About 0.1 percent of human beings are effectively resistant to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, due to a genetic mutation. Because of a missing receptor, their immune cells are essentially invisible to the virus, and, in the words of New York magazine’s Jesse Green, when they are exposed, “HIV just floats by and is cleared from the bloodstream within hours.” In a gorgeous profile, Green considers the life and death of Steve Crohn, one of the few gay men who have been known to possess the Delta 32 mutation. Basically healthy at the age of 66, Crohn committed suicide in a parking lot last fall, and the circumstances of his passing raise profound questions about whether his armored blood was really such a blessing after all.
Like so many gay men of his generation, Crohn had only been reveling in his newfound sexual liberation for a handful of years when the epidemic took hold. Green narrates Crohn’s all-too-familiar trajectory—from sex parties to domestic love to hospital bedsides—with compassion, but he also does an admirable job of attending to the life and motivations of a man who was a complicated individual as much as he was the subject of world-historical forces. Here’s a representative sample, from the article’s opening:
Back in the early 1980s, at a time when thousands of gay men, including dozens Steve knew and loved, began dying, he kept on living. Surely he’d been multiply exposed, and yet as he waited a year, and then many, to join those he’d lost, he came to realize that his body would not give him the chance. Frantic to find out why, he went from doctor to doctor, all but begging someone to study him; when eventually someone did, a great discovery was made. Not only had he inherited a genetic mutation that spared him, but that knowledge would lead to the development of a drug that even now helps sustain the lives of people not as lucky as he. “He realized that he could provide a piece of the jigsaw,” one researcher said, “and he was right.”
Steve, whose story was told in medical journals and in a 1999 Nova documentary, ought to be known as one of the heroes of the effort to dredge knowledge and life from death and disaster; perhaps he sometimes saw himself that way. And yet, having delivered his maps, having removed his ring, paid some bills, made some donations, and dealt with a hundred other details, he killed himself on Saturday, August 24. That he did so some 30 years after AIDS first spared him gave the headline writers their hook. Every obituary mentioned survivor guilt, as if this term, borrowed from the Holocaust, were a clear explanation.
In the rest of the piece, Green weighs that explanation for Crohn’s suicide against other, less cinematic factors, touching on issues ranging from the struggles disconnected LGBTQ seniors can face in old age to straightforward loneliness and discontent with the lot life throws our way. One of the important critiques of the recent HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart was that, as an emotional and ideological jackhammer, it has a way of obfuscating perceptions and narratives of the AIDS crisis that differ from Larry Kramer’s. If you’re looking to counteract that effect, Green’s memorial to Crohn is a fine place to start.