June Callwood first noticed James St. James during a weekly Toronto gathering of people
with AIDS in the summer of 1986. As the participants discussed their feelings, she recalls, the tall, dark man confidently announced, “I’ve got AIDS, but AIDS hasn’t got me.” Several weeks later, however, Callwood learned that St. James had attempted suicide. The 34-year-
old actor did eventually recover from his depression and, determined to tell his story despite his roller-coaster emotions, he contacted Callwood. As she explains in the foreword to Jim: A Life With AIDS, she did not initially want to write the book: the Toronto writer had just completed Twelve Weeks in Spring— about a friend who died of cancer—and could not bring herself to write about another dying person. But St. James’s fierce enthusiasm for the project eventually won her over. The result is a moving and intimate portrait of the longestsurviving Canadian with the disease.
Callwood begins with an account of how St. James discovered that he had AIDS. After he found lumps on his forehead and scalp, doctors diagnosed Kaposi sarcoma—AIDS-related cancer—in April, 1984. At that time, Canada was virtually untouched by the vims—in fact, St. James was the first Canadian to publicly identify himself as a homosexual with AIDS. The author writes that St. James’s feelings of devastation were compounded by spiritual conflict: he was a Jehovah’s Witness, and the religion does not sanction homosexuality. Callwood traces that long-standing struggle within him, going back to his childhood realization of his sexual orientation and his subsequent attempts to repress it—including an unsuccessful marriage. He was eventually excommunicated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses: the church has forbidden his mother and sister to see him. But, as Callwood points out, St. James emerged from the conflict determined to help others.
Through his work with an AIDS support group, St. James befriended more than 60 people and then lost them to the disease. The most powerful section of the book presents his recollections of those men. Although Callwood devotes only a little space to each one, the small histories illustrate both the tragedy of a ravaged community and the rapid spread of the vims. The author makes liberal use of the tapes on which St. James has recorded his thoughts since he was first diagnosed. At one point, he said of a friend: “I can’t even remember Irv’s funeral. There’s been so many you start to confuse them. Who sang, what was said, who conducted it.”
St. James chose his author well. Callwood, the author of 29 books and a crusader for numerous causes, was helping to set up Casey House, a Toronto AIDS hospice, when she first met St. James. She has told his story with great sensitivity. In a Callwood profile that CBC TV’s Man Alive will air on Nov. 15, she describes some of the sadness of her own early life with an alcoholic father, saying, “Isolation is something I understand very well.” Few members of society have been more isolated than people with AIDS. “I’m not going to die of AIDS,” St. James once said. “I’m going to die of loneliness.” St. James was the first Canadian to give the disease a human face, and now, with her portrait, Callwood has revealed the determined spirit of a man who continues to speak out on behalf of those suffering from AIDS. Her book adds a note of optimism to an otherwise dark saga.
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