BWW Book Reviews: LOVE IS THE CURE: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS by Elton John
"I'm a story teller..."
A lot of musicians have written books lately: Pete Townsend, Neil Young, Patti Smith, among others. They tend to be memoirs filled with tales of past debaucheries and feuds, creative process and awards. But Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS by Elton John is a very different kind of celebrity tell-all.
"So many have been taken from me by this disease - sixty, seventy, eighty, I honestly don't know how many. I'd rather not count. But I never want to forget them."
There are no weak apologies, no excuses made for his past behavior and the damage done to himself and others from his addictions. He is as surprised as anyone that he came out of the 80's HIV-negative. And he has devoted a good part of his life to making up for his inaction and indifference while his friends were dying.
John's addictions and how he came out of them do not get a lot of play in the book. There are no salacious details of the excesses of his life - cocaine, alcohol, sex, food - only that they were killing him. We saw a lot of it play out in public anyway, so backstage stories are unnecessary.
He gives full credit whenever credit is due: to his friends - living and dead - and colleagues for helping save his life and chart his course.
I've read the book and listened to the audio version, and I urge you to listen to Elton John's reading of his book (a bonus dvd of photos is included). The passion in his voice tightens and softens according to the story he's telling. There are moments of sarcasm and rage, separated by the deep grief he still feels over his friend, Ryan White (the 11-year old boy in Kokomo, Indiana who contracted AIDS from contaminated blood products) and gratitude for all his friendships. You expect him to break out into song at any moment; at least I was hoping he would.
But listening prevents you from easily skipping the most horrifying stories - not about his addictions, but about AIDS. It is at this point that Elton John's book becomes something very different: required reading for every adult. Some of the stories are from the early days: politicians suggesting that those with AIDS be tattooed and quarantined in internment camps; funeral homes refusing to handle the bodies of those who died from AIDS; Ryan White's grave being vandalized numerous times.
Most of us have heard these stories - or remember them - and while they spark a memory, we believe they are in the past. After all, we've made great strides in the US, both in testing and treatment.
But today, thirty-plus years into the pandemic, new horror stories are coming to light. A superstition in South Africa holds that having sex with a virgin is a cure for AIDS, so women, children, even infants are at risk for rape: an act of sexual violence not widely considered a crime in that country. Not surprisingly, four million South Africans are HIV-positive.
In the Ukraine, where 400,000 people are infected, the stigmatized group is homeless young people. They're at risk through prostitution and IV drug use, and over 1/3 are HIV-positive.
In other countries like India, sodomy is a crime, so those at risk cannot safely come forward for testing or treatment.
He is more charitable than I would be in describing his dealings with governments and politicians. While he will never forgive those whose inaction and prejudice unnecessarily put people at risk for infection and death, he is quick to give credit to those who stepped up when asked to do their part. That's why you can put George W. Bush and Elton John in the same room, with surprising results. Government, as he says, can be a force for good or a force for harm.
Elinor Burkett, in The Gravest Show on Earth: America in the Age of AIDS, identified the unique challenge of fighting the virus for all these years: "AIDS never got a chance to be simply a disease."
That observation and his world-wide focus on the AIDS pandemic is the strength of Elton John's book. He clearly and forcefully presents the case that fighting AIDS - worldwide, not just in the US - involves fighting prejudice, bigotry, sexual violence, poverty and addictions. It continues to most dramatically affect those on the margins of society, easily ignored and discarded. He proves Burkett's assertion over and over again, in describing cultural obstacles and how his foundation is working to address them:
"The places where stigma is the worst have the worst AIDS epidemics. That's because stigma itself prevents an appropriate response to the disease. It not only perpetuates the epidemic; stigma makes the epidemic impossible to beat."
This book is also instructive for anyone in the nonprofit community. We're all familiar with well-intentioned, wealthy celebrities who form foundations to support various causes. Too often, they are poorly-run organizations that fail to help anyone except the celebrity and their public image.
The story of the Elton John AIDS Foundation should be taught in nonprofit management programs. As with many - if not most - AIDS-related nonprofits in the early days, there was no thought to long-range planning: people were dying and time was of the essence. EJAF had to award grants as fast as they could raise the money. They had no time to put money in savings accounts.
But after a while, they stopped to take a breath and plan for long-term stability and clarity of mission. They identified partners, to ensure low overhead and to streamline the grant-making process. Their work with corporate sponsors, as well as UNAIDS and Médecins Sans Frontières is explained in detail. They're a model of good stewardship, and yes, the proceeds from the book benefit the EJAF.
Elton John may not have written the book you expected. It wasn't the book I expected, either. He's written a better one, an important one that everyone needs to read.
Photo Credit: BWW-Staff