Book Review: All The Young Men
In the LGBT and AIDS communities, she is simply known as ‘The Cemetery Angel’. Many people don’t even know her name, only that in the early days of the epidemic she buried young men who died from AIDS. Men left alone and without hope, by families that shunned them. Her story seemed frozen in time. The real story - the whole story - is infinitely richer and more impressive than that. And it’s finally being told, in an extraordinary memoir, All The Young Men.
What began as a simple question to a dying stranger - “What do you need, honey?” - changed the life of Ruth Coker Burks and the hundreds of people in Arkansas she helped during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic. Little did she imagine that in a short amount of time, she would not only be caring for the dying, but burying their ashes in chipped cookie jars in her family plots in Files Cemetery. And more. Much more.
Unlike New York and San Francisco, in the late 1980s Hot Springs, Arkansas was not the kind of place one would have associated with AIDS. But it was there, no matter how much the churches, women’s clubs, schools, and business groups tried to insist otherwise. Ruth, like many visionary women before her, found herself mostly alone in her determination to sound the alarm. Her efforts to educate medical personnel and ministers were the most frustrating for her. But she was determined, in that ‘steel magnolia’ way, to never give up, no matter the cost.
And there was a heavy price to pay. Her daughter was bullied at school, her church turned against her, and she faced a shocking amount of sexual harassment - often from ‘respected’ men in the community. So great was the animosity directed to her both personally and professionally, that in one of the most appalling passages in the book, she and her daughter woke to find a cross burning in front of their house - twice. Many of us who remember the prejudice and hatred of those early days lived in major cities, where resources and understanding came easier. But even today, people working to end the epidemic in rural communities and small cities face obstacles that were unimaginable. And though Burks proves she often ran on autopilot because there was so much to be done, the emotional toll on both her and her young daughter proves no one else could have accomplished so much.
That is not to imply that All The Young Men is a relentlessly depressing tale. It’s not. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, recounting the ways Burks confronted bigots and how she found endlessly creative ways to help ‘her boys’. She and co-author Kevin Carr O’Leary bring these young, doomed men to life on the page - in tales of drag shows and caregiving - that make us feel like we know them. Her chosen family helped raise her daughter, too, and in a bit of advice that could’ve described Burks herself, counseled her daughter to “be smart, be brave, tell the truth, and don’t take any shit.”
When I wrote Fag Hags, Divas and Moms, it was to honor women like Ruth, women who did remarkable things because they cared, often about strangers. A set of circumstances - a visit to a hospital, curiosity about another patient’s room, a promise made to a dying man - converged to change her life. It could’ve ended there, but it didn’t. And that’s a tribute to Ruth: a woman whose strength, compassion and determination continue to serve as an example to us all. She is living proof that every person can do something, every person can speak out, every person can care, because that has always been the way the world heals.
“Sometimes you choose your calling, and sometimes your calling chooses you.” I thought the words from that minister’s invocation at the 2015 US Conference on AIDS were directed to me. But in reading her memoir, I realized that it describes the lives of many people, including Ruth. And the world is a better place because of her.
All The Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks and Kevin Carr O’Leary
Now available in print and ebook from your favorite booksellers; audiobook exclusive to Audible.