BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A different side ...

As regular readers of this space know, I find a lot of quite interesting books at dollar stores, the rather random nature of what shows up where in that channel lending a signature serendipity to my to-be-read piles. One thing I have discovered is that there is no systematic distribution of individual titles (i.e., four copies to every store in a particular area), with some books only being at one location, and a different “mix” in different regions. Because of this, I always look forward to checking out the Dollar Trees when I'm out of town, and a week or so back I was attending a demo at my elder daughter's college, and made a point to check out the one near our hotel. I found a couple of promising titles there, one of them being Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS by famed rock & roll legend Elton John.

I was a big fan of the author in the 70's, certainly from 1971's Madman Across The Water (which still is one of our “road trip” CDs), and was thrilled to get so see him a few years back, when I was trying to shift gears to a bartending career (I was working temp at a big event Allstate was doing down in Millennium Park, where he was the headliner). I had, however, sort of drifted away musically over the past couple of decades, so hadn't been “following” him much, and by the time this book picks up (in 1985), he was pretty much off my radar, aside, of course, for the mega-hits (like cuts from The Lion King) that were hard to avoid.

The book starts with the author flipping through a magazine in a doctor's office, and seeing an article about Ryan White, an Indiana teen who had hemophilia, and had contracted HIV via a clotting agent used to treat his disease. Reading this article set John on a trajectory that led to both his sobriety and the founding of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

This is an intensely personal tale, but it is, ultimately, more a missive from the head of the EJAF than strictly being an autobiographical piece. On one level, John is nearly perfectly positioned to tell the story of HIV/AIDS, as he was in the thick of the “gay community” in the years that it was being ravaged by the disease. At several points, he mentions that it's pretty much a miracle that he didn't get AIDS, as so many of his friends (he cites some really atrocious body counts), succumbed to it. He also got to see (as he attempted to help Ryan White, and other victims around the country) how spotty the care was, when there was any, and this sparked him to want to do something.

However, before he could be effective helping others, he needed to get his act together. A couple of months after Ryan's funeral, John had something of an intervention with his boyfriend at the time, which resulted in him finally deciding that he needed to get help. At this point he was dealing with a wide array of addictive behaviors, involving cocaine, alcohol, food, and sex. He notes:
What made matters harder was that there were even few rehab facilities that were willing to treat multiple problems at once. Dual diagnosis was discouraged, for reasons I still do not agree with. Most treatment centers expected you to go to one facility to be treated for your eating disorder before you went to another for your drug addiction, and then yet another for alcoholism. That wasn't acceptable to me. I felt very strongly at the time (and I still do) that all of my problems had the same root cause, and that I couldn't treat one without treating them all. Luckily, we found a place in Chicago that would take me in and treat all my addictions at once … Six weeks after I entered the program {in July}, I was released. It was September 1990. I returned to London ...
I was fascinated by the parallels, as I went into a sobriety program in July of 1985 (in Chicago), and got out six weeks later … and, like John, have been “clean and sober” since.

A few months after his release he relocated to Atlanta, and was involved with assisting HIV service groups there, but in the fall of 1992 Elizabeth Taylor asked him to participate in a HIV/AIDS fundraiser that her foundation was doing at Madison Square Garden in NYC, and this inspired him to start up his own foundation, specifically focused on AIDS. One of the primary elements contributing to the success of the EJAF was from the realization:
… very early on, we made a key decision: our job would be to raise the money, and we would build partnerships to get it into the right hands. With the help of experts on our board … this is how we would proceed.
      We did an extensive search and were lucky – extraordinarily lucky – to find the National Community AIDS Partnership. … What
{was} understood in those early years was essential: with so many separate organizations providing their own services to their own regions, we needed something that would help us respond to the crisis in a truly coordinated and strategic way. …
      The goal of the partnership wasn't just to collect money and distribute it; it was to mobilize social service organizations that already existed, that already had infrastructure, and to turn their attention to HIV/AIDS.
John, his associates, and media friends were called upon to help encourage congress to accelerate both assistance to those effected by the disease, but also to the core research looking for a cure. Aside from the main foundation in the US, John also opened up a sister operation in the UK, which is responsible not only for programs there, but around the world. As horrific as the situation was in America, where AIDS patients were frequently shunned and made pariahs, the stories the author relates about the situation in Africa are remarkable in their savagery:
In 2009, South Africa's Medical Research Council conducted a study surveying the extent of the rape crisis {largely driving the HIV/AIDS epidemic there}. Researchers found that one-quarter of the men interviewed admitted to raping someone. Another study found that more than 60 percent of boys over the age of eleven believed that “sex is a male's natural entitlement and forcing a girl to have sex does not constitute a rape nor an act of violence.”
      If a society doesn't think there's anything wrong with rape, then anybody who speaks out against it will be stigmatized. One rape survivor in South Africa told the international relief organization Médecins Sans Frontières, “People laugh at me and say, 'Oh, you will get HIV/AIDS now.' These are my neighbors and people who live around me. They don't seem to think the men that raped me did anything wrong.”
To at least attempt to address this systematic cultural depravity, the EJAF along with Médecins Sans Frontières and a number of local organizations, have started a 24/7 acute care and support center in outskirts of Cape Town. He also discusses issues in Thailand, programs in the Ukraine, projects in Haiti, and in America's deep south (portions of which seem to be indistinguishable from Third World hell-holes). While the Clinton's organization has been involved in HIV programs, it was G.W. Bush whose administration actually pushed through serious governmental involvement in the AIDS crisis, announcing, in his 2003 State of the Union address, the initiative known as PEPFAR – the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. This initially was slated to devote $15 billion from 2003 to 2008, and was renewed in 2008 at nearly triple that, $48 billion. Needless to say, this was a shock to John (and probably most of the AIDS community) and he eventually had a chance to talk with Bush when Elton John was awarded the lifetime achievement Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, he says:
I remember having the greatest conversation with him. He was warm, charming, and very complimentary, not only about my music but also about the work of my foundation. He knew all about what we were doing, and he was endlessly knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS as well.
John is considerably less charitable with the Catholic Church, and specifically Pope John Paul II, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Pope Benedict XVI, both of whom issued official proclamations claiming that condoms are ineffective at preventing the spread of AIDS – dooming thousands to horrible deaths in Africa and Latin America.

One of the most interesting things discussed here is how preventable AIDS is. John compares it to various other diseases:
Consider the difference between AIDS and cancer. If you were able to treat everybody with cancer on the planet, if you could give everyone the best, most cutting-edge treatment possible, other people would still get cancer. And, sadly, a lot of those who received treatment would still die. … But, at this point, if all AIDS research were to suddenly stop, if we were never able to make another discovery in our understanding of the HIV virus, we could still beat it. We could save the life of nearly every HIV-positive person and prevent all future infections. … In 2011, researchers funded by the U.S. Government made a miraculous discovery: people living with HIV who receive treatment are up to 96 percent less likely to pass on the virus to a sexual partner. In other words, current treatments are so effective that they reduce the presence of the HIV virus in an infected person's body to almost nil. … That means treatment is also prevention.
John follows this up with a look at what it would take to get there … dollar by dollar. “We know how to end AIDS, and we know what it would cost: an additional $5 to $7 billion each year from now until 2020, and not very much more than we're spending today beyond that.” To put that number in context, he trots out some interesting figures … Americans spend $16.9 billion on chocolate per year, in the first quarter of 2012 Apple made profits of $13 billion, and “a handful of Wall Street banks” in 2010 paid out a whopping $20.8 billion in bonuses to employees and executives. He also does some math voodoo to compare the US national budget to something that one could wrap one's mind around … if the budget had $3,700 in the checking account, would you spare $5 to $7 “to save millions upon millions of lives”? Or, put another way, for “a rounding error in the federal budget – the United States could single-handedly end AIDS”.

Love Is The Cure (I'm sure Robert Smith would agree … had to get that in here somewhere) is still in print, but having hit the dollar stores, the on-line after-market has “like new” used copies for as little as a penny (plus shipping). Elton John has done a masterful job at pleading his case (again, this is largely a thesis by him as head of the EJAF), while providing enough “inside story” on his amazing life to keep it “juicier” than a book from a NGO would likely be. It initially came out in 2012, so is fading a bit on the “today's headlines” side of things, but as a history of AIDS, and what has been done to battle it, and what could be done to battle it, it stands pretty solidly on its own.

This is one that I pretty much would recommend “to all and sundry”, as it's a topic that everybody should at least be conversant with, and given that it can be found for a minimal investment (although regular sales go to support EJAF, if you don't mind shelling out a few more bucks), you should consider picking up a copy.

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Tags: book review
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