The Longform Guide to Disease
Cancer, AIDS, and weaponized smallpox—great stories about disease.
An estimated 240,000 people are thought to have AIDS in Myanmar
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.
Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.
Stories about disease generally have a common thread: the “Oh, shit” moment, when you realize that a life (or, God forbid, many lives) hangs in the balance and a happy ending is unlikely. This is true of the stories that follow about the early days of AIDS, final days with liver cancer, and weaponized smallpox.
Richard Preston • The New Yorker • July 1999
How smallpox went from eradicated disease to the ideal weapon of bioterrorists.
“For years, the scientific community generally thought that biological weapons weren't effective as weapons, especially because it was thought that they're difficult to disperse in the air. This view persists, and one reason is that biologists know little or nothing about aerosol-particle technology. The silicon-chip industry is full of machines that can spread particles in the air. To learn more, I called a leading epidemiologist and bioterrorism expert, Michael Osterholm, who has been poking around companies and labs where these devices are invented. ’I have a device the size of a credit card sitting on my desk,’ he said. ’It makes an invisible mist of particles in the one-to-five-micron size range--that size hangs in the air for hours, and gets into the lungs. You can run it on a camcorder battery. If you load it with two tablespoons of infectious fluid, it could fill a whole airport terminal with particles.’ ”
Thomas Lake • Atlanta Magazine • June 2010
The story of H1N1 and John Behnken, whose life it claimed.
“John and Angela Behnken lived in a brick house in the Glastonberry subdivision of Johns Creek with a German shepherd named Riesling and a mongrel that John had renamed Rufus, from Roo, because Rufus sounded more masculine. ’I don’t know what I’d do without you,’ John told Angela all the time, and he texted her his love during the workday as she managed production at Gwinnett Magazine and he tested new lighting products for electrical stability. They heard about the new flu virus through the media and regarded it with a modicum of caution. They were, as Angela put it, ’on the better side of clean.’ They washed their hands regularly, if not obsessively, and went to Thursday night bar trivia without wondering what germs were hiding on the ketchup bottle.”
Michael Daly • New York • June 1983
New York during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
“Acquired immune deficiency syndrome. At the Zoli modeling agency, on East 56th Street, and in the cubicles of the Everard Spa, on West 28th Street. Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera and in the locker room of the 6th Precinct station house. At an advertising agency off Eleventh Avenue and in the cellblocks at Auburn prison. Everywhere, talk of AIDS is erupting into conversations. One moment there is idle chatter about the Yankees or the new Lucas film. And then, suddenly, fear and reason are grappling with the specter of this fatal illness for which there is yet no cure.”
“A Matter of Life and Death”
Marjorie Williams • Vanity Fair • October 2005
Living on borrowed time, with liver cancer.
“I live at least two different lives. In the background, usually, is the knowledge that, for all my good fortune so far, I will still die of this disease. This is where I wage the physical fight, which is, to say the least, a deeply unpleasant process. And beyond the concrete challenges of needles and mouth sores and barf basins and barium, it has thrown me on a roller coaster that sometimes clatters up a hill, giving me a more hopeful, more distant view than I’d expected, and at other times plunges faster and farther than I think I can endure. Even when you know the plunge is coming—it’s in the nature of a roller coaster, after all, and you know that you disembark on the bottom and not the top—even then, it comes with some element of fresh despair.
“I’ve hated roller coasters all my life.”
“Please Stand by While the Age of Miracles Is Briefly Suspended"
James McManus • Esquire • August 2004
Amid the Bush administration’s restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, the author’s daughter suffers from juvenile (Type 1) diabetes:
“The longer you have this disease, the more severe its complications become. It's a hassle from day one, to be sure, but after fifteen or twenty years your kidneys begin to break down and your retinopathy becomes more severe. Bridget's had diabetes for twenty-five years now. She's frightened, exhausted, and angry. She's also determined to overcome her long actuarial odds and live something resembling a normal life. But your self-esteem takes big hits when you have a chronic disease. Your skin becomes sallow and spongy from all the punctures; you also get to worry about whether you can get pregnant, carry a baby to term, then survive long enough to see your child enter kindergarten. ’Why should I have to listen to the history of your cold,’ Bridget sometimes wants to know, ’or how tough your meeting was? At least your freakin' pancreas works!’ ”
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Elon Green is a contributor to Longform.org.