Charles French is the guy who used to hate Christine. Charles lives in Los Angeles and is HIV-positive. "I was pissed," he tells me. What got him riled was an article about Christine and a benefit concert by the Foo Fighters. "Here youve got this rock star talking to teens about this, and it incensed me."
Christine with The Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl
He decides to take her down and begins orchestrating the moment. "A friend has a talk show," he says. "He was going to invite her as a guest to talk about HIV/AIDS. He was going to play good cop, Id play bad cop," Charles says. "I ordered her book, so I could really go after her. But all her work was referenced so I could look it up. Im learning things I never knew. No one ever told me AZT was developed as a cancer drug. And here I had been taking massive doses of AZT."
Just two weeks before reading the article about Christine, Charles had stopped the AZT, a little drug holiday, because he was getting forgetful, too tired. And then he read her book. "I flushed them down the toilet," he says. "Is our fear of being wrong so strong that we cant accept the possibility of another answer to the very large questions of what is AIDS? As a writer, this kind of institutionalized castration of thought worries me a lot."
Charles got his HIV diagnosis when treatment theory was hit hard and hit early with AIDS drugs. Luckily, says Christine, hers came earlier because the drugs are killing people. And while researchers long denied drug toxicity and Christine was even asked to leave a conference when she called them so five years ago, hit-hard, hit-early guidelines were relaxed on Jan. 31. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, new research shows the drugs dont eradicate the virus and long-term uses can lead to major toxicity. These revised guidelines say HIV-positive people with no symptoms should not take the drugs.
Christine asks, "At what cost was hit hard, hit early?"
Her opposition grows, but so does her support. Alive & Well now has chapters around the world. She was invited as a panelist to the 13th International AIDS conference in Africa this fall. While there, she spent time with President Mbeki. "It was very exciting and very humbling," she says. "My impression is that he has noticed discrepancies and is frustrated. Hes trying to get a picture of reality."
This years three-time Grammy-nominated Foo Fighters are vocal proponents. "Initially in talking to Christine, I was struck by the total lack of support," says Nate Mendel of the Foo Fighters. After reading Christines book, What if Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?, Nate is convinced early AIDS research is flawed. Following a benefit concert for Alive & Well in L.A., the Foo Fighters joined the ranks of the dissidents under fire. Media accounts paint them as irresponsible. But Nate questions why putting ideas out there is irresponsible, a concept he finds troubling.
Negative pressure isnt keeping the Foo Fighters away. Media jabs are just that, jabs. "Ive never seen anyone with more love, passion or dedication put into this issue," says Nate, talking to me the night before leaving on tour. "I have the utmost respect for Christine. She is doing a great thing."
And the Foo Fighters will headline another benefit this springRock the Boat Concert 2001: a concert for democracyin Miami. The theme? The pharmaceutical industrys silencing and demonizing of AIDS dissidents and the medias blackout of AIDS information. The beneficiaries? Alive & Well, along with several other dissident organizations.
Its Saturday morning. Im drinking coffee and talking with Robin about Christine. Robin Scovill is a filmmaker. He is Christines husband, the father of their three-year-old son, Charlie. He tells me how he met her before he met her. About how hes come to appreciate her perseverance, the way she chips away at this AIDS thing.
"I think of all these lives shes touched along the way," he says. He relays stories of the meetings she goes to month after month, sometimes all guys, sometimes all guys wanting to take her to task. He says lots of them are like Vietnam veterans, but its the AIDS war instead. "Some people write to her and say, I wouldnt be alive if it wasnt for you."
When he tells me this, I remember Christine saying she doesnt have a tough skin, and I think this work must be hard sometimes. Shes naive, but not really. Down to earth, practical, she loves good food, sushi, Japanese noodles. But Winnie Mandela thinks she needs to gain some weight.
Christine is beautiful in that natural, Sela Ward kind of way. And when Robin looks at her, he sees the person hell grow old with. He cant get all wrapped up in the fear about living with someone HIV-positive, he says. He tells me about trips to the beach with Charlie, the way they try to escape the attention for a while. He tells me about their third date. "We were looking at these cool handmade Japanese trunks, and I was fascinated. So Im asking this guy some questions, but hes a real jerk," Robin says. "Then heres Christine, shes holding my hand and says to the guy, You know youre a real dick. Heres this guy whos interested in your work, and then we just walk away."
"The other thing is," he tells me after about an hour or so, "shes got a real taste for irreverence. It all goes back to questioning. Shes not afraid to ask questions no one else will. Her dad always taught her, if you find something wrong, ask a question. If youre not satisfied, take it to the next level."
Thats just what Christine is doing. Shes taking it to the next level, just like Alexander and Lidia. And she believes in the free exchange of ideas. But how free, really? Is she free to question those in power? What price will she eventually pay?
Are reporters free to question? When I ask the Centers for Disease Control about Christine and AIDS dissidents, they tell me, "Its a non-issue." Epidemiologists and scientists at several research institutions, those getting big AIDS dollars, were repeatedly unavailable when I said I was calling about the dissident view. Who decides who gets the information?
Are scientists free to challenge? Duesberg lost his grant programs. Others are portrayed as misguided, unstable, heretics, homophobic. Even South Africas President Mbeki is getting dragged though the Western media for questioning established reason. They say that by giving HIV deniers a global platform, he is contributing to genocide.
How will we ever know what is right? Will Christine be forever on the fringe? Will she be like a one-eyed man in the land of the blind?