Learning from Larry Kramer and Challenging the "Recover to Resist" Narrative
I knew I wanted to be an activist from a very young age. And having grown up in the ruling class, as soon as I told the people in my life about the causes I believed in, I was told about the correct and proper way to go about making social change. I should get near perfect grades, attend an Ivy League institution, pursue a prestigious graduate degree, network with other thought leaders and “important people” in the field, become a manager or leader of a major nonprofit organization, and fight diplomatically and politely for the changes I wanted to see, all while earning a ruling class salary and perpetuating my membership in the ruling class.
There were a few issues with this. Namely, I did not fit in with the ruling class, and I have not ever fit in with its culture. My disabilities cause me to struggle with school and become quickly overwhelmed by the stress load that goes along with competitive, cutthroat environments, and I don’t have the stamina or energy necessary for the kinds of small talk that are important for things like networking and schmoozing. Most of all, I am not a particularly socially adept or gracious person: when it comes to the causes I care most about, I find it immensely challenging to be diplomatic or polite.
I remember telling one of my college friends about my hopes and aspirations for striving toward social change early in my freshman year. “You?” she gasped. “An agent of social change? But you’re so…tactless. Brash. Blunt. You don’t have anywhere close to the diplomacy required for that kind of work. You’ll need to put in a lot of work to get there.”
That narrative - the idea that one must pass as sane, as able-bodied and able-minded, in order to effectively work toward social change - has followed me throughout the time I’ve spent engaged in activism. From my DBT therapist’s advice that I must recover from my “borderline tendencies” in order to be taken seriously as a critic of psychiatry, to my family’s instruction to stay in the closet about my experiences with the mental health system to preserve my credibility as an “intelligent, productive member of society who has smart ideas for changing the system,” to other mental health activists’ suggestions to “play the game” and conform to mainstream values in order to challenge them, this narrative, which I have deemed the “recover to resist” narrative, is ever-present.
The issue with the “recover to resist” narrative is that it throws so many people under the bus. In using one’s status as recovered, as sane, as able-bodied or able-minded, as a platform to challenge ableism, sanism, and other forms of inequality, it implies that these forms of privilege are valid reasons to take a person seriously, legitimate credentials that allow a person to be listened to - as opposed to the arbitrary, unjust markers of luck and status they really are.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes it is necessary to perform sanity, able-mindedness, able-bodiedness to survive. My intention is absolutely not to knock anyone who is doing whatever they need to do in order to survive financially and socially within our classist, ableist society.
But the idea that one must recover and learn how to pass as sane/able-minded in order to effectively resist structural oppression is a flawed one. It is an idea that discouraged me from engaging in any form of activism for a long time. I wasn’t recovered and I didn’t pass as sane or neurotypical; how could I possibly have anything valuable to contribute?
As a teenager and college student, HIV/AIDS activist Larry Kramer was an important figure who helped me challenge this narrative. I fell in love with his play The Normal Heart the first time I saw it - and it wasn’t just because I was watching a play about a gay rights activist who was also a playwright (I also have a background in playwriting!) in Birmingham, Alabama - although that was pretty incredible. The real reason that I fell in love with The Normal Heart was because Larry Kramer’s character in the play, Ned Weeks, based on his real personality, is not the typical portrayal of an activist. He is not socially adept, or diplomatic, or particularly charismatic, or eloquent with words, or even well-respected by his peers (in fact, he is thrown off the board of his own organization). Rather, he is brash, blunt, angry, and at times extremely hostile toward the homophobic and bigoted politicians he has to interact with. And yet, Weeks is/Kramer has been successful in fighting for the rights of people with HIV/AIDS.
Watching The Normal Heart was the first time I had seen someone as brash and tactless as me who was still committed to activism and effective in making social change. My aspirations became immediately clear to me: I wanted to be like Larry Kramer when I grew up.
My last year of college, I got to meet Larry Kramer. We had a very short conversation in which he told me it was okay to be Mad, although he didn’t use those exact words.
Larry Kramer has continued to inspire me throughout all the time I’ve spent engaging in Mad Pride activism and other forms of social change work. When I struggle with feelings that I’m not “recovered” or “sane” enough to contribute anything valuable to activist work, remembering Larry Kramer’s contributions helps keep me motivated.
Lately, I have been struggling a great deal due to not fitting in with academia for a variety of reasons. In some ways, the “recover to resist” narrative is at its peak within academia - the idea that one must keep up with the work demands, pressure to publish, and social norms of an academic career in order to be an effective agent of change is widespread. When I found out it was World AIDS Day today, I immediately thought about my brief conversation with Larry Kramer, and it made me feel a bit better.
I think it is highly important for the Mad community to learn from as many other marginalized communities as possible, and I cannot think of many more HIV/AIDS activists that are more important to learn from than Larry Kramer. I hope his work can inform the ways that we might move forward in challenging the “recover to resist” narrative in our own work whenever we can.