The Angry Prophet Is Dying: Controversial Author Larry Kramer Is a One-Man History of the AIDS Struggle, from Early Activism to the Fading Hope of Medical Salvation

By France, David | Newsweek, June 11, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Angry Prophet Is Dying: Controversial Author Larry Kramer Is a One-Man History of the AIDS Struggle, from Early Activism to the Fading Hope of Medical Salvation


France, David, Newsweek


Larry Kramer is dying. Not wilting pitifully onto a milk-covered floor, like the doomed character in Kramer's devastating AIDS play "The Normal Heart." Not grandly bidding farewell to "all this beauty," as a character did in his outrageous novel "Faggots." Larry Kramer, the 65-year-old AIDS activist who became notorious for shouting on "Nightline" and being arrested at the White House, is dying the way he has always exhorted others to die--that is, furiously and uncooperatively.

He suffers from end-stage liver disease. Whether this is inflamed by his HIV medications, as Kramer believes, or caused solely by his chronic hepatitis (a common co-infection for people with the virus), as his medical team says, the result is the same: his liver no longer processes toxins from his blood. Instead they collect in his abdomen by the quart, distending his belly to make him look, as his best friend and health-care consultant Rodger McFarlane says, "pregnant with triplets." This accumulation puts immense pressure on the underside of his diaphragm, restricting his breathing to shallow gulps. Robbed of his appetite, he has lost a great deal of weight. Speaking is difficult. Words fall out in tremulous burps and hiccups, interrupted by trumpeted coughs that rocket off his spasming diaphragm and out of his mouth like shouts. Doctors regularly draw off fluids from Kramer's abdomen through long needles--10 liters at a time--but it comes back within weeks.

His prospects are certain and grim. "He's got 18 months or a year," says his infectious-disease specialist, Dr. Jeffrey Greene, "maybe less." Surprisingly, long-term survivors like Kramer, who contracted HIV 20 years ago, are again suffering the overall ravages of AIDS and related illnesses, some old and some new. Doctors now know that the triple-drug cocktails that lowered AIDS deaths by 65 percent are simply too toxic to be taken forever. Even those who can tolerate them find they can lose effectiveness over time.

Kramer takes only two medications, AZT and 3TC, though in doses designed for his hepatitis B more than his HIV. On the theory that he would wait until he got sicker, he never went on the protease inhibitors when they arrived with great fanfare in 1996. He has not suffered as a result: the amount of virus circulating in his blood has remained uncommonly low. Nevertheless, after an epic struggle to live, he is losing the battle.

What a reversal of fortune for the oldest living AIDS activist. From the first days of the epidemic in 1981, Kramer, a former movie executive, charged at the disease like a self-styled Patton. He founded ACT UP, perhaps the most innovative protest movement ever. Its members shut down Wall Street to protest drug costs; they pulled a huge condom over Jesse Helms's home in North Carolina to demand prevention funds; they staged die-ins and political funerals, carrying the bodies of their dead comrades to the gates of the White House in wide-open coffins, shocking the government to action.

Somehow through the din, Kramer made everybody who mattered listen, from The New York Times, whose early AIDS coverage was meager, to the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and successive White House tenants, whom he accused of "genocide." His wild blend of hyperbole, scalding honesty and messianic madmanism helped give the cause a sense of urgency and simple tragedy it might not have acquired without him. This was his goal, revealed from the stage of a gay rally in 1983: "We must do nothing less now than remake the soul of our time."

Along the way, his tolerance for dissent has been notoriously nonexistent. Once he even publicly branded his own lover a murderer because he was not fighting the scourge to Kramer's exact specifications. As a result, he is just as often viewed as a noxious force, "disruptive and accusatory and unforgiving, even egoistical," in the words of Arnie Kantrowitz, a longtime activist. …

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