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A CRISIS OF MEANING by Steven S. Schwartzberg


How Gay Men Are Making Sense of AIDS

by Steven S. Schwartzberg

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-19-509627-4
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

 A salutary study--slightly overwhelmed by its enthusiasm for the theoretical--of strategies for meeting the ``crisis of meaning'' triggered by an HIV-positive diagnosis. Schwartzberg is a psychologist, and the book is clearly shaped by his clinical scruples and animated by the intermittent presence of 19 HIV-positive gay men he interviewed for the research component of his recent doctoral training. His study explores the search in the gay community to find some meaning in the AIDS epidemic, while concentrating on the behavior of individuals living in extremis. Schwartzberg identifies four categories of individual adaptation in those afflicted: Transformation, the optimal mode, wherein ``logical somersaults'' are respected as the price of maintaining meaning; Rupture, the reverse, when every element of one's life seems to fall apart; Camouflage, or self-deception, the shakiest position, marked by a desperate juggling of truth and illusion; and Impassivity, a more constitutional than situational response, of which inattention to reality is both cause and effect. The 19 subjects function as springboards and exemplars for the discussion (the profiles being too sketchy to resonate as case histories, and too few to aspire to statistical significance); Schwartzberg reports nonjudgmentally on their individual strategies and wisely recognizes that different choices reflect different thresholds of tolerance--for grief, anxiety, ambiguity. In elucidating more broadly the response of the gay community to the AIDS epidemic, Schwartzberg, who is gay, brings a proud, concerned personal perspective to bear. He defines the response as three- phased, disbelief followed first by action and then by grief overload, and ends by making a strong case for managing the cumulative grief communally. Ultimately, a textbookish but nonetheless supportive, enlightened study.