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How to Survive a Plague

Cover of How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague

The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS
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The definitive history of the successful battle to halt the AIDS epidemic—from the creator of, and inspired by, the seminal documentary How to Survive a Plague.
A riveting, powerful telling of the story of the grassroots movement of activists, many of them in a life-or-death struggle, who seized upon scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mostly fatal infection to a manageable disease. Ignored by public officials, religious leaders, and the nation at large, and confronted with shame and hatred, this small group of men and women chose to fight for their right to live by educating themselves and demanding to become full partners in the race for effective treatments. Around the globe, 16 million people are alive today thanks to their efforts.
Not since the publication of Randy Shilts's classic And the Band Played On has a book measured the AIDS plague in such brutally human, intimate, and soaring terms.
In dramatic fashion, we witness the founding of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), and the rise of an underground drug market in opposition to the prohibitively expensive (and sometimes toxic) AZT. We watch as these activists learn to become their own researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, and clinicians, establishing their own newspapers, research journals, and laboratories, and as they go on to force reform in the nation's disease-fighting agencies.
With his unparalleled access to this community David France illuminates the lives of extraordinary characters, including the closeted Wall Street trader-turned-activist, the high school dropout who found purpose battling pharmaceutical giants in New York, the South African physician who helped establish the first officially recognized buyers' club at the height of the epidemic, and the public relations executive fighting to save his own life for the sake of his young daughter.
Expansive yet richly detailed, this is an insider's account of a pivotal moment in the history of American civil rights. Powerful, heart-wrenching, and finally exhilarating, How to Survive a Plague is destined to become an essential part of the literature of AIDS.
From the Hardcover edition.
The definitive history of the successful battle to halt the AIDS epidemic—from the creator of, and inspired by, the seminal documentary How to Survive a Plague.
A riveting, powerful telling of the story of the grassroots movement of activists, many of them in a life-or-death struggle, who seized upon scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mostly fatal infection to a manageable disease. Ignored by public officials, religious leaders, and the nation at large, and confronted with shame and hatred, this small group of men and women chose to fight for their right to live by educating themselves and demanding to become full partners in the race for effective treatments. Around the globe, 16 million people are alive today thanks to their efforts.
Not since the publication of Randy Shilts's classic And the Band Played On has a book measured the AIDS plague in such brutally human, intimate, and soaring terms.
In dramatic fashion, we witness the founding of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), and the rise of an underground drug market in opposition to the prohibitively expensive (and sometimes toxic) AZT. We watch as these activists learn to become their own researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, and clinicians, establishing their own newspapers, research journals, and laboratories, and as they go on to force reform in the nation's disease-fighting agencies.
With his unparalleled access to this community David France illuminates the lives of extraordinary characters, including the closeted Wall Street trader-turned-activist, the high school dropout who found purpose battling pharmaceutical giants in New York, the South African physician who helped establish the first officially recognized buyers' club at the height of the epidemic, and the public relations executive fighting to save his own life for the sake of his young daughter.
Expansive yet richly detailed, this is an insider's account of a pivotal moment in the history of American civil rights. Powerful, heart-wrenching, and finally exhilarating, How to Survive a Plague is destined to become an essential part of the literature of AIDS.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Awards-
Excerpts-
  • From the book I didn´t have serious concerns for my own health. What I worried about was Brian Gougeon. I checked on him frequently. Neither of us brought up AIDS directly or his health specifically, though I sensed he resented my calls as reminders of that scare. Like characters in a Saramago novel, we talked about anything else. The news was generally good. He resumed the physically taxing work of tending the vast vertical jungle of ficus trees and philodendron bushes that filled high-rises throughout the city. He confided that the East Village gallery scene had been cool to his work, but reported the good news that he was back with his college boyfriend, and had never been happier.

    I don't want to overstate our sense of impending doom. The truth was, the storm clouds massed near the horizon, not overhead. Unless you were personally admitted into what Susan Sontag called "the kingdom of the sick," it was not hard to put the growing epidemic out of mind. It took two years and almost six hundred dead before The New York Times put a story on the front page. Except in passing, few television news programs made any mention. The progressive Village Voice ran a feature that called the danger overblown, and was nearly silent otherwise. You would have to read the Native for news on AIDS.

    Brian Gougeon avoided the newspapers. I know he saw the first major report in prime time, since we watched it together on my small black-and-white TV. The ABC newsman Geraldo Rivera, flamboyant and hyperbolic though he was, broke the near-complete media blackout with the first network broadcast.

    "It is the most frightening medical mystery of our time," Rivera said, leaning toward the camera. "There is an epidemic loose in the land, a so-far incurable disease which kills its victims in stages."

    And then appeared the face of a man in grotesque medical distress— the first plague-sickened man either Brian or I had laid eyes on. He was a freelance lighting designer named Ken Ramsauer, age twenty-seven. In an old photograph, he looked as polished and angular as a shampoo model. The difference between then and now was shocking. His head appeared swollen nearly to the brink of popping; his eyes vanished behind swollen muffins of flesh; oblong purple marks covered his skin. Confined to a wheelchair, he hung his head weakly. A friend handed him a glass of water, which was almost too heavy for his trembling arms. "I thought I was a pretty good-looking guy," he said. "And now, I actually see myself fading away."

    Ramsauer said he had just returned from the hospital, where they offered him neither medicine nor hope, and least of all pity. "One night I heard two, I believe, nurse's aides—not the actual nurses—standing outside my door sort of laughing," he said.

    "What did they say exactly?" Rivera asked.

    He blinked his slivered eyes and looked down at the water glass in his scarlet fists, remembering: "I wonder how long the faggot in 208 is going to last."

    Four days later, I opened the paper to discover that Ramsauer was dead. When I read that a public memorial was planned at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, I asked Brian to go with me. But he was taking a different strategy. "I'm just staying out of the whole thing," he said, meaning AIDS. "Worrying isn't good for your health. And it does nasty things to your art."

    Instead I went with another friend, a graphic designer named Ian Horst. That evening was unusually still and hot. As we approached the service from the south, beneath a vaulted canopy of American elms and a row of towering statuary, a macabre scene confronted us. The plaza was crowded...
About the Author-
  • DAVID FRANCE is the author of Our Fathers, a book about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, which Showtime adapted into a film. He coauthored The Confession with former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey. He is a contributing editor for New York and has written as well for The New York Times. His documentary film How to Survive a Plague was an Oscar finalist, won a Directors Guild Award and a Peabody Award, and was nominated for two Emmys, among other accolades.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 12, 2016
    Journalist France (Our Fathers) illuminates the origins and progress of the fight against AIDS in this moving mix of memoir and reportage, a companion book to his eponymous Academy Award–nominated 2012 documentary. He covers a revolution in drug development that occurred as patients, for the first time, "joined in the search for their own salvation." France begins in 1981, when a buried New York Times story first identified a "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals," and continues through 1996, when a medical system transformed by activism delivered treatments that rendered AIDS a manageable illness. He juxtaposes his personal involvement with that of a group of self-proclaimed "HIVIPs," key ACT UP leaders from their Treatment + Data Committee whose collective mission was getting the medical establishment to put "drugs into bodies." Eventually, ACT UP became unwieldy and the group spun-off into the Treatment Action Group. France shares with passion and pathos the personal battles of these activists, offering both plaudits and opprobrium to an array of players who constituted the fabric of the community. As important as Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On was in 1987, France's work is a must-read for a new generation of empowered patients, informed medical practitioners, and challenged caregivers—lest history repeat itself.

  • Slate "Extraordinary... A sweeping social history, a bracing act of in-depth journalism, and a searingly honest memoir all at once... A chronicle of the recent past that sheds light on the fights to come... The chaotic, contentious, painful form of hope offered in this book is vital even as the fight it chronicles remains unfinished."
  • Steven Petrow, The Washington Post "David France managed to simultaneously break my heart and rekindle my anger in just the first few pages of his breathtakingly important new book... Riveting."
  • Bookforum "A moving and an enraging read."
  • EDGE Boston "Masterful... [France] knows how to tell a story."
  • Sunday Times "Powerful... This superbly written chronicle will stand as a towering work in its field, the best book on the pre-treatment years of the epidemic since Randy Shilts's And The Band Played On... Most of the people to whom it bears witness are not around to read it, but millions are alive today thanks to their efforts, and this moving record will ensure their legacy does not die with them."
  • The Observer "[A] subtle and searing history of this late-20th century plague and those who survived it... [The] great advantage France has is that... he was an eyewitness to many of the key moments during the spread of the disease and... shared in activists' pain and suffering."
  • Library Journal, starred review "Prepare to have your heart buoyed and broken in this riveting account... In unflinching, brutally honest detail, France traces the lives of the people behind the constellations of aid and advocacy movements and presents their struggles in a way that will have readers stirred by each diagnosis, cheering the efforts to find a cure, and growing frustrated at the political establishments that ignored the terrible tragedy as it unfolded... This highly engaging account is a must-read for anyone interested in epidemiology, civil rights, gay rights, public health, and American history."
  • Booklist, starred review "David France brilliantly chronicles AIDS in America during the 1980s and 1990s... Powerful... American history, memoir, public health, and a call-to-action are perfectly and passionately blended here. Spectacular and soulful."
  • Kirkus "A lucid, urgent updating of Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On (1987) and a fine work of social history."
  • Carl Bernstein "Heroic and heartbreaking and magnificent history throughout, How to Survive a Plague is one of the great tales of our time: the story of incredibly brave and determined men and women who defied government, the pharmaceutical industry, vicious homophobia, and the death sentence of AIDS to overwhelm an awful scourge. These gay activists--refusing to die without a fight--were vital in staunching the epidemic. Their resistance and cunning will remain as seminal to medical history and humanity as the efforts of Pasteur and Salk."
  • Rebecca Skloot "David France is uniquely positioned to bear witness to the science and politics of the AIDS epidemic, its deeply personal impact, and the activists who refused to be silenced by it: courageous and brilliant, often selfless, willing to fight even as they struggle with death, but always fully human. From the story's beginning, France was on the ground doing hard-hitting reporting on the plague while living its toll in the m
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The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS
David France
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