By Dan Clendenin
In May of 1982, the pediatric immunologist Art Ammann was called to evaluate a fourteen-month-old infant who was critically ill. While in the ICU, the baby had received over twenty blood transfusions from nineteen different donors. With the help of the CDC investigator Harold Jaffe, they came to a horrifying conclusion — that the infant had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. This was the first documented case of HIV transmission by blood transfusion.
What happened next was even worse, if that’s possible. Since there would be no test for HIV approved for use in blood banks until 1985, aggressive screening of blood donors was the obvious way to protect the public from a disaster. It was at this point that Ammann encountered not just passive resistance to his discovery, but active denialism.
Fearing discrimination, many in the gay community opposed aggressive screening of blood donors. The New England Journal of Medicine and the British Lancet refused to publish their findings (later Lancet relented). The blood banking industry resisted Ammann’s conclusions, fearing that the public would consider their products unsafe. Even our government officials gave misleading messages.
I read about this story in Ammann’s book Lethal Decisions; The Unnecessary Deaths of Women and Children from HIV/AIDS (2017). The book is a deeply personal, passionate, and even polemical account of the history of the AIDS epidemic by an immunologist who was at the center of the storm from the beginning. As I learned, there were all sorts of AIDS deniers, and not just marginal goofballs.
There was Peter Duesberg, a tenured professor of biology at UC Berkeley and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, who wrote a book in 1996 called Inventing the AIDS Virus. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa from 1999 to 2008, said that AIDS was caused by poverty. Christine Maggiore, who started a multi-million dollar import business, was an HIV-positive activist of AIDS denialism. She founded “Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives,” and told pregnant women not to take anti-HIV drugs. In Ammann’s view, the media and even the courts were complicit in denialism.
What surprised me most about the book was that Ammann has not one but two chapters about scientific denialism. After reading Lethal Decisions, I began to think about the many other forms of denialism in our culture.
There are Holocaust deniers, both historians and even presidents of countries like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Many Christians deny our best science about evolution and the age of the earth. ExxonMobil contributed to pseudo-scientific groups that claim that the science of climate change is inconclusive. There are deniers of the moon landing, vaccinations, and the safety of genetically modified foods.
In one way or another, denialists reject empirical and verifiable evidence that is otherwise uncontested and well supported by a critical consensus.
One of the blessings of Lent, and why I like it so much, is that it calls us to deny all forms of denialism. We contemplate God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, “for dust you are, and to dust you will return.” This somber truth stands in stark contrast to the archetypal lie that Satan told Eve in Genesis 3:4, and the denial that flourishes down to our own day: “surely you will not die!”
In her book City of God (2014), Sara Miles describes how in 2010 she joined a small group of people who took the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes into the streets of her San Francisco neighborhood. She “wanted to get beyond the tastefully enclosed museum of religious life.” So, they hit the streets of this most secular of cities. They knelt in McDonalds, at bus stops, and on the sidewalks in their black cassocks to pray and impose ashes.
Yes, she felt “self-conscious, fraudulent, awkward, [and] exposed.” But guess what? People loved it. Why were people so eager for ashes, and so effusive with gratitude?
Ash Wednesday, says Miles, is “the most honest of days” when the church reminds you of what no one else in society will say — that from dust you came and to dust you will return. We admit that we’ve made a mess. In other words, “the truth is a blessing.”
There are two prayers at my church that move me from my own forms of denialism to telling the truth — about myself, my faith, my country, and even the world. There’s the “Collect for Purity” from the Book of Common Prayer (1979): “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
This prayer always reminds me of the character LaMont Chu in the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. LaMont is already obsessed with tennis fame at his tender age. He imagines pictures of himself in tennis magazines, television announcers analyzing his stroke in hushed tones, and corporations paying him to wear their logos. He’s so obsessed he can’t eat, sleep, or even pee. His performance is suffering. Ambition is eating him alive, and so he goes to Lyle, the academy guru.
LaMont admits his rabid ambition to Lyle. He’s ashamed of his hunger for hype. He feels lost and lonely.
Lyle is the perfect listener: “the supplicant feels both nakedly revealed and sheltered, somehow, from all possible judgment.” Lyle never condescends, but he also never candy coats the truth. He never denies.
“Trust me,” he tells LaMont, “the pros whom you envy do not feel what you burn for. They are trapped, just as you are.”
“Is this supposed to be good news?” asks LaMont. “This is awful news.”
“LaMont, are you willing to listen to a Remark about what is true? The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.”
The second prayer comes from our Eucharist celebration. Every week during the Eucharist we confess that “we break this bread for our own brokenness.” We affirm rather than deny that not all is well.
It is a horrible burden to try to be perfect. Perfection is the voice of the oppressor. At Lent we’re given the beautiful gift of a no spin zone, with the full assurance that we’re perfectly loved by God just as we are. We are both “nakedly revealed” but also “sheltered from all judgment.”
And so, there’s no need for denial. We only need to accept the liberating message of Lent.
For further reflection:
The Opening of Eyes
That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.
It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.
From Songs for Coming Home (Many Rivers Press, 1984).
See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.