Ashamed To Die is an ethnographic work built on the idea that while silences and a sense of shame accompanied the AIDS epidemic, in a small South Carolina town it also fostered a small vanguard of people who used communication and intercultural understanding to create a space of physical and emotional healing. The book highlights the lives of people in and near Clover, South Carolina whose lives intersected because of the onset of HIV. Skerritt lets us look boldly at the epidemic and the personal truths of the people he encountered. This book is important because it reminds us that the fight is not over. It traces the course of several communication issues and reintroduces the “silence=death” discourse that created so much success in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis movement of the 1980s and 90s.
The book centers the narrative of the fight against AIDS in Clover and the surrounding area on a few individuals who made a decision to confront the crisis head on. Patricia “Tricia” Ann Starr is the first person we meet in Skerritt’s account. A Black woman who was born and raised in Clover during the 60s and 70s, her family history is one deeply rooted in faith and a tireless battle against heartache and pain. Her upbringing by an impoverished, sick mother bearing the burden of her absent husband is a familiar struggle story. As Tricia Ann helps out with the other children of the family, one stands out with a constant need for rebellion and attention. Carolyn, Tricia Ann’s younger sister, is trapped in a life of hyper-sexuality and drug abuse. This combination in the late 1970s and early 1980s proves to be a recipe for HIV exposure. As Carolyn is afflicted, the story unravels to take readers on a tour of doctors, nurses, social workers and families who deal with AIDS for the next two decades in this community. Each person’s individual background is given specific detailed space in Skerritt’s writing so that we understand the motivations, experiences and life worlds of the people who ended up together on the front lines of this battle against silence and denial in their community.
One of the main problems in need of solution is not medical at all. It is cultural. AIDS was seen as a gay disease or a disease of sinning people, a punishment deserved. As so little medical understanding was available in the early days, even educated people were fearful. This meant that in the deep South with a culture of fire and brimstone moral codes that mixed with racism and prejudice in many arenas, AIDS was simply not something people admitted to having. To do so was to lose ties to your family and community. The challenge to remove that stigma and get people the kind of care that would allow them to lead longer, healthier lives is what Skerritt examines. The final chapter takes us to 2008 when Tricia Ann’s dear friend Girard loses his battle to AIDS. Though Girard is openly gay and quite vocal about his views on life, he is unable to tell his sister, Barb that he is dying of AIDS. He feels that he has somehow let her down and asks that Tricia Ann not reveal his secret. I found myself deeply moved by that exchange and understood it fully.
As a senior in high school, I wanted to include condoms in the “favors” my classmates would get at the prom. I had a friend who had suggested this and I thought it was a great idea. We asked to be able to do this – well we told the administration that we were going to do this. They told us this was not appropriate. We railed back about the need for teens to practice safer sex reinforced by the health classes they had given us for the last four years. When that didn’t work, we talked about how hypocritical it was to give out champagne glasses as favors when we were not legally allowed to drink yet not give out something as innocuous as a condom. There was still no change. So then I decided to tell my story. My mother warned me that many people would not understand and she feared I would be ostracized. Like any normal teenage girl, I considered her warning and then decided to do the exact opposite. I told my story – my mom’s story too – anyway. I have vague memories of the meeting with the administration and concerned parents but I remember what it felt like to say out loud to perfect strangers that my father had been an IV drug user and died with AIDS. It was 1993 and the pains of HIV discovery were still fresh even in my very cosmopolitan northern New Jersey high school. I was convinced that once they heard my story and understood how real the threat was, they would let us distribute condoms without reservation. Approval did not happen but Jason (my friend who had the idea to do this) courageously offered condoms to students who wanted them anyway. As I wondered years later why he did not give up after we met with so many “no” answers, I liked to think that perhaps even if telling my story had not made an impact on the people whose approval we needed, it did make one on someone whose resolve was simply strengthened. This is what Andrew Skerritt’s work does for its reader, strengthens resolve and reminds us that the fight to educate people about sexual health has not ended.
This book is important for Communication scholars because it addresses several key important concepts. These include the social restriction of speech and death and health in communication ethics. The community members and workers whose lives he chronicles in the chapters of the book built cross-cultural programs by connecting to a common experience. Patricia Ann Starr’s position as a reverend does not stop her from communicating with people who engage in lifestyles she doesn’t see as “holy” nor does she use their medical conditions as opportunities to proselytize. Rather, she tells them that she is not God, not there to judge and invites them to understand her faith by her compassionate work.
The paths Skerritt describes here offer new insights into how phenomenological understandings might look in today’s societies. While there are limitations imposed by the cultural norms of the small South Carolina town, there are transcendences like Tricia Ann’s as well. These transcendences form a new tributary that nourishes lives of people who are sick and dying or caring for the sick and dying. Finally, the book is important because it emphasizes our ongoing quest for an answer to the question who may speak, who should be a rhetor? As Skerritt shows us, the ethos of the rhetors in the fight against AIDS is built simply on their courage to tell the stories and accept the role of fellow human being.