J. Michael Friedman

1.

Michael sang at my wedding, but he wasn’t actually there. He was at the airport in Long Beach, having missed his flight. Or, it had been canceled. I can’t remember now. So, he called in. Curtis and Jason and Michael were supposed to sing “I Will Never Leave You” from Side Show, a show-stopping ballad from a show that as far as we knew then only I liked.1 Blonde Siamese twins sing it to each other. It’s ridiculous, since of course you can’t leave your Siamese twin. As Curtis has said repeatedly, “It should be I would never leave you!” It’s also a beautiful song. Jason and Curtis and Michael did sing it together, but Michael’s voice was coming from Curtis’s cell phone. Honestly, I couldn’t hear Michael from my chair however many feet away. Anyway: The song had meaning beyond the joke. My husband Rob and I were leaving New York in a few weeks, and three of my best friends were telling me they’d never leave. I stayed with Curtis for three nights last weekend, and at Jason and Liz’s for another two. They never left me, but Michael did. Last month, he died of AIDS, and on Monday night, well over a thousand people attended his memorial at the Public Theater. Michael sang that he wouldn’t, but he did leave me. He left everyone.

2.

I was having a great day that Saturday. I was still on an emotional high from Burning Man, which I’d returned from four days before. I had a great lunch with an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years. I was having a fun chat with a neighbor when I got text messages from Liz. “Hey there – can I give you a call? Let me know if you’re around or just give me a call.” I saw the texts and then my phone died. Obviously something was wrong, but it could be anything. While the phone was charging, I opened Facebook on my desktop computer and saw that Adam Feldman, one of Time Out New York’s theater critics and a friend of all of ours from college, had posted, “RIP Michael Friedman …”

I immediately started shaking and losing focus and felt deep sobs coming through. I got my phone working and I called Liz. The conversation was at first very confusing because Liz had assumed I knew Michael was sick and that he was sick because he had AIDS. But I was piecing it together and had to ask her if that was what happened. I was crying and I was mystified and I was furious and then I was so agonizingly sad. I called my mother and then I called Rob, now my ex-husband, and then I talked to Cat and Jason. I cried and I cried, and I was alone in LA. The next morning I saw my next door neighbor on the staircase and I burst into tears in his arms.

I posted on Facebook, “Michael Friedman was one of the best friends I’ve ever had, an incomparable talent and wit, probably the smartest man I’ve ever known, and an awesome, hilarious roommate. I now know how it feels to be gutted. I don’t know what to do. I don’t understand.”

3.

The first time I remember ever seeing Michael Friedman was through the window of the main door to Adams House. He was standing on the sidewalk with female friend, and he was laughing, long hair bouncing, his smile huge. There was then, and forever, even as he grew more serious and a little more likely to be sad or angry, a Muppet quality to his demeanor.2 He was 19, probably, and I was 20. I was one of few out men in my class, and I recognized a compatriot. He was so much more expressive, with his vocal inflections and his gangly and gesticulating arms, than straight men, who comport themselves, usually, with much more restraint. But, then, as I stood in the Adams House entry, someone told me the two of them were dating. “Well, okay,” I said with a raised eyebrow. They weren’t; she just had a crush on him. And Michael, as far as I knew, was dating no one. I just assumed he would come out at some point.

Three years later, after Michael had graduated and we were both living in New York and both working near West 57th and 8th Avenue, he called me at my desk at Newsweek and asked if I wanted to go for a walk. We had become good friends over the years, mostly because of the various theater projects he did with close friends Liz and Jason, who would become, along with Catherine, my roommates those first years after college. He music directed their production of Company, and he directed Jason and Cat in Lips Together, Teeth Apart, for which I ran the light board – terribly – for two performances. I didn’t know he wrote music then, but I knew he played, sang, and knew things about music and theater and art and literature and history and politics, more and better than anyone else, though I didn’t realize then just how much better. He was funny as hell, too, and in my favorite way: he would make connections between the rarified intellectual world and populist pop culture (e.g. Kant + Britney Spears = Hilarity.) And we were friends, but we weren’t as close as I was to, say, Liz and Jason and Cat.

Then there was that walk. I thought it was an odd suggestion, since we’d probably see each other that weekend at some party or bar get together. But Liz had told me he needed to tell me something. I knew what that would be. But the way he said it, “It seems I forgot to come out,” made it seem rather matter-of-fact. Now, no one forgets to come out like they forget to pack a lunch or pay a parking ticket. And you don’t take one of your closest gay friends on a walk to tell him that it was an oversight, an oops. I didn’t push him on why he waited, because it seemed that so many people waited until after college, which was frustrating as one of the few, often lonely, gay kids on campus, but it’s hard to begrudge him or anyone else being 21 and not ready or scared or private or just plain neurotic. I suspect with Michael it was all of those things, or most of them. Michael’s interiority was always mostly a mystery to me, and it seems, based on conversations I’ve had in the weeks since he died, it was a mystery to so many people. I may have been privy to things others weren’t, I was clearly not allowed in places others were, and so much seemed only to be experienced by him, alone and uncharacteristically quietly.

4.

While last week’s Sunday Times article and Jesse Oxfeld’s lovely remembrance in Tablet mentioned that he was gay, neither obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post, nor the wonderful piece in The New Yorker, reference it, though the “Broadway composer, 41, dies of complications from HIV/AIDS” is enough of a signifier. They focus on his brilliant work, his versatility and wit, generosity and productivity, how he had a million friends, was loved by the theater community like few are, how he was so young and had so much more art in him. I’ve worked as a theater critic and I know Michael’s work pretty well, but I don’t think I can add much to what Alex Timbers or Steve Cosson or Ben Brantley have said and written. I am so sad that there won’t be any new songs and I love his music as much as I do any contemporary songwriter, but if he’d never written a song, he’d have still have been my friend, one of the best friends I’ve ever had, one of my favorite people, someone who I still cannot imagine isn’t going to swoop into town, meet me for a drink, and have with me the most thrilling conversation I’d had since the last time we’d had a drink. If he’d never written the songs in Gone Missing or Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson or Fortress of Solitude, I’d still be devastated, gutted, waking up every morning since that Saturday, realizing he’s still gone and feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus, again, again. But if we weren’t both gay, we wouldn’t have had the same friendship, obviously, and maybe less obviously, I wouldn’t be as confused, enraged, and discombobulated that Michael, somehow, in 2017, absurdly, died of AIDS.

4.

One of my favorite memories of living with Michael was the morning we made each other late for work because MTV was premiering the video of the Backstreet Boys’ “Backstreet’s Back.” We laughed at ourselves, at the video, and presented to each other our cultural and aesthetic analyses.

Before he moved out, I stole from our refrigerator door a photo of him chasing ducks in, I think, England. He was so expressive, every photo of him is rather extraordinary. But I love this one the most.

After I moved in with my boyfriend and he moved to Suffolk Street, he slept on the mattress I bought when I first moved to New York. When I broke up with the boyfriend, I got it back; he helped me drag it around the corner to Norfolk Street, where I’d gotten a sublet. After we hauled it up three flights, he said, “I’m not helping you move again.” He’d helped me three times by that point. I’m still sleeping on that mattress, which I realize is weird.

5.

For a few years in the early 2000s, Michael and I had a regular Tuesday late lunch at Pastis, a now-gone French bistro in the Meatpacking District. We’d invariably show up carrying our folded New Yorkers and discuss the issues of the day, from how Ashley Judd suddenly became a movie star to Franz Ferdinand’s debut album, from the absurd war in Iraq to the end of the American experiment (or things like that). And we also met regularly at the Phoenix, the gay bar in the East Village with the great jukebox and the massing of hipster gays before we had and then derided hipsters. We’d meet usually after whatever show he was working on, maybe midnight, and drink Bass and joke and talk about men, dating, sex, and Ashley Judd, Franz Ferdinand, the war, and the ends of America. I set him up a few times, and he dated a couple guys I knew, but nothing ever lasted, for reasons that always seemed perfectly logical (age, things in common, distance) but as a pattern seemed a bit more neurotic: maybe a fear of intimacy or an inability to be vulnerable. In our late 20s and early 30s, this didn’t seem too odd; he didn’t come out until he was 22, and he was a workaholic, travelled constantly, and that’s a hard way to find and keep a boyfriend. In our late 30s, this seemed sadder, and he never talked about that, beyond muttering to me late one night in his apartment in 2014 that dating is awful, that he had deleted all of the apps.

6.

His seeming lack of romantic experience didn’t mean he didn’t have valuable advice for me, or tough love. He told me bluntly when I was talking about some seemingly petty thing an ex had done to me, “You both did things that made everything worse.” He was right, and I now realize I did more of those things than my ex did. I was a lot less mature than I thought I was, and Michael was a lot wiser than his Muppet-ish affect indicated. When he and Steve started The Civilians and were asking for stories of lost objects for Gone Missing, I wrote to them, partly joking, that I’d lost several objects during the breakup with the aforementioned ex. I complained about it bitterly more often than I should have. Steve and Michael didn’t really respond to me, which made sense, as I was joking, mostly. Then, when I saw the show, the sixth song was “I Gave It Away.”


Been thinking about the way you left
and about the things you used to say
You said you had given me your heart
Said we would never be apart

Now you call and ask to come on by
Say that you left things behind
and I could give you all your things
but why should I when you made me cry
Would you give my heart back to me?

So if you’re missing the clothes you left by the bed
I gave them away
And those old books that you read
I gave them away
You chose to play with my head

And if you lost all your power to sleep at night
If you lost your belief that things will be alright
You can’t find your strength or your will to fight
Well, I’ve got all that too and I’m not going to give it back.

So if you’re missing the sheets you bought when we met
I gave them away
The dog you left at the vet
I gave her away
You lied, so that’s what you get

And if you lost all your power to sleep at night
If you’ve lost your belief that things will be alright
You can’t find your strength or your will to fight
Well, I’ve got all that too and I’m not gonna give it, not gonna give it back.

It was the first time I saw the situation through someone else’s eyes, specifically that man’s. A lot of things made me grow up and realize my errors, but that song did as much, Michael did as much, as anything to engage my then under-developed humility.

Michael’s insight was unnerving, because it was so exacting but also because there was just so much of it. He could arrive in a room, a party, a bar, and he would light it up like a flash grenade. He could also suck the air out of it; sometimes it was impossible to get a word in edgewise, not because he needed to hear himself talk but because he had so much to say. But he was always listening, too, and watching. He understood people, he picked up on their motives and their desires, angers and sadnesses. You can see this most obviously in his lyrics, but if you had those late night beers with him, you’d get it in in his big, knowing eyes and those blunt statements like “You both did things that made everything worse.” That same trip in 2014, he watched me have an insane fight with my then boyfriend over the phone, and he didn’t need to tell me what he was thinking; his eyes said he was scared for me, sad for me. I saw all that, saw what I couldn’t see about myself and the pit I had fallen into.

7.

I spent my nine years in New York in journalism and publishing, and it was not what I had imagined it would be. I loved a lot of it, hated more, and even though I was doing well at work in 2005, I left New York to get a PhD in anthropology. One thing led to another, I had ended up writing my dissertation on HIV positive meth-using gay men and the public health industry surrounding them. When I saw Michael in 2014, I was in a postdoc at UCLA in HIV prevention. My adviser was one of the first psychologists to go to the Castro in 1981 to do research on what was to be called AIDS, and my office was in what had been UCLA’s original Center for AIDS Research and Education. I teach public health now, including the giant survey class at UC Irvine on AIDS.

I heard on Monday that a week before he was hospitalized for AIDS the first time, Michael told a mutual friend that I was one of the two people he’d ever known who had completely reinvented themselves. Michael was impressed by me, I was told. I can’t imagine that anyone as impressive as Michael could be impressed by me, but there was clearly a reason that he was my friend, even still. We had remained in close contact for many years, and then we spoke and saw each other less often, though when we did it was like it always was before. But it’s hard to hear that he was talking about how impressed he was by my transformation into an AIDS researcher and he was already sick, that he must have known something was very wrong.

8.

I came out in 1992, at the height of the epidemic in the United States and I have not and cannot think about my sexuality without simultaneously thinking about HIV and AIDS. I don’t know how to have sex without fear; even though that fear has lessened dramatically because of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and because of the success of treatment — the usual success, anyway — that fear is always, already there. Gay men are subcategorized by HIV status and prevention methods, not just when considering sexual partners but also when considering what it means to be citizen, how we are cared for or not by the government, how we are treated by strangers and family members and friends, what we keep secret, what we tell the world, what is means to be brave or in denial, to be risky or at risk or reckless. The gay art that Michael and I grew up on, the stuff that surrounded us in our teens and 20s is either explicitly or implicitly about AIDS, whether it’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Angels in America, or Falsettos, whether it’s The Line of Beauty, The Farewell Symphony, or Mysterious Skin, whether it’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Jeffrey, or Longtime Companion. Michael worked alongside ACT-UP veterans and veterans of the AIDS holocaust that struck New York’s theater community in the 1980s and 1990s. That boyfriend I treated poorly was both of those things; my subsequent relationships were as often serodiscordant as they weren’t. These are things Michael and I talked about a lot. We talked about how we were surrounded by individual and community, culture-wide cases of PTSD.

But we were also lucky. We came out into a world that was developing hope. We were both young enough that our contemporaries weren’t dying in droves. Until Michael died, I had not had a close friend die of AIDS, though I have dozens of friends with HIV. When I was finishing college, I wanted to go to grad school for medical anthropology and focus on AIDS and nationalism (or something like that), but I knew I wasn’t psychologically prepared for the sadness I would have had to deal with. By the time I got to my PhD, there was so much hope and most of the social science research was focused on how to get more people on the drugs, not on how death was everywhere, all of the time. That hope has made my work possible. And the point of my class at UCI is that we have the tools to end the epidemic. We just need to use those tools correctly and export those tools around the world, to get them into every community, rich and poor, black, white, and brown. The tools have been available for white, middle class, gay New Yorkers for 20 years. Men with Michael’s demographic profile are the least likely in the world to die from anything associated with HIV.

9.

How the fuck does Michael Friedman die of AIDS. How on earth was he only diagnosed as HIV positive in July, when he was also diagnosed with AIDS, because his T-cells were barely registering and he had several of the key opportunistic infections that automatically trigger that diagnosis. How did he have KS on his face for months before he went to the ER. How did no one notice that something was terribly wrong and drag him to the doctor. How did he not get tested for two years – or three years, depending on the story he had told people. How did the doctors, with all we know and all we can do, not save him. How the fuck did this happen. How did I not know.

I dropped all of the question marks from those sentences because they’re all rhetorical now; they don’t have answers, and I am only now asking the air, the sky, the Internet. Last week’s Times article – the paper’s third in a month on Michael – was basically all about how his friends, close and casual, as well as total strangers, are asking how this could happen, how the loss is devastating but the lack of answers and the seeming illogic of it all has compounded it.3

When he confirmed to Liz and Jason what was making him sick, they asked if they should call and tell me. He told them he would call me. He never did. He had been in the hospital for a few weeks after the diagnosis and then at home, and then he got sick again and went back to the hospital. He was busy being very sick. The last week he was on a ventilator. Everyone thought he was going to pull through and then some infection got him that Saturday. Everyone thought I must have known.

Of course, I thought that if I’d been in New York, I’d have noticed something was wrong or I would have gotten him on PrEP before something had gone wrong or I would’ve reminded him to get tested. But he was surrounded by people like me. It sounds like he brushed off the concerns, ignored the slowly broiling situation in his body, until it wasn’t possible anymore.

It’s not my fault, and I know I couldn’t have done anything. But. But I’ve spent the last ten years of my life as an AIDS researchers and educator, and one of my best friends died of AIDS. He didn’t call me, and it feels a deliberate, maybe because of what he feared I might ask or say. It’s not my fault, but it’s not not my fault either. I’m inept. I’m powerless. It’s not my fault. It is.

I don’t get it. I cannot fathom how it could happen: How he could have died of something that was easily prevented and easily treated and how he could be gone.

And yet I can fathom it. I’ve lectured about how the stigma of AIDS makes the HIV test terrifying,4 how the cognitive dissonance of an HIV diagnosis (from a doctor or from your own conclusions) can be resolved in unhealthy ways like denial, and I’ve written about how anxiety and depression increase the risk of infection and make treatment more difficult, if it’s even started. I can fathom how Michael could not get tested for years, how he could ignore that his body was ringing the alarms, how he could dissemble when asked about all of this by his terrified and maybe angry friends and family. He could be depressive and secretive, compartmentalized and, honestly, weird. I can fathom it happening.

10.

It never crossed my mind that Michael could ever not be there. I assumed he’d always be in New York or Williamstown or Hong Kong or London or anywhere, somewhere collaborating on a new musical or visiting an old friend for a wedding or a needed rest on the beach. Maybe he’d pop up in LA and we’d get martinis. As I was flying to New York for his memorial, I involuntarily imagined having dinner with him, assumed I’d be staying at his apartment in Fort Greene. We hadn’t actually spoken in 18 months, though we’d exchanged texts, the last one on April 1. While at Burning Man, I was thinking that I needed to make time to see him. I had been overwhelmed by my first year at UCI, and before that I’d been depressed and isolated and hadn’t reached out to anyone. He hadn’t made time for me, either, but I knew he was busy, that the current political and cultural and social situation was despairing, as it is for  me and the rest of our friends. But something else was going on, and we’ll never know what it is. There won’t be a Rosebud at the end of this or anyone else’s essay.

Several people told me that the memorial might bring me closure — if that’s possible, as closure and catharsis are somewhat mythical things. But rituals – weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs — can create cognitive bridges, transitions from one period of life to the next, the period with Michael and the future without. The memorial was extraordinary, beautiful and funny and exhausting and so, so sad. While waiting for the memorial these several weeks, I was scared of how I’d feel, but also scared that the bridge would be crossed. It has. I’m finally able to finish this essay I started writing three days after Michael died.

11.

When I started writing this, I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen him. I had reread emails and texts and piece it all together. Finally, I realized it was almost exactly two years ago. I had lunch with Michael at a diner near Penn Station on a rainy afternoon in October of 2015. I was on my way to Curtis’s wedding in Duchess County. I’d taken the train from the Newark airport, and before I took the Metro North to Poughkeepsie, I met Michael. I barely remember anything. I think he was wearing a white button down short, barely tucked in, and fraying a bit on the collar and cuffs, and well-worn khakis. He was in sneakers I think. He had an umbrella. He was happy to see me, I think. I assume. I probably got a tuna melt. I don’t know what we talked about. It was supposed to be just another lunch, like the hundreds before and the many to come, so I didn’t need to commit it all to memory. It wasn’t supposed to be the last time, because he should be still be here.

  1. Eventually, a cult of fans grew around it, and it was revamped and revived, but failed again.
  2.  I’ve lost count of how many people have used “Muppet” in their descriptions of him, in written remembrances and at the memorial on Monday.
  3. The article didn’t make any attempt to answer the whys and hows, which was a huge disservice to its readers. Any HIV prevention professional could have provided a rundown of the various reasons someone doesn’t get tested or treated and dies so quickly after an AIDS diagnosis.
  4. All one needs to do is read the comments on any of the articles about Michael’s death to see how the stigma of HIV and AIDS travels through our culture. Even if you fully and completely own your diagnosis, you face so much stress, anger, pity, fear, revulsion, and confusion. It makes sense that people are afraid.

Emotional realism isn’t easy to watch

It is likely that if you are reading this, you were either bullied in high school for not conforming to conservative gender roles or you consciously conformed to such roles so that you wouldn’t be bullied in high school. You may have gone the extra mile and bullied other kids to show how much you were not the kind of kid who should be bullied. Or you may have been bullied so severely that you contemplated or even attempted suicide.

It’s not just queer kids, out or in the closet, obviously. It can be just about anyone. Being bullied is strongly correlated with suicidality, and perhaps counterintuitively, as is being a bully. After falling for many years, suicide rates have been rising for teenagers overall, slightly for boys but dramatically for teenage girls. Over the last 15 years, for girls 10-14, it’s 300 percent higher, and for girls 15-24, it’s 50 percent higher.

It’s all quite sad and, for those of us who suffered in high school (and later), it’s upsetting. So why would we want to binge on a Netflix series about bullying and suicide? 13 Reasons Why, based on the bestselling young adult novel by Jay Asher and created by gay Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey, is certainly a drama about a girl who is bullied and then kills herself. It is meant to be an instructional and cautionary tale. It is as earnest as Heathers was satirical, but it is much more than an overlong version of the lame documentary Bully. It’s sad and fascinating and disturbing and enraging and occasionally funny, romantic and cathartic. It has a fantastic soundtrack, and it’s beautifully shot. It’s also flawed. The show has been the subject of extensive social media chatter for the last two weeks for all of those reasons, with even its haters watching the whole thing. I did so in 24 hours, even as I knew how much it manipulated me more than a narrative is supposed to.

The plot is structured by a smart gimmick. Beautiful teenage Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has committed suicide and before she did so, she recorded her 13 reasons across seven and half cassette tapes. Each reason is focused on a different person who did something, something either horrific or just petty, leading her toward the decision. Each person is given the tapes, told to listen in order, and then pass them along to the next. Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is the 11th side, and the show focuses on his experience listening to them.

A sweet, “good kid” (as his parents say more than once), he keeps almost all of his emotions sublimated, including his love for Hannah. He speaks to no one about the tapes except the other people on them. Some of them are his friends, but most of the kids are their school’s “popular” kids, and they do dreadful things to each other to remain popular, get ahead or prevent everyone from knowing their secret shames.

Hannah gets it the worse, but it’s not clear how reliable she is a narrator and not clear why some of the things that she claims to have set her on a course for suicide wouldn’t do so for anyone but someone who is already suffering from a mental illness. Research shows that 90 percent of people who commit suicide have an underlying mental health disorder, but the story allows Hannah to blame her suicide entirely on other people. It’s a bit much: One deserves to go to jail, and a few are dreadful people, but at least eight of the 13 were simply careless, at worst petty.

I guess some of why I kept watching was that I wanted to see who was really at fault. The narrative is propelled by numerous mysteries, from what Clay did to get on the tapes to who is on them to what was Hannah’s final straw. It’s also propelled by the unbelievable claim that Clay is too upset to listen to the tapes all in one sitting – unlike everyone else, who did it in one sitting – which gives him the opportunity to make the rest of the kids nervous, enraged and dangerously suspicious and the one big reason there are 13 full episodes of the show.

Despite this ridiculousness and despite how dreadful most of the kids are and how devoid of consciences at least three of them are, the show is engrossing and enveloping in a way that only the best teen-focused dramas are. In movies like The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars, or Thirteen, the emotional realism of adolescence is depicted by exceptional and artful acting, writing and directing. The latter includes such luminaries as Oscar-winners Tom McCarthy and Jessica Yu and indie legend Gregg Araki. Minnette is crushingly good in his grief and his love and Langford is luminous and fragile. Alisha Boe is heartbreaking and enraging as Hannah’s conflicted and damaged frenemy Jessica (Tape 1, Side A), while Brandon Flynn portrays Justin (Tape 1, Side B) with a pathetic and dangerous masculinity with a rarely allowed sensitivity. What 13 Reason Why does best is to show how complicated adolescent emotions are, how easily teenagers damage and are damaged, how easy technology amplifies bullies and bullying, and how hard it is to escape unscathed.

13 Reasons Why
Created by Brian Yorkey
Based on the novel by Jay Asher
Directed by Gregg Araki, Tom McCarthy, Jessica Yu and others
Starring Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford and Alisha Boe
Whole series streaming on Netflix

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

In all its messy, bloody, thrilling glory

Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman in LoganI received my first issue of The Uncanny X-Men in my Christmas stocking in 1985. I was 10, and it was the comic that all of my friends were reading. These boys were fixated on Wolverine, the cigar-chomping killing machine with unbreakable bones and long metal claws. He seemed to be half wild animal, half Charles Bronson in Death Wish.

A deeply sensitive and conflict adverse proto-gay, I was unnerved by Wolverine’s violence and unpredictable rage, and I was much more enamored by weather witch Storm and teen genius Kitty Pryde; their stories moved me when Wolverine’s scared me.

But Wolverine was and is the most popular of the X-Men. This isn’t just because the teenage boys who are the majority of comics’ readers love hyper-masculine violence. As the years went by, the writers and artists of the various X-Men titles turned Wolverine into an emotionally complicated, psychologically tortured, and reluctant hero who works in the grayest areas of the moral universe.

I read through many of these stories as a less fearful adult, and it’s this complexity that has made me love the character so much. But when he finally ended up on the big screen in 1999, with Hugh Jackman perfectly cast, the pressures of family-friendly film franchising sanded down Wolverine’s roughest of edges. Or, the edges were there and the films’ mundanity covered them with a polyurethane sheen.

Then comes Logan, the third Wolverine film, ninth appearance of the character on the big screen, and Hugh Jackman’s last time playing the role. Logan is not only one of the best X-Men films – if not the best – but it’s also the best representation of the Wolverine character in all its messy, bloody, thrilling glory.

The new film was inspired by the now classic graphic novel Old Man Logan, but departs from that text in many ways, which will disappoint that title’s ardent fans. It is several decades in the future, mutants have mysteriously stopped being born, and Logan, whose nom de guerre is Wolverine, is grayer, limping and coughing, his mutant healing ability clearly no longer adequate. He is working as a limo driver, trying to save money to buy a boat where he can take a decrepit Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), also known as Professor X, as he dies of something like a cross between Alzheimer’s and epilepsy.

Patrick Stewart in Logan

The most powerful telepath alive, Charles’ seizures are like psychic bombs, so Logan and the albino mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) keep him drugged and hidden away across the border in the Mexican desert, away from innocent bystanders.
One day, a Mexican nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) finds Logan and tries to hire him to take her and a young mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a haven for mutants in North Dakota. Logan is resistant, even though Charles is insistent that they help. When a pack of vicious mercenaries called the Reavers show up and Laura slaughters more than a few with very Wolverine-like abilities, Logan reluctantly agrees.

The basic plot is very “Just one last job!” but director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line) and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green use that structure to investigate Logan as a character without much cliché; through crackling dialogue and one exhilarating set-piece after another, we watch Logan wrestle with mortality, guilt, filial piety and his own instinctive brutality. His interactions with the mostly mute Laura are funny, gruff and moving, giving filmgoers the first glimpse of a side of Wolverine so important in the comics and absent from the films: his counter-intuitive mentoring of teenage girls like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee.

The film also showcases extreme, sometimes jaw-dropping violence, earning the film its R-rating by a mile and then some. It makes Deadpool seems like a Tom & Jerry cartoon. But this violence, which is perpetrated not only by Wolverine but also by a pre-teen girl, is what makes Logan’s physical and psychological pain so believable. It is also what makes his redemption so powerful. For the first time in 30 years, an X-Men story earned my tears.

Logan
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green
Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Glimmers in the darkness

MoonlightI will repeat what everyone else has said over and over again: 2016 was dreadful, and as I write this, it continues to be wretched, with George Michael and Carrie Fisher dying as Donald Trump provokes a new Cold (or World) War. In times like these, with our waking lives enveloped by evil and despair, art can serve to distract, teach and comfort.

As I wrote in my last column, La La Land does that well; its shiny, Technicolor cheer exists in a world outside of any sadness or strife not native to its own story. It’s pretty good escapism, something that very few of the big or the good movies have offered this year. (But not great: It thinks it’s Singing in the Rain, but it’s mostly humming in the shower.)

Usually, when the world sucks, Hollywood gives more than a few great distractions. But not 2016. Zootopia, the blockbuster animated movie, is about racism and eugenics. Captain America: Civil War, the billion-dollar grossing superhero film, is about the vigilantism necessary when government fails. La La Land’s major Oscar competition, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, are extraordinary films about sadness and doubt. And Rogue One, the latest Star Wars film, is as dark as night in its explication of the perils of heroic redemptions. (If you have kids, don’t take them.) None of these movies were made with full knowledge that 2016 would be the greatest annus horribilis since 1939 (or possibly, 1914). But sometimes the zeitgeist can’t be stopped, and sometimes that zeitgeist tells us a few things we need to know and shows us some things we need to see.

At a time of dramatically increased racism, poverty and misogyny, Moonlight is the most essential film of the year. Barry Jenkins’ triptych about the young life of a gay black man in Florida is about many things: poverty, drugs, filial piety, and, especially, the performance of masculinity. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron as various ages – a boy, a teenager, a young man, respectively – as he struggles to protect, express, and redeem himself. His surrogate father Juan (Mahershala Ali) is a drug dealer, his mother Paula (Naomi Harris) is a crack addict, and his only real friend is Kevin (at various ages Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), whose confidence, both sexual and social, is magnetic. The film is weirdly and frustratingly timid in its depiction of homosexuality, but that doesn’t detract from its depiction of finding grace in a world of pain.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is as white as Moonlight is black, as neither have speaking roles for the other race, but it does similar work by teaching us how to make our way through suffering. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, who must figure out how to take over parenting his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after Lee’s brother Joe dies. Lee is already overwhelmed by almost unimaginable grief – it feels very 2016 in that way – and he thinks he is incapable of fulfilling Joe’s wishes and Patrick’s needs. His path is as messy as Chiron’s, fraught with the expectations of duty and manly emotions and parenthood, but Kenneth Lonnergan writes and directs Lee and Affleck to a quiet, bittersweet place of good enough. Both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea taught me how to see glimmers in the darkness.

Several other of the year’s great films do similar work. Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s masterful and gorgeous adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story about Earth’s first contact with alien life, is about connection and communication, about finding meaning in uncertainty and seeming chaos. Amy Adams is a linguist haunted by the death of her daughter as she tries to decipher the language of the squid-like, tree-like visitors. Natalie Portman gives a more mannered but ultimately epic performance as Jack Kennedy’s widow in the hypnotic Jackie, which details the week following the president’s assassination. In trying to define her flawed yet awe-inspiring husband’s legacy through his funeral, she rages, thrashes and grasps for meaning in meaningless tragedy.

Other People, Chris Kelly’s hilarious and devastating autobiographical first film, is about the year David (Jesse Plemmons), a gay comedy writer, spends caring for his mother (a miraculous Molly Shannon) as she dies of cancer. This sort of thing, David says, is only supposed to happen to other people: What do I do when it happens to me? In Swiss Army Man, Hank (Paul Dano) uses a slowly reanimating corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe) to create the life he never had but always wanted, literally creating meaning out of death. The film’s power is in Hank’s ridiculous, but profound, creativity.

Several of my other favorite films don’t even bother to seek meaning or lessons beyond their horror. The nihilism of The Lobster, in which those who cannot find life partners are turned into animals of their choice (Colin Ferrel’s David chooses a lobster), is as disturbing as the cynicism of A Bigger Splash, the story of how the idle rich are consumed by petty games and jealousies while the desperate poor languish at the periphery. And Deadpool, the movie at which I probably had the most fun this year, is a comic book film that makes no attempt to be about anything but its own hyper violence and filthy jokes. In that way, it functions in many ways like La La Land, as a distraction that panders to our simplest emotions. La La Land is a hopeless romantic wish fulfillment, and Deadpool is about fulfilling the impossible to fulfill the wish that thorny problems can be solved with perfectly aimed insults, blades and bullets.

2016’s disasters can’t be killed so easily.

Originally published in LGBT Weekly.

On the effects of cultural discourses of addiction

If you’re not one of my Facebook friends, you may not know what’s going on in my non-film-critic professional life. I’m an anthropologist, remember? So: I finished my dissertation on the effects of cultural discourses of addiction on meth-using HIV-positive men who have sex with men San Diego, received my doctorate in anthropology from UCSD in June of 2013, immediately started a post-doctoral fellowship focused on HIV prevention research at UCLA, am now finishing that, and, with luck, will be gainfully employed by someone fabulous before July. But, chances are, my readers do know that. Or not. Hard to know.

However, even if you do know that stuff, you probably haven’t had the opportunity to read my fabulous dissertation or, as I do when I get a copy of a friend’s dissertation, check to see if you’re in my acknowledgement section. I was told that it was going to be the most fun to write, and it was, since every other section involved deep thoughts. The acknowledgments just required memory and synonyms for “thanks.” After three pages1, however, I ran out of time and space, and I left a lot of people, places, and things off the list. So, an addendum was in order, but I’ll just footnote that, too, because the main reason for this post to talk about where the research went2.

And since you haven’t read my dissertation — and I doubt more than four people have actually read the whole thing — you probably don’t know exactly what I was doing all that time I lived in San Diego. It’s fabulous, but I don’t suggest you read it. Since I finished the thing, I’ve done a great deal of work on large chunks of it, transforming three of the chapters into articles. Those have all been published now, and now I’m going to give you the 411 on them3.

Survival Tactics and Strategies of Methamphetamine-Using HIV-Positive Men Who Have Sex with Men in San Diego,” PLOS ONE, September 30, 2005.

In this article, two ways that HIV-positive drug users survive under the supervision of law enforcement agencies, community health organizations, and social welfare offices are differentiated. First, strategies are long-ranging and often carefully planned, and they involve conscious utilization and manipulation of bureaucratic processes. Second, tactics are short-ranging and often haphazard, and they are used to survive on daily or weekly bases, with entrenched problems and structural solutions avoided or ignored. Data from three years of ethnographic fieldwork with 14 methamphetamine-using HIV-positive men who have sex with men in San Diego, California is used to expand upon these two categories, explaining the different, often ineffectual, ways these men accessed care, services, shelter, drugs, and companionship. This article also examines the policy implications of taking in consideration these different kinds of survival methods, arguing for intensive client-specific interventions when working with long-term addicts with multiple health problems.

Pride, Shame, and the Trouble with Trying to Be Normal,” Ethos, December, 2015.

Methamphetamine use and HIV are large and intertwined problems in American gay communities. This is particularly so in San Diego, California, where both meth and HIV have been endemic for three decades. Because meth use is associated with not just the spread of HIV and other STDs, but also with petty and violent crime, the public health and law enforcement agencies have responded with substantial, but often ineffective efforts at turning meth addicts into “normal,” “productive members of society.” In this article, I examine the effects of these processes on the subjectivities of 14 meth-using HIV+ men who have sex with men (MSM) who were the focus of person centered ethnographies I performed from 2009 to 2011. All of the participants in my study wanted to be normal, and what constituted normalcy was an American – in both the last 20th century neoliberal and “homonormative” ways – ideal of self-reliance, employment, health, marriage, and home-ownership. This desire for normalcy was not just the product of living in the United States at a particular historical moment, but also it was also influenced greatly by the men’s experiences with recovery programs, the prison system, and healthcare providers, all of which were trying to shape them into particular kinds of subjects, specifically addicts, either active or in recovery. They were taught to narrativize their addiction as moral and medical stories, and their stories tended to end with dreams of a normal future, a future free from pain, frustration, and the gaze of the apparatus. But in their struggle to make that future happen, their emotional options were limited by the anti-meth apparatus: those who failed felt profound shame, those who succeeded expressed great pride in their abilities, and those who hovered in the middle I describe as having “risky subjectivity,” the perpetual constructing and reconstructing, the perpetual struggling to become something else.

Framing Samuel See: The Moral Panic and “Double Epidemic” of Methamphetamines and HIV among Gay Men,” International Journal of Drug Policy, February, 2016.

After being arrested for violating a restraining order against his husband, on November 24, 2013, Yale professor Samuel See died while in lockup at the Union Avenue Detention Center in New Haven, Connecticut. The death received media attention around the world, with readers arguing online about whether See’s death was caused by police misconduct, as his friends and colleagues charged in interviews and during a well-publicised march and protest. When an autopsy revealed that he had died from a methamphetamine-induced heart attack, online commentary changed dramatically, with See’s many supporters rhetorically abandoning him and others describing him as a stereotype of the gay meth addict who deserved his fate. In this article, I argue that this shift in the interpretation and meaning of See’s death can be traced to the discursive structures left by the moral panic about crystal meth in the United States (1996–2008), which comprised within it a secondary moral panic about crystal meth in the gay community and its connection to the spread of HIV and a possible super-strain (2005–2008).

I’m currently revising a fourth piece for a collection of essays on syndemics.

My doctoral research led me to all sorts of places I never though I’d go. One of those places is the American corrections system, a bizarre and awful thing that is in desperate need of reform — and research. And my current work is with recently released HIV-positive MSM and transgender women who were incarcerated at the Los Angeles County Jail. But that’s another post.

  1. The research and writing of this dissertation has been the most rewarding intellectual experience of my life, and it would not have been possible without the intellectual, moral, and practical support of a community of scholars, friends, and family.

    The members of my committee provided me with the tools I needed to develop a theoretical position, formulate an ethnographic project, and perform the research, and then go about the strange process of turning all that into something resembling a book. My chair, Janis Jenkins provides me with the theories, approaches, and concerns that inspired this project. She gave me the light bulb that appeared over my head and blinked on in 2008 when I figured out what I wanted, and needed, to write about. That light bulb is still shining. Nancy Postero guided me back into the field of anthropology after 10 years away, giving me a political and moral understanding of the discipline that I had not appreciated or understood. Suzanne Brenner, over many hours in the homes of many of San Diego’s gay couples, taught me how to do fieldwork and to think like an ethnographer. Steve Parish helped me to transform my journalistic skills into anthropological methods, and his encouragement of this project and my work helped me to believe that I might actually be doing something worthwhile.

    If I had not met Tom Patterson, I doubt I would have done this particular project, and I also doubt that I would have had such wonderful, enlightening conversations about its specificities, oddities, and importance. And finally, the last addition to my committee, Norman Bryson, will always be the teacher who now 20 years ago assigned me Foucault for the first time, changing not only my interpretation of art and literature at the time, but eventually my entire understanding of the world and how it works. It is wonderful that I am able to end my formal academic career with the person who helped spark it two decades ago.

    Several other professors have been very important. Two former committee members provides needed assistance early on. Elisa Sobo helped me to understand the massive literature on the anthropology of AIDS, while Meg Wesling gave much needed bureaucratic help at the most important moment. Keith McNeil, who was one of my master’s thesis advisers, was the person who introduced me to psychological anthropology, which, honestly and wonderfully, changed my life. I also filled my intellectual toolbox in the particularly enlightening classes of Elana Zilberg, Joe Hankins, and Tom Csordas at UCSD, as well as in classes at Harvard taught by Byron Good, Arthur Kleinman, Salmaan Keshavjee, Kaila Compton, and William Fisher.

    Of course, if not for my junior colleagues, in the Department of Anthropology, in other UCSD departments, and at other institutions, I would have been lost. In particular, I single out the other medical and psychological anthropology students Whitney Duncan, Charlotte van den Hout, Allen Tran, Bridget Haas, and Jess Novak. The advice of Eli Elinoff (particularly), Julia Klimova, and Erica Fontana in the department’s dissertation practicum was invaluable. I do not think I would have survived graduate school without the love, humor, and friendship, and brilliant scholarship of Jason Farr, Eun Jung Park, and Marion Wilson. Adia Benton has never wavered in her support of me and my work since we met in a panel at the meetings of the American Anthropology Association in 2008. And Timothy McCajor Hall has encouraged me since 1993. Alison Miller, my dissertation coach, taught me how to work.

    Edward De Anda, my research assistant during a key 18 months of the project and now a PhD student in clinical psychology, provided needed help transcribing interviews, managing the flood of research, and providing a soundboard for me initial analyses. Later in the process, four of my best students at UCSD provided needed help: David Lam, Timothy Sargis, Sairah Khan, and Janelle Brown. Thank you.

    None of this would have happened without my family. My brother Hendrik has been on the other side of some of my most profound discussions about addiction. My ex-husband Rob Williams encouraged and joined me for the first six years of the process. And my parents, Hendrik and Sarah Gideonse, not only made it possible for me to do the research, but they also raised me to be curious, moral, loving, and honest. I did it by watching you.

    And finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to my informants, from the men in my central sample who told me their life stories to the people in the apparatus who gave me their time and energy when they certainly did not have to. This has been edited for typos, style, and (slightly) content.

  2.  Here’s to the friends, acquaintances, and fellow travelers who were supportive of the long and occasionally torturous process:

    The staffs of Subterranean (especially), Twiggs, Peet’s, Filter, and various Starbucks who never kicked me or any dissertating grad student out even though we sucked the WiFi and didn’t order enough (though I think I did, since I felt guilty);

    all of other grad students who, at various times, joined me at these cafes and similar places, particularly Tom Waidzunas, Yumi Pak, Julie Lee, and Ted Falk;

    non-academic friends who joined me at cafes and/or commiserated over beers, particularly Lance Criley, Brock Saucier, Jessica Jollet, Andrew Printer, and Justin Hudnall;

    the great people at Family Health Centers who became friends, especially Brian Gorman, Luis Salazar, Kevin O’Rourke, Nicholas Lagunas, and Iris Kristoff;

    all of the various musical acts who, unbeknownst to them, got me through the anxiety of studying, researching, and writing, most importantly Grace Jones, Kraftwerk, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Fleet Foxes, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, TV on the Radio, The National, Vampire Weekend, and The Scissor Sisters;

    all of the TV shows that I used to distract or de-stress, including but not limited to American Idol, Desperate Housewives, Battlestar Galactica, The L Word, and especially Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an episode of which I’d watch every night after doing fieldwork to help me deal with what I’d seen and been told (since supernatural, comedic horror is better than our natural, pedantic stuff);

    the food and drink I used for comfort, such as peanut butter, overpriced Greek yogurt, tortilla chips, cheese (glorious cheese), and the stuff Charles Shaw is branded with that is supposedly “wine”;

    and finally, the cats I lived with: dearly departed Hermia and still-here Jack and Betsy, the two most constant friends I’ve had. (Okay, the cats have to be constant, because they’re trapped in my apartment and I feed them, but I still appreciate that they have never turned on me and, amazingly, usually treat me as a friend instead of a jailer.)

    I’d like to not thank the people I met who mocked graduate schooling, who claimed that I couldn’t have found anything useful without statistics, or who walked away in the middle of conversations about what I studied. Anti-intellectuals are boring, but more importantly they’re dangerous.

  3. The links go to my Academia.edu page where you can download the articles for free. Which is a good thing.