The first cases of AIDS began appearing in 1981. The disease, which at the beginning seemed to infect only gay men, was met with stony silence and active derision by our lords and overseers. Then-president Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge the outbreak, though his staff and supporters spoke loud and clear. Pat Buchanan, his communications director said that AIDS was “nature’s revenge upon gay men”. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority- one of Reagan’s staunchest financial backers- stated unequivocally that “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.”
It would be fully six years later before Reagan would publicly speak about the disease. By that time, it had reached pandemic levels, with over 36,000 American diagnosed and over 20,000 dead.
AIDS is no longer viewed with the sheer terror it once was. IF you’re lucky enough to live in a first-world country and IF you can afford medical care and IF you’re willing to subject yourself to a strict and endless regimen of medication, the disease has become survivable.
Things have changed so drastically that it’s easy to rewrite history, for the details of what really happened to get blurry and lost with time. As with any world-shattering event, if you didn’t live through it, the urgency and emotion of personal involvement can be hard to grasp.
Taking Turns: Stories From HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 is a new graphic novel by MK Czerwiec from The Pennsylvania State University Press which attempts to capture one small part of the history of the epidemic. In 1994, the height of the disease in the US, over 270,000 Americans had died. Czerwiec began her nursing career at Illinois Masonic Nursing Center in Chicago, one of the hardest hit areas of the country, and would continue working there until the HIV/AIDS ward was literally closed from lack of need.
She uses a simple, clear drawing style to pull the reader into what could easily be an overwhelming subject. Part diary-as-catharsis, part oral history, she pieces together memory (her own and those she gathered) to form an unvarnished retelling of the way things were.
At times, her attention to detail leads to dense blocks of uninterrupted medical exposition that can be hard to digest in the graphic novel format. But it’s all toward the goal of giving space for unheard voices to tell their tales and for often complex information to be conveyed.
And just when you think you might be suffering from infodump overload, she pulls you back in with stunning, small moments that stop you in your tracks. At one point, as Czerwiec is going about her nursing duties, a patient, a complete stranger, calls out to her. “Excuse me,” he says. “Hi. I’m Stephen and I’m really scared. Could you hold me?” And she does. I can’t remember the last time I openly sobbed while reading a book, but here I did.
And that’s what this book offers. Not only a view into a frantic time, a look into the lives of the doctors, nurses and patients who lived and died. But a tribute to those who embraced each other with open arms, who reached out to help when much of our country was busy pretending nothing was happening. A folktale of healing and loss and beginning again.