Dr. Perry N. Halkitis has been on the forefront of AIDS activism and gay male psychology for years. His research as director of Applied Psychology and Public Health (Steinhardt School) and Associate Dean at New York Univ. Global Institute of Public Health is the basis for his groundbreaking study The AIDS Generation | Stories of Survival and Resilience.
Dr. Halkitis’ documents his ongoing research with 15 gay men, all long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS. Most of the men diagnoses years before the life-saving protease inhibitors became widely available in 1996.
Halkitis’s methodology used to compile the book is both scientific and anecdotal, and is less clinical case study and more transcriptions from private and group discussions. Halkitis’ findings contributes to the academic literature in understanding the medical, psychological and human issues that come into play as these men rebuild and maintain their lives as long term survivors of AIDS.
For lay readers, the book has a lot of academic in text freight describing Dr. Halkitis’ methodology. Past that, this is an important book in its examination of a mostly invisible minority, providing vital anecdotal history and analysis.
Halkitis’ has a deep field of knowledge in the psychological aspects of HIV/AIDS survival and as a gay man. As a gay man, Halkitis builds an activist’s polemic in his chronicle 30 Years and Counting: The Story of AIDS in the Gay Community, connecting the post traumatic stress of gay men being diagnosed with HIV and living the rest of their lives in an environment of social backlash. The shared experience of the early AIDS years as the tragedy gripped every urban gay community throughout the 80s and gay men were seeing death all around them, to a mostly totally indifferent US government.
The 15 men in Halkitis study candidly relate their experiences finding out they were HIV positive and coming to terms with what was then a death sentence, with a mean survival rate of two years. Several in the group contemplated suicide, because they didn’t want to face “an ugly, painful death.” But every one found a way to regain a sense of purpose to make the most of the time they had left. Most were well past their initial time prognosis by the time the protease inhibitor were available to them in 1996.
Included is a tribute to Spencer Cox by Filmmaker David France who made the award winning documentary How to Survive a Plague last year, which featured Cox, an early AIDS activist, whose tireless efforts to get effective AIDS drugs on the market consumed his life as he was struggling with the disease himself. France writes about Cox‘s death in 2012 of drug use and the fact that he had stopped taking his HIV/AIDS meds. Cox was adrift after his activist work was done, but had started to piece together a new life, in fits and starts as a part of the surviving AIDS generation. There were reports that he was involved with crack and aggressive partying, at odds with positive steps he was also making to renew a better life. No one can know the complex factors that led to his death.
Halkitis focuses on factors that could have contributed to their mental and emotional well-being citing supportive lovers, families, friends and community, not to mention the activist culture and solidarity through AIDS organizations like GMHC in New York and other community groups throughout the country. The direct physical benefits of a positive re-enforcement cannot be scientifically proved, but anecdotally, these men articulate the efficacy and hope of this support network.
In profiling the men, Halkitis includes chunks of rambling dialogue and nothing would have been lost had he deleted many redundancies. Halkitis gives credit to AIDS activists who bravely fought for drug trail efficacy and speeded up research. The area of holistic medicine and recognizing the social networking in the gay community called to activism and taking care of their own, in the face of political, medical and social homophobia. Halkitis writes eloquently of this vital history of the epidemic vis-à-vis gay civil rights.
Halkitis is so careful to detail his methodology of this collective and tends to over-define his terms of methodology, which for lay readers, leaden the book. Some of the denser clinical psychological theory would have been more serviceable in an appendix, outside the flow of the main text. But, without doubt, this is an inspiring text of courage and conviction of these men and their people fighting for survival in a perilous time.