The Normal Heart is an HBO film adapted from Larry Kramer’s play. It’s wonderful, and worth your time. But prepare to feel devastated. Mr. Kramer is an author, a playwright, a public health advocate and LGBT rights activist. Mr. Kramer is also a strong voice for AIDS awareness.
I began to follow Larry Kramer’s work back in the 1980s, when The Normal Heart takes place. I was in my first year as a psych trainee in San Francisco, doing a rotation in a crisis clinic (a small psych emergency room affiliated with a larger hospital). At a certain point, we began to see a new presentation, which developed into a dreadful pattern. A young man would be brought in, overtly psychotic or confused and delirious. We’d ask questions and find out that he had a steady job, a strong friendship group, sometimes a steady partner, and no psych history. Further questions would rule out recreational drugs as the cause. But he’d also have a recent medical history we didn’t understand — sometimes a rare form of cancer, sometimes terrible skin lesions. He would have lost an alarming amount of weight in a startlingly short period of time. He would be in his 20s and gay. He was a healthy young man, who was suddenly dying.
During this reign of terror, AIDS ran rampant. Initially, we didn’t understand the cause, or how the virus was transmitted. Even when we began to gain an understanding, we had no medications to manage the condition. AIDS was a death sentence, and the path from diagnosis to death was gruesome. People were terrified, and the early AIDS victims were often treated as pariahs, fearful objects, grim reapers.
But Larry Kramer was different. He raised his voice, loud and unapologetic, in support of gay men infected with HIV. Interestingly, he was revered by some and hated by others for the exact same reason: he stepped forward, stood tall, insisted that bodies (both living and dead) be treated with respect and dignity. He shouted that people needed to pay attention; he was ignored; he shouted louder. He raised his voice for those whose voice had been taken away.
Larry Kramer first wrote The Normal Heart as a play. The story follows the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, from 1981-1984, in New York. I was in a different city, but the issues – medical, political, personal – were exactly what my colleagues and I faced in San Francisco. Watching the film, each hospital scene brought back a flood of memories from being a psych trainee on Jim Dilley’s “AIDS Ward” at San Francisco General Hospital. Dr. Dilley set up a unit solely for AIDS patients, staffed entirely by people who chose to be there. Even as a trainee, I was offered the choice to opt out, because everyone was so frightened. But Dr. Dilley was a rare blend of intelligence, decency, talent and compassion. I trusted him, and I knew I was being offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I figured if I was going to help my patients step up and deal with their fear, then the least I could do was step up and deal with my own. To this day, I’ve never seen a better-run unit in any hospital. I’ve never been in an environment with a stronger sense of teamwork, with more exemplary patient care. Working on Dr. Dilley’s AIDS Ward was a privilege.
It was also a heart-break. There’s a camera shot in The Normal Heart, lasting just a few moments: two gaunt and emaciated men, lying in adjacent beds, holding hands. Back on Dr. Dilley’s AIDS Ward, I saw those two men many times.
I never met Larry Kramer, but I hold his work in high esteem, and I admire him for his commitment. He fought for a long time with minimal support, and I can only imagine how alone he must have felt. But he never gave up. He raised awareness, and his work saved lives.
The Normal Heart took me by the throat, as it should. Every personal loss in the story reminded me of San Francisco, in the 1980s, when I knew too many who died too young. I remember the sadness, fear, frustration, defeat. Then I take a deep breath, and inhale a tiny bit of Mr. Kramer’s fire.
I’m grateful to be here to remember.
Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school, and follows one family’s journey after their daughter comes out. Her second novel, Tightwire, includes a strong friendship between a gay man and a straight man, as well as two women, a couple raising 2 children, who become role model parents to the main character. Amy’s blog has several posts in strong support of LGBTQ+. Check out Amy’s website to find links to her blog and her novels on Amazon.