All the Young Men is a biographical book by Ruth Coker Burks, co-written by Kevin Carr O’Leary. It chronicles the life of Burks, who in 1986 at the age of 26, began to care for men with AIDS in her native Arkansas. For over twenty years she cared for hundreds of men, challenged the medical and political systems in America, and set up some of the first AIDS support networks in America.
This is an extremely powerful book that is both uplifting and at the same time desperately sad. In telling her story, Ruth Coker Burks, clearly illustrates the heartbreaking reality of the first years of the AIDS pandemic, and the appalling neglect and even abuse heaped on the gay men who bore the brunt of the disease.
It is clear that though she is proud of her achievements, Burks is still angry at the way both the men she cared for, and she herself, were treated.
In her case, she was at first seen as dangerous, then as the medical profession became more enlightened, she was often dismissed as an ‘amateur.’ Despite all her efforts and the accumulation of a huge amount of knowledge, she was at times shunned.
The most engaging parts of this book are when Burks shares the stories of the numerous wonderful gay men she met and cared for. It is a testament to their lives and the spirit of a community that went through a devastating epoch.
Burks pulls no punches in calling out the hypocrisy of people claiming superior morality while abandoning their children, and the fickleness of medical professionals who initially treated those infected with HIV as pariahs. Reading this book, there were times when I got angry at the callous and cruel behaviour of so many people she encountered, particularly the mothers who abandoned their children. But this is not a maudlin book. There are many funny and wonderful anecdotes in it, and Burks writes of her own failings with an honesty that is refreshing.
All the Young Men is a testament to the courage and the tenacity of those who took it upon themselves to go against the orthodoxy of society to give love and support to the oppressed.