Over the last several years, I’ve read and reviewed more than a handful of AIDS-related memoirs — Peter Staley’s Never Silent, recounting his life and involvement with ACT UP; Martina Clark’s My Unexpected Life, detailing her living with HIV and working around the world for the United Nations; Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show, her oral history of ACT UP; Ruther Coker Burks’ All the Young Men, detailing her work with the HIV/AIDS community in Arkansas; and others. Each of these and other memoirs has added significant, invaluable information to the history of, and our understanding of, the ongoing AIDS crisis.
However, for sheer raw power and brutal warts-and-all honesty — about his incestuous introduction to sex, his prodigious promiscuity, his many short-lived affairs both here and abroad, his alcoholism and drug use, his diagnosis with AIDS, his activism and writing, his suicide attempt — none of the other AIDS memoirs I’ve read compares to Les K. Wright’s RESILIENCE: A Polemical Memoir of AIDS, Bears and F*cking.
Like many men who grew up queer in the uber-conformist 1950s, Les’s young life was filled with taunts and torment for being “different”; he recalls being called a “sissy” before he knew the meaning of the word. In solitude he became a voracious reader and a devotee of popular music, the sadder the better (he recalls Patsy Cline’s heart-break songs as a strong influence). Those years prefaced his life-long search for acceptance among his peers, for the love that was denied him as a child, and for community among his gay tribe. Precociously fluent in Russian and German, he excelled in academia, studying in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and teaching both here and abroad. He compiled The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture and its sequel, as well as publishing numerous studies and articles on Russian and German literature and culture. He spoke at numerous academic conferences and seminars and was hailed for his expertise in those and other subjects.
After studying the work of early pioneers in the study of homosexuality and homosexual rights (Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfield, Edward Carpenter, John Addington Symonds, et al.), as well as more modern writers (Alfred Kinsey, Michel Foucault, et al.), Wright began to incorporate that study into his reading and teaching in comparative literature, at a pre-queer theory time when the prevailing schools of literary study emphasized Marxist, constructional, and feminist criticism. His astute understanding of those schools of thought inform the many “polemics” that appear throughout the book.
But Les admits that his academic work “had always taken a back seat to my social and sexual life. In great detail and language that reminds one of John Rechy’s City of Night (a major influence on the writer), Wright tells us about his often-insatiable search for sex and love, falling in and out of lustful relationships with other bearish men across both America and Europe. Unfortunately, few of those relationships lasted more than a few weeks or months, and even the longer-term relationships all seemed to end in painful, debilitating messes. Although Wright admits that his own behavior probably contributed to those relationship failures (e.g., his drinking binges, his drug use, his tirades, his deep depression), it seems that every one of his paramours abused him physically, emotionally, and financially. His suffering from these relationships is palpable on nearly every page.
Like Les, I too grew up queer during the 1950s and came of age in the 1960s. Thus, I recognized myself in a lot of what he writes in RESILIENCE — the taunting and bullying from schoolmates, the retreat into literature and hope for a world different from the one I knew, the sexual freedom and experimentation of the 1970s, the crashing terror and chaos and grief of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the activism of the ’80s and ’90s, being “saved” by the advent of the “cocktail” in 1996, the subsequent devotion to chronicling the lives of us long-term survivors, the AIDS Generation, and our commitment to making sure that we long-term survivors not be forgotten. I am certain that our contemporaries will likewise recognize themselves in parts of Les’s tale. RESILIENCE is more than just one man’s personal memoir. It is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, but ultimately hopeful memoir of gay male life in the last half of the 20th Century and the early years of the 21st. It is an important, resonant addition to the world of Queer Studies.