March 2007

Jessica A. Tierney

nonfiction

The After-Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism by Michael McColly

Some may cringe at the thought of reading a long memoir about one man's journey into the heart of the AIDS pandemic, but The After-Death Room is more than that. HIV-positive journalist Michael McColly travels through South Africa, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Chicago, and Senegal to document the lives of activists, sex workers, and people living with the virus. He also tells his own story, humanizing the disease and making it accessible in an intimate and compassionate way.

Unaware that his trip will eventually spur him to travel through five different countries, Michael packs a box of yoga mats and lands in South Africa, where he teaches yoga at the International AIDS Conference. After an intense encounter with an HIV-positive woman from one of his sessions, McColly decides that he needs to travel around the world to tell the stories of people involved with the AIDS struggle. Along the way, he deals with his own spirituality and sexuality (he is a bisexual man), as he, too, experiences life with HIV. "When I got rid of my belongings," McColly writes, speaking of his decision to travel against his doctor's advice, "it wasn't the things themselves I released, it was me." 

McColly's involvement in the book sets it apart from other AIDS documentaries, and the fact that he is HIV positive -- and struggling with whether to reveal this to the people he encounters -- brings the reader deep into the story. His honesty inspires trust in those he speaks with, giving each a distinct voice, instead of presenting them as one block of nameless sufferers. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to realize how important it is to relate to others in order to both heal and live. McColly evokes a strong sense of intuitive connections, mindfulness of the body, and awareness of the implications of touch—or lack thereof. "I am drawn to her body: the deep eye sockets, the black needle stains down her arms, but mostly it is the deep mechanical rise and fall of her breath that upstages the drama of her husband's account of their life. Each time her chest collapses in its exhale, I wait in sympathetic terror, holding my own breath, thinking that it will be her last …."

McColly's careful crafting blends scene and internal observations in a way that moves the vantage point from a feeling in the body to the exterior world, then out to a global perspective, taking the reader with him. Imagery and perception combine to make this not only an important sociological study of multiple struggles (sexuality, AIDS, poverty, healing), but also a literary work. He incorporates facts so that they become a part of the story without losing momentum, allowing the reader to step away from this book with a greater understanding of the scope of the AIDS pandemic. "[Doctor Tuong] tells us that Vietnam is struggling to come to grips with its growing AIDS epidemic. Each month they have more cases, but he has no antiretrovirals to dispense; only those with money and power have access to antiretroviral treatment. Remarkably, he admits that as far as he knows only seven people in the entire country are using the combination therapy I take. I can't believe it when Tuong tells me. I have to ask him to repeat it.  'Seven,' he says."

Posing poignant and at times painful questions throughout his memoir, McColly challenges the reader to confront complex issues. In an interview of AIDS sufferers in Ho Chi Minh City, he writes, "Ever since sitting down in this café, I've found myself trying to hide my health by contracting my body, hunching over, crawling into the black ink scribbles in my notebook. I have to ask myself again and again: Why did you come? Why do this to them? Why show them a future they aren't allowed to have?" 

The book is both disheartening and inspiring as McColly's journey deepens. In Chennai, India, he interviews a man heading AIDS education for sex workers who says, "We are trying to make the young men … into a cohesive, self-sustaining community. It's the only way they are going to survive not only this disease but this life." This becomes a subtle theme through the book: those who become active in helping others find that reaching out gives them a way to cope with the disease. At times, the story is devastating. Multiple viewpoints and approaches toward the treatment of AIDS help to put the struggles of various countries into a very real perspective. 

The After-Death Room is a modern portrait of the diverse spectrum of the AIDS landscape. But the ultimate message does not just apply to AIDS. It is universal: the importance of connecting, understanding, loving, and helping others—which, in this world, is harder than ever to realize, is certainly a thing worth living for. In McColly's words, "[O]ne question came to represent the request that animated this odyssey: for your sake as well as ours, please, we don't need you to talk about the importance of acting or healing, we need you to act and to heal."

The After-Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism by Michael McColly
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 1932360921
360 Pages