Literature

Book Review: “Let the Record Show” by Sarah Schulman

A powerful and moving history, Sarah Schulman’s new book Let the Record Show follows the course of Act Up New York, an AIDS activist and advocacy group, from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, and shows how a small number of deeply committed people can, through hard work, self-education and effective protesting, help change the arc of history.

Let the Record Show follows Act Up from its origins in 1987 up to, and slightly past, an acrimonious split in 1991. In those years in between, the group led powerful, often theatrical protests on Wall Street (including one where they got onto the trading floor), Washington DC and all over New York City.

Schulman takes the reader inside these protests, often from multiple points of view. The Stop the Church action, for example, was a protest at Saint Patrick Cathedral, a raucous event against Cardinal O’Connor and his anti-choice, anti-condom stances that happened both inside and outside the church. She takes readers from the picket lines outside to the events inside: people doing a “Die-in” in aisles, protestors standing up and yelling during the sermon, cops hauling people away while the media clicks it’s cameras. Her Rashomon-like approach offers a fuller perspective of the event, and although no one account is definitive, by presenting them all, one gets a sense of how it really went down.

What Let the Record Show does best is reframe the AIDS crisis and the people who protested and fought for change. Where the popular image of the group is around cis gay men, like Larry Kramer or Mark Harrington, Schulman spends time focusing on other, more marginalized groups. The Latino Caucus, who helped spread aid to places like Haiti; the women who led the fight to get the definition of AIDS changed to include women; activists who spearheaded change with needle exchanges or by working with prisoners, often women of colour, who had AIDS. It was these people, just as much as anyone, who helped change things, and it’s nice to see them get their due.

Let the Record Show is divided into sections, with parts covering it’s origins, the ways it enacted change or the way the group grew more angry and divided it’s later years. Most powerful was the one on the art ACT UP and it’s associated groups produced. Many of the people involved with the group had some kind of a media background: some had been journalists, others were commercial artists. Keith Haring was a member, but interestingly, his name only occasionally comes up. 

Over the years, ACT UP was behind an art show in Venice, where their messages about the Vatican had to be inspected before they were allowed to be displayed. They protested a Nicholas Nixon photography exhibit for its depiction of people with AIDS as simple victims, a silent sit-in helping shape the way people view those with the disease. And their graphics – from a window at the New Museum in 1987 to bus adverts to t-shirts and buttons – created simple yet memorable messages that still resonate like Silence = Death.

They also produced films, both documentary and experimental, about the crisis. These were often filmed on the street by people with early camcorders, documenting both their actions and, arguably just as importantly, how police responded. As Schulman notes, there’s a direct line between this and people filming cops on cell phones today. But these films also provided an educational aspect on how PWA lived in jail or struggled to find housing.

Throughout Let the Record Show, Shulman’s prose is powerful and profoundly moving. People are introduced and slowly fade away, dying as drug companies put people in double-blind trials, all but sentencing half the people to death. Others succumb to drug addiction or despair.  Interspersed throughout are little In Memoriam sections, where Schulman and the many people she interviewed reminisce about those who died along the way, sometimes activists on the front lines, but sometimes just people who were there and part of the community. 

Take her remembrance of actor Mark Fotopolos:

“His activist message for the media was to stand at every ACT UP demonstration with a handmade sign: LIVING WITH AIDS X YEARS X MONTHS, NO THANKS TO YOU MR REAGAN. Every month he would change the numbers on his sign. Images of him are captured in most footage and many stills of ACT UP demonstrations and actions. Mark got sicker and sicker but still appeared when he could… He was disintegrating in public, in defiance and denunciation. He did the most that one man standing alone can do to communicate his experience.” (pg 421)

The sense of frustration builds throughout Schulman’s book. As drugs like AZT were shown to be less and less effective, as treatment for prisoners and women grew harder and harder to get and as scores of people kept dying, ACT UP’s actions grew more powerful: there was an action where ashes were thrown onto the White House lawn, political funerals held on the street and rallies that grew more and more massive. But at the same time, there was friction within the group: Schulman takes the reader inside the groups fractions and shows how powerful personalities and self-promotion led to an acrimonious split when the Treatment and Data section of ACT UP left to form its own group: Treatment Action Group, or TAG. This is largely where Shullman’s narrative ends.

But ACT UP is still around today, and thankfully, so are many of its principles. Their actions have been shown in the past – notably in the documentary How to Survive a Plague – but Schulman’s book stands heads and shoulders above them, not just for the story it tells, but for it’s sheer scope and volume, the way it refuses to reduce the crisis to one single group of people. It’s highly readable, if a little littered with acronyms, and despite it’s bulk, it’s compelling too. 

There’s many books out there about the AIDS crisis, from memoirs to plays to histories, but Let the Record Show stands out from the pack. It corrects historical omissions and lets the principles tell their own stories, largely in their own words. It’s a blueprint for activists today, with lessons on organizing and protesting. And, as noted above, it’s compelling and highly readable.  Strongly recommended.

Roz Milner

Roz Milner is a journalist at Live in Limbo. They are a freelance writer and media critic who's writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, CTV.ca, The Good Point and elsewhere. @milnerwords on Twitter.

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