A Quilt for David by Steven Reigns feels like a sacred book to me. I lived through the AIDS crisis and the disinformation and fear mongering that went along with it. This poetry collection chronicles the difficult story of a dentist, Dr. David Acer, who contracted HIV and continued to practice on patients during the 1980s. Some of his patients contracted AIDS and sued him. A Quilt for David is about the pain of AIDS and the politicalization of the crisis. It is about much more than just David Acer but the ways that people used the fear and pain of that time and homophobia for their own benefit. It doesn’t present any answers, but with a shockingly straight-forward and almost stoic style exposes the many problems when medicine and discrimination and the law meet and are used for personal gain.
I was a teenager during the 1980s, and over the years I have forgotten how politicians used the epidemic to create little petty moments to add to a power based on misinformation. Reigns writes, “In the holocaust of AIDS, William F. Buckley Jr. suggested tattooing the infected. To serve as a warning, like cautionary tape, road flares, or traffic cones” (15). Buckley, the famously ultra-right conservative, used the deaths of these people to bring about a return to some of the anti-gay discrimination of the Holocaust. He must have known the kind of dangerous precedent that he was setting. He must not have cared. He talks, too of Reagan’s refusal to even speak about the crisis. The fallout of these kinds of statements and disinformation was a fear that kept people in the shadows and made the crisis worse.
Reigns also shows us how a cultural shame over sexuality helped to make Acer an easy target for those trying who saw revelation of a sexual past worse than death. He writes about a grandmother with a history of sexually transmitted disease who sued Acer’s estate because she had AIDS, and he had given her a non-invasive cleaning.
All complications of HIV.
These occurred before she saw you.
Before you put on gloves,
asked her to open, injected Novocaine, told
her to floss and use fluoride toothpaste.
This grandmother sued,
blamed you, and
won the settlement (64).
Who knows what this woman was going through, what shame made her do? Reigns shows us again and again, people who found Acer to be an easy scapegoat. Of course, perhaps many of these people were simply looking for an easy paycheck. Perhaps many people actually believed that he had infected them. Perhaps he actually had infected them. The problem and the tragedy that Reigns points out is that perverted cultural norms and a political structure based on creating crises and news broadcasters who value spectacle culture made having a clear understanding of what was happening almost impossible to know. And those who did have a better understanding were muted by the Buckleys of this world.
This is a sacred book for a number of reasons. The first is that part of what happened then is of course happening again now. There are those intentionally spreading misinformation about a disease to gain personal power. It’s also sacred because it helps to tell the story of the LGBTQIA community so that we can move past isolating homophobia. But there is another dimension as well. It helps us to understand the complicated life of David Acer, a life that has been made to seem overly simplified so as to score political points for people who cared more for ambition than humanity. Reign’s book makes clear what happens when we overlook the complication of other people’s lives.