Ruth Coker Burks writes about her experiences caring for HIV/AIDS patients in All the Young Men: A Memoir of Love, AIDS, and Chosen Family in the American South. She wasn’t a nurse or other health care provider. She was just a young woman with a big heart and buckets full of determination. And her mission to help simply happened because she couldn’t bear to see someone dying alone. If that’s not a relevant theme for 2020/2021, I don’t know what is.
Burks was visiting a friend recovering from cancer surgery in the hospital. The year was 1986 and it was Little Rock, Arkansas—the Deep South and the early years of the AIDS crisis. The fear and recrimination about contagion were at a fever pitch. And Burks was that helper who walked towards the crisis instead of away from it.
Down the hall from her friend, a young gay man was dying alone is his hospital room. He couldn’t get out of bed, but the hospital staff just left food outside the door. They wore full contagion gear when they did enter. And it broke Burks’ heart to see, so she decided to take a risk. She stood just inside the door and heard the patient asking for his mother. And that was the start of her journey.
Along the way Burks met many gay men, both with and without HIV/AIDS. She navigated the social services available to them. Often, she brought them leftovers from her own home. But she also learned the skills of dumpster diving and drawing blood for testing. What came naturally was her caring and ultimately love. She also didn’t take any shit from community and family members when their fear and prejudice reared its ugly head.
This book is the perfect combination of hope and sadness. When HIV/AIDS was first identified nearly every patient died. The differences were in their medical experience, family support, and personal attitudes. Burks helped make all three situations better. She got “her guys” as she calls them onto the first treatments, even when money was tight. When it was possible, she helped the men reconnect and spend time with their families. Often, though, it was the LGBTQ community that created their own family, welcoming Burks into their circle.
Reading this memoir, I fell in love with both Burks and her guys. She’s a born storyteller, made better with the able assistance of writer Kevin Carr O’Leary. Every time I picked up the book, I felt like Burks and I were chatting over coffee. I laughed plenty over Southern charms, and also shed some tears over the injustice and loneliness of it all. Mostly I cheered for this “family of choice,” which endured unimaginable hardships together.
In this time of another pandemic, the most important action I’ve taken away from Burks is to call and (safely) visit my friends and family. Connectedness is as lifesaving as medicine. Humans are meant to support each other—to be a tribe. And the tribe from All the Young Men is one I’ll never forget.
I recommend this book if you want a memoir that tells it to you straight and touches your heart.
Pair with other stories about HIV/AIDS. Fictional suggestions: The Great Believers and Tell the Wolves I’m Home Nonfiction: And the Band Played On, Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371, and Standing Strong: An Unlikely Sisterhood and the Court Case the Made History.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Grove Atlantic, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.