothering him. He nods yes. I ask how long he has been waiting. He tells me since 7 p.m. It is now 10:15 p.m.

I walk over to a group of cops hanging around. Some are here with prisoners. Two of the cops have suffered injuries while making an arrest. Nothing criti­cal — a dislocated shoulder and a sprained hand. Patrolman Gene Getlin from the 71st Precinct is taking a statement from the two injured cops.

“They’re never gonna believe this statement, you know,” Getlin tells his colleagues. “I mean you guys were assigned to community relations tonight and you wind up rolling down a flight of stairs with a couple of punks. You gotta write it down in plain fuckin’ English or else the dummies at the review board will break your balls.” The two cops tell him that shots were fired but no one was hit. It is unclear who did the firing. One of the injured cops is infuriated because the doctor is treating his prisoner, and he wants to go home.

There are two prisoners. One is black, no more than 18. His face is badly beaten. The other is a Hispanic, also badly beaten, wearing torn leather shoes without any socks. He has on a T-shirt and a ski jacket. Both are handcuffed behind their backs as they are being examined.

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I ask a nurse if keeping prisoners in shackles is standard procedure. “I’m afraid it is, honey,” she says.

The injured cop is now ranting: “They’re not even supposed to examine prisoners and arresting officers in the same room, for Christ sakes,” he says. “That directive came down last year. But there they had me sittin’ on one bed and the two punks on the other. The doctor, he asks the Spanish guy, ‘What did he hit you with?’ The spic tells him, ‘With everything.’ I shoulda hit him with a tank, the prick.”

A sobbing black man hobbles along. His sneakers are untied and the laces are wet with mud. His face is a moonscape of deep pockmarks.

I ask him his name. Between sobs, he manages to tell me that it is Jackie Green and that he is 47 years old. I give him some tissues to wipe his eyes and nose. Instead he hocks up an inch of oxblood-colored phlegm and spits it into one of the tissues.

I ask him why he’s here.

“Gimmie a shot, gimmie a shot, gimmie a shot,” is all Jackie Green says.

“A shot of what?” I ask.

“A shot of… for my equal librium.”

“You have to see a doctor,” I tell him.

“I already seen a doctor. I walked out because I know they’ll put me in that other place. Where they put me before. The place with the bars on the windows. But I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. I can’t breathe and I’m shaking in the morning. So I’m goin’ home.”

“How far do you live?” I ask him.

“Near Burger King.”

“Which Burger King?”

“The one near where I live.”

I tell him to sit while I go to get him help. I ask a nurse if someone can treat him. She tells me that no one can understand what he’s talking about. When I return to the waiting room, the chair where he was sitting is empty — except for the two used tissues.

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Karl Adler, an energetic man in his early forties, has been head doctor of adult emergency for the past two and a half years. I ask if staff morale is hard to maintain.

“It isn’t easy,” he says. “We’ve suffered major cut­backs. When you run out of certain medicines and materials — along with a total lack of ancillary care or support services — it can become unbearably frustrating.” There have been cases in which a patient was prescribed antibiotics when they were not needed, because there was no microcosmic urine analysis or no patient case history. Records are not kept. In fact, one of the major problems at KCH is record-keeping. The people who once kept records here have all been lost through attrition. So there are no statistics on things like gunshot victims, knifings, rapes, malnutrition, drug overdoses, or suicides. But Adler insists that health care at KCH is good — “as good if not better than most private hospitals in the city.”

“Sure there are long waiting times and the amenities might be awful,” he says. “But everyone is treated the same. In fact, when President Ford was campaigning here in Brooklyn, someone from the Secret Service came in and asked what kind of treatment Ford would get if he was injured. I told him he’d have to wait like everyone else.”

Clarence Darden is sitting in a wooden wheelchair. He tells me he has been awaiting treatment, since 9 a.m. It is now 11:30 p.m.

“I’m hungry enough to eat me a fuckin’ kangaroo,” Clarence says. “I’ve been sittin’ on this hard-assed fuckin’ chair all damned day and they ain’t give me nuthin’ to eat, man. Shit.”

I ask him what kind of work he does.

“I made manhole covers,” he says. “You know, them round metal manhole covers. They make the manhole covers out of melted-down guns that the police take away from criminals. Well, one of them hit me right in my teeth as it was spinning down the belt, like, I can’t explain just now, but a manhole cover hit me in my teeth and knocked all my teeth outta my head. Then I broke my back last year, too. I spent four months in this place. Lost my job ’cause I broke my back.”

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Clarence receives $47 every two weeks from welfare now. His monthly rent is $52. He takes out his wallet to show me his Medicaid card. There is a photograph on it of a man named Clarence Darden who doesn’t look a day older than his 35 years, dressed in the quality clothes you wear when you have been working for awhile. The man in the wheelchair has aged 15 years in the past 12 months.

I ask him what is troubling him now.

“My back again,” Clarence says. “I was comin’ home from my uncle’s funeral. My uncle was mugged and got himself stabbed to death. He was an old man, they didn’t have to kill him. You know what I mean, mugged? Well, I’m comin’ home and I slipped on some ice and I hurt my spine or my back, I don’t know which one. It hurts like a sonabitch. You heard about my uncle right? Everybody in the neighborhood did.”

News travels slowly from Bushwick these days.

Across the lobby is the pediatric emergency room. A doctor tells me that many children suffering from cold weather afflictions such as exposure, frostbite, and asthma are being brought in. One very young black child, in her mother’s arms, is coughing and wheezing heavily. Congested, impacted phlegm is mauling her small lungs. She cries in bewilder­ment. The mother speaks into a pay phone, explaining to a friend in a melodic Jamaican accent that she is at the hospital because her apartment is so cold the child became ill. “I haven’t been as warm as I am right now in weeks,” she says: “You know, I hate to say this, but I wish my baby was even sicker. I wish she was sick enough so they’d have to admit her into the hospital. At least then she’d be warm.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Health NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

1980-1989: A Decade of Death

An ’80s Memoir

1981

Not very tall, less thin than he looked, with the kind of stage face that’s all geometry, wild surrogate hair sometimes twisted into implausible cones resembling the spires of that Gaudi cathedral in Barcelo­na, flashy outfits knocked together from shards of purple Mylar, sequins, torn-up opera costumes: he’d appear in Mickey’s or the Mudd Club with an entourage of demented-looking freaks, install himself as a visual challenge exactly where the light was strongest. Hours later, the black lipstick and scab-colored eyeshadow creamed away, the wigs and costumes tucked in a closet, he entered the bar like a wisp, in ordinary denims and a plain khaki T-shirt, settling in the corner of one of those benches running under the windows, as if trying to merge with the burlap curtains.

His voice was a curiosity of nature, like Siamese twins. Years after he died, some­one asked if I’d ever heard of him.

It began, someone said, with a hissing sound, like Enzensberger’s famous ice­berg-thumbnail scraping across the Ti­tanic’s hull: garish rumors, talk of impos­sibly grotesque pathology, and, as always in the face of the unknown, jokes, re­counted with a modicum of nervousness, as if the efficacy of jokes in keeping things at tong’s length could not be as­sumed in this case, but only wished for, with fervor.

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1982

SUPPOSEDLY, SHE had access to realms he couldn’t reach with his own imagina­tion. We knew her only vaguely. Delicate bones, high hair, a definite way with a cigarette, muted presence that could am­plify without warning. Fey. Not shy, ex­actly. At times, cooler-than-thou. Her friends were in the music business.

The only thing he could do with her was make a movie about the pose. The look. The easiest available obsessions, transposed from a suburban Catholic girlhood. It turned out something like the George Romero vampire film set in Pitts­burgh. You felt that everyone involved with it was choking underwater, even the musicians on the soundtrack.

The film was prophetic of the later idea that having Catholic saints rattling around in your brain could figure inter­estingly in your biography. Much of it revolved around fantasies of her martyrdom.

Then she died, spectacularly and by accident, the same day the film opened. He showed up at the premiere in a hazy conflation of art and life. The event had an ugly opportunistic taint that clung to him afterwards. Even people who understood that this was, in fact, his life, did not entirely appreciate the lack of conventional sentiment.

It was said to be some phenomenon of the nether fringe, a molecular revolt bub­bling up from damp “Third World” envi­ronments, an exhaustion of the flesh by postmodern forms of mortification. The first descriptions of wounds, lesions re­fusing to heal, pedestrian ailments mush­rooming into lethal afflictions, resembled the shocking litany of saints’ impale­ments, dismemberments, self-infection with leprosy.

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1983

HE MAINTAINED A novelty jewelry com­pany out of a Tribeca loft while raising money for another movie, to be based on sadomasochist comic books published in Paris in the ’30s. I, who disliked him, was rehearsing Salomé with an actress he wanted to play “Claudine” in his movie. For reasons that remain mysterious, he contacted me and asked me to write the script.

We met twice. Once in the loft full of tacky punk mail-order paraphernalia, the second time in an apartment where she had lived, a block from my house. At the second meeting I realized that he was… well, haunted, what other word is there? Her dresses lined the open closets, her makeup was spread out before a giant round mirror on the vanity, compacts open awaiting her fingertips. The place was heavy with her scent, her aura; her presence was so emphatic that he seemed powerless and confused in the midst of it, as if he were clumsily obeying her residu­al wishes.

He had an affair, around that time, with a man in a theater group we were friendly with. It’s only worth mentioning because he and they were emphatically the “sensitive macho” types beloved by Eurotrash and Japanese fanzines devoted to “Downtown” and “Le East-Village” — anyway, then came the bowling craze.

Everyone went every night to a bowling alley on University Place to throw bowl­ing balls while wrecked on coke. About him, there was… a lot of talk. Then no talk. In the spring, a lot of talk again. Finally he just came out and told every­body, “I’ve got it.” It was still far from clear what “it” was. Four weeks later he died of pneumonia. 

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1984

I DID HIM IN THE toilet of an afterhours, then took him home. I’d desired him for months but this happened unexpectedly, in a blurry fever. I knew practically noth­ing about him. He’d been the lover of a friend of mine. He had drifted onto the scene. You’d sometimes find him sitting at your table with six other people, if you went for breakfast after the bar closed. He left town, much later he came back. I wanted him again “like anything,” as I told him in my irritating faux naïve manner of the period, but he asked me to write him a poem instead. He dropped from sight, sparking the usual true ru­mors. If you had heard that someone had been carried away by a spaceship, it would not have been different. I tried writing a poem for him, but nothing I came up with was any good.

Money fever. Jokes about Haitians. Cold city. A paradise for empty people, slickness without end, and here and there, suddenly, an unexpected person disappears following a brief, wasting illness. 

1985

HIS FORMER LOVER had the looks of a WASP in the marines, teeth so perfect they seemed false. A gossip of genius, he knew stories about all the old queens of New York literature, and had had his prong spit-shined by most of them at one time or another, too. We often nagged him to write his memoirs: what a pity if all that precious dish got lost! He had money troubles right up until the end, the end being accompanied by dementia, drastic weight loss, etc., etc.

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1986

SHE BOUNDS HOME FROM the hospital after days of hovering at his bedside. She calls: Oh, come over, I’ve got to read you something, it just started writing itself in my head! She reads what sounds like a verbatim transcript of what she’s over­heard, her soon-to-be-prizewinning story. “Well,” I tell her, “I wonder how he’ll feel about it.” “Oh, he won’t mind,” she says, “he’s a big user of people himself.” After eons of writer’s block, she’s frighteningly avid these days. It’s becoming obvious that she thinks the epidemic could put her back on the map.

He’d been a sailor in the Australian Merchant Marine for 10 years, in places like Rangoon and Singapore. Then he hooked up with a film company in Africa, met a man he adored, moved to Munich with him. He became the assistant to a famous director, who occasionally tried stealing him from the lover. They both had affairs, but nothing too serious.

He later moved back to Sydney to start a distribution company. He and the lover now commuted between continents. He turned sick in a matter of months. They brought him back to Germany. A certain friend met a doctor who operated a pri­vate clinic. The doctor had a plausible­-sounding, quack theory, that the disease was really something else, and offered treatment on an “experimental” basis.

The experiment was torture. He was not allowed painkillers and the virus had gone into his nerves. He became inconti­nent and bloody from bedsores. When they visited, they could hear his screams from the clinic parking lot. Next the friend suggested to an actress we knew that the doctor, overworked to the point of collapse, needed sex to revive his diag­nostic genius. The insanity of the situa­tion eclipsed everyone’s judgment. The actress found herself banging the doctor every day while listening to her friend’s shrieks in the adjoining room.

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1987

THE LOVER BLAMED himself for every­thing. “All the time he was dying,” he told me, “I was sexually obsessed with someone else, and fucking that person whenever I could, and now he has died also.”

He said there was nothing left to do but kill himself. And we both laughed. I said: Oh, there are treatments now, things are much better than before, they can do a lot. Soon they’ll be able to do more. Do you really think so? he said, and I said, Absolutely, yes. I want you to promise, if anything… develops, you’ll come here and let us take care of you. All right, he said, fine. Then he killed himself.

1988

WAITING FOR miserable acts of faith to fail, we take some sort of proprietary comfort from the fact that he is still alive. There is always something further to do, and because he’s suddenly well-off, al­ways money to investigate new medi­cines, underground treatments, experi­mental programs.

Memorials. A new way to be unhappy in a group. I visit a friend who can no longer speak. A few days later he’s dead. If you ask after people you haven’t seen for a while, be prepared. Sometimes, hor­ribly, it was like this: someone you want­ed to sleep with but didn’t got sick, and along with the horror came this ugly relief that you never fucked. Or: relief that someone who died was only a distant ac­quaintance instead of a close friend. Lat­er, none of that made any difference.

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1989

AFTER HE DIED I started to see people in the street who looked like him. Not just from behind, but sometimes the face, the hair, the style of the jacket even, and one night on 23rd Street so close to where he lived the association was automatic, I fol­lowed the person for three blocks thinking I’d catch up or get close enough to call his name and when I did snap out of it I realized it didn’t matter if someone was alive or dead because every street in the city was now full of ghosts that I couldn’t distinguish from living people.

She told me over the phone that she didn’t think she would die.

“As far as I can figure out,” she said, “there’s only one or two things — one thing, really, that could get me, and un­less it does—”

I remembered sitting behind her on a motorbike on the Amalfi Drive, both of us so drunk we could’ve driven straight off the cliffs with the tiniest flick of inat­tention. And we hadn’t, so why should this other thing be so impossibly final? Especially since we had pulled ourselves together, grown up, and had started liv­ing such responsible lives.

What I mean is, it would not surprise me if I saw her through a crowd on a busy street, with a dozen bracelets flashing on her arms, eyes shadowed in green, pink lipstick, her first words a brilliant exege­sis on the nature of cabdrivers — why shouldn’t that happen, in the city of the dead? If I tell it now, this story begins and ends in a glass of wine, in a sense, with every detail present in a single mo­ment. It’s the fate of all of us to persist in the mortal dreams of those whom we haunt. ■

NEXT…

The Celebrity Decade: The Stuff of Fluff
By Cynthia Heimel

Categories
From The Archives Health THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Abortionist on the Circuit of Fear

The abortionist is the man hunted by the police and a million desperate women a year.

No city can be without him. Few are.

In almost every town there are quacks and butchers with minimal training. Taxi drivers and pharmacists who improvise. Neighbors whose tools are knitting needles, wire coat hangers, and crude catheters.

Scattered across the country and in the larger cities there are a handful of qualified doctors who because of money or ideals or other circumstances have tried to meet the frantic demand for the abortions the hospitals won’t perform.

These men are the stars of the underground abortion circuit. Women travel to Pennsylvania, Florida, Baltimore, or Washington because of the reduced risk to their lives these men represent. Women pass these doctors’ names along as a gesture of friendship and social amenity. Their names appear on experience-tested and approved lists circulated among college girls. The lists also contain tips like whether or not to let the doctor’s receptionist know why you are calling, whether or not to plan to stay overnight, what the best deals on fees are, and usually end by advising the girls — for her emotional well-being — not to go to the abortionist alone.

These lists are often used as the basis for a non-profit referral service. One 21-year-old girl from Long Island has steered 15 friends and friends of friends three times removed to abortionists in the last year. She has received as many as four calls in one week from girls around the country who did not want to become another statistic among the roughly 5000 who are known to die from illegal abortions each year or to risk sterilization at the hands of an incompetent bungler.

The qualified abortionists who make these lists would be respected members of the medical profession in Sweden or Japan or Hungary.

Nathan Rappaport is part of this medical nether world. He has been performing illegal abortions for almost 40 years. An alumnus of City College, a graduate with honors from the University of Arkansas Medical School, with advanced training at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent nine of the past 15 year in jail. He lost his medical license, his home, his wife, and his children. He has been publicly humiliated and exorcised. Ignored on the street by doctors and people he served in his office. And frequently blackmailed.

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$1000 a Month

Two patrolmen in a community where he worked in pay-offs. Surgical nurses, doctors, and various hospital personnel have been paid not to report to authorities abortion patients who needed hospital facilities.

It was because he refused to pay off a couple of hold-up men who kept making repeat visits that the gangsters tipped the police and he was arrested for the first time, in 1950. When he was arrested again, in Florida, the police, always glad to be of service, gave his instruments to another abortionist who was paying off at a higher rate.

On parole since May from his last two-year sentence, Rappaport is living in a no-color green room in a hotel on West 73rd Street. At 66 he is a round man. Round face, round glasses, a pleasantly rounded body.

In a short-sleeved sport shirt that stayed crisp despite the steam-bath atmosphere of the room, he sat before a small kitchen table piled high with a collection of printed materials, a tape recorder, and long sheets of yellow steno paper covered with an ink scrawl. He is in the process of writing his second book.

The Whole Story

The new book will be called “Man’s Inhumanity to Women.” The title tells the whole story. Men made the abortion laws, women suffer because of them.

“If the women had had any hand in shaping the statutes that were put on the books a hundred years ago we would probably have abortion practically on demand the way they do in many European countries,” he said.

Although his first book “The Abortionist” was published by Doubleday under the alias of Dr. X, Rappaport has decided to bring the new book out under his own name now that he is going to fight actively for more liberal abortion laws.

The laws in 42 states now specifically limit abortions to those cases in which it is necessary to save a life. No provision for abortions for health reasons is stated in the New York penal code.

These laws, which are mainly monuments to political fear, will not be changed in the legislatures, Dr. Rappaport believes. He plans to battle through the courts.

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The Legendary Dr. S.

He is currently organizing abortionists, including the legendary Dr. S. of Pennsylvania, who was recently arrested. Rappaport hopes that either through appealing his own case or that of some other doctor to work his way up to the Supreme Court. He is looking for some abortees or sympathizers who would be willing to adopt some of the tactics of the civil-rights movement and join him in battle.

Speaking of his plans, his experience, the books he had read, or the fourth estate, Nathan Rappaport seems an articulate, warm, comfortable man who would be very much in control of most situations.

“You surely must wonder,” he said during the interview, “why I can’t behave like so many other doctors you’ve known. Even in these sordid surroundings you sense that I am above all a doctor. Why can’t I act like a reasonable, intellectual, and professional man?

“The answer on the simplest level is that I am not a reasonable man. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.

Almost 40 years ago I helped organize planned parenthood clinics. This type of medical practice was looked up on askance then. I felt then, as I do now, that the needs of my patients in their pursuit of happiness and love was of primary importance to me, their physician, and that the wonder of conception, its regulation, postponement, or interruption is wholly a medical problem. It is not the sphere of influence or interpretation of the moralists, religionists, faddists, legalists, or anybody else.

“I don’t want to be forced by them to be a judge when a woman pleads with me for an abortion. I am a doctor who has been trained to answer the cry of distress. My task is to ease the agony of an anguished mind. And, if I cannot persuade the woman to have the child, I want to at least save her body from the mutilation and torture of an operation without the anesthetics the charlatans do not know how to, or dare not, use.

“My refusing to perform the abortion wouldn’t prevent it. A woman determined to have an abortion will find someone to do it or do it herself,” Rappaport said.

Jackson Heights

This man who has ended his medical career as a criminal began it as a law-abiding doctor in Jackson Heights.

“I always believed that competent abortions were essential, but when I first opened my office in 1926 I never thought I could go outside the law to commit them. I sent all my abortion patients to another doctor.

“Two years after I was in practice a relative begged me to perform one and I finally did it on the kitchen table. Then the Depression came. More and more women asked me for abortions because they could not afford to feed another mouth. The collections from my practice had dwindled to almost nothing. There was pressure from my family to take the abortion money. By 1933 I had let the druggist and other doctors know I was available and made abortion my specialty.

“I tried to quit after I got out of prison the first time and just to do something related to medicine. But, with my license revoked and my jail record, I couldn’t get a job anywhere in the world. I was even turned down for a position as a medical aide in Cambodia,” he said.

Over the years of practice on the fringes of the medical world, the fees for his services rose from the $25 of the Depression to an average of $300.

“Like all doctors from time immemorial, I adjusted fees according to the patient’s ability to pay. I have done many abortions free or for very little money, but when I got an affluent patient I charged extra, not a little, but a lot. The rich patients helped pay the graft which is part of the overhead of the business,” Rappaport said.

Even with an average fee of $300, his rates were low. The going price for an illegal abortion these days is about $500 and along Park and Fifth Avenues it can run into the thousands.

In the case of therapeutic abortions performed in hospitals it is common practice, according to Rappaport, to pay a couple of hundred dollars to each of two psychiatrists so they will testify before the board approving the abortions for the hospital. The magic words that can get the legal abortion are, “this woman will take her life if she has to have the baby.”

Sometimes the boards will stretch and bend the interpreta­tion of the abortion law either for humanitarian reasons or, as Rappaport charges, because one or more board members have gotten a little something to remember the applicant by.

Despite the monetary persua­sions that may be used, avail­able statistics report only 8000 legal hospital-approved abortions of the more than a million that take place each year. There were four times as many legal abortions 25 years ago. While the practice of medicine has advanced in almost all other areas it has gone backward in its approach to abortions. Now that doctors have learned how to bring women with almost any illness including kidney disease and cancer successfully through a pregnancy, most of the real medical reasons for legal hospi­tal abortions and the convenient pretexts have been eliminated. More than 25,000 of the women who have been shut out of the hospitals have found their way to Nathan Rappaport’s office in the years since he made his critical choice.

Over 65 per cent of them were married women.

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First Talk

Some were minors. Their par­ents usually came with them. The shared experience often develop­ed a great bond between the parents and child. In some cases it was the first time they really talked to one another.

There were women trying to rid themselves of the guilt of carrying the wrong man’s child or the child of a marriage that was about to break up. There were victims of the worn-out mother syndrome and of rape. Young girls ignorant of contraceptive devices and sophisticated women who, whatever their emotional or psychological reasons, failed to use them. Women too poor to afford another child and women too rich to be bothered.

“Most of those who came to me,” Rappaport said, acted like the guiltiest of criminals; in their own minds they must have been. Yet, much of the guilt is imposed on them by a society that forces them to skulk down dark alleys looking for a doctor and condemns as criminal what is accepted as common in other countries.

“Their decision to come to me was usually an agonizing one. Who then was I to hand down a flat judgment telling them it’s worse to destroy a baby before it’s born than to let it live life as an unwanted, often unloved and neglected child? Or to tell these women they should have their babies and give them up at the time maternal feelings are the strongest, when, especially if Negro, the child can spend its life in an institution waiting to be adopted.

“Once the women got to my office some were unable to face the operation and fled. Filled with old wives’ tales and horror stories, many feared they were about to die. Those who went through with it often were so terrified no amount of assurance I could give them during the preliminary interview did any good.

“I could empathize with their fear. I still faint in the dentist’s chair every time he injects novocaine into my jaw, my way of dying a coward’s thousand deaths.

“Of those I operated on, the least frightened were teenagers. Perhaps because they have not heard enough to be terrorized.

“The bravest to come my way were the Oriental women who submitted to abortions with or without anesthesia, without flinching, their control a marvel to behold.

“But the most casual patient I ever had was a dancer in the Rockettes. She sauntered in for her abortion, rose blithely from the table when it was over, and did a little dance, still dizzy from the anesthesia. A moment later, while my back was turned, she took out a cigarette and lit it. Her lungs were still full of resid­ual ether fumes. Why an explosion did not occur I still don’t understand.”

These women, whose bond was the life they didn’t want or couldn’t have growing inside them, arrived at Nathan Rappa­port’s office like the trains from New York to Washington sched­uled every hour on the hour. He tried to limit the appointments to five a day, but on some week­ends they arrived in droves. Rap­paport has done as many as 27 abortions in one day, and knows of another abortionist who has done 50.

“The actual abortion,” he said, “took me anywhere from five to 20 minutes; depending on how much fetal tissue had to be re­moved and how readily it could be reached. Occasionally an op­eration would last for an hour or longer.”

For women less than three months pregnant he used the standard abortion technique which is known as dilation and curettage or “D and C.” The operation is performed with a small rake-shaped metal instrument used to scrape the walls of the womb.

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Too Dangerous

This method is generally considered too dangerous if used after three months because as the womb enlarges, its musculature thins, making perforation and internal hemorrhaging more likely.

Pregnancies over three months were refused in the early years of Rappaport’s practice. Then he began to use a method which is new to this country but was known in Eastern Europe for some time. The technique involves injecting a salt solution through the abdomen into the amniotic sac enclosing the fetus. Within 24 hours this induces labor and a miscarriage.

Rappaport believes this is an even safer method than the D and C because instruments do not have to be introduced into the body for any length of time.

Unexpected Problems

He always used anesthesia, although it sometimes cause unexpected problems.

“I gave the wife of a young intern sodium pentathol, which also acts as a kind of truth serum. When she came out of the anesthesia she asked if her husband could sit with her in the recovery room. I permitted him to go in and he hovered solicitously by her bed. Leaning over to kiss his wife he said, ‘Darling, I’m so sorry you had to go through all this.’

“She, still under the effects of the anesthesia, blurted out that she didn’t know what he was so worried about because it wasn’t his kid, anyway.

“I didn’t wait to hear his an­swer. I fled back into my office and told my nurse to call me when they left.

“Women who use alcohol or drugs in any amount and don’t tell me when I ask them in the preliminary interview also caused me problems. They often get a high from the anesthesia. They used to fly all over the table with me chasing them, instruments in hand. In most of these cases it was impossible to operate.

Calculate Risk

“Operating on a person outside a hospital is always a calculated risk, no matter how good the technique,”Rappaport said. “In any surgery complication can arise. In a hospital you’re much better prepared for them. You have immediate access to blood banks, additional professional help, and consultations, and almost all the necessary equip­ment and drugs.”

It is because of the ever pres­ent risk which increases as the skill of the abortionist decreases that Rappaport wants even the best of illegal abortionists put out of business by hospitals given the freedom to deal realistically with abortions and the determined women who insist on having them.

Ideally, he would like to do away with all laws limiting hospital abortions because he considers these laws no more relevant or necessary to a medical problem than laws dictating tonsillectomies.

Practically, he wants the laws in this country liberalized at least to the Swedish or Danish level. And maybe even to see abortions covered by Blue Cross.

In addition to granting abortions for medical reasons such as a threat to the mental or physical health or life of the woman he wants them granted for eugenic reasons.

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Mental Deficiencies

Eugenic abortions would include cases in which there are serious mental deficiencies in the parents or the probability of a congenital disease of malformation in the unborn infant. The Sherri Finkbine abortion was granted on eugenic grounds, but she had to travel to Sweden to get the abortion after learning that the Thalidomide she had taken produced monstrously deformed children.

Little Argument

Rappaport also believes there should be little argument about granting abortions on humanitarian grounds to victims of rape or incest, or to girls less than 15 years old. Abortions for general health reasons such as too many chil­dren or children too close to­gether should be permitted, he said.

There are two other general grounds on which he feels abor­tion should be allowed. One is for social reasons — when a woman feels that bearing a child would have disastrous effects on her life because of the stigma society places on the unwed mother and the illegitimate child.

The other is for psychological reasons, when the woman is emotionally unfit to be a mother, does not want the child, or when there seem to be indications that a child raised by the woman will suffer because of her attitude.

“I want to make it absolutely clear,”‘ Rappaport said, “that in no instance would I ever recom­mend an abortion unless the mother herself wanted it. That would be running Hitler a close second. It would not matter how deformed or how psychotic the baby would prove to be, if the mother wanted to give birth, that would be her choice.”

No Deterrent

He does not believe liberalizing the laws will encourage abortions or that the present laws deter them.

“The complicated reasons that drive a woman or a rebellious girl to become pregnant and then to not want her child have absolutely nothing to do with the existence or nonexistence of laws,” he said.

Yet, punitive laws remain on the books.

These laws sentence at least 5000 women a year to death. Degrade others by forcing them to search from pharmacist to laundrywoman to hotel clerk for the abortionists. And make getting a competent abortion the lucky break of the few who have money or who are tipped by the underground referral service to doctors like Nathan Rappaport.

Categories
Equality From The Archives Health International Women's Day THE FRONT ARCHIVES

On Abortion

From March 5, 1979

If propaganda is as central to politics as I think, the opponents of legal abortion have been winning a psychological victory as important as their tangible gains. Two years ago, abortion was almost always discussed in feminist terms — as a political issue affecting the condition of women. Since then, the grounds of the debate have shifted drastically; more and more, the right-to-life movement has succeeded in getting the public and the media to see abortion as an abstract moral issue having solely to do with the rights of fetuses.

Recently, Garry Wills wrote a piece suggesting that liberals who defended the snail-darter’s right to life and opposed the killing in Vietnam should condemn abortion as murder. I found this notion breathtaking in its illogic. Environmentalists were protesting not the “murder” of individual snail-darters but the practice of wiping out entire species of organisms to gain a short-term economic benefit; most people who opposed our involvement in Vietnam did so because they believed the United States was waging an aggressive, unjust war. There was no inconsistency in holding such positions and defending abortion on the grounds that women’s welfare should take precedence over fetal life. To claim that three very different issues, each with its own complicated social and political context, all came down to a simple matter of preserving life was to say that all killing was alike and equally indefensible regardless of circumstance. (Why, I wondered, had Wills left out the destruction of hapless bacteria by penicillin?) But aside from the general mushiness of the argument, I was struck by one peculiar fact: Wills had written an entire article about abortion without mentioning women, feminism, sex, or pregnancy.

Since the feminist argument for abortion rights still carries a good deal of moral and political weight, part of the anti-abortionists’ strategy has been to make an end run around it. Although the mainstream of the right-to-life movement is openly opposed to women’s liberation, it has chosen to make its stand on the abstract “pro-life” argument. That emphasis has been reinforced by the movement’s tiny left wing, which opposes abortion on pacifist grounds and includes women who call themselves “feminists for life.” A minority among pacifists as well as right-to-lifers, this group nevertheless serves the crucial function of making opposition to abortion respectable among liberals, leftists, and moderates disinclined to sympathize with a right-wing crusade. Unlike most right-to-lifers, who are vulnerable to charges that their reverence for life does not apply to convicted criminals or Vietnamese peasants, anti-abortion leftists are in a position to appeal to social conscience — to make analogies, however facile, between abortion and napalm. They explicitly disclaim any opposition to women’s rights, insisting rather that the end cannot justify the means — murder is murder.

Well, isn’t there a genuine moral issue here? If abortion is murder, how can a woman have the right to it? Feminists are often accused of evading this question, but in fact an evasion is built into the question itself. Most people understand “Is abortion murder?” to mean “Is the fetus a person?” But fetal personhood is ultimately as inarguable as the existence of God; either you believe in it or you don’t. Putting the debate on this plane inevitably leads to the nonconclusion that it is a matter of one person’s conscience against another’s. From there, the discussion generally moves on to broader questions: whether laws defining the fetus as a person violate the separation of church and state; or conversely, whether people who believe an act is murder have not only the right but the obligation to prevent it. Unfortunately, amid all this lofty philosophizing, the concrete, human reality of the pregnant woman’s dilemma gets lost. And this dilemma, far from being irrelevant or peripheral to the question of whether abortion is murder, is of the essence.

Murder, as commonly defined, is killing that is unjustified, willful, and malicious. Most people would agree, for example, that killing in defense of one’s life or safety is not murder. And most would accept a concept of self-defense that includes the right to fight a defensive war or revolution in behalf of one’s independence or freedom from oppression. Even pacifists make moral distinctions between defensive violence, however deplorable, and murder; no thoughtful pacifist would equate Hitler’s murder of the Jews with the Warsaw Ghetto rebels’ killing of Nazi troops. The point is that it’s impossible to judge whether an act is murder simply by looking at the act, without considering its context. Which is to say that it makes no sense to discuss whether abortion is murder without considering why women have abortions and what it means to force women to bear children they don’t want.

We live in a society that defines child rearing as the mother’s job; a society in which most women are denied access to work that pays enough to support a family, child-care facilities they can afford, or any relief from the constant, daily burdens of motherhood; a society that forces mothers into dependence on marriage or welfare, and often into permanent poverty; a society that is actively hostile to women’s ambitions for a better life. Under these conditions, the unwillingly pregnant woman faces a terrifying loss of control over her fate. Even if she chooses to give up the baby, unwanted pregnancy is in itself a serious trauma. There is no way a pregnant woman can passively let the fetus live; she must create and nurture it with her own body, in a symbiosis that is often difficult, sometimes dangerous, always uniquely intimate. However gratifying pregnancy may be to a woman who desires it, for the unwilling it is literally an invasion — the closest analogy is to the difference between lovemaking and rape. Nor is there such a thing as foolproof contraception. Clearly, abortion is by normal standards an act of self-defense.

Whenever I make this case to a right-to-lifer, the exchange that follows is always substantially the same:

RTL: If a woman chooses to have sex, she should be willing to take the consequences. We must all be responsible for our actions.
EW: Men have sex, without having to “take the consequences.”
RTL: You can’t help that — it’s biology.
EW: You don’t think a woman has as much right as a man to enjoy sex? Without living in fear that one slip will transform her life?
RTL: She has no right to selfish pleasure at the expense of the unborn.

It would seem, then, that the nitty-gritty issue in the abortion debate is not life but sex. The logic of the right-to-life position is that women’s destiny is properly determined by their reproductive function; that women’s demand for freedom and equality is inherently selfish and immoral. Whatever else one may say of such attitudes, they are surely antifeminist. I’ll elaborate on this next column.

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————————————————————————

From April 2, 1979

Years ago, in an interview with Paul Krassner in The Realist, Ken Kesey declared himself against abortion. Krassner asked if his objection applied to victims of rape. Kesey replied — I may not be remembering the exact words, but I will never forget the substance — “Just because another man planted the seed, that’s no reason to destroy the crop.” To this day I have not heard a more eloquent or chilling metaphor for the essential premise of the right-to-life movement: that a woman’s excuse for being is her womb. It is an outrageous irony that anti-abortionists are managing to pass off this profoundly immoral idea as a noble moral cause.

Though every poll shows that most Americans favor legal abortion, it is evident that many nominal supporters of choice are confused and disarmed, if not convinced, but the anti-abortionists’ absolutist fervor. No one likes to be accused of advocating murder. Yet the “pro-life” position is based on a crucial fallacy — that the question of fetal rights can be isolated from the question of women’s rights. As I pointed out last month, the claim that abortion is murder is more than a claim that fetuses are people; implicit in it is the judgment that destroying fetal life cannot be a legitimate act of self-defense against the physical, psychic, social, and economic trauma of unwanted pregnancy and motherhood. But if the fetus is sacrosanct, it follows that women must be continually vulnerable to the invasion of their bodies and loss of their freedom and independence — unless they are willing to resort to the only foolproof contraceptive, abstinence. This is precisely the “solution” right-to-lifers suggest, often in righteous language about taking responsibility for one’s actions, usually with a touch of glee; as Representative Elwood Rudd once put it, “If a woman has a right to control her own body, let her exercise control before she gets pregnant.” A common ploy is to compare fucking to overeating or overdrinking, the idea being that pregnancy is a just punishment, like obesity or cirrhosis.

In 1979, it is depressing to have to insist that sex is not an unnecessary, morally dubious self-indulgence but a basic human need, no less for women than for men. Of course, for heterosexual women giving up sex also means doing without the love and companionship of a mate. (Presumably, married women who have had all the children they want are supposed to divorce their husbands or convince them that celibacy is the only moral alternative.) “Freedom” bought at such a cost is hardly freedom at all, and certainly not equality — no one tells men that if they aspire to some measure of control over their lives they are welcome to neuter themselves and become social isolates. The don’t-have-sex argument is really another version of the familiar antifeminist dictum that autonomy and femaleness — that is, female sexuality — are incompatible; if you choose the first you lose the second. But to pose this choice is not only inhumane; it is as deeply disingenuous as “Let them eat cake.” No one, least of all the anti-abortion movement, expects or wants significant numbers of women to give up sex and marriage. Nor are most right-to-lifers willing to allow abortion for rape victims. When all the cant about “responsibility” is stripped away, what the right-to-life position comes down to is, if the effect of prohibiting abortion is to keep women slaves to their biology, so be it.

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In their zeal to preserve fetal life at all costs, anti-abortionists are ready to grant fetuses more legal protection than people. If a man attacks me and I kill him, I can plead self-defense without having to prove that I was in danger of being killed rather than injured, raped, or kidnapped. But in the annual congressional battle over what if any exceptions to make to the Medicaid abortion ban, the House of Representatives has bitterly opposed the funding of abortions for any reason but to save the pregnant woman’s life. Some right-to-lifers argue that even the danger of death does not justify abortion; others have suggested “safeguards” like requiring two or more doctors to certify that the woman’s life is at least 50 percent threatened. Anti-abortionists are forever worrying that any exception to a total ban on abortion will be used as a “loophole”: better that any number of women should ruin their health or even die than that one woman should get away with not having a child “merely” because she doesn’t want one. Clearly this mentality does not reflect equal concern for all life. Rather, anti-abortionists value the lives of fetuses above the lives and welfare of women, because at bottom they do not concede women the right to an active human existence that transcends their reproductive function. The earth is not supposed to choose which crops it will or will not grow — or to decide that no one is going to walk all over it.

The conservatives who dominate the right-to-life movement have no real problem with the antifeminism inherent in their stand; their evasion of the issue is a matter of public relations. But the politics of the small group of activists who oppose abortion in the name of radical pacifism — including the so-called “feminists for life” — are a study in self-contradiction: in attacking what they see as the violence of abortion, they condone and encourage violence against women. Forced childbearing does violence to a woman’s body and spirit, and it contributes to other kinds of violence: deaths from illegal abortion; the systematic oppression of mothers and women in general; the poverty, neglect, and battering of unwanted children.

Radicals supposedly believe in attacking a problem at its roots. Yet surely it is obvious that restrictive laws do not keep women from seeking abortions; they just create an illicit, dangerous industry. The only way to drastically reduce the number of abortions — and I know of no feminist who would not agree that the fewer abortions needed, the better — is to invent safer, more reliable contraceptives, ensure universal access to all birth control methods, eliminate sexual ignorance and guilt, and change the social and economic conditions that make motherhood a trap. Anyone who is truly committed to fostering life should be fighting for women’s liberation instead of harassing and disrupting abortion clinics (hardly a nonviolent tactic, since it threatens the safety of patients). The “feminists for life” do talk a lot about ending the oppression that drives so many women to abortion; in practice, however, they are devoting all their energy to increasing it.

Despite its numerical insignificance, the anti-abortion left epitomizes the hypocrisy of the right-to-life crusade. Its need to wrap misogyny in the rhetoric of social conscience and even feminism is actually a perverse tribute to the women’s movement; it is no longer acceptable to declare openly that women deserve to suffer for the sin of Eve. I suppose that’s progress — not that it does the victims of the Hyde Amendment much good.

At noon on Saturday, March 31, there will be a march for abortion rights and against sterilization abuse, sponsored by the March 31 Coalition for Reproductive Rights. Marchers will assemble at the UN, walk past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and end up at a rally in Union Square.

Categories
Health Healthcare Living NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

How to Live in a Female Body

There’s a moment in every woman’s life when she discovers her body isn’t her own.

At the first uninvited touch, the first catcall, the first time the word “no” is said but not heard, she realizes it was never hers. Or not entirely — not like she thought it was, elbows and knees and thighs moving under her power, the whole many-celled complex of flesh subject solely to her will. To some it will always be property, to be moved and manipulated, admired or denigrated, for their own fleeting pleasure or gain. To move in a female body is to carry yourself through the world as a flicker of will in a machine others consider a tool for public use.

I was fourteen the first time I let something happen to my body. I hovered just inside myself, in the space where I knew what was happening to me had little to do with what I wanted, or what would give me pleasure. I lay back feeling the minutes pass with unsultry slowness, letting the whole thing commence with little involvement. All I wanted was to keep the peace and keep what I thought, back then, was love. The assignations continued for months. He was older; technically, it was illegal; practically, I channeled the dual forces of self-loathing and love, so potent in me then, into the process of making myself disappear for twenty minutes at a time, and letting my body remain on the bed.

I was too young even to be angry at him.

I displaced my anger at him, transferred it to anger at the strict religion I grew up within that quite literally prohibited women’s voices from being heard and from leading prayer; that partitioned us off in holy spaces, that told us our bodies were unclean. I ate on fast days and hid in the bathroom during morning prayers at school. I turned my anger at him into anger at myself. I burned myself with matches. I learned how much pressure one must apply to cut oneself with a safety razor: Breaking the skin is easy; making a thick scar is much harder. The physical piercing of my skin made the wave of pain I felt crest and break; physically anchored somewhere in the world, it could no longer flood my mind.

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The official doctrine of Orthodox Judaism prohibits all contact between members of the opposite sex outside of the covenant of marriage, even a brush of the hand or a tap on the shoulder, because women exist in a perpetual state of menstrual impurity.

In practice, of course, animal urges dart through the thickets of desire; hands touch hands and more than hands. But throughout those early encounters I grew used to what would define so much of my contact with men in the subsequent fourteen years. My body was a vehicle for the fulfillment of male desires. The ghost of my will flickered in the machine, tapped out for whole incidents, returned. Each time there was a little less of me when I came back to my body. To those I wanted to love so much, my breasts and my thighs were more welcome than I would ever be.

I didn’t know to expect any better.

I still wanted to be touched and to be adored, wanted sexual fulfillment, even if I wouldn’t have phrased it that way back then. That thirst returned me again and again to the brackish, putrid pool of bad love.

But it’s one thing to yield to an advance in the name of peace — to go along out of appeasement or even curiosity, or the hope that what happens will give you pleasure, even if it doesn’t. It is another thing entirely to say “No,” and say it loudly, and have it ignored. It removes all plausible deniability, and exposes the bad bargain for what it is.

I don’t remember all the details of the night that first happened to me; it happened to me precisely because I was in a state not to remember all the details. All he wanted, said my classmate who was mostly a stranger, was a kiss. He pulled me onto his lap and I wriggled away, as I stumbled out of my dorm room and he followed, as I took the back stairs and he pinned me against the wall of the staircase, as I turned my head away so forcefully my neck hurt the next day, as I pursed my lips so hard they swelled. The world wheeled drunkenly around me but I knew I had felt the word “no” in my throat; my vocal cords had vibrated, my tongue made the appropriate motions, my mouth opened, the word arced toward him in the air, and it didn’t matter. It is one thing to be thrust against as you lie there so indifferently you try imagine yourself into bodilessness. It is another thing to have your voice taken from you — to have your dominion over your body challenged. I extricated myself from him like a splinter taken from an eye: painfully, painfully.

The man who raped me, years later, had been my lover for months. He was not a stranger. He had doled out pleasure in miserly fashion and I had taken what I could. But I was drunk — not catastrophically; I could walk; I felt safe enough to have gotten drunk, to be a little dazed, a little dreamy — and I realized too late that he had entered me without a condom, the condom I took from my purse and gave to him and asked him to wear; I had agreed to sex but not this sex, not unsafe sex, I had agreed to sex with a man who had made me feel safe and then had waited until I was weak enough to violate. He tried to placate me but I couldn’t be consoled, not by him, at any rate. I went to his roof and cried until the windows of Manhattan were too blurry to see on the horizon, and melded together into a wobbly blush of light. For a decade I had vacated my body when I chose to, letting men use my limbs for their pleasure; but I had allowed it, I had chosen it, I had known what I was in for. This act of theft rendered my body not my own.

Looking back over fourteen years of involvement with men feels like flipping through a catalogue of trysts and violations. A small Rolodex of assaults, each one still searing to remember — groped by strangers on a train and in a backroom and a city park; fingers appearing where they had no permission to be, or where they had been forbidden to be; kisses taken, not given; an array of wheedling and incessant demands reluctantly acceded to and later regretted. Good and bad love are each represented there, but when I am alone at night the bad love thrums up from my memory, reminding me I am less than I was.

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When I hear women talk about the frustrating ways our voices seem to disappear into a void when we speak with men — when our areas of expertise are explained to us; when our work is undermined; when our contributions are dismissed in meetings, our credentials doubted, the very tones of our voices subject to criticism — I think of how much these complaints overlap with the ways our control of our own bodies is denied us. I wonder how many women have said “no” and had it deliberately go unheard, like so many other words we speak. When I talk about what I know — about the history of the Hebrew language, or Russian literature, or the strange depths of the Internet — sometimes I think of asserting control over my body and having it denied me, and wonder if I should speak at all.

The laws of this country so often dictate what happens to women’s bodies. The noose around our freedom to control our wombs is tightening, with the prospect of the nation’s highest court dictating from above that we are vessels for the growth of men’s seed, prevented by law from reversing the processes that happen just under our skins.

The notions that we are vessels for pleasure or for procreation are intertwined, and the overarching message is identical: Your body is not your body. Your body is a means to an end; the ghost inside that is your will doesn’t matter. You can say no; you can scream it; you can shatter your larynx like glass screaming no, and there will be those who out of sheer indifference or avarice for pleasure or unhearing zealotry treat it like silence.

I am twice the age I was when I first learned how to disappear inside my body. I wish I could say I have attained some combination of wisdom and clairvoyance that would allow me to foresee who may be a caring lover, and who will treat the word “no” as an inconvenience or as nothing at all. All I have gained is rage: rage that I can feel blazing in every limb, rage at a world that would rather I be a voiceless sac for fetal growth, a mindless conduit for the pleasure of others. I have taken the mourning I feel for the larger and less frightened self I could have been and forged it into a hot little dagger, one that I would like to plunge into the fat and self-satisfied flank of a world so willing to steal my voice. There are days and weeks when I feel like crumbling into ash. But I have chosen instead to fight, to raise a big and hideous and ungovernable howl for the girl I was and the girls who have yet to be. I don’t want them to ever have to pass through the ghastly syllabus of bad-love lessons etched on my skin; I want to erase it, rewrite it, dictate a will and testament that grants every woman absolute dominion over her own four limbs and every cell in between. I want to live with pen in hand, mouth open, reclaiming my voice at a volume that can shatter stone.

Categories
Health THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Dying to Entertain Us: Celebrities Keep ODing on Opioids and No One Cares

When mid-century matinee idol Rock Hudson appeared alongside Doris Day at a press conference in July 1985 looking glassy-eyed and skeletal, the scattered members of the early AIDS activism movement cautiously rejoiced.

“We were thrilled, in a really kind of awful way, because we thought maybe this is it, maybe this is AIDS,” says David France, director of How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the influential New York City–based AIDS activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) that would form in 1987.

Early AIDS activists such as France certainly weren’t celebrating the prospect that Hudson might suffer from a highly stigmatized disease and face a swift and horrific death. Rather, in their desperation, as they watched fast-increasing numbers of their friends and lovers suffer such a fate, they had been praying for the power of celebrity to finally thrust AIDS into the national conversation.

They got their wish. After Hudson disclosed he had AIDS later that summer, the nation finally woke up to an epidemic that had been ravaging gay communities in major urban areas. During the short remainder of Hudson’s life, the beloved movie star and friend of first lady Nancy Reagan took to the activist pulpit, praising the sudden surge of public interest in tackling the burgeoning epidemic.

“That death began research,” France recalls of Hudson’s passing in October 1985.

The next year, the notoriously parsimonious President Ronald Reagan allowed a significant increase in the National Institutes of Health’s budget — for research into AIDS, a disease about which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists had first sounded the alarm five years earlier.

Flash forward three decades: Thanks in large part to a massive, sustained governmental investment, currently to the tune of more than $26 billion in annual federal dollars, the U.S. HIV epidemic is now increasingly being brought under control. At the same time, several city and state governments, such as those in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City and State, have waged expensive, multifaceted campaigns to help control their own local epidemics.

Consequently, HIV is effectively crossing paths with the contemporary opioid epidemic, as that particular scourge follows a devastating upward trajectory and the governmental response remains woefully inadequate.

According to CDC estimates, the number of new annual transmissions of HIV declined by 14.8 percent between 2008 and 2015, from 45,200 to 38,500, while during that same period annual deaths among people diagnosed with AIDS declined from about 16,000 to 12,800; approximately 1.1 million people now live with the virus. Meanwhile, at least 2.1 million U.S. residents have an opioid addiction, according to government estimates, with those recently struggling with the condition including a long roster of boldfaced names: Macklemore, Demi Lovato, Rush Limbaugh, Cindy McCain, Matthew Perry, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eminem, Charlie Sheen (whose 2015 disclosure about his HIV status led to soaring testing rates), Courtney Love, and Steven Tyler. Some 42,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose in 2016, a rate that has soared fivefold since 1999. During the current century, opioids have already cut short the lives of more than 350,000 Americans, including such celebrities as Glee’s Cory Monteith.

This year, the federal government is ponying up some $27 billion for overall drug control efforts, including $16 billion for enforcement and interdiction and $11 billion for treatment and prevention. Much of this spending is earmarked for tackling the opioid epidemic. But public health experts believe such figures remain paltry given the scope of the opioid crisis, particularly because of insufficient support for what an increasingly widespread consensus says should be at the core of the U.S. response: evidence-based addiction treatment.

“We’re spending too little to address the epidemic, and you get what you pay for,” Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, says of the federal government’s “anemic” efforts so far. Looking to the future, he says, “Treatment costs are going to be enormous, but so is the cost of inaction.”

***

In April 2016, the legendary musician Prince died of what was eventually revealed as an accidental overdose of fentanyl, the extraordinarily powerful synthetic opioid painkiller that has swept through the U.S. drug supply in recent years. Eighteen months later, the same drug killed singer Tom Petty. Both entertainers fell prey to opioid use disorder the same way many Americans do: They were prescribed painkillers in this class — or in Prince’s case, he apparently got at least one physician to write prescriptions for him in someone else’s name — to treat chronic pain resulting from workplace-based physical trauma. For Prince, who had weathered long-term hip pain, dancing in heels for decades was his rarified version of a factory worker’s repetitive strain injury. Petty had recently concluded a nationwide tour he carried on with despite a hip fracture, on top of knee issues and emphysema.

These men’s awesome celebrity notwithstanding, the overall reaction to Prince and Petty’s overdoses — and to the opioid-driven losses before them of such other popular performers as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger — has amounted to nothing much when it comes to awakening Americans to the scope of the national crisis. By comparison, Rock Hudson’s death, as well as Magic Johnson’s announcement in 1991 that he had HIV, utterly jolted the national conversation about that epidemic.

Melissa Moore, deputy state director in the New York office of the national advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, reasons that Americans are disinclined to file a celebrity overdose in the same mental folder where they place personal worries that addiction, or HIV, may hit them where they live. Such drug-driven deaths are “looked at as a part of the fast and quick lifestyle of celebrities that isn’t for an average person,” Moore says.

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The public’s perception of the HIV and opioid epidemics — which do, of course, overlap given that injection drug use is a major risk factor for HIV transmission — have historically diverged in various other key ways. “People aren’t shocked by drug deaths or overdoses in a way that they are about a new and emerging infectious disease that they don’t understand,” says Kenyon Farrow, the former U.S. health policy director at the ACT UP offshoot nonprofit Treatment Action Group.

While AIDS was brand new during the Reagan era, the nation’s ebbs and flows of mass addiction to opioids date back more than 150 years. Today’s epidemic was brought on in part by excessive prescription of opioid painkillers after Purdue Pharma brought OxyContin to the market in 1995 and then aggressively promoted the drug as a pain-relieving godsend that boasted a low risk of addiction.

The current crisis actually represents history repeating itself. Following the Civil War, the United States saw a surge in the prescription of opioids such as morphine, codeine, and heroin, in part for battle wounds. The advent of modern chemistry in the early nineteenth century had given rise to the synthesis of such drugs, and the advent of hypodermic injection use for medications later that century fanned the flames of the epidemic. By 1900, 1 in 200 Americans were addicted to opioids, about the same rate as seen today.

Better training of the younger generation of physicians — older doctors were notorious for overprescribing opioids for a wide swath of conditions, from pain to diarrhea — helped contain that early epidemic, as did a series of major acts of Congress passed between 1890 and 1924 that progressively taxed opium and eventually banned its importation, required manufacturers to identify the components of medicinal products, and ultimately regulated opioids.

During the first few decades after World War II, addiction to opioids — particularly heroin — largely afflicted inner-city populations, in particular New York City’s. Throughout this period, occasional entertainer overdoses helped remind the general public of the dangers of opioids. Hank Williams, who suffered chronic pain due to a spinal condition, accidentally overdosed on morphine in 1953. During the post-counterculture era, heroin was behind the deaths of Janis Joplin and John Belushi.

***

Today, the stigmas associated with each epidemic powerfully mediate how people react to news of either HIV or opioid addiction. These involve not only deeply ingrained attitudes regarding race and class, but also by the question of whether individuals are seen to have brought HIV or addiction on themselves, and the perceived degree to which free will dictated their high-risk behaviors.

Early HIV activists moved mountains to combat the hostile attitudes society initially levied against those living with the virus. Media reports of celebrities such as Magic Johnson or Ryan White, the HIV-positive boy whose harsh discrimination at the hands of his middle-American town propelled him into the national spotlight, helped lend humanity to those living with the virus. White, in particular, seemed custom-made to inspire a more caring attitude toward people with AIDS: a sweet-faced boy who had contracted HIV “blamelessly” through hemophilia treatments and whose poetic last name, in tandem with his pale skin tone, projected a nonthreatening image of angelic purity to the nation’s racial majority.

Stigma toward those with HIV is generally driven by two main factors: fear of contagion, and judgment about what stigmatized behaviors an individual may have engaged in to contract HIV, including various forms of condomless, non-missionary-position, non-heterosexual sex, as well as injection drug use. Sex between men is, of course, much less stigmatized today than in the 1980s, when it was still illegal in half the states. But ignorance still abounds about how HIV is and is not transmitted, and that ignorance certainly drives people’s fear of contact with those living with the virus.

The predominantly white face of the opioid epidemic has helped drive a more forgiving public reaction to that crisis — a fact that invites painful historical parallels, given the harshly punitive response to people of color affected by the the heroin scourge of the 1960s and 1970s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

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Additionally, the American public may be more sympathetic toward those addicted to opioids because they tend to perceive the epidemic as largely driven by doctors prescribing painkillers to individuals with legitimate medical conditions. The truth is, most of those who misuse opioid pills obtain them without a prescription. Additionally, droves of those who initially became addicted to prescription painkillers have migrated to heroin, which can be cheaper and easier to obtain.

All this said, drug addiction remains one of the most highly stigmatized human conditions, a fact that significantly limits the ability for celebrity narratives to help inspire the nation’s reaction to the opioid epidemic.

“Katie Couric getting a colonoscopy and everyone going to check their colon is not the same as Katie Couric coming out and saying she struggles with heroin addiction,” says Kassandra Frederique, New York State director at Drug Policy Alliance. “Celebrity can only carry you so far when it comes to stigmatizing behaviors.”

***

Perhaps the most crucial difference between the AIDS and opioid epidemics lies in how each has inspired troops of activists to fight for the respective causes. David France notes that, compared with today’s population of individuals addicted to opioids, gay men provided a much richer pool for potential activist foot soldiers during the 15-year crisis period of the AIDS epidemic, because such men were often either facing death themselves or thought they were.

“My study of ACT UP has led me to believe that self-interest was [AIDS activism’s] major component and major driving influence,” France says.

By comparison, those addicted to drugs like heroin or Vicodin, France argues, may not see overdose as a clear and present danger — and so may be less inclined to fight for their lives and those of others by, say, joining an activist movement or howling at their elected representatives. Additionally, the everyday lives of those in the throes of addiction may be so chaotic or otherwise compromised that these individuals lack the wherewithal to commit themselves to activism and political organizing.

Oftentimes, however, family members are indeed motivated to advocate for change. According to France, it’s such moms, sisters, daughters, and nieces who contact him pleading him to make a documentary about the opioid crisis. 

“But they’re also not leaving their ordinary life to go full bore in the opioid movement,” he adds.

The comedian Russell Brand is one of the rare celebrities who has a history of opioid addiction and has thrown himself into advocacy work — although his is quite a problematic voice. In Brand’s 2012 documentary on addiction treatment, he is sharply critical of opioid substitution therapy such as methadone or buprenorphine. In the face of competing scientific evidence that supports such medically based treatment as an effective, if imperfect, means of reducing the risk of opioid-use relapse and overdose, Brand clings stubbornly to the abstinence-centered dogma of Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous as the preferred route to fighting the opioid crisis.

Celebrated photographer Nan Goldin, who suffered a recent bout of active opioid addiction that took hold after she was prescribed OxyContin for chronic wrist pain, has waged a vociferous and creative activist campaign against the Sackler family, the wealthy owners of Purdue Pharma. Calling for nonprofits to refuse donations from the highly philanthropic dynasty, she has orchestrated colorful, headline-grabbing protests at various art institutions, including in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing.

Having started her own opioid-addiction-related advocacy group, Goldin is among those pushing for a massive, multipronged federal investment in combating the opioid epidemic, to the tune of $100 billion over the next decade. Called the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency Act, or CARE, the proposed legislation is not as pie-in-the-sky utopic as the extraordinary price tag may make it sound. Importantly, CARE is modeled after the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, itself a multipronged federal program that passed with bipartisan zeal in 1990 — during a Republican presidency — and which has been reauthorized enthusiastically ever since. Today, that legislation provides about $2.3 billion annually in vital healthcare-based response to the HIV epidemic.

Repeating the success of the Ryan White Act on the opioid front would require a massive advocacy movement in the coming years. Longtime activist Jennifer Flynn Walker, director of mobilization and advocacy at the Center for Popular Democracy, argues that with a continued accumulation of grassroots organizing against the epidemic, such a corps of foot soldiers could harness the publicity generated by a future celebrity overdose and channel it into considerable progress.

“If Prince died next year, I think you would see the same kind of response,” she says, referring to the kind of impact that Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson had on the HIV movement, with “everybody going wearing overdose ribbons to the Oscars.”

If Walker is right, the next famous person to overdose on opioids could yield a tipping point. “The celebrity death,” she says, “only becomes the watershed moment because there was the base organizing happening first.”