Children were being mutilated. Kidnapped. Body parts removed. We whispered about cults and devil worship. Cars that slowed down and strangers who offered lifts. I remember misty nights. We lost whatever innocence we might have had around casual errands—after a certain hour, it was no longer safe to run to the kiosk for a box of matches or candles. Something ominous was happening. Children were being mutilated.
Later, much later—too late—after that period had ended, after we’d stopped talking about it, after it was replaced by whatever replaced it—evangelism, faith, adolescent hormones, national exams, adolescent narcissism—other stories emerged. Pre-pubescent girls as targets of men who wanted to avoid the plague—numbers do not tell stories, but the stories remain untold, and how many pre-pubescent Kenyan girls could not tell the stories of the numbers they became because of the plague. A question mark is not needed. Pre-pubescent girls as targets of men who wanted to cleanse themselves of the plague. There were no remedies. Other bodies were remedies. And how many pre-pubescent girls became remedies for the desperate and the craven. Pre-pubescent boys. Stories that never happened. But girls and boys were mutilated. Boys and girls.
I stay with pre-pubescent as though it tells the whole story of which bodies were considered safe, which bodies could cleanse, which virgins would be sacrificed to monsters to cleanse the village, but there was more. There always is. We spoke of mutilated bodies—genitals removed from children; we could not speak of other violations.
From here:now, now:here, it feels like a fantastic dream, full of faded edges, the faint tinge of terror—noli ma tangere. A sign says it’s better not to probe this particular memory-scab. Some scabs do not resolve into scars. Not even as keloids.
Was there grief? Did we mourn our agemates? Did we know how to? There was something in the air, something augmented by the horror films we watched and perhaps loved. It was easy to believe in devils and spirits, in curses and witchcraft. Children were mutilated.
Later, much later, the mutilations were named as purposive: to create medicine that would ward off or cure the plague that had no cure. Children were mutilated.
Mutilated, disappeared children are not part of Kenya’s official AIDS narrative. Children enter this story as orphans of adult, heterosexual parents who died or as children born to HIV-positive mothers. Children as prophylactic measures—dead or alive—are rarely mentioned. At least in nothing official. Children as cures. Children are pure.
It is not that long ago—1984? 1985?—yet it feels impossible. Official stories have ways of making what one lived through unimaginable from this distance. And one wants to be careful not to claim an experience one did not undergo: my parts remained intact, whatever claims to innocence I had were unsullied, saved mostly by class, but there was also luck. Always luck.
I have been unsatisfied by Pose recently. I could point to the predictable Ryan Murphy effect—an inability to make interiority interesting, a reliance on sentimentality. I could point to the terribly stilted dialogue, conversations that so often seem scripted, unnatural. I could point to this and that and that and this, But I’ve read my Samuel Delany. And no matter what technical faults Pose might suffer from, I understand that I want something impossible from the show: the banal horror of that particular plague moment for the person I was. In Nairobi. Living through the particular strangeness of children being mutilated.
From this distance, I am tempted to claim other memories and experiences, to think about the many people who died of pneumonia and tuberculosis and prolonged diseases and sudden conditions, to think about the young and old adults whose bodies are more legible to me now—now, at the point where I’ve been an adult for far longer than I was a child.
I want something impossible from Pose: a show crafted from impossible fractures and unbearable traumas, a show we—I—might not survive.
I know that’s unfair.
I want the work of numbers to be more than numbers. I want Pray Tell’s count-up to 1,000 to be as impossible as it is. History tells us the plague got worse before it got better. The numbers kept going up.
There is life. And love. And, somehow, by some miracle, some of us are here.
A friend who lived through the worst of the plague in the U.S. once tried to talk about it. No words came out. At the time, we were a few years removed from the worlds my friend had experienced, the carework, the funerals, the memorial services, but not the pain. Never the pain.
As far as I know, no memorial exists for those mutilated children. I’m not sure what would suffice. And, certainly, to claim them as victims of the plague would make their loss more unbearable.
Why is not always wise or kind. And we can only touch some memory-scabs for so long, before we need to forget them.