EDITOR’S NOTE:This article appeared in the April 17, 1995, issue of National Review. David Brudnoy, a longtime contributor and friend of NR died on Thursday night. R.I.P.
The whimsical film critic in me toyed with the idea of calling this piece “Mon Jour chez Oprah,” in tribute to Eric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit chez Maud (1970), but then I decided, a la Richard Nixon, that that would be wrong. What I have to say here is not funny, though my half-year-long ramble through the gruesomeness of AIDS has had its amusing moments. To begin at the end–at least at the end of developments as I write this–I can now say I have spent a day inhabiting the giddy air of the Oprah show, this as a decidedly second banana to Olympic diver Greg Louganis.
As a broadcast and print journalist for the last quarter-century, I am no longer surprised by anything, including the comedy of possessiveness that accompanied the charming Mr. Louganis’s appearance on the show. First he was booked, as was I; then ABC’s 20/20 convinced Random House, publisher of his new book, that even though that installment of Oprah wouldn’t air until three days after 20/20’s interview with him, he mustn’t appear on Oprah. I was then asked to be Numero Uno on the show, though by the time I flew out to Chicago with my producer, Kevin Myron, the touchy media moguls had relented and allowed Greg to appear. Well, by now you’ve heard the high points of the sometimes horrifying life–raped at knifepoint, attempted suicide, relentless depression–of the world’s greatest diver.
Andy Warhol was wrong: sometimes you do get more than 15 minutes of fame, even if you’re not Greg Louganis. I figure that by now I’ve had at least 20 minutes of fame, and it continues.
Media outlets across the country have expressed an interest in my story. But when NR’s literary editor asked me to write about AIDS, it came as rather an enormous surprise. Not because I’m unfamiliar with this magazine or with the relevant debates. I have been part of the NR family since 1968. And among my nearly ten thousand written and broadcast commentaries, essays, and film, stage, and book reviews, about one hundred have touched on homosexuality and a like number on AIDS, though never until now on my own involvement in either. In NR’s issue of July 19, 1974, Ernest van den Haag and I took differing positions on “gay” rights, and I find that what I had to say then reflects what I believe now.
The surprise was because this journal has been less than latitudinarian on the subject of those infected with HIV. Most conservatives take a dim view of homosexual activity. But I will not try to justify myself here; arguments about the moral status of practicing homosexuals tend to be as inconclusive as arguments about the nature of God. If you have a decade or so to debate the matter, please do. Unfortunately I don’t have enough time left for that.
I was diagnosed with HIV in the spring of 1988. When I recovered from my shock–I had assumed that since I didn’t (and don’t) do intravenous drugs or anal sex, I could not be infected–I decided to deal with the matter privately. I told my local doctor and a very few friends in Boston, where I live, and elsewhere. My local doctor did blood tests on me twice each month, and we sent the results to a physician in Washington, D.C., who is also the doctor of a couple of other well-known conservative AIDS patients. Two or three times each year I went to Washington and had the expensive tests that relate to AIDS–HIV antigen, HIV antibody, T4 cell count, and the like. In this way, and by getting my drugs pseudonymously and not collecting reimbursement for them from my insurance, I maintained perfect secrecy.
Not because I feel shame. I feel regret and sadness, and you and I know that the overwhelming likelihood is that this will all end very badly indeed. I wanted not to burden my friends and family with the knowledge, and I wanted not to be subjected to the usual media reductionism: “AIDS-infected talk host David . . .” and so forth.
Like innumerable others I suffered a few infections in the first six years: a little weight loss, diarrhea, thrush. But then, in Kyoto in November 1993, the side effect of one of my drugs, ddI, appeared: peripheral neuropathy, meaning an increasing pain in my feet, which by ten months later had resulted in near-paralysis. By September of last year I couldn’t walk up stairs and the pain was fierce.
At that point, this rationalist realist, this no-nonsense fellow, began a six-week exercise in classical denial. I got what I thought was a bad flu–swollen legs, dizzy spells, falling in the bushes behind the radio station, clutching the walls as I walked through the hallways, fatigue, nausea, high fever. Some flu!
I carried on at my TV, radio, writing, and teaching jobs. Sort of. Several nights I was too ill to work, and on Monday, October 24, my producer yanked me off the air because I was incoherent. But the next day I went to my Boston University class on media criticism and delivered what I tenaciously believed was a brilliant lecture, my students sitting transfixed. Months later I ran into one of those students, who, in response to my question about how he and the others had taken the lecture, told me that they sat transfixed because they had no idea what I was talking about and wondered only if I would live through the day.
I almost did not. That afternoon a friend, Ward Cromer, came by to nurse me with Gatorade, Coke, and cool towels. He insisted on taking me to the doctor the next day and I, too weak to protest, agreed. He then went home to do some work and said that he would be back later in the evening and would sack out on the couch. And then the horror truly began.
I know this not from memory but only from the recitations of others. Evidently after Ward left I wandered out on the street, perhaps was mugged–my watch and wallet never turned up–and then re-entered my building, where I began to collapse. The building superintendent called an ambulance and, unconscious, I was whisked off to Massachusetts General Hospital. Ward returned minutes later, was told what had happened, and called 911 to learn where the ambulance had taken me. Finding that his car, parked in front of my building, had been broken into, he grabbed a cab, rushed to the emergency room, and saved my life by telling the doctors I was HIV-positive, at which point they immediately administered a drug that combats Pneumocystis carinii, the pneumonia that frequently kills AIDS patients. Weeks later the doctors told me they figured that from the time the medics wheeled me in, at most twenty minutes of life remained for me. (Does this begin to sound like a TV Movie of the Week?)
Nine days of medically induced coma followed. Five dear friends entered into what I suppose we can now call a death watch, observing this barely alive, shrunken thing hovering on the verge, with well over a dozen tubes coming into and going out of me, a huge tube down to my lungs withdrawing gallons (!) of water, and machines massaging my heart, which had swollen to twice its normal size and was barely pumping. The prognosis was grim. I learned much later that on the third day the doctors in the intensive care unit suggested to Ward, who has my power of attorney and the decision power in medical matters, that perhaps they ought just to disconnect me and let me die peacefully. Ward’s second life-rescue occurred then as he resisted. Eventually, I began to respond, and on the ninth day the tube was withdrawn from my lungs and I was brought out of the coma, though for days I was confused, unsure of where I was or what was happening to me. My friends guarded my privacy, and the newspapers and TV and radio stations knew only that I was in critical condition from heart and lung disease.
Eventually, after two weeks in intensive care, I was moved into a regular hospital room and began to emerge from my disorientation, though I saw phantom visitors and otherwise was, as they say, not myself. I was still not allowed out of bed, and one night, at 11:15, a man I had never seen before came into my room and announced that he was a neurologist and wanted to test my feet. Twenty-five minutes later, after poking around and finding no response, he stated that he didn’t think I would ever walk again. A nice way to go to sleep, alone, wondering just how did Franklin Roosevelt manage it?
Things then began to speed up. A therapist assured me that she had seen many such cases and felt almost certain that I would walk again. She quickly got me up on a walker, then helped me move a few steps with it. As my heart and lungs healed, I began to realize how dependent I had become on others–on, for instance, nurses’ aides to bathe me. I had urinary problems and for several days wore a foley bag; I contracted a few bacterial and viral infections, not uncommon in long-term hospitalization, and that curse called shingles, which is the chicken-pox virus, long dormant, emerging again in adulthood.
Shingles may sound ridiculous, but it is among the most painful and unremitting of diseases, and totally resistant to painkillers. The first stages were bearable. Later, when I was moved for two weeks to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, to continue learning to walk again (I now walk without any aid, though outdoors I use a cane, owing to the wretched sidewalks and streets of Boston), the shingles entered its itch phase, maddening, and then the worst of all: such intense pain that several times a day I lost bowel control. Then, and only then, I wanted to die. The shingles infects me still, in two spots along a nerve that services the buttocks and the genitals. Your imagination can lead you to understand the full misery of this.
In mid November, the inevitable occurred: the rumors that my condition was AIDS surfaced, and the Boston Globe’s radio columnist and her counterpart at the Herald called me. I lied, but it was clear the matter would soon be publicized, if only as rumor. Whereupon my friends advised me to call the Globe and strike a deal: they would spike the rumor story and instead assign one of their best writers to interview me the next morning and do a lead story in the November 17 edition. That, and an exclusive radio interview on my own station, followed by the Herald getting the story and “borrowing” 24 paragraphs from the early Globe edition. I like to say that forests died to provide the newsprint to tell my story.
The deluge was on: every local talk program on radio and one on TV devoted hours to me. Should I have “come out” earlier? Did the Globe “out” me? Would I still be the leading radio talk host in New England if I lived and returned to work?
I watched the election coverage come and go with me in hospital gowns unable to help. I found that my life was now almost completely exposed. Meanwhile, letters and cards poured in, brought to me dutifully each evening by my producer–by now, about twelve thousand, all but about six of them loving and supportive. The hostile letters tended to be scrawled in crayon and one merrily calculated how hot the fires of Hell would be for me.
On December 4, I was released from the hospital and returned home, gradually to recuperate. One month later, on January 5 (coincidentally the beginning of the winter ratings period), I went back on the air, and a few weeks later back to school, and also back to my writing assignments. I now function about 95 per cent as I did before my hospitalization. I have intense shingles pain, pain in my feet, and fatigue, but I’ve already regained 15 of the 45 pounds that I lost during my illness and hospitalization. I know now that at all my places of work, discussions were begun under the grim assumption that I would either die or never be well enough to work again. It’s not nice, I know, to fool Mother Nature, but I have done so–if only for the few years remaining to me.
Sunday, January 8, the New York Times carried a story, opening another deluge of attention in the media: CBS’s Evening News; People magazine; bits on ABC’s Day One, NBC’s Today, and NBC’s Evening News. Fox is nibbling, as are several publishers who want me to do the book version of all this.
I can now claim the dubious distinction of being the most famous AIDS person in New England; as a lady friend put it, the Magic Johnson who can’t jump. The story isn’t a bad one, of course, but it is really a one-line tale: Conservative media figure is gay and has AIDS. Certainly some of the reaction of some conservatives, not on my show but on others, has been dismay that the Brudnoy they thought was on their side must be a fraud because homosexuals can’t be conservative. I have had many a grim laugh hearing that sort of nonsense but, let us be frank, many conservative journals (not, in recent years, this one) have perpetuated that idea.
Obviously I would trade away every second of media attention if in return I could be rid of AIDS. In lighter moments I’ve borrowed Woody Allen’s classic line: I don’t fear death–I just don’t want to be there when it happens. I’m stronger by the day, given a 100 per cent clean bill of health for my heart and lungs. I’m injecting myself thrice weekly with a drug to help combat anemia, and my doctors watch me carefully. I’m busy, enthusiastic, never despondent or depressed, and determined to make each day count, since I’ll probably have fewer days of health–and for that matter of life–than would ordinarily be the case.
So we come again to Oprah Winfrey’s show and to the last minutes there at her studio before returning to Boston. Greg Louganis and I, who had never before met and had spent all of ten minutes in each other’s company that day, realized that the end for the two of us will be grimly similar. Greg reached out and embraced me before we left, acknowledging our shared condition. We are a fast-growing fraternity, worldwide, we with HIV, and in America AIDS has become the leading cause of death among people ages 25 to 44, heterosexual and homosexual alike. What horrors await Africa one can only speculate, but there, and in Asia and Latin America and Europe and Russia, the word is out: HIV is reaching more and more people.
One of the TV commentaries in November featured my old TV sparring partner and dear friend Mike Barnicle, who on the Boston ABC affiliate talked of the many people who don’t think that they know anyone with AIDS, and of how easy it has been for many people to speak disparagingly of those who have it. Mike said that everybody watching that station, where we had worked together for two years, knows somebody with AIDS: “David Brudnoy has AIDS.”