Book Review : Mother's Anguished Story of Her Son's AIDS Death

The Screaming Room: A Mother's Journal of Her Son's Struggle With AIDS--a True Story of Love, Dedication and Courage by Barbara Peabody (Oaktree Press: $15.96)

Something about this book at first arouses the reader's suspicions. The author's very first line seems awkward, contrived, even: " 'Oh, my God, no-o-o!' My cry pierces the quiet San Diego morning. . . ."

You think that this is going to be a book about the author, about mother instead of victim; another of those "My husband died of a heart attack but I bravely lived on" kind of story. And yes, it's true, the writing is sometimes awkward. Barbara Peabody is not a professional writer, and how can you be expected to write gracefully about the slow and horrible death of a beloved son?

The book, however, is not about the mother, and it does not appear to be exploitive. By the end, the reader will have learned a great deal about AIDS (and how our society protects itself from fearsome knowledge by the twin mechanism of blame and deliberate ignorance). But he will also get a sense, both enlightening and depressing, about how some modern American families work.

Mrs. Peabody learns about her Peter's AIDS-related pneumonia from her ex-husband in New York. She and her husband are a continent and a lifetime apart. And old nightmares, misunderstandings, immediately begin. Where does Peter's mother, ex-wife scraping along, even get the money to fly to New York? Once she gets there, Peter is not expected to live. His father, a doctor, is reluctant to phone around to get information about the disease. And yet the squabbling parents work together in the hospital giving their son alcohol baths to bring down his fever, just as they must have done years ago, for the harmless afflictions of childhood. . . . Peter recovers from his pneumonia and it's decided that he return to San Diego to live with his mother for a while. He says he's going to want to be in his own apartment, but that will never happen. Meanwhile, in a fairly quick exposition, we've learned enough family history to get some of the context in which this disaster has occurred.

Hit the Hardest

There's been that divorce, and only $500 a month in child support for four kids. And the family has moved way too many times (like so many other upwardly mobile American families). Some of the kids have taken all this better than the others. Four children: Peter, David, Maria, Jonathan; Peter, the oldest, perhaps hit the hardest. Twenty-eight when the narrative begins, he was 18 when the family broke apart. . . .

Either none of this matters or it does. When Peter went off to New York to pursue a career in music (and make a living as a writer), his mother had an inkling that he was gay. When, after a year, he came home and told her so, she was--according to this narrative--tolerant and accepting. Later, when she finds that from time to time he's used drugs intravenously, she's . . . well, how should she feel? She doesn't even know what mode of life to blame for what has happened to him.

Against this fragmentation, the family holds together. We don't hear too much of the two other brothers, David and Jonathan, although they come back toward the end of Peter's life. Maria, the daughter, is a brick and a trouper, interrupting her own education again and again to come home and take turns with her mother in arduous 24-hour nursing tasks. And Walter, no longer husband but always father, comes back safely, and in an echo of the old divorce patterns, tries to take Peter away on special outings that the poor guy is far too weak and sick to appreciate.

No Blame Cast

It is to Barbara Peabody's everlasting credit that she blames no one here. Not Peter, not his lover, not even drugs, not even the militant Christian parents who, she says, so often desert their children sick with AIDS, and leave them alone to die, seeing this disease as evidence of God's revenge. She devotes only three or four lines to these heartless, missing mothers and fathers, and concentrates on the young men so often dying alone.

As for the disease? Often, through the narrative, the reader wonders why Barbara and her husband simply didn't let their son die during his first pneumocystic bout. All that remained for him--and them--was a year of physical and emotional agony: seizures, diarrhea and incontinence exacerbated by intestinal herpes, and--by far the worst symptoms--brain damage, premature aging and loss of memory.

Peter is a young man, only 28 when he is cooped up in an apartment with his mother, who watches him die. He suffers all the agony of a terminal illness, plus the terrible stigma, fear and ignorance that surround AIDS. "Don't worry about it, he's going to be fine," a nurse tells Peter's mother in New York. "It doesn't mean he's going to die y'now. Lots of 'em walk right out of here." His mother knows better.

Not Enough Money

At other times, for reasons known only to them, doctors withhold new, experimental drugs. And Peter goes on dying. There isn't enough money. And this is a dread disease. People are afraid to go near him. His mother, his sister and his father take turns dealing with the horror that defies a transmutation into words. (Which may be why the writing stumbles. Barbara Peabody is writing, and living, the unthinkable.)

This is not a particularly edifying or inspirational book. It's just about a young man dying, and his family doing everything they can to help him. "I refuse to give up until Peter wants to," his mother writes. "The fight will last as long as he wishes." And it does.

Remember, this is a professional family. The father is a doctor, the mother a painter, the kids in college. This experience is something that can happen to any family. The main message, past the pain, is that we must pay attention to what is happening here. Some book stores have refused to carry this book. I suggest you shop until you find "The Screaming Room," and read it. It's not a picnic on the banks of the Rhine, but it should be required reading for all of us.

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