Witnessing AIDS: Writing, Testimony, and the Work of Mourning


273 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8567-9
DDC 810.9'356




Reviewed by Ian C. Nelson

Ian C. Nelson, Librarian Emeritus, former Assistant Director of
Libraries (University of Saskatchewan) and dramaturge (Festival de la
Dramaturgie des Prairies).


Sarah Brophy is an assistant professor of English at McMaster
University. Her academic study of autobiography in the hands of authors
dying of AIDS and the testimony of mourning by caregivers and family
concentrates on four primary texts: Modern Nature by the polymath Derek
Jarman, Hospital Time by Amy Hoffman, Unbecoming by anthropologist Eric
Michaels, and My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid. In densely written and
rigorously researched chapters dedicated to each, she also makes much of
the secondary and peripheral literature around the issues of AIDS trauma
and memorialization, frequently citing Michel Foucault, Mark Doty, Steve
Reinke, and especially Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Her study thus touches
this generation’s sincere “effort to create and to circulate more
sophisticated, self-critical, and politically honest stories of the
epidemic.” She is careful to include a detailed context for each
subject—for instance Jarman’s eclectic work as artist, filmmaker,
diarist, and gardener, and Michaels’s work with Aborigines, whose
lives ironically parallel his own personal experience of being
“other” when his condition is made known to the Australian health
system. She similarly brings out the “rescripting” of the mourning
experience that has crept into the Names Project (the AIDS memorial
quilt). To use her own term, she “foregrounds” the dichotomies of
mourning (as opposed to Freudian melancholy) and activism, of hospital
tidiness as opposed to prophylaxis, and the ties of biological family
versus more authentic chosen or created relationships in the face this
particular trauma and its attendant grief. The value of Brophy’s study
is that it brings out the inherent self-theorizing that lies behind the
effort of recording and editing the day-to-day experiences that come to
us either as diary or (auto)biographical witness.

Brophy’s text—obviously drawn from a dissertation—often falls
prey to the academic trap of intricate and awkward explication where a
quoted passage of the original work might stand quite well by itself. In
spite of her attempts to clarify and make accessible very fine
distinctions in the diversity of grief, the academic jargon she employs
may be a challenge for the general reader.


Brophy, Sarah., “Witnessing AIDS: Writing, Testimony, and the Work of Mourning,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 25, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/30594.