Book Review: My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor by Mark S. King
I have friends who write in a variety of genres: romance, sci fi/fantasy, biography, horror, sports, children’s picture books; playwrights, too. They have poured their hearts and souls into their work, but they themselves are not obviously present on the page. The ones who write memoirs…that’s a whole different story.
When a friend of mine writes a memoir, I open the book already knowing a lot about them, but I am always, always surprised. Sometimes shocked and occasionally horrified, but in the end, always grateful that they found the courage to share their stories.
Now and then, strangers will admit to me that they want to write a book. I always do my best to be enthusiastic and supportive. Life’s hard enough without being criticized for being brave enough to be that vulnerable. The last few years, I’ve amended my advice if they say the book will be a memoir: I ask them if they’re in therapy. Writing can be therapeutic, but revisiting our past can be an unpredictable emotional journey. We need all the support around us we can gather.
Mark S. King and I have been friends for a few years, since I was working on F*g Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community (I quoted his mother in one chapter). I’m a regular reader of his blog, also titled My Fabulous Disease, about living long-term with HIV. We follow each other on social media. Because of that, I picked up his memoir assuming I would not be very surprised. I was actually more surprised, but that’s because My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor hit me in a different way.
Mark is an award-winning journalist, who began working for community-based AIDS organizations in 1986, first in Los Angeles, then Atlanta. Most of his adult life has been defined by the AIDS epidemic, and not just because he’s a long-term survivor. His determination to educate, advocate and entertain has not wavered. Those moments when he rages and scolds are all the more powerful..
When he writes about HIV/AIDS, I don’t just understand it, I remember many of the people and incidents. Not a surprise. The surprise in reading his book was how triggering a couple of them were.
For those readers who were not around for the early days of the epidemic, “Will HIV Ever Be Safe Enough for You?”, which recounts a 1987 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, prepare to be horrified. It’s a textbook example of how even proven science capable of debunking irrational fears was not enough to change minds. For those of us who were around, it was both horrifying and all too familiar, a preview of the hostility against science since COVID struck. But for me, Mark’s award-winning essay from 2018, “The Truth about The 7,000” was a much-needed reminder that those TV commercials about how easy it is to live with HIV are a fantasy for the thousands of people who die from AIDS in the US every year and the thousands more at risk of dying. Almost forty-three years after we first heard about a mysterious disease found in gay men, there is simply no excuse for anyone to die from HIV/AIDS. Don’t expect to see a TV commercial about that.
Strictly speaking this isn’t a memoir; it’s a collection of essays he’s written for his blog and other publications over the years. But his writing is so very personal, whether he’s writing about himself or others. And brave. Damn, he’s brave in ways I would never consider in my own writing. Whether he’s talking about his addictions or the friends he’s outlived, his love of his community or frustrations with it, it’s breathtaking. And don’t misunderstand me: there’s a lot of joy and laughter in this book to temper the heartache. Just like everyone’s life.
Mark is the first person to admit that he’s lucky. Lucky that his health is good, lucky that his destructive behaviors did not kill him a long time ago, lucky to have a platform that inspires and agitates, lucky to love and be loved. I hope he also knows that those of us who know and follow him are the real lucky ones.
You can learn more about Mark and his book at My Fabulous Disease.