HBO's 'The Normal Heart' brought back memories of death, and I'm only 28 [Commentary]

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THE NORMAL HEART: Mark Ruffalo (left) and Taylor Kitsch from a cast that also includes Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons.

As I watched HBO's new film "The Normal Heart" this weekend, sharp memories kept flashing through my mind of emaciated young people wracked with sores and dying before my eyes.

They are memories I shouldn't have, memories most gay men my age thankfully lack.


I was born in 1985 — the same year as the premier of Larry Kramer's Tony Award-winning play on the start of the AIDS epidemic in New York City's gay community, which "The Normal Heart" was adapted from. Thanks to a host of drugs now available to HIV-positive people in the United States, I count myself among a generation of American gay men who never had to watch thousands of our peers rapidly deteriorate from perfect health to death's doorstep because of a monstrous, unnamed disease.

Still the memories I have are real. They came during a fellowship I held in HIV/AIDS prevention work in southern Africa only a few years ago, and the people I watched die were babies.


Too much of what I've read about "The Normal Heart" — directed by Ryan Murphy and starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons, among others — is focused on the idea that the film serves as a political reminder that the Reagan administration did little to address the AIDS epidemic in its early years, or a cultural reminder for young, detached gay men of one of the most powerful drivers of gay rights successes.

For me, the film is a reminder of a current failing, a point Kramer made, too, in one of HBO's short clips on the making of the film.

This terrible "plague" — as AIDS is repeatedly referred to by the film's protagonist Ned Weeks, based on Kramer and played by Ruffalo — is still here. Maybe rich, white gay men in Manhattan aren't dying anymore, but poor black babies where I lived for a year are dying all the time.

Men and women and children are still dying all over the world. (Some in the United States are too, especially those with less financial means, and many still live with HIV.)

Ruffalo, whose emotional portrayal of Weeks carries the film, rails throughout "The Normal Heart" against the seeming indifference of so many people to AIDS killing gay men. "I'm trying to understand why nobody gives a [expletive] that we're dying," he screams at one point.

My own emotions in the saddest times of service were probably more bearable for the simple fact that people around me did care, deeply, that the young toddlers and infants we were caring for were dying. We were often able to get our young clients on antiretroviral medication before it was too late, as well, despite the remoteness of my little town and the vastness of the mountains that held the villages beyond.

Still, some died. I held a few of them, their tiny bodies in my arms, the tragedy of their lives being ripped away from them so early in their youth rattling around in my head. The worst part was my inability to do anything to save them, the lack of resources — themes that resonate throughout "The Normal Heart" as well.

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In those most trying of moments I hated HIV, viscerally, but I also hated the vast global realities — and there are many — that have prevented more from being done for decades to eradicate HIV, or even to expand services to prevent mother-to-child transmission around the world. With the medications that exist, babies never have to contract HIV. Ever.


Even though a wide network of donors supported the organization for which I worked, I found myself, at times, holding in a Ned Weeks-like rage. "Why does nobody give a [expletive] that these babies are dying?" I wanted to scream.

Isn't it shameful the AIDS epidemic went unchecked for so long in New York in the 1980s? It's a question "The Normal Heart" will make you consider.

Isn't it shameful more isn't being done now to stop it worldwide?

Kevin Rector is a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. He completed a year-long fellowship with the Touching Tiny Lives Foundation in Mokhotlong, Lesotho, in 2011, and currently serves on the organization's board of directors.