From hit records to Broadway to the movies, Sir Elton John’s music and accomplishments are known the world over. His latest endeavor, however, finds him addressing the personal milestones and struggles of his life head-on. In his first book, “Love is the Cure,” the iconic musician writes of his own experience and the personal toll AIDS has taken on his life. Read an excerpt.
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Chapter 1: Ryan
I’ve thought about this book for a while now, though it never occurred to me how to start off.
I suppose one could begin with statistics, with numbers and charts and facts that paint the perfect picture of horror that is the global AIDS epidemic: more than 25 million lives lost in thirty years, 34 million people living with HIV/AIDS around the globe, 1.8 million deaths per year, nearly 5,000 lives taken each and every day, the sixth leading cause of death worldwide.
But I’ve always found it impossible to comprehend these statistics. The tragedy is so immense, the figures are so enormous, there’s simply no way to wrap your mind around it all.
Let’s leave the numbers for later, and begin with a story instead.
After all, I’m not a statistician; I’m a musician. I’ve made my living telling stories through songs. It gives me incredible joy the way people connect with my music. That is all I hope to do in this book — to tell stories that connect people with this epidemic, so we can work together to end it.Video: Queen serenaded by Stevie Wonder, Elton John (on this page)
The first story I’d like to tell you is an amazing one. To understand the AIDS epidemic, to understand my passion for ending it, you need to know about Ryan White. It all goes back to my friend Ryan.
Ryan came into this world with a rare and terrible genetic disease, hemophilia, which prevents the blood from clotting and leads to uncontrollable bleeding. Hemophilia is a manageable condition today, but in the early 1970s, when Ryan was born, it was a dangerous and often fatal disease. As an infant, and then as a child, Ryan was in the hospital again and again.
Then, as if the hand he’d been dealt wasn’t difficult enough, the poor boy contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, through a treatment for his hemophilia. At age 13, the doctors gave Ryan a grim prognosis: less than six months to live. He held on for more than five years. And in that short span, Ryan accomplished what most could not hope to achieve in a thousand lifetimes. He inspired a nation, changed the course of a deadly epidemic, and helped save millions of lives. Imagine, a child doing all of that, a sick boy from a small town in Middle America. It sounds like a movie script, like a bedtime story, like a miracle. And it was a miracle. Ryan’s life was an absolute miracle.Elton John tells why he waited to come out
It must have been 1985 when I first learned about Ryan. I was at a doctor’s appointment in New York. I forget why I was there. I picked up a magazine from a stack in the waiting room. I was mindlessly flipping through the pages when I came across an article that would change my life. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, that a boy was being kept out of school, and his family was being shunned and tormented, because he had AIDS.
In 1984, around Christmastime, Ryan was in particularly bad shape with a rare form of pneumonia. But tests at the hospital revealed a far worse diagnosis: he had full-blown AIDS. The pneumonia was an opportunistic infection attacking his badly weakened immune system.
Jeanne waited until after Christmas to tell Ryan that he had AIDS. When he found out, Ryan knew exactly what it meant: he was going to die.Video: Fans gather for Elton's wedding (on this page)
Everyone was aware of AIDS by 1984, especially hemophiliacs. While it was still a very new and frightening disease, the medical community had already figured out the basics. They had identified the HIV virus itself that year, and they knew that it was spread only by sex or by direct blood exposure. There was simply no risk of infection from being around someone with AIDS.
But there was fear. There was so much fear. It was everywhere, a ghost that shadowed Ryan’s every move and haunted him throughout his life.Video: A tour of Elton John's crib (on this page)
Shortly after he was diagnosed, a local paper discovered that Ryan had AIDS. They ran a story about it, and suddenly the whole town—and then the whole nation—knew about his condition. After that, everything changed for Ryan and his family. As a child with hemophilia, Ryan had been treated with compassion. As a child with AIDS, many treated him with contempt.
At school, and nearly everywhere he went in his hometown, Ryan was teased and tormented. He was called a “fag” and other homophobic obscenities in public. His school locker and possessions were vandalized, and terrible rumors were spread about him. One anonymous teenager wrote a letter to the local paper accusing Ryan of threatening to bite and scratch other children, spitting on food at a grocery store, even urinating on bathroom walls. These were lies, of course, but it didn’t matter. Having AIDS made Ryan a freak, and regardless of what he did or didn’t do, he was considered as such.
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It wasn’t just Ryan who was subjected to ill treatment and ostracism — his entire family suffered. The tires were slashed on Jeanne’s car. A bullet was shot through a window of the White family’s home. Ryan’s extended family was harassed, too, and even non-relatives who defended Ryan were subjected to abuse. When the local paper supported Ryan’s right to attend school, the publisher’s house was egged. A reporter at the paper even received death threats.
Like millions of people, when I read about Ryan in that magazine, sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, I was incensed. More than that, I was overcome with the desire to do something for this boy and his family. “This situation is outrageous,” I thought. “I’ve got to help these people.”Video: Elton John: ‘I wasted such a big part of my life’ (on this page)
As angry and motivated as I was, I hadn’t a clue what I could do for them. I suppose I was thinking that I would help raise awareness about what the White family was going through, or perhaps raise money to fight AIDS. But how could I help others when I couldn’t even help myself?
The truth is, I was a huge cocaine addict at the time. My life was up and down like a ----ing yo-yo. My sense of values was buried under my self-destruction.
I was still a good person, a kind person, underneath — otherwise I would have never reached out to the Whites in the first place. All I hoped was that somehow I could bring this boy and his family some comfort and some support.
It turned out, in the end, the Whites would do far more for me than I ever did for them.
Excerpted from “Love is the Cure” by Elton John. Copyright © 2012 by Elton John. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive