Ashamed to Die

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Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South
by Andrew J. Skerritt
Lawrence Hill Books

Reviewed by Nancy Ellegate

AIDS has long been identified as a disease of gay men in large cities, particularly New York and San Francisco. These perceptions remain, alongside the knowledge that the disease has become increasingly prevalent among women and minority populations. Ashamed to Die asks us to acknowledge HIV as a rural, Southern disease, particularly among African Americans. Journalist Andrew Skerritt’s book profiles people from the small city of Clover, South Carolina, who have died of HIV, a pastor who watches relatives and friends sicken and die, and several of the professionals and activists instrumental in dealing with AIDS in a conservative community.

At the center of the book is the Reverend Tricia Ann Starr. Starr and her late sister Carolyn befriended Skerritt, and he was with them during Carolyn’s last illness. Carolyn’s story of addiction, temporary incarceration, and illness is a sad one. Throughout these accounts, the denial and hesitancy to involve family members worsens matters. Even the upwardly mobile Girard, an openly gay bank executive, deals with both a deteriorating medical condition and an inability to reveal his illness to his family.

Skerritt has performed an important service in fleshing out an aspect of the HIV pandemic that is generally off the radar. The main virtue of the book is in its portraits. If you’re hungry for more context on the social or religious beliefs particular to this region that exacerbate denial and stigma, you won’t find that much here. A chapter on how AIDS funding was secured for the rural areas highlighted the contention between activists across the country, but was ultimately a bit confusing. However, Skerritt is to be applauded for his account of what happens to “AIDS lady” Linda and her maltreatment by a nonprofit board—a rare acknowledgment of the pettiness that can mar the nonprofit sector.

Editor’s note: In honor of World AIDS Day, New York Public Library’s Author @ the Library presents: “Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South,” with Andrew J. Skerritt. Date and time: Thursday, December 1, 2011, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Location: Mid-Manhattan branch.

Nancy Ellegate is a sometime book reviewer for A&U.

October 2011