Tie a Red Ribbon
A Greenwich woman turns a son's death into a celebrated cause
Photograph by Fran Collin
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"I don’t have anybody left of my best friends. They’re all gone. They all died of the virus.”
Harry is forty-five years old, a tall, thin gay man with gold-rimmed spectacles and a wistful smile. He nearly joined his friends last winter, when AIDS complications sent him into one of his twice-yearly tailspins. Inflamed organs, skin lesions, ulcers, joint pain and weight loss all ganged up on him, and anxiety and depression piled on for good measure. “It’s a constant battle. I don’t know from day to day what I’ll find. Maybe I’ll look in the mirror and see something wrong, or I’m in the shower and I spot something that wasn’t there before. But you can’t be depressed because that’s bad for your immune system,” he says.
Harry, a Stamford resident who used to work in Greenwich, was diagnosed by accident in 1985, after being admitted to a hospital with a collapsed lung. “They did some blood tests, and next thing I know they whisk me off to an old, deserted wing of the hospital, very isolated, and doctors are rushing in and out gowned from head to toe,” he says. Though he has defied the odds — almost everybody who was infected in the early eighties has died — the shadow of his mortality hangs darkly overhead. Every time he gets sick, he knows it might be the last time.
“My faith, my spirituality, all of it has to be summoned,” Harry says. “It all has to be pulled out from the inside.” There are little things he can do to help him bear up under the strain. He sings in the men’s choir at his church, counsels the newly diagnosed and belongs to a small HIV/AIDS support group in Greenwich. “We talk about everything,” he says. “They’re my extended family.” The support group is run by the AIDS Alliance of Greenwich, with funds granted to it by a rather unlikely powerhouse of a group, also in Greenwich, called the Red Ribbon Foundation.
The foundation’s origin involved a man who contracted AIDS at roughly the same time as Harry. Michael Faerman had set out to be an artist. But like most people striving toward a dream, his path had its share of thorns. As a young man, Michael’s rejection from art school so demoralized him that he turned away from art altogether. Instead, at college in the seventies, he discovered the comparatively muted pleasures of geology. After graduation he worked at finding heavy metals in the Western mountains during the warm months and skied down expert slopes when the season turned cold. The life of a geologist seemed to suit him perfectly.
And yet his satisfaction proved illusory. Realizing he’d have to return to school for a master’s degree in order to advance his career, Michael became increasingly aware that he lacked the requisite passion, that geology was more a way station than a life’s work. And the art world still beckoned. He moved to New York and founded an animated film and visual effects studio with Peter Wallach, son of actors Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. Faerman and Wallach contributed to the movies Little Shop of Horrors and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, as well as to music videos like Peter Gabriel’s Big Time, still remembered for its stunning effects.
Tall, athletic and darkly handsome, Michael had always attracted people of both sexes, though he identified himself as gay. It was in New York that he met a lover who infected him with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
First identified in 1981 after doctors and clinicians noticed a series of intractable infections and cancers afflicting gay men, the disease remained so baffling that scientists could not even agree on what to call it. One name, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID, lost currency when a second community of sufferers was discovered: intravenous drug users. Early assumptions were further confounded when clinicians began seeing cases of the new disease in straight, nondrug-using women; in newborns; and in hemophiliacs. Finally, in 1982, scientists settled on calling the disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, though the disease was no less mysterious than when they had first identified it.
According to Michael’s mother, Florence Suerig of Greenwich, the man who passed the virus to Michael may have been among the first wave of gay men to contract HIV. It’s impossible to say, however, exactly when that might have been, for scientists learned that the virus could hide in body tissues for as many as ten years, “quietly seeding the destruction of the immune system” (as the New York Times vividly put it) without the sufferer feeling any ill effects. By the time scientists began to learn how HIV works in the body, let alone how to prolong the lives of the infected, it was far too late for Michael Faerman. He died in 1991 at the age of thirty-five. “He tried everything that was available, but this was before the [drug] cocktails,”
Florence Suerig says. “I would say it took about a year of deterioration. In the end, Michael just shut down. He didn’t talk for about a month before he died.”
At the probable time of Michael’s infection in the early eighties until his death, the AIDS epidemic only gathered momentum as the best minds in science and medicine watched helplessly.
Politicians did little, and Americans in general seemed divided about what to make of it. Conservative religious leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell suggested the disease was God’s punishment of gay sinners. The U.S. government, meanwhile, banned HIV-positive persons from entering the country.
But Magic Johnson’s dramatic announcement in 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, and Arthur Ashe’s the following year that he was dying of AIDS, alerted many Americans who were unmoved by the plight of gays to the epidemic’s terrible reach: If rich, straight sports heroes could get infected, then maybe the “gay cancer” wasn’t so gay after all. Even with support building, however, physicians in those years often felt defeated, for small medical advances did not change the fact that new AIDS cases and AIDS deaths were escalating rapidly, with no cure in sight.