Writing the Past
Ernest Hemingway said, Writing is easy, you just sit at the typewriter and bleed
by Hank Trout
On the Monday after Easter, I learned from mutual friends that Irene Smith, the renowned massage therapist, had died Sunday night. Irene had been something of a legend here in San Francisco’s HIV community since the early 1980s. As AIDS raged through the city, at a time when even healthcare providers were afraid to touch those of us who had AIDS, Irene insisted upon touching us, holding our hands, massaging our exhausted, wasting bodies. The staff at San Francisco General’s Ward 5B [A&U, November 2019] remember Irene’s angelic presence and the many hours she volunteered there, massaging and soothing the dying patients.
As I set about duly gathering information about Irene’s life and quotes of remembrance from her co-workers and closest friends for the “In Memoriam” that I wrote for her [see Tribute, this issue], I realized, to my shock, that Irene’s is the eleventh “In Memoriam” that I have written for A&U in the five years I’ve written regularly for the magazine.
In just five years, I’ve written farewells to scientists and doctors (Drs. Mathilde Krim and Joseph Sonnabend); writers (Michael Friedman, John Ashbery); activists (Larry Pettit, Ken Jones, Andy Valez, Denis Peron); a healer (Irene Smith); and icons (Larry Kramer, Timothy Ray Brown). Although I knew only three of them personally, each of these people had a profound impact upon my life. Writing about their deaths brought back painful memories of writing friends’ obituaries for the Bay Area Reporter, but it also brought me some clarity about my writing and about my difficulty with facing the past.
In late 1982, after several years of writing a lot of fiction, I suddenly couldn’t write any more. I knew I should be writing about all the chaos and fear and grief consuming all of us at the time, and I wanted to, but I just couldn’t. It was all too painful, too all-consuming for me to write about it concurrently. Besides, who had time? As another writer friend told me some years ago, “When you’re up to your elbows in bedpans, it’s hard to find time to write about being up to your elbows in bedpans.”
But when my then-fiancé Rick convinced me in 2015 that I must start writing again, I knew he was right——that if I don’t write what I remember about those years, the Plague Years, those stories will die when I do. Feminist writings taught me that we control our history only if we write it ourselves. So I started writing again. I promised myself that I would memorialize friends lost to AIDS, those who took care of us, and those who fought with us. As a survivor, I owe those people so much.
I quickly discovered that, even with the passage of thirty-three years, some of what I remember was still too painful to write about.
I’ve tried. The first two things that I wrote in 2015, after writing nothing for thirty-three years, were profiles of two friends who died in the 1980s—my co-worker Dean and my best buddy Jim. And then I stopped writing about friends lost to AIDS. It just hurt too much. Both of those pieces are relatively short, but each took weeks to pound into the keyboard. Each sentence felt like a bloodletting, like ripping open old wounds and bleeding all over the page. I cried for Dean and Jim, cried for what might have been, more during those weeks than during all the years since they died. Recreating dialogue, I “heard” their voices again, remembered crying with them, remembered the last time I saw them, the last time I heard their real voices. Writing about them hurt every bit as much as I had suspected it would.
Nearly six years since I started to write again, it still hurts like hell to remember and write about that time. I honestly don’t know how other writers have done it. Every time I’ve tried to write about any of my other friends lost to AIDS, I’ve been unable to remember them without “reliving” all the emotions, all the pain, all the hopelessness, all the fear we endured. Thus far, every time I’ve tried to write about Tom, or Hennig, or Rex, or any of the many others, their memories paralyze me. I sit gazing through tears at the keyboard in frustration, and those stories go untold.
I cannot help wondering how many other stories out there go untold because they are too painful to write. How do we safeguard our own history when remembering and contextualizing parts of that history is so paralyzing? How can one achieve the historian’s objectivity when writing about lost friends and lovers? If it’s too painful to write, is our history doomed to be incomplete?
Writing Irene’s “In Memoriam” and remembering the ten others I’ve written, made me realize that I haven’t kept my vow to memorialize lost friends; I haven’t been as good an historian as I promised. I still haven’t learned how to write about the lives of lost friends without suffering from memories of them—to reconcile my obligation to write about them with the pain of writing about them. Maybe someday I’ll achieve the emotional distance I need to write about lost friends, the same kind of objectivity I’ve brought to writing each “In Memoriam.” Like Larry, Irene, Ken, and the others we’ve lost, they deserve no less.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.