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Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival Hardcover – January 14, 2014

4.7 out of 5 stars 59 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Guest Review of Body Counts

By John Berendt author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Sean Strub
John Berendt

When the anti-viral drug AZT was approved for use against HIV/AIDS back in 1987, Sean Strub's doctor urged him to take it. Strub was HIV-positive, and early tests of the new drug had produced dramatic results. He followed his doctor's advice, but reluctantly. After two weeks of agonizing over the pros and cons, he stopped taking AZT. It was a gutsy move, since no other drug was on the horizon, but it turned out the best thing he could have done: AZT's benefits proved to be short-term, and the drug itself was toxic at the dosages prescribed. "[H]ad I continued to take it," Strub writes in Body Counts, his engrossing and immensely readable memoir, "I very likely would have died, as thousands of others did."

A small library of books by people with AIDS has sprung up in the thirty years since the start of the epidemic. They constitute a remarkable sub-genre of historic importance, and Body Counts shares qualities common to the best of them (Paul Monette's Borrowed Time, Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On, David B. Feinberg's Queer and Loathing, and Shawn Decker's My Pet Virus). Strub writes from the perspective of an activist-insider. He sheds new light on the nature of the disease, the struggle against it, and the politics that pervade every aspect of what has come to be known as AIDS Inc.

At an early age, as one of six children in a conservative, church-going Iowa family, Strub demonstrated an entrepreneurial flair and an obsession with politics. He sold subscriptions door-to-door and hawked soda and popcorn at University of Iowa football games. In high school he was a page in the Iowa legislature. In college he ran the "Senators Only" elevator in the U.S. Capitol and expected that this would put him on a "political fast track." Life took unexpected turns, however, and by the time he entered politics in 1990, it was as the first openly HIV-positive candidate for Congress.

When he became sick with AIDS, Strub focused his energies as an activist and entrepreneur on AIDS itself. In 1994--just as purple lesions of Kaposi sarcoma began to show on his face--he drew up plans to launch POZ, a consumer magazine for people with HIV. POZ would serve as a source of up-to-date medical, scientific, legal and financial information about the epidemic. It would create a sense of community for its readers by featuring stories about people just like them who were managing to live fruitful lives while surviving with HIV.

Strub raised most of the money for POZ from a company with the ghoulish specialty of buying life-insurance policies from terminally ill people who were near death. He cashed in his policy for $450,000, sold his country house, maxed out his credit cards, withdrew his savings, and put all of it into the successful startup of POZ.

Through POZ, Strub gained (and shared) sobering insights into Big Pharma, which was both his biggest source of advertising revenue and at the same time the most frequent subject of investigative reports in POZ. He avoided conflicts of interest by publishing the uncensored truth about the strengths and weaknesses of every drug targeted at AIDS. More than one drug company pulled its advertising in anger over a negative mention, nearly sinking the magazine while ironically confirming its credibility.

As Body Counts describes in memorable detail, Strub frequently backed up the magazine's stand on issues with acts of boots-on-the-ground civil disobedience. One such episode, to publicize the campaign for safer-sex education, involved placing a giant condom over the suburban home of Senator Jesse Helms, the Senate's most implacable homophobe and foe of AIDS funding. Another far less light-hearted action took place at St. Patrick's Cathedral in protest over the church's deceptive and potentially harmful "Condoms Don't Work" campaign.

Two years after the launch of POZ, the introduction of combination therapy drastically reduced the death rate from AIDS so that when the twentieth anniversary of POZ occurred in 2014, both Strub and the magazine were around to celebrate it.

Review

A Lambda Literary Award Finalist

“Inspiring... A vital history of ordinary people rising up and demonstrating the potential inherent in this extraordinary country... Although at times it is agonizing to remember and relive our past, Sean’s articulate, and humane memoir transforms this pain into a hope for a better future. This is the most personally powerful and authentic portrayal of our collective history that I have read since Paul Monette's On Borrowed Time." (Judith Light)

“What a life! From the Senate elevator to Studio 54 to Andy Warhol and Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and John Lennon to the famous demonstration inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral--who is this guy, Forest Gump? This is the compelling life and near-death story of Sean Strub, of thousands lost to HIV-AIDS, and thousands more living with it whom his activism helped save. Wow.” (Andrew Tobias, author of The Best Little Boy in the World)

"Read Body Counts by Sean Strub and share one American's story of growing up with an instinct for justice, then finding oneself in an epidemic whose tragedy is multiplied by bias. As a man who survived sexual abuse, rape and an HIV diagnosis, Strub embodies the shared interest of women and men who fight for human rights, and against any government or person intruding on our bodies. By taking us with him on his journey from a conservative family in Iowa to the heart of a global movement for human rights, Sean Strub gives us ideas, strength and heart in our own journey." (Gloria Steinem)

"Body Counts is an absorbing read. It not only vividly recounts the personal odyssey of one man's struggle with AIDS, but places it--with remarkable objectivity--within the larger story of those years. Strub is a dispassionate, reliable guide whose directness and honesty create considerable impact. Anyone would profit from reading this book." (Martin Duberman, author of Stonewall and Professor of History Emeritus at the Graduate School of the City University of New York)

“Searingly honest about himself and others, Strub shows how the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s brought out the best and the worst in people. His heroes are the ordinary men and women who fought to save lives. His villains – and deservedly so – are the cowardly public officials, from Reagan through Clinton, whose opportunism proved deadly to others. This take-no-prisoners memoir has the quality of a suspenseful page-turner, and will keep you reading until the final sentence.” (John D'Emilio, author of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America)

“From early struggles against AIDS to later collective acting up, Sean Strub's lively, gossipy memoir is also deeply moving history.” (Jonathan Ned Katz, author Gay American History)

“Sean Strub has written more than just a memoir. Body Counts pulls back the curtain on a hidden half-century of American history, from closeted Washington politicos of the 1970s and 1980s to his interactions with a parade of American icons; Tennessee Williams, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Gore Vidal all make cameos. AIDS looms large, but the story never feels like a tragedy. It is the tale of a life lived in high-resolution, high-intensity, saturated technicolor.” (Ari Shapiro, NPR White House Correspondent)

“Sean Strub has been a columnist, editor, publisher, theatrical producer, congressional candidate, conservationist, hotelier, and for most of that time an outspoken advocate in the fight against AIDS as well. His Body Counts is a stunning memoir--candid (at times startlingly so), courageous and humane. Much like the author himself.” (John Berendt, New York Times-bestselling author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels)

“On June 5, 1981, the day the AIDS epidemic was first recognized by the Centers for Disease Control, Sean Strub was with my close friend, gay activist Vito Russo, in Denver, Colorado. Body Counts is a powerful account of the epidemic's early years and the subsequent three decades. It encompasses the tragedy of lives lost young, as we lost Vito, as well as the triumph of empowerment, activism and survival. Body Counts is a page-turner with moving insight and fresh analysis told in a compelling and highly personal style.” (Lily Tomlin)

“Strub paints a striking picture…. A valuable document that gives an insider’s view into AIDS activism and declares that compassion can mean just as much as cure.” (Kirkus)

“Elegantly written, movingand powerful, this book from one of the most important advocates for peoplewith HIV/AIDS is eye-opening. In these times when the continuing need forservices for populations that suffer the most seems almost lost frompublic sight this is an important reminder.” (Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine Segal professor of American Social Thought, University of Pennsylvania and Past Chair United States Commission on Civil Rights.)

"Sean Strub’s Body Counts is an important document for several reasons. His direct and honest prose relates a familiar story of growing self-awareness, coming of age and coming out in afresh and compelling manner. The big surprise comes when one recognizes how dramatic the machinations of drug trials, power politics and the building of a grass roots movement can be.” (Bill T. Jones)

"A brilliantly told story of a life at the center of the historical period defined by the AIDS epidemic. Moments of struggle are illuminated by a tale of despair and death, gay self-transformation, love, hope, and modest bravery. More than a survivor'stale, a gripping story of a movement that changed the soul of our world." (Kathy Boudin, Assistant Professor, Columbia University School of Social Work)

Body Counts--so smart and affecting,idealistic and clear-eyed--chronicles Strub's own personal experience with HIV,and, at the same time, explores how culture shapes us and how we can shape itin turn. Strub's memoir, like Strub himself, is an inspiration.” (Richard McCann, author of Mother of Sorrows)

A compelling page-turner... [Sean] provides fresh insights into the foundations of today's LGBT movement, an inside personal history of the AIDS epidemic and an eye-opening and horrifying depiction of the growing trend of HIV criminalization. To understand today's HIV epidemic, read Body Counts. (Rory Kennedy, filmmaker)

"This is a very particular and personal history, but it’s also our history… A wonderful storyteller, Strub does such a great job of showing how life also went on amidst so much death. I very much admire his writing – how clean and powerful it is." (Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club)

“Sean Strub—one of the real heroes of the long fight against AIDS—gives us a shatteringly honest and moving account…. [He] challenges conventional wisdoms and speaks truth to power.” (Doug Ireland, veteran political journalist)

"Sean Strub .... [is] one of the AIDS movement’s most respected leaders... A critical historical voice.... Absorbing... Accessible not only to those intimate with the devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS but to those who viewed it from a distance or in retrospect." (Earl Pike The Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“Body Counts is a well-written and welcome addition to the histories of the queer and AIDS movements. It also details the considerable contributions Strub has made to those movements over the past 30 years." (Gay City News)

"Strub offers an eyewitness account from the inside of the epidemic.... This book is a valuable addition to the American AIDS archive." (Next Magazine)

“In his new book, Body Counts, Strub proves to be a rare breed of narrator, one who weaves a rich tale that both predates the early crisis—he arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1976, still swooning over Carter’s liberal optimism even as gay politicos clutched tightly at their closeted power—and managed to survive its darkest days.” (Out)

Body Counts is a well-written and welcome addition to the histories of the queer and AIDS movements. It also details the considerable contributions Strub has made to those movements over the past 30 years.” (Gay City News)

“[A] deeply moving, stunningly honest memoir, Strub recounts a story both distinctly his own and shared by many men in his generation.” (Boston Globe)

“[Body Counts] depicts incredible acts of courage by Strub and his constellation of collaborators. Against thick walls of institutional homophobia and shrieking AIDS hysteria, they forged battles that shaped seminal moments in AIDS history… Strub's close up portrayals of events and people are an insider's telescope…. Gripping…. Strub remains on the cutting edge of activism.” (Windy City Times)

“This captivating new book from the POZ magazine founder grabs your attention with stories of Strub’s college years in D.C., of standing on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic and all the sex, heartache and growth along the way. And it’s a powerful read … beautifully told.… A vivid look at how far our community has come and the work that is still to be done.” (Instinct Magazine)

"Body Counts, Sean Strub's moving, multi-decade memoir of one gay man's life, is not only a time capsule of the LGBT movement but also an examination of how far the United States has come in a very brief time to a new understanding of difference and acceptance…it forcefully reminds us of the impact an individual can make in changing the world around him.” (The San Francisco Chronicle)

"Body Counts relates not just the dramatic life story of one of America’s leading AIDS activists and founder of the magazine Poz, but also, for a younger generation who may not know, how he and others fought to increase public awareness and counter bigotry in the much darker 1980s and 90s.” (Tim Teeman The Daily Beast)

"[Body Counts] chronicles a rage-inducing chapter in recent political history." (June Thomas Slate.com on NY1 News)

"A beautiful book…brings back the 80s and 90s and the danger of AIDS, the uncertainties of AIDS." (Bill Goldstein WNBC-TV’s Weekend Today in New York)

"Fascinating… an insider’s view on the struggles of gay men during the early years of the AIDS epidemic." (Lambda Literary Review)

“A fascinating new memoir.” (Bay Area Reporter)

"An important new memoir." (MetroWeekly)

“A page-turner…. Body Counts has the suspense and horror of Paul Monette’s memoir Borrowed Time and the drama of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart…. Strub’s experience touches every issue of the plague years…. What a lot of action — and life — there is in this gripping book.” (Andrew Holleran Washington Post)

"A story of resilience and righteous indignation, touched with wit." (Elizabeth Taylor Chicago Tribune)

“Disarmingly honest…. The story of a humble, practical soldier, an unlikely political agitator who came of age amid a community under siege.” (New York Times Book Review)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (January 14, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451661959
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451661958
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #594,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Sean Strub's BODY COUNTS should be required reading for anyone interested in the AIDS epidemic in this country. It is one of those books that is difficult to put down. As I read it, I was reminded how much Mr. Strub's story mirrors that of all of us who were alive and young in large cities in that awful time in the 1980`s and 90`s until the drug cocktail became available in 1996 when we literally saw our friends come back from deathbeds in a matter of weeks. We first read of gay men dying of a strange affliction in the NEW YORK NATIVE in 1981, then it was called gay cancer, then something called GRID and finally AIDS. And Larry Kramer's front page article in the NEW YORK NATIVE, "1,112 and Counting," in 1983 sent shock waves into the gay community across this country. We found out just how bad homophobia and fear really were when funeral homes refused to accept our dead. We would hear in a casual conversation with friends that someone whom we had not seen in a few months had died. Families had gay sons whose obits in their home town newspaper listed the cause of death as cancer. And like the author, I remember the first person I ever knew who had AIDS. Mr. Strub's memoir brings it all back home.

We would expect the man who founded the magazine POZ to write an honest-take-no-prisoners account of what happened, and he does. All the usual villains are here. Here are some of them: when Ronald Reagan spoke the word "AIDS" for the first time in 1987, way into his second term as President, twenty-one thousand Americans had already died of it. Anthony Fauci at the NIH was uncooperative in 1987 in writing guidelines recommending the inexpensive drug Bactrim to prevent PCP in PWA's even though infectious disease specialists had known as early as 1977 of its effectiveness.
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If one thing is for sure, it is that medical progress is not always as quick as it needs to be. Unfortunately, Sean Strub found this out the hard way...

His memoir here details the story of his HIV positive diagnosis, including the days when he found himself attending "more funerals than birthday parties". During this developing time of AIDS and HIV, Strub became an activist of his community, which saw "death and dying as much a part of their days as they are for any soldier on a battlefield". "Body Counts" offers a look at the intersection of politics and personal life.

If you are still interested in learning about the myths surrounding the AIDS virus, Sander Gilman's "Sexuality: An Illustrated History" is an excellent choice. It covers a wide range of topics, with an interesting sociological, psychological look at STDS and AIDS.

Although you know that the author is going to survive the ordeal, he creates a compelling and suspenseful read that you will not want to put down. It is inspirational on several levels and honest in every regard: a perfect addition to your memoir shelf.
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Even though I lived through many of the events he describes in great detail its hard to remember how powerful and potent the 70's and 80's were in creating so many of the political events that shape our lives today. And as a gay man, the power of the closet, oppression and self-hatred I and so many others had to overcome is described in both great clarity and emotion. Strub's political and activist work, the twin 'demons' of the religious right and then the spread of HIV, are described with so many details it reminds me of Robert Caro yet the personal story is equally powerful. Wow!
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Let me open by saying that Sean Strub’s Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival is an essential, engaging piece of social history that belongs on everyone’s reading list. Word!

The years Sean Strub writes about in Body Counts are the same years I was engaged in my own activism, and his writing simultaneously makes those years feel very immediate and very removed historically. Today, at least in the liberal college community where I work, being lesbian is pretty much normal. I’m legally married (when a finance guy my wife and I were working with recently referred to us as “domestic partners,” we explained to him quite firmly that we are married and had never participated in that separate-but-equal charade). We’ll even be filing joint federal taxes this year, rendering unnecessary the asterisks and explanatory statements that have been accompanying my federal tax returns since we were married.

Strub’s book reminds us that this normalcy is quite a new phenomenon. In the period from the late 70s to the 90s we were definitely not normal. Roughly half the states in the U.S. had laws criminalizing sexual acts between people of the same gender. Not only that, but in 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of these laws. (That decision was finally overthrown in 2003.) George Moscone and Harvey Milk were murdered by Dan White, who got a minimal sentence thanks to his “Twinkies defense.” The AIDS epidemic erupted, followed by all sorts of anti-gay legislation. We had a president who refused to use the word AIDS. Congress passed laws prohibiting any AIDS research or education programs that included information on safe sexual activities for gay men or lesbian.
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