How to Survive a Plague: Review

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How to Survive a Plague
The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS
by David France
Alfred A. Knopf

Reviewed by John Francis Leonard

How to SurviveI love the novel. It’s not often that a nonfiction book moves me the way that fiction can. This one did, to tears at times. David France does something unique here. He follows up his award-winning documentary of the same name with a brilliantly researched, often firsthand account of the harrowing early days of the AIDS epidemic, the days that came before the advent of the lifesaving cocktail of drugs that snatched many from the jaws of death and ensured a normal life span for so many of us.

France does more than provide an in-depth account of AIDS from the earliest days of the mysterious “gay cancer.” Not only is his book a well written history of this time, it takes a unique approach. It’s the story of how AIDS was, if not cured, then tamed, by two powerful groups of people, the brave activists of the era and the scientists looking for effective treatment. After years of the activists’ raising their voices and, quite literally, lying in the streets when necessary to fight a negligent administration and a hostile public, they began working with and even within the bureaucracy that they had fought for so many years. Medical science and activists finally worked together and the results changed history.

Memorialized and recognized here are so many brave men and women who fought the fight that brought about treatment. So many were fighting for change even as they fought the disease ravaging their own bodies. Some held on and made it; so many more didn’t. This is a fitting tribute to their lives and accomplishments.

This book should be required reading, especially for young people. They should know about the history that led to advances like PrEP, and learn how they can still make a difference and increase access to the prevention tool for all. It also reminds us, as another bigoted and indifferent administration gets ready to take power, of how we fought hate and intolerance once before. This is a message relevant now because, sadly, we may soon be called to fight again.


John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.