Books

Sean Strub’s Archive of Feelings In ‘Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival’

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Analyzing the unusual archives created to preserve queer history and memories in her text An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public CulturesAnn Cvetkovich states, “Forged around sexuality and intimacy, and hence forms of privacy and invisibility that are both chosen and enforced, gay and lesbian cultures often leave ephemeral and unusual traces. In the absence of institutionalized documentation or in opposition to official histories, memory becomes a valuable historical resource, and ephemeral and personal collections of objects stand alongside the documents of the dominant culture in order to offer alternative modes of knowledge” (8).

Like Cvetkovich’s observation of the importance of memory to queer history’s archive, AIDS activist Sean Strub’s powerful and honest memoir Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival employs the genre of memoir to portray and preserve a personal account of the ongoing AIDS crisis. Like Douglas Crimp’s seminal essay, Body Counts reflects both mourning and militancy, as well as everything in between, allowing the emotions connected to both queer sexuality and the AIDS crisis to be archived from shame to pride to love to guilt and immense grief.

Hailing from Iowa, Strub’s memoir traces his life from his closeted stint working as an elevator operator in the US Senate, his discovery of the sexual freedom of 1970s New York City, the early years of HIV/AIDS and his own, like many others’, ignored symptoms, his diagnosis and burgeoning activist career with People With AIDS Coalition and ACT UP, the enormous losses of friends and lovers to AIDS, his eventual near-fatal illness and Lazarus-like recovery after the development of combination therapy in 1996. Through these ups and downs, Strub ran for Congress, produced the well-regarded and wonderfully titled play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me and founded POZ Magazine

Naturally we, at Filthy Dreams, were also amazed by his friendship with our filth elder Tennessee Williams and his ability to get Williams to sign the first fundraising letter for the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Tennessee Williams reading the Bible to Sean Strub (via seanstrub.com)

Tennessee Williams reading the Bible to Sean Strub (via seanstrub.com)

In An Archive of Feelings, Cvetkovich points to the genre of memoir as an essential tool for representing queer experiences that are often silenced or rendered invisible. Focusing on the memoir’s “emotional honesty,” Cvetkovich highlights the importance of the memoir for documenting the AIDS crisis in particular. She explains, “Within queer culture, memoir has been a particularly rich genre for documenting the AIDS crisis, providing gay men with a forum to articulate what it means to live in the presence of death and record their lives before it is too late. AIDS and the specter of death produce a form of archive fever, an urgent effort toward preservation in order to grapple with loss. The temporality of AIDS offers, if not time to live a full life, then possibly time to record it” (210-11).

In some respects, Strub’s Body Counts can be understood in relation to this legacy of AIDS memoirs written during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. However, published in 2014, Body Counts transcends the mortal emergency of these memoirists, who, for a good reason, were trying to get their stories out before it was too late.

Even though in one gripping and heartbreaking section of the memoir, it seem like Strub too, had little time left as he struggled with severe Kaposi’s sarcoma. Surviving long enough to benefit from combination therapy, Strub’s Body Counts is significant and different from these earlier memoirs since he provides an essential perspective on the, at times, troubling experiences of a person with AIDS who lived past many of his friends, lovers and even his own expectations.

In one moving excerpt, Strub discusses the period of his life when he retreated from AIDS activism after he recovered from KS. Struggling with depression, as well as focusing on other issues away from New York City, he recalls, “In reality, I was pursuing interests I had shelved fifteen years earlier. Had the epidemic not hijacked my life,  might have become a small-town newspaper publisher, historic preservationist, antique dealer or galleryist, or run for local office. All those paths I now felt free to pursue. My life ‘planning window,’ that had steadily shrunk through the 80s and early 90s was now going in the other direction, eventually extending to the future with no expectation that AIDS would interrupt it. Like a lot of people with AIDS who expected to die, I had to spend time putting my life back together and trying to figure out what to do next” (368).

This feeling of figuring out what to do next after existing near-death is rarely represented not only in memoirs but in larger dominant culture. A strong record of the emotional effect of finding a future when none existed a few years, if not a few months, earlier provides an incredible resource for readers whether they have experienced these emotions themselves or desire to understand them.

Preserving the emotions surrounding the ongoing AIDS crisis, Strub’s memoir reflects, as Ann Cvetkovich terms, “an archive of feelings.” Cvetkovich states of her own text, “It is organized as ‘an archive of feelings,’ an exploration of cultural texts as repositories of feelings and emotions, which are encoded not only in the content of the texts themselves but in the practices that surround their production and reception. Its focus on trauma serves as a point of entry into a vast archive of feelings, the many forms of love, rage, intimacy, grief, shame and more that are part of the vibrancy of queer cultures” (7).

Sean Strub (upper right in the Silence = Death shirt) with the TAG Seven at Jesse Helms' house (via seanstrub.com)

Sean Strub (upper right in the Silence = Death shirt) with the TAG Seven at Jesse Helms’ house (via seanstrub.com)

Similar to Cvetkovich’s organization of her own study as an archive of feelings, Body Counts depicts the range of emotions inherent in being queer, particularly being queer during the AIDS crisis. From his  shame as a closeted gay man interested in politics to the joy of activism, particularly when putting a giant condom on Jesse Helms’ house with the Treatment Action Group (TAG), to the unbearable grief of losing his partner Michael suddenly to complications with AIDS, Body Counts provides an incomparable glimpse into the affects of being queer during an epidemic, preserving these emotions for future readers.

Speaking of her own experiences in AIDS activism, Cvetkovich recalls, “As the years passed, I found that the deaths of my friends stayed with me and my own experience of AIDS activism made me want to document it before it was lost or misrepresented…My desire, forged from the urgency of death, has been to keep the history of AIDS activism alive and part of the present” (6).

As Strub states in Body Counts, “But I could never have put AIDS behind me, even if I wanted to” (368).   Thankfully, Strub didn’t and, as readers, we don’t have to either. Keeping the history, personal experiences, affects and memories of the AIDS crisis alive and part of the present, Strub ends his inspiring memoir with an important discussion of HIV criminalization, one of the many political issues of the present AIDS crisis, reminding readers that the crisis is certainly not over.

Articulating what we as readers come to know through Body Counts, Strub asserts, “I have tried to be there, for one person or cause or another since elementary school. I expect to do the same for the rest of my life. And when that time comes, I still want to die as a fighter” (400).

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