The greatest generation may be the one that endured the AIDS crisis


Author Perry Halkitis.

The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience by Perry N.Halkitis (Oxford University Press 2014)  $49.95; 249 pp.

The history of AIDS is vast and can’t be told without the stories of the people lost to the disease and the ones they left behind. Of the latter, Perry N. Halkitis says, “all the gay men of my generation, infected or not, are long-term survivors.”

The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience, recounts many of those tales of survival. Those are the men who came of age in the 1980s when “the promise for sexual freedom and sexual expression existed.” They are the men who, in the prime of their lives and when they should’ve been the picture of health, watched their friends and lovers die and who were told, upon their own AIDS diagnosis, that they, too, would probably be dead within two years.

But of course, that wasn’t necessarily true. This book — the culmination of a large-scale project on gay men who have lived with AIDS for decades — pulls together 15 survivors who were “still alive to tell their stories as middle-aged men.”

Some of them don’t remember when they learned of their diagnosis, while some remember the day clearly. Regardless, all exhibited “the pause,” as Halkitis calls the stress reaction to remembering that time.

Some of the 15 knew, deep down, that they’d been infected; one said it would’ve been “a miracle … not to be positive.” For others, it came as a surprise. Some got sick, while others waited for illness that never really came. All are “resilient,” says Halkitis, and are now surprised and amazed to experience the kind of normal health issues that men in middle-age endure.

“I’ve been at the worst of this virus,” one of them told Halkitis, “and now I’m in the golden years of this virus. This virus has taken me halfway around the world, and I’m still here.”

At first blush, The AIDS Generation may seem like it’s more academic than not. That assessment is true; there is plenty for academics in this book, but casual readers will find something here, too. As one of the AIDS Generation himself, Halkitis knew which questions to ask of his subjects in order to get the memories and emotions he pulled from them. That questioning leads to a fresh sense of heartache in the telling of tales, and a distant theme of horror that bubbles with anger and ends with a general awe for life and an appealing sense of triumph. Despite linguistic stumbles that might’ve been better off edited out, that makes them compellingly readable.

AIDS-GenerationThe audiences for this book include long-term survivors who count themselves among the warriors and younger men who need to learn. If you fall into either category, reading it will be a worthwhile experience.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer