‘People in Trouble’ at Thirty: On Realism, Trump, and the AIDS Cataclysm
Author: Sarah Schulman
October 8, 2019
Thirty years after its completion, my novel People in Trouble has taken on resonance far beyond my original passions and intention. Its most notorious cultural eruptions: the uncredited derivations of the novel into the musical Rent, and the premonitional nightmare of Donald Trump as a world “leader”–are filled with meaning and have been fodder for speculation. Yet these later manifestations stray far from the originating emotions, influences and open-hearted vulnerabilities that led me to write it in the first place.
In 1986 I was 28, and met and fell in love with an older woman in a long-term relationship with a man, who both occupied seats in a mostly straight avant-garde art movement. I wanted her to accept me and our relationship as something worth protecting, but that was impossible because of her ideologies. Some were rooted in fears, some in privileges, some in fear of loss of those privileges, some in fear of having to acknowledge those privileges, some in freedom from having to change. In some ways what stood between us was an investment in a particular kind of bohemianism filled with great ideas, huge amounts of fun, unconscious sustained class protections and its accompanying supremacy perceptions. I remember the one time I brought her to meet my parents, hoping she would use her age and class to help them love and understand me, but she ended up lecturing them on the history of the avant-garde, and complaining about how under-recognized she was in her art career, thereby re-enforcing their degraded thoughts about me. It was a waste with long-term consequences, losing this singular opportunity to show them that I was, in fact, loved. In the end, all of these constructions that were in fixed positions before I ever came along kept her from being able to learn from me, and all that I had lived and was living and longed to share.
I, on the other hand, learned a great deal from her. She’d had a superior education, an exceptional arts experience, and exposed me to people, scenes, histories, objects, places, communities, ways of living, that I had never noticed or even heard of. These introductions have enriched my thinking and my art making all of my life, opened up enormous skies of possibility, and formed my aesthetics, informed my sense of humor, my willingness to take artistic chances, and my ability to appreciate and take in a wide range of ideas. Now I am sixty-one years old and she is in her seventies. After decades of ignoring my work, never reading a single thing, never coming to any public events, not a play, not a reading, in short–pretending that I was not doing what I was doing and not becoming who I had become, she suddenly showed up one day to a screening of the feature film Jason and Shirley, that I had collaborated on with director Stephen Winter and my co-actor Jack Waters, about the filmmaker Shirley Clarke and the making of her 1964 classic Portrait of Jason. We were all shocked to see her come into the theater, and we feared what she would say, but when she raised her hand, it was finally to offer some kind of kindness, and it was really very sweet.
We actually walked home together. She had just had her 70th birthday and she said she felt “lucky to be alive,” so I guess—ultimately–she changed. She realized something about the simple value of acknowledging. And that change made her able to be kind. And whether or not she still believes in the possibility of superior aesthetics, as she once did, the concrete innovations of her artistic peers that required skill, talent, labor and courage to create handmade works in the visual arts, sometimes taking years of painstaking construction, are now available to all through software, and have taken on such a flattened tone, as they have been assimilated into marketing and public technology, that they are hardly noticeable as distinct decisions requiring selective choice.
This whole question of living long enough to understand that the human game of cruelty, superiority, separation is a pose that can simply be dropped, that itself is a very emotional subject among my queer generation, because at the very time that this woman and I fell in love, 1987, I was surrounded by my queer world dying of AIDS, and me and my friends were obsessed with keeping these men and boys alive. So many never had the chance to live long enough to finally be kind. I was in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) while we were involved, and yet she never came to a meeting, nor to a demonstration. It was so separate at that time, the straight world and the gay one. People could step in and out, but they literally took place in distinct spaces, consciousnesses. One of the revelations of this searing relationship was that my lover and her boyfriend seemed to be only peripherally implicated by the raging AIDS crisis, while I was drowning in death. Yes, they knew people who suffered and died. And yes, they cared. But it was hard for me to grasp how we could be so physically close–literally our bodies entwined, and living only a few blocks away from each other, and have such dramatically different daily lived realities of this mass death experience that was the epicenter of the AIDS cataclysm.
Two years after we met, I was at an ACT UP demonstration on May 9, 1988, at the Food and Drug Administration, trying to force the US government to release drugs faster so that dying people could try them. In a historic speech called ‘Why We Fight’, the late film critic Vito Russo described this separation experience exactly:
Living with AIDS is like living through a war that is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them. They’re walking the streets as though we weren’t living through some kind of nightmare. And only you can hear the screams of the people as they’re dying. And their cries for help.
But at this point I had already finished the manuscript. Remember that there is a gap between the creation of a novel, the time when a publisher agrees to take it, and the additional wait of a year or two until it is physically published. So even though People in Trouble appeared in 1990, it had to have been completed 2-3 years earlier. This time frame is important because I imagined an AIDS activist organization or movement in People in Trouble before ACT UP actually existed–as it was founded in March 1987. In my novel, I named the group JUSTICE, which was a far less creative name than ACT UP. And I imagined JUSTICE doing a small action of defiance in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which was modeled on a small, earlier gay liberation action I’d participated in with 10-20 others when we went inside the church and silently turned out backs on Cardinal O’Conner. Again, reality was far more dramatic than fiction, because in December 1989, a few months before People in Trouble appeared on the shelves, ACT UP held a demonstration of 7,000 at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and disrupted mass–an event that will be described in detail in my forthcoming 2021 book Let the Record Show, a nonfiction political history of ACT UP based on the 188 interviews that Jim Hubbard and I conducted with surviving members of that organization over 18 years, and which you can view at www.actuporalhistory.org
The title came from a book by Wilhelm Reich that I was introduced to by activist Maxine Wolfe. Reich’s People in Trouble opens with him observing soldiers firing on workers, and as he watches the unjustified brutality, the pointless carnage, he sees that the workers and the soldiers are the same people, from the same class, but one has been taken over by the state. Their uniforms are the sign of this control that compels them to kill their own mirror images, who are instead fighting for justice. My model for the style of People in Trouble was Germinale by Zola, a 19th century French Realist novel about a miners’ strike that I had studied with Francoise Meltzer at the University of Chicago before I dropped out in 1979. This version of “Realism” helped me to parse the details of the eye of the hurricane that was life inside the AIDS crisis at that time. It was my job to record the specificity of the experience. I remember reading a story about Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who was sent to Stalin’s gulag where she composed poems with burnt matches on bars of soap. One day a fellow prisoner recognized her, since poets were celebrities in Russian society at that time. And the prisoner asked “Can you describe…this?” Realism helped me describe…”this.” The carnage. Not the loss, which came later, but the chaos of constant suffering. I made pages and pages of notes of details of the crisis, and then selected key observations and scattered them throughout the novel, anchoring my characters in the real.
Ironically, it was the use of some of these details that were the original clues that the musical Rent by Jonathan Larson had used characters, settings, themes, and ideas (and details) from my novel without optioning my book, as he should have done. Of course, at that time queer art was haphazardly considered to be a free feeding trough for mainstream work, the most classic example being Madonna’s hit song “Vogue” based on the Black queer art form of Voguing available to be cherry-picked from the streets of New York. The full and complete story of this strange cultural appropriation has already been told by a number of journalists in fancy legitimate places (Achy Obejas in Chicago Tribune, Dudley Saunders in New York Magazine, June Thomas in Slate,) and in my book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America, which was published by Duke University Press in 1998. So, I won’t repeat that information here. But, Jonathan Larsen died on opening night of Rent of an aortic aneurysm and perhaps if he had not died, the show wouldn’t have become a hit. Or if it had, and he had lived, I assume he would have settled with me in some token financial way that would have changed my life entirely and not made a dent in the Rent fortune. But he died mythically, leaving people to falsely believe he had died of AIDS–which is what young men died of in those days, and all I got was the legend. I would love it if someone would make a movie of People in Trouble, so the story could be told properly. Now that 30 years have passed, perhaps the world is ready for it.
The Trump issue is an entirely other matter. Ever since his father got rich by refusing to rent to Black people in Queens, New Yorkers have known and hated the Trumps. The late 80s were the turning point in visibility of gentrification, and New Yorkers knew that developers like Trump and the Helmsleys were receiving corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks to build luxury housing, offices and hotels. As expensive new real estate replaced affordable housing, the numbers of homeless people soared, and I was becoming increasingly aware of the overlap of AIDS and homelessness. It seemed like a reasonable act of imagination to envision Trump coming to real power and sacrificing the homes, and therefore the lives, of the vulnerable for simply more profit. If you look back at the reviews of the novel, no one found this far-fetched or extreme. How sad to have been right, thirty years in advance, in somehow understanding the supreme role this man would play in destruction of the fabric of human relationship, and the suffering he would cause.
My subsequent AIDS novel, Rat Bohemia (1995), while still organically a product of the AIDS immersion, and surrounded by the death of the young, benefited artistically from being the second of my works about the epidemic. People in Trouble relied on a Social Realism approach as part of the message: trying to explain what it was like to be drowning in disaster. By the time I wrote Rat Bohemia, I had my own foundational creation to stand on, and was able to then be more formally inventive without losing the soul of the experience being conveyed. I then went on to write the novels The Child and The Mere Future which reflected the crisis in even more varied ways, and the AIDS-focused nonfiction books The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2013), Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, And The Duty Of Repair (2016) and next this history of ACT UP. AIDS has been only one of a number of arenas of human experience that have occupied my creative and emotional life, but it has been consistent. And that is itself meaningful, since most of the writers who began to convey the AIDS experience from the beginning in the early 1980s have died. So while I, of course, hope that each work stands on its own and creates a distinct aesthetic, historical, and emotional experience, the continuity itself also, hopefully, creates an experience for the reader.