Sometimes when you browse around on NetGalley, you find a book that calls out to you and that you know you have to read, whether you get approved for it or not, and fortunately, I was lucky enough to be approved for All the Young Men: A Memoir of Love, AIDS, and Chosen Family in the American South by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O’Leary (Grove Press, 2020). I was born in 1980; AIDS and HIV were fully on my radar by the time I turned 10. Even in the Catholic school I attended, we watched videos and learned about the virus and the devastating effects it had on the human body and the gay community. In eighth grade, my class watched And the Band Played On. I remember our teachers being very emphatic about the ways you could and couldn’t catch the virus, and that it was okay to hug people who had it, touch them, take care of them. I’m part of the first generation for whom AIDS has always been a concern, for whom these stories have always been in the news, and, having heard the name Ruth Coker Burks before, I knew this was an important book that I needed to read.
Ruth Coker Burks was visiting a friend in the hospital in her home state of Arkansas on day in the early 80’s when she became intrigued as to why a door was covered in red and the nurses seemed afraid to go in. Upon learning that the patient had AIDS, Ruth went in anyway and proceed to sit with the man, holding his hand and staying with him until he died. Afterwards, she buried the man’s ashes in her family’s cemetery; his own family refused to take custody of his cremains. This event set Ruth down a path that would define her entire life, taking care of sick AIDS patients and being with them when they died, feeding the ones who were still alive, advocating for them to receive medical care, housing assistance, and disability pay. As they grew sicker, she upped her level of care, and she began a course of education, aiming to prevent the spread of the disease in the gay community around her hometown. In a time where no one else stepped up to the plate, Ruth Coker Burns recognized a need and saw her responsibility to be the solution.
Her life wasn’t an easy one. Her community, including her church, ostracized her. Work wasn’t easy to come by. Her former in-laws offered no help with or for their grandchild. Friends expressed disgust at what she was doing and dropped her. Displaying acts of courage that are rare these days, Ruth never gave up, creating a family and a loving community out of the men she was helping to live and die with dignity.
All the Young Men is a necessary story for any reading list. This is a gut-punch of a book that will introduce younger readers into the perversion of humanity that was the AIDS epidemic, where parents refused to have contact with their children, where patients were starved for human touch, where the friends that nursed a person through his last days were thrown out or barred from attending funerals by the family who had previously cast the ill person out. There are numerous painful moments throughout this book, for Ruth, for her guys, as she called them, for their friends. She bears so much pain with courage and grace, never once giving in to despair or turning someone away because it’s too much. If you need to restore your faith in humanity and in the idea that one person can indeed make a difference, Ruth Coker Burks’s story is one to read.
The writing style of All the Young Men is more ‘down home Arkansas’ than it is Shakespeare, but this doesn’t detract from the importance of the story at all. What Ruth Coker Burks has penned here is a stunning narrative of her own human decency, about which she never brags or boasts, in a time when the world was starved for it. She showed up when others refused. She held the hands of the dying when others wouldn’t even enter the room. There’s a quote from Frederick Douglass that says, “Praying for freedom never did me any good ’til I started praying with my feet.” While others sat in the pews on Sunday, listening to and agreeing with a pastor who condemned her, Ruth was praying with her feet.
All the Young Men is easy to read in style, but tough on emotions, as it should be. This isn’t a particularly fun time of history to revisit, but it’s important, especially these days, when we’re seeing record numbers of people disavow the humanity in others by refusing to protect them from Covid-19. It’s difficult to be confronted with the fact that we really haven’t come that far. But what makes the difference is that people like Ruth Coker Burks exist and are out there praying with their feet, caring, helping. ‘Look for the helpers,’ Mister Rogers taught us. Ruth Coker Burks is one of the best helpers, and this book, and her life, is a testament to that. Would that more people had her sense of compassion and duty.
All the Young Men is an introduction to the terrible realities that the gay community faced in the 80’s and 90’s as a virus was allowed to run unchecked through their numbers while the government sat back and twiddled its thumbs (sound familiar?). If you read this book and are interested in learning more, I’ve got two books for you that will give you a deeper understanding of why Ruth was left alone to care for the AIDS patients of her community.
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts is probably the number one book I recommend to people in real life (most recently, to someone in the grocery store!). It’s an in-depth history of the AIDS epidemic, and it’s heartbreaking in every sense of that word. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that the book is 656 pages; it reads like a novel and will not only have you in tears but will leave you with a sense of rage like you’ve never known before. Easily one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.
Secondly, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story by Abraham Verghese is the memoir of a doctor who stepped up and cared for AIDS patients in eastern Tennessee when no one else would touch them. Like Ruth Coker Burks, he greets his patients with compassion and allows them to retain their dignity when no one else would, helping to destroy the stigma around AIDS patients and reminding the public that these were people, not just a diagnosis.
Huge thanks to NetGalley and Grove Press for allowing me an early copy of All the Young Men to read and review.