Within a nine-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I lost my sister, her husband, and their two-year-old son to AIDS. Not long after, my fourteen-year-old niece, one of my sister's two surviving children, committed suicide. The circumstances surrounding their deaths have compelled me to write this book as a coping mechanism, a way of understanding. My sister, Mary, would have preferred that I drop out of graduate school and return to be with her in the small, lower-middle-class town where we both grew up. From Mary's perspective, such a move would have been far more helpful to her than what I was trying to do: survive the dual pressures of graduate school and AIDS through writing.
I realize that I cannot speak for my sister. My rendering of her views and experiences in these pages is no more fixed than my own writerly persona. But as a witness to some of my sister's experiences, I have come to see the themes of silence, representation, and HIV in a new light. What I saw Mary do in response to HIV was what I saw much AIDS literature and visual culture do: approach the topic by glorifying the elevated abstraction of the mother / good woman as a way of tempering the degraded meanings associated with HIV. 1 The problem with such a strategy is that it silences the lives of flesh-and-blood women and distorts the realities and struggles of those who have died.
For Mary, as for most women who have AIDS or are HIV positive, AIDS was just one of many difficulties. Owing to the many problems that had