The Beginning of the AIDS Epidemic: Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On

Published on
September 21, 2009
Reading some books is like feeling a cool breeze wash over you on a sun-dappled beach as waves gently lap nearby. The whole effect is soothing, restorative, healing. But then there are other books which grab you with an urgency the way your mother's voice called you by your full name when you were in trouble. Forcing you to read them, these books and their unsettling contents stay with you far after the reading ends, churning and knocking you off-balance. The late Randy Shilts' And The Band Played On is an example of the latter type. Shilts' account of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan administration's callous indifference to the deaths of gay men, the medical community's internecine competition, and the gay community's failure to grasp the magnitude of what was happening and alter their sexual behavior accordingly alternately chills, haunts and inspires. It's been more than 20 years since the book was first published, and, unfortunately, the disease has spread beyond what then seemed almost unimaginable proportions. Shilts breaks the work into quick chapters into he weaves a near dizzying array of characters through the 600-page work. Some of the book's more memorable people include Gaetan Dugas, a handsome and extremely promiscuous French-Canadian flight attendant who for years was considered by some researchers to be "Patient Zero" of the epidemic, the cantankerous and combative Larry Kramer, noble congressional aide and AIDS activist Bill Kraus, and Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, whose personal understanding of the disease's possible impact is not matched by a forceful push for funding. The book veers from Africa, when a Danish researcher appears to catch and die from the virus, to the United States to France, where a frenzied quest to discover the virus is wage, and back. At times, And The Band Played On reads like a series of dispatches issued from all over the globe and linked by all being tied to the ever growing epidemic. The constantly growing number of people infected with, and dieing from, the virus is a metronome-like presence in the book that can leave the reader numb at the rapidly increasing and spreading toll. While Shilts focuses directly on governmental inaction, the book is not an anti-government screed. Rather he discusses directly the bathhouse scene in San Francisco in which emotional connection was absent amid intense physical intimacy. San Francisco Public Health Director Mervyn Silverman's halting decision to shut the houses and the visceral reaction it elicited point to a community that did not fully accept or deal with the implications of what was happening. Medical researchers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean seem more concerned with personal glory than with collaborating to stop the disease, while keepers of the nation's donated blood supply do not bathe themselves in honor, either. The mainstream press fares poorly, too. In short, a host of people and institutions failed the gay community and the people in it, and the disease has spread rapidly from being considered a gay white man's disease to in fact being more common among people of color, many of whom are women. Shilts quotes liberally at the beginning of sections from Albert Camus' The Plague, which was conceived and written in part in the small French Huguenot mountain village of Le Chambon Sur Lignon. More than two decades after And The Band Played On, it is unclear whether Camus' assessment that plagues are not eradicated, but merely subdued, is correct. But it is abundantly clear that Shilts' book is a powerful marker in the sand, reminding us of the ruinous consequences of policy paths not taken.