March 15, 2010
Book review: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic
by Randy Shilts
I knew it was bad, though I knew that mostly from other readings, because essentially, I don’t remember a time before AIDS. I remember that in grade school, “Red Ribbon Week” was about saying no to drugs rather than AIDS awareness, but that’s pretty much it. When Ryan White was battling to attend school, I was in first grade. I can remember having assemblies in years not too much later where they talked about how you can’t catch HIV through casual contact, and we can still be good friends and hold hands and hug and everybody’s happy and no one discriminates against anyone! (Of course, that was all, to the best of my knowledge, academic; I’m not entirely convinced that people would have been so sanguine had someone with HIV or AIDS actually tried to attend the school).
Even so, I wasn’t prepared for just how bad it was, for the number of times I’d want to reach through the pages of the book and shake people by the shoulders. I was impressed by how compelling the narrative is, too, given that it basically boils down to medicine + politics + bureaucracy. I’m curious about the book’s reception, given the number of people painted in not-particularly flattering lights. I did find the portrayal of Gaetan Dugas somewhat off-putting—it felt one-dimensional, maybe even almost vindictive.
That makes me think of the issue of authorial neutrality, the idea that a work of literary journalism like this one ought to represent all the various sides of an issue equally. And the Band Played On arguably fails on that point. The author has a point of view: he was gay, involved in the community he portrays, and ultimately died of complications from AIDS in 1994. (He was tested for HIV while he was working on the book, but refused to allow his doctor to tell him the results until after he was finished.) My take, though, is that Shilts’s point of view is a strength, rather than a detriment, in that it gives the material a sense of urgency that it might not have otherwise.
And the Band Played On was not an easy read, mentally or emotionally; it took me about a month and a half, and a number of tears, to get through it. Even so, I couldn’t recommend it more highly, particularly given that I recently took a class on STDs and was somewhat horrified on occasion by other students’ lack of knowledge when it came to HIV/AIDS—“Well, why couldn’t we just quarantine people with AIDS?” one student asked. “I mean, we had leper colonies, right?” The only way to fight ignorance is with knowledge, and this book contains a wealth of it.
(Previous book review: Backlash by Susan Faludi)