The Normal Heart Is
Anything But

By

Leonard Zwelling

         Larry Kramer is one angry guy.

The
man who wrote The Normal Heart, a wrenching depiction of the effects of the inadequate
public and government response to the onset of the AIDS epidemic on the gay
men of New York, is still angry all these years later. He has never gotten over
society’s unwillingness to confront the truth about HIV in 1981.

The
only female character in the play is Dr. Emma Brookner, played last on Broadway
by Ellen Barkin and more recently by Julia Roberts in the currently running HBO
version. In the show’s most gripping moment, the Brookner character, confined
to a wheelchair due to a childhood bout of polio, confronts US government
officials from the NIH who will not fund her research on the disease. The
President of the United States has yet to say the word AIDS in public. The
character is based on a real woman, Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who cared for the
early AIDS patients and was the first to identify Kaposi’s sarcoma as part of
the syndrome. She was angry, too.

Brookner
calls the officials idiots and wonders why the idiots always control the money.
Good question.

The
real message of The Normal Heart has two parts. The first is the obvious one
about how society was willing to tolerate a clearly deadly epidemic primarily
because it was killing members of a community, gay men, that was already
“other” having no acknowledged relation to the rest of straight society. Not
only did this prove to be wrong, it proved to be heartless and ignorant. And
fatal to many in the heterosexual community.

But
the other message is about Kramer himself who is embodied in the lead character,
Ned Weeks played by Joe Montello on Broadway and Mark Ruffalo on HBO. When does
being confrontational and angry reach the point of diminishing returns? When
can the spokesman for right be so grating as to marginalize himself? When does
the squeaky wheel stop being heard and have to give way to those with more honey
and lard than vinegar and brimstone who are less offensive and more effective?

Those
who know me will know that I have no idea for I am a squeaky wheel and never
see the ends to which we should not go for justice. But that may explain a lot
about my relationship with authority (hint: it’s poor).

I
find the characters of Ned Weeks and Edna Brookner inspirational. They risked
everything for what they believed was right. They incurred the wrath of
mainstream society and the medical establishment in demanding the attention of
the government for their friends who were dying. They incurred the wrath of
those dying gay male friends as they urged these men to give up promiscuous
life styles which they correctly believed were leading to their disease acquisition
and deaths. Everyone hated them in the end and neither would be described as
effective from a political point of view. But they were the real heroes. They
gave birth to ACT-UP. They forced the NIH and FDA to pay attention. Without
them, the thousands and thousands of HIV-infected productive and living Americans,
many of whom I work with every day, would have died.

The
real Ned Weeks is miraculously still with us. Larry Kramer. The real Dr.
Brookner died long ago, probably due to secondary complications of her polio.
With this play and now movie, they both live on as their younger, angrier and
more in your face selves. Just say for me, thank goodness they do.

Never
again should we allow bureaucracy and indifference to interfere with our using
our best science and best medicine to care for those in need as happened in the
early days of the HIV epidemic, which is far from over. And, more importantly,
we cannot let the idiots win. Not here, not now, never again no matter which
chair of importance they occupy.

Leonard Zwelling