MICHAEL McCOLLY’S MEMOIR/ODYSSEY of the AIDS pandemic is published 25 years (almost to the day) after Dr. Michael Gottlieb, an immunologist at the UCLA School of Medicine, reported five cases of PCP, a rare pneumonia, among gay men in Los Angeles. Each had a profoundly depressed immune system. Although AIDS had killed before, his report in the weekly bulletin of the CDC was the first medical description of what would come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. In the 25 years since Dr. Gottlieb’s short report AIDS has killed 25 million around the world. Today it is estimated that close to 40 million people are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Millions more are likely to die.
Michael McColly was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the early ’80s. Fifteen years later, living in Chicago he was infected with HIV. The After-Death Room is his chronicle of the events that took him from that day in a Chicago clinic when he heard the news that so affected his life, to the many steps he took to reconcile himself with his condition, to becoming a world traveled AIDS activist and journalist.
Although stabilized with antiretroviral drugs, it was yoga and his spirituality that kept him moving forward. His world-wide saga began with a trip to the World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000. He had taught yoga to people living with AIDS in Chicago as a means to maintain health and sustain energy. He did the same in South Africa. This was his first exposure to large numbers of AIDS activists from the developing world, many of them HIV positive themselves. The experience changed his life. Back home in Chicago he got the minutiae of his life in order, and took off to meet, report on and to write a book about AIDS activists, especially those with HIV disease. He then traveled to India, Thailand, Vietnam, and back in Senegal where he had served in Peace Corps.
We have all read the reports about the impact of AIDS, particularly from Africa. Do we need another one? Is McColly’s any different? I think very much so. Although a writer and a journalist, his story is of one who is with the many people he meets, rather than of one who observes and reports. The difference is profound. He is sometimes reluctant to reveal his HIV status to the AIDS activists he meets. Again and again he realizes the importance of telling the truth to these people. “How many times had I been reminded in my travels that telling the truth about myself made the difference between being invited into the lives of the people and being shut out?”
Michael meets former Peace Corps Volunteers throughout his travels who are now working for AIDS agencies and community organizations. He has many knowing things to say about the Peace Corps experience and the ways it can move the lives of Volunteers on. My favorite is his description of an unstated Peace Corps hierarchy: those who sign up and never complete their service, those who hate it but stay the course, those who love it and never stop telling their stories, those who have eyes on some sort of career and stick around and get some sort of government or NGO job, and then there are those who leave the Peace Corps and are so completely transformed by their work and experiences that they never return home. During his journeys he met several RPCVs in the last three categories.
For me the most moving part of Michael’s chronicle comes at the end, his return to Darou Mouniaguene, the village on the Senegalese savannah where he lived and worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Many of us have gone back to the place where we lived, seen the changes often very sad, and visited with the people we worked with and knew. I think it is at this point that Michael is able to answer a question that so many have asked him on his journeys. “Why are you here and why are you writing a book about us?” Michael’s answer is stated in a question, “Why is it that we must listen to the stories of others before we can realizes that the story we need to tell is our own.” Michael McColly tells us his remarkable story.