There is a large body of post-Holocaust Jewish writing that is rich with survivor guilt. (Hah! Some riches!) The sense of randomness — why me, why not them? — is overwhelming, both to the character (or memoirist) and to the reader.
It comes as no surprise, then, that our subsequent Holocaust, fought not on the landscape of Europe and Asia but on the biological landscape, has brought feelings of a similar nature to those of us Ishmaels who feel “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee”… perhaps not alone, but forsaken and lonely, perhaps, and haunted by the perceived randomness of it all.
This survivor guilt is not without its consequences. Some, mired in futility and abandonment, have given up on the struggle and put themselves in situations where seroconversion was more likely, if not inevitable — whether purely through sexual risk (or resignation or, in the rarest of cases, actual pursuit of seroconversion) or with the added “enhancement” — because, yes, that is, ironically enough, one of the common terms — of lowering inhibitions through meth use. Others have been hit by many of the other indicators of post-traumatic stress.
Many activists have recently responded with a move toward survivor pride. Making it through the plague years and staying virus-free, they say, is a great personal achievement, built on discipline, strength, and caring. Don’t just chalk it up to luck — you really did amazing acts to survive. Revel in what you have achieved, and use it to bolster your resolve to continue, with whatever tools you have and can use, till the day we can get beyond the fear and loss.
It’s a laudable sentiment. Or, at least, it seems that way at first glance. But it breaks down for me. And here’s why.
Through the worst years of our bodily Holocaust, I was a good boy. The best. I used condoms every time — despite the lack of spontaneity, the differences in sensation, and, in a time (thankfully now past except for some lingering after-effects) when I experienced diabetic neuropathy and circulation issues, strong interference with erection and stimulation to orgasm. I tested regularly. And I did everything I could to support the community and to keep my friends and others safer and healthy as well.
But you know what? So did many of my friends. And some of them are here to feel that pride. And others are in our hearts, our minds, our memories, on quilt panels, and in urns on their widowers’ mantels. (Or, in at a couple of cases I can think of, in San Francisco Bay, or in the ink of a tattoo.)
And do you know the difference between what I did and what they did? Nothing. They were good boys too, in the darkest days of the plague.
And that leaves us with two choices. Either we doubt their goodness, their caution, their testimony… or we acknowledge that our best efforts are not enough by themselves, and luck played a significant role. Ultimately, we were also subject to cosmic rolls of the dice.
What does this mean? Does this lessen the importance of our efforts? Hell no. They were critically significant. All I am saying is that they were necessary but not, alas, sufficient for all of us.
For me, then, it’s not about survivor guilt: I owe it to those who are not here to do so to live the best, richest, happiest life I can, to honor their memories in addition to honoring my own efforts. And it’s not about survivor pride: recognizing that the choices we take to protect ourselves may not be sufficient but they are necessary, I go on and put the effort I might put into patting myself on the back into giving others a hand up.
No, it’s about surviving. And living. And against the forces that have besieged us and stolen our loved ones from us, that is not only the best revenge, but the only revenge.