THE DURHAM HIV LIFE REVIEW PROJECT
“I’ve been through a whole lot. I’ve been in and out of jails. I’ve been in and out of hospitals. I’ve been through a lot of hurting and a lot of pain. What good does all this do me when I see other people out there suffering, and I got all this vital information and not telling anyone about it?”
— Johnnie Robinson
The Durham HIV Life Review component of the Southern Oral History Program’s “Listening for a Change” initiative encompassed a year’s worth of interviews and group life review sessions with Johnnie Robinson and four other HIV-positive men who are clients of the Durham County, North Carolina, Health Department’s HIV/Early Intervention Clinic. The project was instigated by clinic social worker Jennifer Sosensky, who wanted to provide opportunities for people with HIV to create a lasting record of their lives in a culture that often devalues or misunderstands their experiences. In addition to Sosensky, interviewers for the project included SOHP research associate Alicia Rouverol and folklorist Lisa Yarger. Four of the five men participating in the project agreed to work with photographer Abigail Blosser to create a visual autobiography of their lives.
Life review, a term coined by gerontologist Robert N. Butler in 1963, describes the process by which the elderly take stock of their past, attempting to make sense of the experiences and forces that shaped their lives. Recent studies in life review reveal that the process of reminiscence and reflection occurs among people of all ages, but particularly among individuals at critical junctures in their lives. Yet life stories hold transformative power not only for the teller but for the listener as well. By presenting narratives and images of people with HIV that show them as individuals with a diverse range of goals, fears, and life experiences, the Durham HIV Life Review project seeks to shift public perceptions of those living with HIV.
On December 2, 1999, the project offered the public just such an opportunity through a multi-media presentation, “Whole Lives: Reflections on Living with HIV.” Held at the Durham Public Library, the event allowed project participants to share their stories with an audience of health care workers, social workers, at-risk youth, and the general public. Their stories challenged stereotypes about people with HIV while also serving as cautionary tales. A forum following the program enabled interviewees to speak directly to audience members about their experiences within the health care system and the particular effects of the life review project in which they had participated.
“Whole Lives” was co-sponsored by the Piedmont HIV Health Care Consortium and the Durham County Health Department, and funded by the North Carolina Humanities Council and the SOHP with additional support from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the North Carolina Museum of History. Audiotapes and selected photographs from the project are available in the Southern Historical Collection.