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The Long Shadow of the Early AIDS Epidemic

Edwin Pabon

Tim Murphy’s new novel, Christodora, is a book epic in scope and reminiscent of Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood. It moves forward and back in time from the early 1980s to an imagined future in the 2020s. As a journalist Murphy has written for POZ, The New York Times, and New York Magazine. He’s also authored two previous novels: Getting Off Clean and The Breeders Box. Plus recently spoke with Murphy about Christodora, and how the AIDS epidemic — and the activism it inspired — impacted New York City. 

The novel’s title references the name of a building in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. Murphy describes it as looming over Tompkins Square Park like a silent, impassive sentinel, watching lives, and the city, change. Christodora has gone through its own changes, changes that embody the spiritual arc of NYC over the past 40 years — from abject poverty to that sweet spot where new energy, artistic freedom, and flexibility meet; to, more recently, absurdly crushing gentrification and wealth.

Built as a settlement house in the early 20th century, it then fell into dereliction in the 1970s, before becoming a flashpoint for gentrification in the late 1980s. In 1988, during the Tompkins Square Park Riot, activists tried to storm it, to protest gentrification, shouting, “Die, Yuppie Scum!” Dozens of notables have called it home from Iggy Pop to Vincent D’Onofrio.

To Murphy, the Christodora building seemed to embody the history of the entire city, and would thus be the perfect place to set the arc of his novel. The events it has witnessed have charged the Christodora with a kind of meaning that few other buildings in New York have.

“Plus,” Murphy adds, “I think the name is so beautiful — very romantic and mysterious.”

The heart of the story and its main protagonists are an adopted Latinx boy of mixed race who becomes an artist  (Mateo Mendes), as well as the ever changing city, and the AIDS epidemic. Murphy wanted to show how AIDS impacted not just the generation who lived in the city during the early days of the epidemic — in the 1980s and the 1990s — but also how it rippled forward through time, interrupting the trajectory of lives, families, and entire generations. Murphy describes it as a kind of wrench thrown into the city’s life cycle, whose disruptions threw long shadows over many lives for years — well beyond the peak crisis years of the epidemic. Mateo, Murphy says, embodies someone whose generational history has been ripped out from under him by the epidemic — and that casts a very long shadow in his otherwise privileged, millennial 21st-century New York life. He’s haunted by a link back to a mother and a city he never knew.

In fact, much of this story is about loss: loss of life, loss of memories, loss of time. It really hits you how fleeting and quickly time goes by in Christodora. At one point, Mateo’s adoptive mother Milly says to her own father, “Everyone’s gone, Dad.” The cadence is haunting.

“A lot of the act of writing this book was to encode and enshrine a generation and what they went through before everyone is, well, gone,” acknowledges Murphy of his ambitious novel. “I know I am not the first to do it and I won’t be the last, but I wanted to do it in as narrative, emotional, accessible, and non-academic way as possible. I am 47, and I wanted people younger than I, especially queer people, to know the stunning act of collective heroism that middle-age queer people engaged in about 25 or 30 years ago in the face of incredible public indifference and sometimes even hatred.”

Murphy doesn’t think it’ll be the last time that the queer community will have to make such a sacrifice. He says he wanted to capture a feeling of abjectness and bereftness on the part of many characters, the feeling that they have lost what made them whole — and how they climb out of that abyss of loss, or don’t, “because we all struggle with that at one point or another.”

For many, the most haunting moment in the whole book comes when Hector, who once was an influential AIDS activist but is slowly unraveling as he loses everyone, meets someone online and does crystal meth for the first time. He says to the other man, “You just helped me figure out how I’m going to cope with the rest of my life.”

There may never have been a line that encapsulates addiction so well. “I’ve been in recovery for many years now,” explains Murphy. “But I first did crystal at a time when I was really beaten down by a few years of depression and I remember thinking that I had found the medication that I had been looking for through doctors for two years. I felt great, back to my old energy level, and my plan was to just do it occasionally for a ‘break’ from feeling lousy, but obviously, meth is a very strong and addictive drug, and it didn’t work out quite that way.”

Murphy describes Hector as broken, and says, he can’t even celebrate the arrival of new HIV treatments, because all he can do is obsess over why his lover didn’t live long enough to benefit from antiretrovirals. Many long-term survivors and others who lived through that period can relate.

“Hector is just broken and needs a break, a release, and relief of some sort, and he sort of stumbles on it in the form of meth, which is a very familiar story in the gay community, unfortunately,” Murphy continues, “I had about five really bad years of severe depression, addiction, an HIV diagnosis, and a total life meltdown by my early 30s.”

Murphy believes we have to keep having a conversation about why we are stressed and depressed, anxious and isolated, because those are feelings that meth preys upon. We need to discover — and share — how we can get the feeling of being OK in the world from sources other than meth. Things like friendship, community, family acceptance, and finding a sense of purpose in our lives. Fans might add that reading Christodora is certainly a step in the right direction.

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