Monday, August 11, 2014

Q&A with Heather Boerner, author of Positively Negative: Love, Pregnancy, and Science's Surprising Victory Over HIV

On August 1, I posted a review of Heather Boerner's book Positively Negative: Love, Pregnancy, and Science's Surprising Victory Over HIV.  As a writer, I'm often curious as to why other writers choose their topics and why they choose to focus on certain ones. So, as a follow-up to my review, here are some questions I asked Boerner:

Why did you write the book?

I wrote Positively Negative because I was blown away by how far the science had advanced and how few people outside the HIV community were aware of it. When I first talked to the Hartmanns in my book, the couple who had unprotected sex and had a baby without passing on the virus, something shifted for me. I began to hope that our collective relationship with HIV and people with HIV could be different—that it didn’t have to be a relationship based on aversion and fear, that we could see people with HIV as just like us, whoever that is. And really, the two couples in the book are the most normal people in the world. Their desire for babies is totally normal. And now that the virus has been tamed, it’s also safe.

What is it about HIV that you find fascinating?

The virus itself is fascinating. Our understanding of how HIV cloaks itself from the immune system, how it lingers for years—the recurrence of HIV in the so-called Mississippi baby is proof—is so interesting. But more than that, I’m fascinated by our cultural understanding of HIV. HIV, the big boogeyman, is really another character in the book. The *idea* of HIV vs. the reality. For many of us—and I counted myself among this number until after writing the book—our idea of HIV froze at its most horrifying stage. I watched The Normal Heart recently, the HBO film adaptation of one of Larry Kramer’s plays about HIV and I am still haunted by the deaths of those men and by the exploitation and humiliation they suffered at the hands of healthcare professionals. If this book taught me anything, it’s that HIV stigma still exists in the medical community. HIV won’t end until we root that stigma out. The emergence of a once-daily pill for HIV-negative people to prevent the spread of the virus is a real opportunity to change medical practitioners’ minds.

Obviously, we'd like everyone to read your book, but who do you think needs to read it the most?

The people who need it are the couples like the Hartmanns and the Morgans, and the non-infectious disease doctors and NPs (nurse practitioners) who treat people who may need or ask for PrEP. In doing the crowd funding campaign to get Positively Negative published, I offered a perk wherein a donor could speak to me on the phone about the book. The one person who took me up on that was a woman in Japan who’d found the book and is in this very situation. She desperately wants to know facts, and it’s so hard to get them. I want couples to feel less alone. And I’d love for healthcare providers who don’t think of HIV as in their wheelhouse to read it so they can feel comfortable prescribing PrEP or counseling their patients on this issue without their own fears coloring their practice.

Anything else you'd like to say?

Just that the other group of people who I think will relate to this book but may not think so at first glance are couples who have experienced trouble getting pregnant. This is a human story, a science story, and it’s a fertility story. I bet any woman who’s had trouble conceiving might find the story cathartic. I hope for everyone who reads this that they feel less alone. I also hope that those of us without anyone in our life with HIV, that we now feel like we do know someone with HIV, that our heart opens to this experience in a way that we are typically guarded against.

Now to my blog readers: Do you have any questions you think I should have asked?

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