“In 1972 I left my 2 year old son with his father at a rural hippie commune north of San Francisco and traveled to Cuba to wield a machete in solidarity with the young Cuban revolution”
This opens the story of the life and times of Elena Schwolsky but this book is more than a memoir of one amazing woman. It is a history of the people and places she experiences from 1972 to 2019. Elena takes us through these years with the courage of her unsparing observations of the times, of the people she meets and of the country she comes to love, and of herself. I came to love and respect her through these pages in ways that I had not imagined—and I have known this lady for decades. It is also a history of AIDS.
The author writes of her life and the people with whom she has shared it with honesty and transparency. This is not the exposure of people and places that shocks and disturbs—it is a nuanced and loving reportage that allows the reader to understand the complicated decisions made by individuals and a country that she clearly loves.
In 1988 Elena’s partner, Clarence Fitch, was diagnosed with AIDS. They had been together for years and now would be married. Their wedding was the most multicultural event I have ever experienced. There were people from all walks of life, all areas of the world, all races and creeds and orientations and it was a day of joy. Joy of shared love and of children and of friends and of activism. Joy despite the specter of AIDS.
Elena had become a nurse and chose to work in a pediatric AIDS clinic. She writes: “Clarence had been forced onto the frontlines of this epidemic and I wanted to be there too.” This was a terrible time in the AIDS crisis. There was great stigma around people who were HIV positive. Even children with HIV were vilified—remember the story of Ryan White. Treatment was in its infancy and we had few of the drugs that now keep people with HIV alive and healthy. Here in the US cases were multiplying and world-wide they were exploding. The situation in Cuba was very different and very controversial.
There are accounts in the book of a second, still illegal, trip to Cuba where Elena has to confront the Cuban policy of placing AIDS patients in sanitoriums. “I would visit the AIDS sanitorium, I decided. I would talk to people living with HIV/AIDS and hear their stories. I’d talk to nurses and doctors. I remembered Cuba as a place filled with warmth and compassion. I would keep an open mind.” Later there are accounts of her finally legal time in Cuba doing the fieldwork for her MPH and living with people I came to love as Elena paints them with her words.