I read a lot of memoirs; I love listening to someone tell me their story. All the Young Men tells Ruth Coker Burks’ story as a young single mother in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who finds herself driven to the forefront of the AIDS crisis and becoming an activist in the fight against AIDS.
Coker Burks story starts in the way that I think many of us hope we would respond – while visiting her friend recovering from cancer surgery, she notices nurses drawing straws to see who would take care of a patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man inside, being with him at the end of his life, offering what comfort she could. The young man inside would be the first in a long line of men Coker Burks would care for, advocate for, and in some cases provide a final resting place for.
In 1986, Aids was a death sentence. There was still no reliable treatment, let alone a cure. The fear, ignorance and stigma were so great that hospitals regularly refused to treat patients, something we see over and over in Coker Burks recounting. Informal networks of care were predominantly centered in the urban areas along the coasts. In the south, people were coming home sick and terrified, hoping for refuge with their families, only to be rejected and die alone. All the Young Men tells the story of Coker Burks work from 1986-1992 to provide care and support otherwise unavailable to the men returning to Hot Springs.
While the underlying story is five stars, the delivery here is average. It doesn’t really rise above what it is: a pretty straightforward by the numbers memoir. She’s honest about who she is, what her experiences are, but she’s not diving any deeper. I was emotionally connected to Coker Burks’ telling but it could’ve been more if it dug deeper into the larger moment. Coker Burks and her co-writer start, but they don’t get all the way there. It should be noted that Coker Burks is a straight white lady recounting the history, but she makes sure to center the men she’s talking about, but I wish she had been able to make sure we really knew all the men as well as we know some.
Bingo Square: Home (Coker Burks provides both literal homes and a sense of home to ‘her guys’, as well as a final resting place for over 40 men)