Picks and Pans Review: Surviving Aids
Michael Callen is very angry. He's angry that the government has moved slowly in dealing with the AIDS epidemic; he's angry at the medical establishment for touting the drug AZT as helpful in fighting AIDS, when he believes—and makes a convincing case—that it is "as toxic as Drano."
Mostly he's furious at the "propaganda of hopelessness" that says AIDS is fatal, when he has survived the disease for eight years. (Thirteen other survivors who have lived with AIDS for three or more years are also profiled.) His passionate, if repetitive, book analyzes the politics of AIDS and challenges many widely held beliefs.
This is tricky stuff, and Callen gets mired in semantics and politics. Yes, it must be hard for People With AIDS ("PWAs," not "victims," which he says implies defeat, or "patients," since many PWAs are unhospitalized much of the time). Yes, the tone of news reports—words like "deadly" or "tragic" as well as what he sees as editors' tendency to avoid pictures of PWAs who "look too healthy"—may be damaging.
But to downplay the incidence of mortality, as Callen does, when at least 97 percent of those diagnosed in 1982 have died of the disease, would be equally irresponsible.
Callen's disagreements with the common wisdom about AIDS include a belief that such a complex disease cannot be caused simply by the HIV virus. But he, like the scientists he often disdains, can't explain why some people survive much longer than others. (A New York City legal secretary turned full-time AIDS activist, Callen has no formal medical education.) How much of a role does a healthy lifestyle play? Macrobiotics? Medication? Positive thinking?
In exploring reasons for some patients' surprising longevity, Callen asks other long-term survivors to comment on their experiences. Their stories are poignant, angry and/or funny, and their voices—like Callen's in the personal sections of the book—are winning, but they too are unable to explain their relative good fortune.
Maybe, as one of Callen's doctors says, "Anger is terrific! It's the nice guys that go down ... it's the sons-of-bitches, the ones who kick and scream and yell who do better." If so, Callen seems to be waging the good fight. (HarperCollins, $18.95)