Telling Stories to Save Our Lives


by David Waggoner

An obituary in The New York Times in the middle of February was where I first learned of Patricia Nell Warren’s passing on February 9. The world-famous novelist (The Front Runner), AIDS activist and treasured columnist of A&U’s Left Field, “Patch” was known the world over as a muckraker in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Take, for instance, a Left Field column aptly titled “Scary Stories,” from April 2005 with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the cover:

“Because of their intrinsic scariness, virus stories have political use, regardless of how solidly—or loosely—they’re based on real science. Public-health authorities learned to use them to frighten people into accepting restrictions—often with legitimate reasons. A century ago, yellow fever and Spanish flu made quarantine an accepted reality in American society. When HIV appeared in the 1980s, it became the next in a train of scary new viruses—Hong Kong flu, Ebola, dengue fever, West Nile—to reach public view. The latest is bird flu, looming out of Asia….

“But when scary stories about HIV become a favorite weapon of moralistic politics, problems can arise. In February, news media screamed that a ‘new super-bug’ had been found in a New York City gay man who came to the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Clinic for treatment. The strain was allegedly resistant to nineteen of the twenty available drugs and led to AIDS in months instead of years. Instead of publishing in a peer-reviewed venue, Aaron Diamond director David Ho and New York City’s health commissioner Thomas Frieden (who sits on the Aaron Diamond board) called a press conference.

“A huge wave of heebie-jeebies swept across the country. Many in the gay community went into hysterics. Conservative pundits demanded names-based reporting,universal HIV testing, quarantine for gays.

“Right away, however, other scientists raised doubts as more information appeared. Turns out the virus might not be as resistant or virulent or even as new as claimed. But, as a publicist friend of mine says, ‘You can’t unbang the gong.’”

Ultimately, she believed in the power of story, both fiction and nonfiction, that promoted truth over fear. And we celebrate the power of story in this issue. Candace Y.A. Montague’s cover story interview with singer Evvie McKinney, whose outreach to the HIV community starts with strength in the stories we tell ourselves: “Women’s empowerment starts by knowing that you are loved by God first and foremost. We have to be careful with comparing ourselves to other women. You don’t know what kind of insecurities they have or what they’ve been through.” Stunningly photographed by Sean Black, McKinney is joined by other storytellers. Editor At Large Hank Trout interviewed Erin Allday, a San Francisco-based journalist who helped bring the realities of long-term survivors further into the light. Fiction Editor Raymond Luczak chatted with Chuck Forester about his new novel, which finds its characters navigating the early epidemic. And Senior Editor Dann Dulin quizzed YA writer Shaun David Hutchinson about raising awareness about mental health issues. In addition, I am pleased to introduce our newest columnist, AIDS activist Candy Samples, who will be telling stories of people using their powers for good in the HIV community.

We need to say goodbye to Patricia (and Managing Editor Chael Needle offers a beautiful tribute in these pages), but we need not say goodbye to the long-lasting effects of her impact. From her early years as a Reader’s Digest editor to her decades of running her own independent press, Wildcat, Warren was fearless in her belief that the fifth estate was alive and well and so she donated thousands of words and hundreds of hours to making America a greater place for persons living with HIV/AIDS. Thank you, Patch, for telling stories to save our lives.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.