Anno Terror Beluarum: Remembering Richard Ramirez and Ryan White, 1985

Contrary to some earlier reports, the autopsy of serial killer Richard Ramirez has confirmed that his June 7 death was from complications from B-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

All told, Ramirez killed as many as 15 people during his spree. Survivors reported that he was especially cruel in the process, hurling hateful insults and demanding demeaning things from his victims.

This morning I've already heard one person say, "If anyone deserved cancer, it's the Nightstalker." But this is indefensible. What he deserved was to be subjected to the full measure of the justice system, and for the most part he was. Human diseases as poorly understood as cancer follow pathologies that are too random for assignment. The State of California didn't sentence Ramirez to a fatal cancer diagnosis; it sentenced him to death. In California, this is the de facto equivalent of life in prison until you die of violence or disease.

I'm certainly not sorry that he's dead. Some people should die. Others should never have been born.

But to think that Ramirez deserved to get cancer is to express a dubious opinion about everyone else with cancer. If Ramirez's evil ways earned him the disease, what has everyone else with cancer done to deserve the diagnosis?

The Monster Among Us

Sometime in the summer of 1985 is when those of us living in the San Francisco Bay Area realized that the man formerly known as "The Walk-in Killer" and then "The Nightstalker" had gone from LA's problem to ours. He'd already killed two women in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, but those murders had not yet been tied to him.

On June 2, he went to the Cow Hollow (San Francisco) apartment of Theodore Wildings and Nancy Brien. There he shot Wildings in the head then brutally raped Brien. We still didn't know it yet, but the monster was among us.

I lived in a town called San Ramon, about 45 minutes from The City and seemingly far enough away from Ramirez, and yet we were all terrified.

In fact, it was a year defined by terror.

Anno Terror Beluarum

According to a U.S. State Department report from 1986, in 1985 more people died in terrorist attacks than in any previous year. The overwhelming majority of attacks had their roots in religion.

  • - In February in Northern Ireland, the IRA launched a mortar attack that killed nine police officers.
  • - In March, a Beirut car bomb killed 82 and injured another 175, and AP newsman Terry Anderson was kidnapped.
  • - In April, a bomb killed 18 in Madrid.
  • - In May, John Hauser had four fingers blown off his hand by the Unabomber.
  • - In late June, a bomb in the forward cargo hold inside Air India 182 detonated over the Atlantic ocean, killing all 392 aboard.
  • - In July, French DGSE agents blew up the Rainbow Warrior in Aukland harbor, killing photographer Fernando Pereira.
  • - In August, Ramirez broke into the Lake Merced home of Peter and Barbara Pan, killing Peter and brutally injuring Barbara.
  • - In October, the cruise ship Achilles Lauro was hijacked, and four days later a bomb killed the Arab-American activist Alex Odeh in California.
  • - In November, the Unabomber sent a pipebomb to a Washington state professor, injuring instead his assistant.

And really, that's an incomplete list.

Way Down in Kokomo

Meanwhile, on March 3, the Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune ran a story with the headline, Howard County Young Diagnosed with AIDS. With that, we were introduced to 13-year-old hemophiliac Ryan White.

I couldn't help but identify with Ryan White: We were the same age, we were American kids just doing our thing. The main difference was that in December of 1984 he had been diagnosed with AIDS [not until 1986 would the virus be called HIV], the contemporary "gay plague" that made willing fag-bashers of us all – in word, if not in deed.

The Monster Within Us

The tremendous panic raised by AIDS brought out the monster in so many of us. Doctors said that White posed no health risk to those around him. But understandably, this fell on deaf ears.

By mid-April, 15 of Ryan White's fellow students began attending a makeshift school purely to avoid coming into contact with him, and it would only get worse: At the end of June, school superintendent James O. Smith denied White admission to Western Middle School. In August, parents of Western students signed 117 claim forms threatening to file a civil suit if White was granted admission, then four dozen teachers voted to keep him out. When classes finally began in late August, White was forced to attend classes from home by way of a telephone hook-up.

In November, the Indiana Department of Education ruled that White should be allowed back in school, provided he wasn't visibly sick. (He had twice been admitted to a local hospital with respiratory infections.) In a closed-door meeting, school officials vowed to appeal the ruling.

Finally, on November 25, a hearing officer from the Department of Education ruled that White must be admitted to school, and two days later, he was back.

That very same day, 58 million miles away, Halley's Comet passed Earth on its way to the sun, coming as close to our planet as it would get this time around.

White's victory was as brief as Halley's brush-by with Earth, and soon he was out of school again. People yelled, "Queer!" out their car windows at him. They insisted he had to be gay because he had the gay disease. Parents picketed him. Students taunted him. Vandals broke into the White home and trashed it, even slashing the tires on their car.

Eventually the family left Kokomo for Cicero, Indiana. There, White likely caused fear among the students of Hamilton Heights High too, but they didn't let it consume them. He was welcomed largely as just another student and even had a date for his senior prom.

He was unable to finish the school year and died in 1990. By then he was an international figure with supporters ranging from Elton John and Michael Jackson to Bush, Quayle, Ted Kennedy and Donald Trump.

The Sea-Change

AIDS first came to the attention of the medical community in 1981. By 1982, the CDC had settled on calling it AIDS. Later that year, President Reagan's spokesman Larry Speakes notoriously ridiculed the emerging "gay plague," even as a reporter said "over a third of [those infected] have died." The virus believed to be causing AIDS was discovered in 1983. Reagan finally uttered the word "AIDS" publicly in September of 1985. In 1986, the virus was named HIV.

A stigma still clings to having the HIV virus, but it is nothing compared to what it was in the 1980s.

Cancer's Debut in the Written Record of Humankind

In The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee notes that cancer's debut in the written record of humankind occurs in a 17th century BCE transcription of a manuscript from 2500 BCE written by the Egyptian physician Imhotep. It details 48 cases of illness with accompanying recommended treatment modalities. A case of breast cancer very obviously appears as case 45. Imhotep includes a dismal description of the disease and then under treatments he writes only, "There is none."

And a subtle but insidious stigma holds tight to cancer so that 4,500 years later, Imhotep remains more right than wrong.

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