For Liam Scheff
In late spring of 2008, I was invited to speak at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya. The situation was unusual in many respects.
It all began in 2006, when Harper’s forwarded to me a hand-written letter that had arrived from a woman named Mary Ann Burris, living and working in Kenya, who wrote that my article “Out of Control: AIDS And The Corruption of Medical Science” resonated deeply with her and her community. Burris, a very elegant and beautiful woman, runs a non profit in Nairobi called TICAH (Trust For Indigenous Culture and Health) which seeks to create a safe berth for natural, indigenous approaches to HIV/AIDS in Kenya, though not to the exclusion of ARVs. Burris has been trying to straddle, or even harmonize, two world views: Mainstream and what we in the west call “alternative” but in Africa is “traditional medicine.”
“Choice” is the key word that Burris feels everything comes down to, or should.
But many white Western people don’t think African people should have the right to choose their mode of healing their own bodies from illness. So it’s touchy, even that–even what you’d think would be a 100% uncontroversial position like “choice” in medical treatment. Burris told me that it had been a rather hellish battle over the years, that Western AIDS NGOs in Africa or with interests in Africa were utterly hostile to indigenous medicine and that she had many horror stories. And yet, it seemed now that tensions were easing. She said that my article had helped her organization, their work, that it had made things easier–raised awareness.
At the same time, that spring, I had gotten to know some other wonderful people, who also reached out to me after the Harper’s article, from within yet another mainstream yet open-minded non-profit, called Integrative Medicine Foundation, based in New York City. And they knew Mary Ann. And next thing you know, we were all going to Kenya. I’d never heard of any of these people and suddenly I was right next to them, at conferences, in ideas. The same wavelength.
I became swept into this newly merging Perestroika AIDS stream with a very delicate sense of hope. It seemed, from where I was standing, that just like that, all of a sudden, there was simply no longer a problem. The problem. The rift. There was a spirit in the air of reconciliation and moving forward. These various groups bringing me to Kenya were not afraid of “denialism,” of my name, and they were not politically concerned about having me appear on a prominent panel, next to, (wait for it,) one of the head executives at PEPFAR. I was formally, not furtively, part of the conference, and my ticket had been paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation, (!) whereas just days earlier, there was an enormous crisis about skin color and water fountains, in Washington DC, among those who were supposed to represent the avant-garde.
Things were not making much sense in 2008. The parts did not fit.
On the one hand, a small group of MD’s under the influence of groups like Treatment Action Group and Housing Works went simultaneously deranged when Peter Duesberg and I were to be given the Semmelweis Clean Hands Award in Washington DC, in May of 2008. Chapter one at least, of that story, was documented here, by the indefatigable Clark Baker, who, amazingly, was only there to shoot the event on video and do some PR work.
Peter Duesberg and I– after two days of making ourselves simultaneously scarce (when the enemy threatened to….to…to….get….really….MAD!)..and also appearing magically when we were wanted– had finally gotten our awards in a furtive late night ceremony in the lobby of the hotel, then flown off–he back to Berkeley (he literally could not wait to get back to his lab,) and me to New York, and then to Nairobi days later. When I left, the Semmelweis Society International was under attack from within and without and I was quite happy to air-balloon out; Duesberg and I both felt, I think, that life would be so much easier if people never tried to give us any awards, at least not in Washington D.C. in front of members of Congress. We both only wanted to get away.
The Semmelweis Society Clean Hands 2008 War was a kind of fusion of the already ancient tribal loathing between HIV pathogenicity camps (all sides) plus Semmelweis Society’s own internal ancient rivalries and resentments, now given the perfect environment in which to erupt. The only man alive who could cope with it all, and did, like a Marine Sergeant, was Clark Baker, a former Marine.
How could I ever make this up?
One of my most vivid memories from Kenya was being in the Mara-Serengeti with my then boyfriend V., and somehow locating a functioning computer. The activists were pounding down on SSI to rescind the awards and denounce us. As V. looked at me with rising frustration that I could manage to bring this battle all the way out here to the Mara, on safari–I begged for just a few minutes on the computer.
I urgently wrote to Semmelweis Society President Roland Chalifoux and the rest of the SSI leadership, asking them to just suspend the awards until SSI could complete an investigation. But by then Clark had gotten the beast by the stem of its tail and had somehow miraculously understood what this was actually all about, or begun to. Thus reassured, that the investigation would be thorough, (in fact SSI wanted to do its own investigating now, into the screamers,) and that no damn rescinding was going to go on just because some angry activists demanded it, I returned my attention to the Safari, the animals, and the love that was dying between me and V.
Kenya that summer was dry, barren, quiet, no tourists–there had been civil strife and violence in the preceding weeks and months that had killed tourism dead, but also, the animals were skinny, there had not been much food. V. and I suddenly had no oxygen, no hope, none at all.
My face had once again gone psychedelic with fear. I couldn’t even see my boyfriend in the blur. I just could not see his face or understand what he was saying.
The attacks on the SSI award had re-triggered PTSD and I’d recently found an image of myself splattered with blood on an orthodox hate site, which had caused me to do something very self-destructive. I was not yet out of the grip of the darkness, let’s say. I had not understood it. Yet.
“Don’t worry banana, it’s coming,” V. used to say, with a beaming smile. He meant the end of the war. After which we would live happily ever after. But he wanted me to let go of it, now.
“I can’t,” I said. “As soon as I can, I will. I am in this thing. Lots of people are. I can’t just quit.”
He took that to mean I did not place him first. I don’t know what things like that mean. I only know that once again I was being accused of something.
The animals were beautiful and we took a million pictures but I was so fantastically anxious that, when we got back, I asked Ugandan traditional healer Dr. Sekagya to sit with me in the hotel cafe and tell me what was going on. I asked him to check in with the spirit world for me.
Immediately, within the first three minutes, two glasses exploded, close to us. Sekagya smiled. “The first one could have been a coincidence. Not the second one,” he said.
He told me I had three guardians, one was an old man, two were women. (Serge? I thought. My mother? Who is the third?)
He said they have been trying to tell me that everything is taken care of, that I don’t need to be afraid, just pay attention. They were saying it was hard to get my attention, hard to protect me, but that their job had not been easy. I told him to thank them and bless them and kiss them for me. And tell them I would listen better from now on.
Suddenly Sekagya received a command. We had to get up and leave instantly. “We need a room,” Sekagya said.
We walked in to the room, and V. was there. I was about to introduce them. Sekagya had a water bottle. V. looked suspicious. I knew he was already mad at me for having been gone.
Suddenly, with tremendous force, Sekagya spat water into my face.
V. looked at us terrified.
“I had to do that, I had no choice,” said Sekagya.
“Don’t worry,” I said to V., “Serge is here.”
Serge Lang had been V’s math Professor at Yale, and we met at his memorial service. It was all making sense and also, unraveling. I started laughing, hysterically, released from something, my face and hair soaked in water.
“This is Dr. Sekagya,” I said to V. wiping my head with my arm. But V. was not amused.
We had lost the connection and we could not get it back. Ever. Forces were in charge and they played on us and through us. The whole time.
The conference was set to begin.
(We’d arrived early and gone on safari before the conference began.)
Dozens of people, including doctors, healers, scientists, all kinds of people, from all countries and cultures, began to arrive, and we sat for 3 days exchanging information, data, perspectives. There was a tremendous amount of information about malnutrition and immunity, about gut health, about herbs, and also about psycho-somatic factors in healing. There was also a very orthodox current to it. It truly was about how to meet and merge, these two perspectives, with respect, constructively.
When I spoke, I described what, in fact, the so-called “denialist movement” had been concerning itself with, and why–contrary to demonic branding by a few vigilantes. I talked about what we are learning about the human “immune system” and how the maniacal focus on “the virus” has wasted decades and countless lives. I even used the word “juggernaut” to describe AIDS global policy. I ended on a positive note; I held up a small green ribbon which I also had on my lapel– green for life, instead of red for blood, etc. I said it should be the new symbol internationally for people who have tested HIV positive, “taking back their lives.” I got a standing ovation.
Two stunning conversations ensued, both of them short and unforgettable. One was simply this: The PepFar representative, very high up as I said, came over to me. I assumed he was going to say my filthy views had killed more people than the Khmer Rouge, which was almost a direct quote from what was flying through cyberspace back home–what Clark Baker was dealing with. Instead he shook my hand and said: “As a representative of the juggernaut….” I was holding my breath, then saw that he was smiling.
“I’ve been reading your work for many years. It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Thank you,” I stammered, literally speechless.
Of course I know his name. I have his card. I just don’t know if it was on or off the record.
But here’s the second one, for Liam, who’s been asking me to write it up for years:
It was at the end of the conference day, our work was done, and we’d retreated to the garden for drinks. There was a conference attendee named Dorothy Bray, who had worked for Glaxo Wellcome, now GlaxoSmithKline, for many years, way back. She was an interesting and eclectic character. She spoke very punchily, really wanted to get things across, she represented somehow both sides at once, she was fascinatingly contradictory, never seeming to notice any of her contradictions, even when they occurred in the same sentence. She had an accent I couldn’t quite place, which turned out to be Polish. I heard her mention that she had been opposed to the communist regime in Poland and that she could not be led around by a ring through the nose like so many people. I stepped back, went to the corner of the room, though for a moment, then went over to her. I said I really needed to talk to her.
We went to a quiet spot on the balcony. I said: “So Dorothy, if I may, I am intrigued to hear what you said about communism. I share your antipathy, though I never suffered through it like you did. I want to ask you a question.”
“By all means.”
“Well, since you are honest about communism, and most people are not…”
“They’re fools, they don’t know the reality,” she interjected.
“I know,” I said. “So speaking of reality, I wanted to ask you to tell me something honestly. And it’s not an accusation, I just want to know your perspective. If I were to say to you, that it seemed clear to us all in the late 80s, that people were dying very rapidly from high dose AZT–not from “AIDS” but from high dose AZT, I mean 1200 mg, 1000, mg, and so forth, the early years…if I were to say that as a statement of fact, that high dose AZT was killing gay men outright in those years, would you think I was wrong?
“Of course not, you’d be right,” she said resolutely. And then came the hammer. Looking right into my eyes, not even blinking, she said:
“Why do you think we lowered the dose?”