In the spring of 2017, for the first time since publishing a memoir set at the height of San Francisco’s AIDS epidemic, I summoned the nerve to teach a course on memoir—which is to say, at least as I taught it, a course on the necessity of personal witness, a course against forgetting. Mostly I avoided the subject of AIDS, not wanting to be the grizzled old veteran croaking war stories to a classroom of undergraduates. But since AIDS memoirs are among the best examples of the genre, I decided I had to foray into the minefields of those memories. I surprised myself by choosing not one of several poignant memoirs but the edgy anger of Close to the Knives, by the artist David Wojnarowicz, with its hustler sex and pickup sex and anonymous sex on the decaying piers of Chelsea and amid the bleak emptiness of the Arizona desert, one eye cocked at the rearview mirror to watch for the cop who might appear and haul your naked ass to the county jail, sixty miles of rock and creosote bushes distant.1 Wojnarowicz was thirty-seven years old when he died of AIDS in 1992.
1In 1990 Wojnarowicz was targeted by Donald Wildmon, the founder of the American Family Association, who, according to Wojnarowicz’s attorney, “took 14 mostly gay pornographic images from small fragments of Wojnarowicz’s large collages, rephotographed them stripped of their context and characterized them as Wojnarowicz’s art, financed by the N.E.A. He then mailed the pamphlet to every member of Congress, more than 3,000 ‘Christian leaders’ and more than 2,500 media outlets.” Wojnarowicz won a lawsuit against Wildmon, the court finding that Wildmon had misrepresented the art. It enjoined Wildmon from further distributing the pamphlets and ordered him to send a correction to all 6,000 of the initial recipients.
My students were fascinated by Wojnarowicz’s raw frankness. One student, a father of two, wrote that I had not provided enough context for the book, teaching me that this history-changing event, the brutality and horror of AIDS, was more foreign to my students than the Vietnam War, no matter that the disease is still among us, no matter that his ignorance will become his children’s ignorance, which may lead them to be the next generation of HIV-infected. One student asked, “But how did they organize—I mean, without social media?” So I showed documentary footage, the filmmaker’s version of memoir, activists coming together in raucous planning meetings to orchestrate the dumping of cremated ashes on the White House lawn or the carrying of a real dead body in an open coffin to the gates of the National Institutes of Health. In my students’ curious, discomfited eyes, I understood that I might have been showing films of creatures from another planet, so foreign was this notion of working together to achieve change.
And perhaps to them we were creatures from another planet—acting up, fighting back—so beaten down are they in the face of constant, implied threats of lifelong unemployment from universities and corporations, so balkanized are they by social media, so overwhelmed are they, in their early twenties, by the student debt with which we, their elders, have saddled them so as to leave them no time for introspection or collective action.