Photo credit: Susan Aurinko
They asked me to write about my book, so instead I’m going to write about my YouTube recommendations.
The Great Believers
covers a very real epidemic in a very real time and place — namely, AIDS in Chicago in the late 1980s — but it’s a novel, and as such, the details are made up. (Insert your standard disclaimer: “Any resemblance to persons living or dead,” etc.) I used very real locations (bars, restaurants, hospital units), but invented all the characters, all the events. With two exceptions.
The first was the 1987 Pride Parade in Chicago. There were plenty of newspaper accounts, but these mostly covered Mayor Harold Washington’s lovely speech in Lincoln Park and the far less lovely KKK rallies the night before and in the parade’s free speech area. Newspapers — even the gay weeklies — didn’t discuss the vibe, the music, the floats, the clothes, the way people stood, the way they held themselves. I’ve been to plenty of Pride parades in recent years, but I was nine years old in 1987, and they weren’t exactly on my weekend activity schedule. I didn’t want to write, by default, about Chicago’s modern parade, a much bigger affair. This was the height of the AIDS crisis, and a very different time for the gay community in other ways too. Surely there were differences I wouldn’t be able to just intuit my way into, ones that wouldn’t come up in my conversations with people. (Differences, in fact, that my older friends might even have forgotten about.)
If I lost momentum...I would just watch these videos and I’d be back in the story, back in my anger and back in the defiant hope I felt for my characters.
Enter YouTube. And, more specifically, enter the home footage
, taken on shoulder cams, that sat for nearly 30 years in some basement or box, until it was uploaded into the future. A video time capsule. The footage is scant, and what’s there is spotty. No editing, of course, just clips of guys standing around, putting floats together, a few floats going by. The stuff that seemed worth a few feet of VHS tape on that particular day. But the details — a boom box on someone’s shoulder, a group of friends all dressed in black despite the heat, a float that’s basically a truck pulling a wheeled bed in which two men are making out — I was able to use, either directly or as the seed of something imagined.
I can’t say I particularly recommend this footage; it feels exactly like what it is — namely, someone else’s home movies of their friends, people you don’t know. You’ll feel more like you’re sitting in someone’s living room, looking at their home movies, than like you’re at the parade. What I can recommend, wholeheartedly, is the April 23, 1990, online footage
in Chicago against the AMA and the insurance companies based there. It was a national demonstration, with thousands of people flying in from all over the country, stopping traffic in downtown Chicago on a Monday morning.
Photo credit: Windy City Times
The footage is at times wildly empowering — people flooding north over the Michigan Avenue Bridge, chanting, wearing costumes, waving signs — and at times devastating. In the second of three long videos
, you’ll see someone dragged on his face and knelt on by multiple latex-gloved police officers, his body inches from the hooves of a police horse. It was a video I couldn’t look away from no matter how much I wanted to — one that inspired a key scene in The Great Believers
In another video
, you’ll also see the demonstration in which women throw 15 mattresses down in an intersection and lie on them, to protest the lack of a women’s AIDS ward at Cook County Hospital (despite 15 beds lying vacant from understaffing). Astonishingly, this demonstration worked
; only a few days later, Cook County opened beds to women. You’ll see people sitting across the street, arms linked, shouting for their lives. You’ll see on-the-spot interviews with men and women who were out there fighting despite being, in some cases, extremely ill.
And then, at the height of the protest, here’s what happens: Five guys have entered the County Building in “straight drag” — meaning oxfords and ties. They get up to the second-floor windows that open onto a ledge above a large, central doorway. And while the police are busy trampling everyone below, they go out onto the ledge, rip off their oxfords to reveal their ACT UP T-shirts, and attach a giant banner to the ledge below their feet. It reads: WE DEMAND EQUAL HEALTHCARE NOW! And the crowd, looking up, goes wild. This is a triumph; they’ve literally risen above the police and the city. They’re up there for a long minute, leading the chants from on high, until, one by one, they’re roughly dragged in. There’s a moment when one of them has braced to be dragged, but his friend is taken instead; he looks around, realizes he has another few seconds on the ledge, and starts pumping his fist in the air again, chanting. It’s absolutely glorious.
I didn’t put any of my characters on the ledge. I put them down below, looking up, inspired. My main character, Yale Tishman, doesn’t think he’s that brave — in fact, just attending
this demonstration is about the bravest thing he’s ever done — but he’s about to do two incredibly courageous things in the next few minutes: one that risks his life, and another that risks his heart.
I read a lot about that demonstration (I recommend the article, “The Angriest Queer
,” from later that year in the Chicago Reader
) and I even managed to interview one of the men who was on that ledge and is still with us, the activist Bill McMillan. But it was these videos that I returned to again and again as I was writing. If I lost momentum, even on another, unrelated part of the book, I would just watch these videos and I’d be back in the story, back in my anger and back in the defiant hope I felt for my characters.
I have no idea where the videos came from. (The poster’s other videos seem to be of crawfish boils.) There’s a sporadic voiceover, a newsy narration that was clearly not done for network TV. I don’t know if the man lending his voice had an outlet for his videos at the time, or if he simply hoped that someday, someone would watch them, would want to remember what happened.
I don’t know if you’ve been to Chicago. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed the County Building, the one across from the famous black and white Dubuffet sculpture. But if you have: Did you realize you were walking through a battleground? As I researched and wrote, the city was transformed for me in so many ways, until I had imaginary monuments erected everywhere. One is of those five guys on that ledge.
Regardless of whether you’ve read my book or plan to, I want you to watch these videos, so that if you’re ever walking through downtown Chicago, you can look up and see them there too.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the Chicago-based author of the story collection Music for Wartime
, as well as the novels The Hundred-Year House
(a BookPage “Best Book” of 2014 and winner of the Chicago Writers Association Award) and The Borrower
(a Booklist Top Ten Debut). Her short fiction was featured in The Best American Short Stories
anthologies of 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, and appears regularly in publications such as Harper’s, Tin House
, and on public radio’s This American Life
and Selected Shorts
. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Rebecca teaches at Northwestern University, Lake Forest College, and StoryStudio Chicago; in the fall of 2015, she served as visiting faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her website is www.rebeccamakkai.com.