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From a Burning House: the HIV/AIDS Narrative

Andrew O’Day 

In the developed world, the AIDS pandemic originated in the United States among the gay community. While we must acknowledge the impact of HIV on other groups (bisexual men, women, drug users and haemophiliacs such as teenager Ryan White who wrote an autobiography), this paper will concentrate on relevant prose narratives in the anthology From a Burning House by gay men living in the United States, and published in 1996 when HIV was still felt to be a death sentence.[1] It is beyond the scope of this essay to look at the novel, poetry, theatre, and film and television drama, dealing with the illness, and these have been covered quite extensively by, for instance, Steven F. Kruger,[2] David Roman[3] and Patrick R. Hart,[4] especially from the 1980s and 1990s. There is also no room here for investigation of the multitude of other non-fictional prose narratives by gay men living with HIV in the United States but the Burning House anthology features a variety of writers dealing with a range of pivotal themes and can be read alongside social histories. This paper will investigate the cultural work done by the AIDS narrative in this collection, the literary techniques which are employed and a form which is apparent.


Many...investigations of autobiographies and life stories, particularly those that... examine narratives of difference, add a sociocritical turn to constructivist perspectives. Narratives that explore certain individuals and groups self-identified by gender, race, sexuality, class, or ethnicity tend to validate the terms of how they can be seen to respond to the dominant tales of social identity and power within and against which they are produced.[5] 

Jennifer Brier points out[6] that a dominant tale, which is of relevance here, is that in the Reagan Republican administration, the secretary of the Department of Education, William Bennett, and the under secretary, Gary Bauer, distinguished between the ‘innocent victim’ of AIDS – such as the blood transfusion recipient – and the ‘deserving person’ with AIDS who engaged in, what one of Bauer’s aides referred to as, ‘irresponsible sexual behaviour’. This was homosexual intercourse to which the New Right stood opposed, taking every opportunity to reinforce the need for heterosexual marriage and conformity to traditional gender roles. It was because of this that the Reagan government were slow to respond to the pandemic. The disease did not come to public attention until it affected widespread society other than homosexuals, bisexuals and drug users, and until it affected public figures such as Rock Hudson. All this, including the initial acronym GRID which was employed (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) is outlined by Randy Shilts in his book And the Band Played On,[7] and in a multitude of other histories.[8] Shilts argues that Patient Zero, Gaetan Dugas, was a sociopath who spread the virus intentionally. Whether this is true, or as Richard A. McKay argues, a fabrication,[9] the book is a useful history of what Martin Kreiswirth in the above quote more generally calls ‘dominant tales of social identity’ and ‘difference’, and what Lisa Jane Disch calls ‘marginal stories’,[10] which are also seen in writers’ pieces in From a Burning House. This means that narrative does not just tell official stories, replicating societal norms, as some argue; narratives can be examples of heterodoxy as opposed to hegemonic.[11] 

To give more of a context, From a Burning House is a volume of mostly prose, but also some poetry and drama, written by gay men participating in The AIDS Project Los Angeles Writers Workshop, led by Irene Borger, and was not originally intended for publication. By contrast with the Names Memorial Quilt, where panels were woven by the loved ones of the deceased as memorials, this collection is ‘a tapestry of writings’ (see back cover) by those with HIV/AIDS, revealing theirs, and others, predicament. The tapestry is an image associated with textuality, found in Greek mythology where a raped Philomela has her tongue cut out but weaves her tragic narrative into cloth. The pieces hence differ from case notes by doctors and, because of the nature of the illness, are first-person ‘narratives of difference’ responding to ‘dominant tales of social identity and power’. They are examples of pathography, being trauma narratives concerning experience rather than just diagnosis and observation from the outside,[12] therefore differing from Rafael Campo’s The Poetry of Healing: A Doctor’s Education in Empathy, Identity, and Desire (1997).[13]  

‘Narratives of difference’ can be seen in the Burning House collection where writers deal with the issue of growing-up gay such as in Alan Erenberg’s ‘The Humming Story’, and Ezra Litwak’s ‘A Pair of Figure Skates’. For example, in Erenberg’s piece, his father would make a humming sound every time his son did something ‘queer acting’.[14] Meanwhile, Litwak remarks that he felt like a ‘sissy’ in the pants his mother had bought him and how he disliked his non-hockey skates.[15] He states ‘I was different from the other boys. I would never be like them, swaggering with their easy macho, flirting with all the girls’.[16] However, ‘narratives of difference’ can also be more medical, including how the virus was caught. 

Writers express themselves in pieces which deal unapologetically with promiscuous gay sex and attraction. These pieces are in stark contrast to Panos Christi’s ‘My Day in Abanoz’ where it is stated that ‘the real thing’, that one’s ‘first “real” fuck’ would be with a female prostitute.[17] They include Litwak’s ‘Christopher Street’, and Donald Colby’s ‘Bathhouse’. Colby’s piece concerns the narrative progression from being HIV-Negative to being HIV-Positive and celebrates in a forthright manner the sexual encounter which led to this. Colby writes of a man who ‘wrapped his body around’ him ‘like a huge fist’ and who ‘ordered’ Colby ‘in a coarse whisper to grab hold of’ his ‘ankles’ and ‘went at’ him ‘forever’ while Colby was high on drugs. Colby remarks that ‘Something had changed’ and that ‘something horrible had been planted in’ him.[18]  There is therefore a sequence of events, characteristic of narrative. 

Similarly, in ‘A Letter’, Tony Gramaglia details promiscuous gay sex which led to his catching HIV in a ‘narrative of difference’.  He recalls fantasising years later about the sex he had with a man but, while Gramaglia remembers ‘[c]alling’ the man ‘into’ his body and ‘feeling’ him ‘ooze out’, Gramaglia does not remember his name, what he was actually called, meaning the letter begins ‘Dear ...’.[19] Although Gramaglia thinks that their encounter was the ‘source of’ his ‘dying’ he does not blame the unnamed partner since this was in 1982 before anyone really knew about HIV.[20] Rather, Gramaglia blames the heterosexual county prosecutor of Cincinnati, who ‘closed down the radio station while a gay man was on the air talking about some new disease and instructing about what he thought might be safe sex...condoms...Because this man said it was obscene’.[21] Gramaglia states that had he known then ‘[m]aybe...things could have turned out differently’.[22] The county prosecutor, therefore, brings about a certain narrative progression (how things turn out) and Gramaglia’s piece challenges society’s homophobia. 

The volume does not only include pieces which deal with promiscuous gay sex but also contains pieces which concern gay relationships and AIDS in contrast to the dominant heterosexist society. Some narratives of concern here are Litwak’s ‘Meeting Barry’,[23] John Mulkeen’s ‘Court’,[24] and Steve Maher’s ‘Laurent’,[25] among others set in a hospital. Droze Kern’s ‘The Kern Brothers’[26] differs, dealing with gay brothers who were always able to confide in each other except for the silence surrounding one’s death from AIDS. 

There are also pieces that deal with the physical plight of those living with AIDS in wider dominant society. It is Joe Hogan’s ‘Warts and All’ which concerns the need to measure up to society’s image-consciousness. The piece moves from Hogan examining the appearance of a wart in his bathroom mirror[27] to him in his place of work at a department store looking in the dressing-room mirror and seeing more and more warts on his face as time progresses.[28] We are told that the floor manager, Mr. Sheridan, ‘was always talking about image consciousness and how important first impressions are in making a sale’.[29] Mr. Sheridan demands a doctor’s letter that Hogan is fit to return to work but Hogan tells him ‘matter-of-factly’ that he would be returning to work ‘warts and all’.[30] This piece differs from Ricky Hoyt’s ‘The Vanishing’[31] where we are told of someone who at first tried to conceal his body, where marks had disappeared, from his lover.  

Moreover, homosexuals with AIDS were seen as an abomination before God by many heterosexuals and not holding religious values and the narratives in the book are ones of ‘difference’. In ‘Court’, Mulkeen’s boyfriend, Court, enters a Catholic church, an institution which Mulkeen does not ‘think Court had been ten years’ and, although Court had his head in his hands, nothing happened.[32] Meanwhile, in Maher’s ‘Laurent’, the title figure ‘had lost faith in God’ as a result of being a bastard child, banished, with his brothers, to the back of the church.[33] These prose narratives differ from various others dealing with religion and struggling with one’s faith and AIDS and being in church with AIDS.[34]                                                         

Some of the prose pieces in the Burning House volume are meta-narratives about the act of narration and reception. The narratives in the volume were at first orally delivered in the Writer’s Workshop and received by listeners, which makes them rather distinctive, but through the act of publication are, for us, written narratives. Narratives were originally delivered for a community that stands apart from heterosexist society and is ‘different’. Arthur W. Frank points out that ‘Stories call individuals into groups, and they call on groups to assert common identities’[35] but Frank was not thinking of a workshop of writers. In ‘The First Day’ Gramaglia states ‘Why are we here? Why am I here? To write stories. To tell stories. To be voices that are heard’.[36] He continues ‘Our camaraderie in this room transcends this disease. We are connected by our willingness to create stories and our need to be heard’.[37] In another piece, ‘Okay, So I’m In This Bed’ Gramaglia is witness to all the suffering at the hospital.[38] In ‘Pilgrim’ Brent Bellon remarks that ‘There is no shame among’ the writers since they ‘all share a similar story’,[39] and this idea of storytelling also surfaces in Jimmy Drinkovich’s ‘The Westbound Train’.[40] In ‘J’ the author Colby and J only share their sexuality and a common interest in writing where J’s ‘work interesting snapshot of life as a gay Latino man with AIDS’.[41] Meanwhile, Colby writes in ‘Memorial’ that those with AIDS are all ‘witnesses for one another’[42] but that in telling the story of someone who has died ‘nothing will come’[43] so there is the issue of silence. In ‘The Lost’ Steve Smith curses his loss of memory since he was ‘intended to bear all those men’ who had died.[44] Additionally, the desire to tell stories about relationships comes across in Christopher Gorman’s ‘Fragment’,[45] and in Nathan Clum’s ‘The Fragility of Paper’.[46] 

People with HIV/AIDS are also stigmatised and there is a silence surrounding the disease. In ‘The First Day’ Gramaglia says that he will tell his story in ‘bookstores and at auditoriums, in publications and on the radio’,[47] thereby reaching wider society. Gramaglia’s ‘The Photograph’ concerns the silence involved in someone’s passing: ‘I am still waiting for the minister to say something about AIDS at this service. Some acknowledgment of what killed my friend. But there is none’,[48] ‘I think they are brave, his mother and father...They haven’t told anyone. Never mentioned the fact that their son died of AIDS’,[49] ‘Hold this picture. I tell his younger brother...He wants to know if his brother had AIDS. I know he already knows...Yes, I say. I am not able to lie about this. I don’t want to. I want to tell everyone here that he died of AIDS’.[50] This is what is being done in this volume.  

We saw that in ‘Bathhouse’, there was a celebration of gay sex and that there was a move, typical of narrative, from being HIV-Negative to being HIV-Positive. ‘A Letter’, meanwhile, explicitly revealed that gay sex was contrary to mainstream heterosexist society’s ideology, which affected the way things turned out for someone. As Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, amongst others, has pointed out,[51] narratives involve events in a sequence with a beginning, a middle and an end. Kreisworth, meanwhile, points out that there is a ‘bivalency of narrative’ where there is the time of the told (past events) and the time of its telling.[52] For example, it was not known at the time of ‘Bathhouse’ and ‘A Letter’ that events would lead to a person becoming HIV-Positive. Litwak’s ‘Used To Be’, meanwhile, at first celebrates the past from the perspective of the present. He states: ‘I used to be healthy. I used to be stronger...There is a terrible yearning for the past when the future is so frightening. There is an anger at the present for making me let go of what used to be...I don’t want to be sick. I don’t want to die. Not yet’.[53] Litwak remarks that there is a ‘judgment’ in this. These people are apprehensive about the future (and find it ‘so frightening’) because there is a long wait for HIV to develop into AIDS; no one is sure if, or when, this will occur. Litwak does conclude, however, by suggesting that the past is idealised and is ‘not how it really used to be’.[54] For example, as seen, writers, including Litwak in ‘A Pair of Figure Skates’, have pointed to the difficulties gays faced in growing-up.


We now turn to look at some of the literary techniques employed in the AIDS narrative. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that we use metaphors unconsciously all the time in speech and writing.[55] Susan Sontag argues against metaphoric thinking about illness[56] but concedes that we ‘cannot think without metaphors’.[57] Sontag expresses that there are two main metaphors used for AIDS. One means by which HIV/AIDS is understood is as a plague. Sontag writes that plagues are not simply diseases that are fatal but ones which transform the body into something alienating like leprosy and syphilis[58] and also that plague tends to originate from somewhere else, somewhere foreign,[59] and is a species of invasion often carried by soldiers.[60] Sontag details the way in which accounts of HIV/AIDS see it as having started in the Third World ‘dark continent’ of Africa.[61] The plague is thought to be inescapable[62] and is not only a judgment on certain groups but becomes everybody’s problem.[63] The second metaphor, related to the first, is of AIDS as war. Sontag states that ‘The virus invades the body’ and that ‘the disease (or...fear of the disease) is described as invading the whole society’.[64] Sontag writes that before the advent of AIDS ‘Medicine had been viewed as an age-old military campaign now nearing its final phase, leading to victory.[65] ‘The advent of AIDS’, continues Sontag, ‘made it clear that the infectious diseases are far from conquered’. However, Sontag ends the book with a punch by pointing to the problems with the AIDS as war metaphor stating that we are not being invaded, and that the ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy.[66] While it is harmful to see the ill as an enemy invading the whole of society with a virus, as long as we accept that and do not take the metaphor too far the AIDS as war metaphor can be acceptable. Also worth mentioning is that unlike in her discussion of tuberculosis, Sontag does not give many examples of AIDS as plague and as a war. There are also other metaphors for HIV/AIDS which add to Sontag’s. 

Metaphors and similes can be found in social histories of the AIDS crisis such as Shilts’ And the Band Played On. There is a focus on HIV/AIDS as war when a simile is used that ‘The epidemic would cleave lives in two, the way a great war or depression presents a commonly understood point of reference around which an entire society defines itself’.[67] The epidemic is set against the fight for gay rights,[68] and cuts short the victories gays were achieving. There is mention of how gays were shielded from a backlash[69] but also that AIDS was seen as God’s judgement by some. AIDS was seen as a new ‘gay cancer’ or ‘plague’, especially by the gay community, but also, as noted earlier, by the government, but becomes a more general plague with an epigram of the Biblical Fourth Horseman at the start of a section of Shilts’ book. There are also other metaphors. There is personification when Shilts remarks that ‘To be sure, Death was already elbowing its way through the crowds’ of a gay parade.[70] We are told that the ‘spectre haunted’ people.[71] Gay men are also seen as participating in a ‘lottery of death’[72] and another metaphor is introduced when a doctor says early on, ‘We’re seeing only the tip of the iceberg’ what would become the all-encompassing metaphor for the AIDS epidemic for years to come’.[73] This is a reference to the Titanic disaster like the book’s title where the band stoically played on as the ship sunk. It is alongside social histories like this one that we can see writers employing metaphor in their accounts in From a Burning House. 

In her Introduction, Irene Borger writes about how she encouraged psyche (spirit) and techne (craft).[74] In From a Burning House there is also the metaphor of AIDS as war. In ‘What I Have’, Marc Wagenheim notes that his ‘temperature soars and the chills invade’ his body.[75] In ‘Chemical Man’, Robbie Hilyard uses the metaphor of another individual being ‘no longer...human’ but the first of ‘a new race...Homo pharmaceuticus’[76] and of pills as both smothering, and shielding, him.[77] In ‘Nothing’ Michael Martin personifies AIDS stating ‘In the world I live in AIDS is always the villain’[78] and AIDS is also personified, albeit in a poem ‘Group Photo’, as The Grim Reaper, killing this community.[79] This recalls the personification of AIDS as Death in Shilts’ And the Band Played On. Gramaglia’s ‘Notes While Waiting’, meanwhile, sees Gramaglia sitting with a friend who is awaiting the result of his HIV test. Gramaglia has already tested HIV-Positive and describes the room as a ‘holding cell’ in which he is ‘trapped’ with a ‘ least fifteen feet high’ and ‘a row of narrow windows at the top...covered with blinds’.[80] He says that he cannot use the door to escape.[81]  Doug Bender’s ‘Dishes’ concerns time. Bender states that one does not know how much time one has left and also that others peek into the unknown like at a horror movie.[82] This is while one is engaged in ordinary activities. 

An example of the two levels of psyche and techne at work can also be seen in another way in Hilyard’s ‘Chemical Man’. At the level of what is being said, we see how the person being described – with AIDS – relies on medication, and at the level of techne,[83] this is revealed through non-ending run-on sentences where the word ‘pills’ is used repeatedly, e.g. ‘There are pills to help him breathe, pills to make him cough things up, pills to smother his coughing so he can sleep at night, pills to make him sleep when it isn’t the coughing keeping him up, pills to mask the itchiness when the combination of other pills causes his skin to erupt in nasty-looking red bumps that no one can identify...’ etc. etc.[84]  Therefore, the sentence construction mirrors the comment that ‘The line of pills is like a rope by which he pulls himself throughout the day, a week...’.[85] 

From a Burning House also contains different forms including, what Carolyn Forche finds in her investigation of poetry written in times of crisis: the fragment. This is noted by Borger.[86] The reason for the fragment is that either the writers were busy caring for sick ones or did not have chance to finish their pieces as the disease took its toll.


HIV/AIDS prose, then, fits into the disciplines of Literature and Cultural Studies. There is more work to do; for instance, it is worth speaking with gay men who are HIV-Positive and, in a reader-response manner raised by Rita Charon,[87] finding out their views about the collection as well as determining whether they would find such a Writer’s Workshop useful. It is also important to broaden our study of AIDS prose narratives, looking for one at more work by ethnic minorities like black gay men. It is moreover worth examining not only film and television widely and more recently where, for example, the soap opera, as a continuous narrative, is equipped to tell an ongoing story of a gay character with HIV, but also film projects devoted to those living with HIV such as The HIV Story Project from the US, as well as web blogs written by people who have HIV.


Amos, W.E., When AIDS Comes to Church (Westminster Press 1988)

Borger, I. ed, From a Burning House (Pocket Books 1996)

Boyd, T., Living with AIDS: One Christian’s Struggle (C.S.S. Pub 1990)

Brier, J., Infectious Ideas: US Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis (University of North Carolina Press 2011)

Charon, R., Narrative Medicine (Oxford University Press 2006)

Disch, L.J., Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy (Cornell University Press 1994)

Frank, A.W., ‘Illness and Autobiographical Work: Dialogue as Narrative Destabilization’, (2000) 23 Qualitative Sociology 135

-. Letting Stories Breathe (University of Chicago Press 2010)

Halkitis, P.N., The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience (Oxford University Press 2004)

Hart, P.R., The AIDS Movie: Representing a Pandemic in Film and Television (Routledge 2000)

Hawkins, A.H., Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography (Purdue University Press 1999)

Kreiswirth, M., ‘Merely Telling Stories?: Narrative and Knowledge in the Human Sciences’, (2002) 2 Poetics Today 293

Kruger, S.F., AIDS Narratives: Gender and Sexuality, Fiction and Science (Garland 1996)

Lakoff G., and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press 2003)

McKay, R.A., ‘Patient Zero: The Absence of a Patient’s View of the Early North American AIDS Epidemic’ (2014) <> accessed 10 March 2016

Roman, D., Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture and AIDS (Indiana University Press 1998)

Rimmon-Kenan S., ‘Concepts of Narrative’ (2006) Collegium

Shilts, R., And the Band Played On (St Martin’s Press 1987)

Sontag, S., Illness as Metaphor & Aids and its Metaphors (Penguin 2002)

[1] Irene Borger, ed, From a Burning House (Pocket Books 1996)

[2] Steven F. Kruger, AIDS Narratives: Gender and Sexuality, Fiction and Science (Garland 1996)

[3] David Roman, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture and AIDS (Indiana University Press 1998)

[4] Patrick R. Hart, The AIDS Movie: Representing a Pandemic in Film and Television (Routledge 2000)

[5] Martin Kreiswirth, ‘Merely Telling Stories?: Narrative and Knowledge in the Human Sciences’, (2002) 2 Poetics Today 310

[6] Jennifer Brier, Infectious Ideas: US Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis (University of  North Carolina Press 2011)

[7] Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On (St Martin’s Press 1987)

[8] e.g. Perry N. Halkitis, The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience (Oxford University Press 2004)

[9] Richard A. McKay, ‘Patient Zero: The Absence of a Patient’s View of the Early North American AIDS Epidemic’ (2014) <> accessed 10 March 2016

[10] Kreiswirth (n 5) 311 quoting Lisa Jane Disch, Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy (Cornell University Press 1994)

[11] Kreiswirth (n 5) 310-312

[12] Anne Hunsaker  Hawkins, Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography (Purdue University Press 1999) 1, 3, 12

[13] Arthur W. Frank, ‘Illness and Autobiographical Work: Dialogue as Narrative Destabilization’, (2000) 23 Qualitative Sociology 143-149

[14] From this point on, I use the authors’ names rather than the term ‘narrator’.  We can only assume that the accounts mentioned in this essay are reliable, although this is not necessarily always the case of ‘autobiographical prose’.

[15] Borger (n 1) 20

[16] ibid 21

[17] ibid 39

[18] ibid 95

[19] ibid 102

[20] ibid

[21] ibid 103

[22] ibid

[23] ibid 80-81

[24] ibid 236-239

[25] ibid 240-252

[26] ibid 253-257

[27] ibid 120

[28] ibid 121, 122

[29] ibid 121

[30] ibid 128

[31] ibid 314-318

[32] ibid 238-239

[33] ibid 250

[34] Terry Boyd,  Living with AIDS: One Christian’s Struggle (C.S.S. Pub 1990); William E. Amos, When AIDS Comes to Church (Westminster Press 1988)

[35] Arthur W. Frank, Letting Stories Breathe (University of Chicago Press 2010)

[36] Borger (n 1) 220

[37] ibid

[38] ibid 196-197

[39] ibid 187

[40] ibid 296-297

[41] ibid 214

[42] ibid 217

[43] ibid 216

[44] ibid 307

[45] ibid 268

[46] ibid 228

[47] ibid 220

[48] ibid 298

[49] ibid

[50] ibid 299

[51] Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, ‘Concepts of Narrative’ (2006) Collegium

[52] Kreisworth (n 5) 303, 308-309

[53] Borger (n 1) 148

[54] ibid 149

[55] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press 2003)

[56] Hawkins (n 12) 22-23

[57] ibid 23

[58] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor & Aids and its Metaphors (Penguin 2002) 131

[59] ibid 133

[60] ibid 134

[61] ibid 137

[62] ibid 139

[63] ibid 150

[64] ibid 151

[65] ibid 158

[66] ibid 180

[67] Shilts (n 7) 12

[68] ibid 27, 32

[69] ibid 284

[70] ibid 12

[71] ibid 20

[72] ibid 262

[73] ibid 90

[74] Borger (n 1) xxvii

[75] ibid 116

[76] ibid 168

[77] ibid 167

[78] ibid 109

[79] ibid 212-213

[80] ibid 110

[81] ibid

[82] ibid 206-211

[83] Kreiswirth (n 5 302) notes the distinction between what is told and how it is told (whether labelled logos and mythos, fabula and sjuzhet, historie and discours or story and discourse) from Aristotle, to the Russian Formalists to the French Structuralists, to the present.

[84] Borger (n 1) 167

[85] ibid 170

[86] ibid xxv

[87] Rita Charon, Narrative Medicine (Oxford University Press 2006)

Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.

This page was first published to the internet Sunday 19th June 2016.