In the Shadow of the Epidemic Summary

Walt Odets


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Toward the end of In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS, Walt Odets quotes a twenty-three-year-old man who is HIV-positive: “I’m glad to think that in ten years I’ll be dead. By then, the only gay people left will be the stingy ones and the lonely ones whose lives are ruined by watching the rest of us die.” In this quotation, Odets encapsulates much of the problem that HIV-negative individuals face in gay communities such as San Francisco, where more than half the gay population is HIV-positive and is unlikely to survive for a decade.

Those who are left—the “negatives,” as Odets calls them—have been largely neglected by the growing literature that focuses on acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). These negatives experience a number of reactions, common among which are “depression, anxiety, isolation, and sexual, social, and occupational ‘dysfunction.’” Some withdraw, unable to face the multiple losses to which continued contact with the gay community will necessarily expose them, particularly in a social setting where “if homophobia denies the existence of a relationship between two men—or simply its importance—it also denies the importance of the loss when a partner dies.”

Some flee the gay enclaves in which they have lived, seeking out places where AIDS is less a part of daily existence than it is in largely gay communities. Some hang on, suffering the loss of lovers and friends yet continuing to give what support they can to those marked with the disease. Still others, aware of their own HIV-negative status, engage in highly risky forms of sexual activity, seeming—consciously or subconsciously—to invite the infection that will integrate them more fully into their community. They do not flaunt their negative status. Some go so far as to lie about it, reluctant to distance themselves from their HIV-positive friends and associates.

Odets observes that some negatives dissociate themselves from HIV-positives because of their worldview (Odets’ term) or on account of social or psychological factors. People tend to associate with those whose interests they share.

HIV-positive men often begin to develop concerns that set them apart. All at once, for example, matters of health and nutrition may begin to dominate their thinking and activities. Because these concerns seem less crucial to negatives than to those who are under the threat of the disease, some negatives may drift away from former friends who have contracted the virus. Positives, facing a truncated life span, also may become profligate in using their resources, realizing that they have no long-term future for which to prepare.

A major question in such situations is why some negatives dissociate themselves from positives. Perhaps it is simply the fear of becoming emotionally involved with people living under certain threat of a lingering death from AIDS. In some cases the deep-seated, covert homophobia that afflicts some gay men may account for their withdrawal.

Dissociation, however, is not a universal reaction to this situation. Indeed, many gay negatives seek out positives, possibly as a form of expiation, thinking, “Because I have been spared, I owe it to those who are afflicted to give them as much of myself as I can.”

Regardless of the negatives’ reactions to AIDS, Odets continually drives home his point that all gay men—indeed all human beings—are crucially and critically affected by the disease. Negatives who live in largely gay communities, however, have generally suffered more loss in the past decade than most people experience in a typical life span. Their grief, furthermore, is less understood by the general population than is the grief of someone mourning the loss of a spouse, close relative, or close friend.

In his attempts to find parallels in history, to liken the situation of gay negatives during the current epidemic to catastrophic past events—the Black Death, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust—Odets is faced with two insurmountable obstacles. First, in scourges such as the Black Death, cures or controls were eventually found, or the virulence of the microbes involved diminished, bringing an end to the threat. Second, in such threatening situations as the Nazi Holocaust, nearly everyone in the concentration camps was marked for annihilation. The closest parallel Odets can envision is a hypothetical one: having half of all inmates in a concentration camp marked with a tattoo identifying them as those who will survive, yet forcing them to live among the general population of the camp.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where Odets does his counseling, this, as he...

(The entire section is 1925 words.)