Hazel McHaffie

HIV and AIDS

HIV/AIDS in fiction – but not mine!

I’m one of those irritating people who can’t function in a clutter, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in my writing life. I need to clear up any unresolved issues and outstanding tasks before I can psyche myself into the creative zone.

This week I’ve been flitting from an intriguing system for finding new readers (yawn, yawn), to consolidating material for the children’s Christmas story (great fun!), preparing for forthcoming author appearances (mmm, lovely communication with real live people), and delving into the ethical dimensions behind ongoing medical questions (round and round and round, we go). Oh, and a little bit of digging into the past in our family and communicating with archivists – related to Remembrance Day and my Uncle Harold who died on the Somme a hundred years ago this year. Thiepval memorialAll in all a very raggy kind of week. And definitely not conducive to serious stints of writing.

So, I’m busy tidying up loose ends to put me in a calmer place. Not exactly headline news, not remotely interesting to anyone else, indeed, so I’ll just share one activity with you that closed – nay, more like permanently deleted – one of the many open files in my brain.

In my stack of ideas for possible future novels I have a wallet labelled ‘HIV/AIDS’, so when I saw a review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home I just had to buy a copy. I read it over a year ago but somehow never got round to writing about it here. This seems like a good moment to rectify that omission.Tell the Wolves I'm Home

It’s a debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, an American writer now living in Devon, who was selected for the New Writing Partnership’s New Writing Ventures award, and funded by the Arts Council to write it. Lucky woman, huh?

Essentially, it’s a well written tale of love and compassion, secrets and prejudice, forbidden relationships and the legacies left by bittersweet memories.

The narrator is a fourteen year old girl, June Elbus, the younger sister of the slimmer and more beautiful Greta. June is a curious mixture as she hovers on the brink of adulthood: still fantasising about the Middle Ages and wolves, playing like a child in the woods, one minute; showing a maturity beyond her years as she faces death and loss, tortured by her own inappropriate longings, the next.

The girls’ Uncle Finn is a famous artist and he’s painting a picture of the sisters, hoping to complete it before he dies of AIDS. June is obsessed by Finn Weiss, who is also her godfather – in love with him in fact – and his death devastates her. But Finn has made provision for her grief in the shape of his hidden lover, Toby, who materialises unexpectedly at the funeral and becomes very much part of her secret world. Gradually June gets to see the impact Toby had on the uncle she thought she knew.

The Elbus family are riven with tensions arising from Finn’s fame, his illness, Mom’s reaction to it, Toby’s part in it, Greta’s insecurity, the parents’ ambitions, sibling rivalries. Jealousies, conflicts, and divided loyalties drive them to re-examine their lives, their strengths and weaknesses. Greta is not the confident, popular older sister June thought she was. Finn is not the man June thinks he is. The painting is not revered as a masterpiece should be.

In a former life I actually carried out empirical research in the early days of HIV/AIDS, and Brunt’s portrayal of the family’s reaction to the illness rings true for the time. It’s sensitively and sympathetically wrought. So too are the dynamics of the Elbus family. I liked the way the author gradually unravelled the characters and showed us their true selves – cleverly done through the eyes of an adolescent first person narrator. It’s a multi-layered book, successfully weaving and merging many threads until the tale is told. A worthy winner of a prestigious award.

But the time for writing a novel on the subject myself is passed; all my books on the subject can be consigned to a good cause. That potential novel can be crossed off my list. Result? Space on my shelves and in my brain! Wahey!!

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Adoption, AIDS and attitudes

It’s 22 years since homosexual acts were decriminalised in Ireland. Civil partnerships for gay couples have been legal there since 2010. But this Saturday Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote. So it seems timely to review a book I read a while ago, which sets a context against which this latest development seems the more extraordinary.

Roll back to 1952 … An unmarried teenager, Philomena Lee, is sent to a convent for ‘fallen women’ – to spare the blushes of her family and society. There she gives birth to a little boy, Anthony. For three years she remains closeted with the nuns and her fellow unwed mothers, caring for him, loving him devotedly, and working like a slave. Life is harsh and the Catholic sisters severe, endlessly reminding the girls of their sinfulness. Those mothers and babies who die aren’t even buried in consecrated ground but in unmarked graves in a nearby field tended by no one. For the ones who survive, part of their endless punishment is to form deep emotional bonds with their child which are destined to be suddenly and irrevocably broken.

And so it is for Philomena: after three years Anthony is taken away by the church and ‘sold’ to an American couple. The authorities condoned the export and sale of Irish children at that time, trading them, choosing them on a whim, like ‘valuable pedigree animals’.  They turned a blind eye to the irregularities within the religious orders. 

PhilomenaThe real life story of Anthony’s experiences growing up in America, as told by TV presenter Martin Sixsmith in Philomena, is both painful and sad. Though reinvented and re-named – Michael Hess – he nevertheless remained full of ‘Catholic guilt’. All his life he believed he jinxed those whom he got close to – even presidents of the USA! And indeed bad luck did seem to follow him, although reading his story with a dispassionate eye, suggests that his own behaviour and innate sense of unworthiness was the cause of much of the unhappiness in his private life and relationships. As one therapist explained to his adopted father (himself a doctor) orphans make up a disproportionate percentage of inmates at treatment centres, detention facilities and special schools: ‘The orphan is always looking for acceptance but always expecting rejection.’ True to form, Michael was dogged by the adoptee’s sense of ‘never going to be good enough’, a belief reinforced by the nuns’ false report that he was abandoned at birth because his mother didn’t want him.

The effect on his relationships was corrosive from a young age, but when he started to have homosexual feelings the problems escalated. This was, after all, an age where same sex relationships were outlawed, hated and punishable. And his strict Roman Catholic upbringing meant that personal guilt was superimposed on inculcated religious guilt. It’s heart-wrenching to read of this naïve young man, while his urges still remained fantasies, researching the indulgences which promised a lessening of his punishment in purgatory, and concluding that ‘he could not hope for a plenary indulgence, a complete remission of his sins, because his offending thoughts were still within him, but he strove as best he could to minimize the retribution he would suffer for them.’

Once he began to actually indulge in gay liaisons his behaviour became increasingly erratic, risky and debauched, his attitudes to those who grew close to him was brutal, and again and again he destroyed the chance of private happiness offered by others. His public persona though, was quite different. There he was debonair, suave, kind, gentle, ambitious, successful. He rose through the ranks of law and politics until he was a right hand man to President Ronald Reagan; moving in the highest circles, respected, listened to, courted. The price he paid was high. In order to pursue the career he wanted he was obliged to join a party which promoted a harshly punitive anti-gay message, suppressing his principles, hiding his real proclivities. A tortured and destructive dual existence, lived on ‘a dreary carousel of recrimination and unspoken resentment’.

And throughout, even though he had risen ‘from illegitimate birth in an obscure Irish convent via the lottery of adoption to a position of influence in the world’s most powerful nation’, the lurking sense of his own unworthiness never left him. He was, he felt, like an imposter just waiting for his secrets to be exposed; both ‘a gay man in a homophobic party’ and ‘a rootless orphan in a world of rooted certainties’. His ‘addiction was secrecy and the rush of being in the wrong – of proving he was the flawed being he always knew he was.’

And what of his biological mother, Philomena? In her teens she was forced to sign official papers relinquishing all rights to contact or to try to trace him, but she never forgot him, and remained convinced that he would try to find her one day. We can only mourn with her that his efforts to do so were thwarted by the nuns, and she could only weep at his grave.

Philomena, then, is a much bigger book than I expected; much more than a story of their search for one another. It’s also an unravelling of attitudes; attitudes to homosexuality in America as well as to illegitimate sex in Ireland. Hypocrisy, double standards, condemnation in both cases. And it particularly resonated with me because as a midwife I cared for unmarried mothers terribly damaged by clandestine treatments and society’s cruelty before the abortion law was passed in this country; and as a university researcher I carried out empirical research into the attitudes and practices of people in relation to HIV and AIDS in the UK during the years when AIDS was incurable and gay men were fighting for equality and fair treatment. I saw at first hand what ignorance and fear and secrecy and a lack of human compassion could drive people to do. And how extraordinary acts of kindness can illuminate the darkness of misunderstanding and guilt.

And reading this haunting story of Philomena and her baby, of Michael’s life as a gay man with AIDS, I was reminded all over again of Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke’s adage: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

 

 

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