Bad Daddy may be the template, but Calvin Trillin suggests a family dynamic that’s just as telling. Arthur Kramer, eight years older than Larry and straight, “was the single best big brother in the world,” Trillin says. “And the most tested. If there was a way to find out whether he could push Arthur away, Larry explored it”—writing about him unflatteringly in The Normal Heart, just for starters. “And no, there wasn’t a way.”
Arthur, a lawyer whose firm became a leader in pro bono gay advocacy, died in 2008. Though Kramer has no time for psychological interpretations based in family history (he asserts that his life essentially started with AIDS in 1981), his grief over the loss of his brother—and over the suicide of his best friend and AIDS ally Rodger McFarlane, in May—seems to be amplified by his inability to identify an equivalent fraternal love in the world and its institutions, which keep turning into his father instead.
Not that he ever stops looking. Despite the profound unhappiness of his student years there, no institution means more to him emotionally than Yale—his father and brother attended, and his father made it clear that he would not pass muster as a son if he didn’t get “that piece of paper with Yale on it.” Kramer has made two major attempts to underwrite gay studies (and students) there; the first was rejected in part so as not to encourage separatism on campus, while the second, eventually known as the Larry Kramer Initiative, and financed by a $1 million gift from his brother, has now joined the list of his Greatest Disappointments. What he hoped would be an ongoing center for the study of gay history ended, after five years, in 2006: the victim (Kramer maintains) of bureaucratic infighting, gender-studies gobbledygook, and “a monstrous unacceptance of what I was trying to have taught.” A university spokesman says only that “Yale produces leaders and Larry Kramer is one of them. He is a prominent alumnus, and Yale is proud to be the home of his papers.” Kramer says that being treated so shabbily by his alma mater was shattering and forced him to take antidepressants. But to judge by his 1957 senior-class portrait, in which he looks as if he has been interrupted while crying, you’d have to conclude that the shattering happened long ago, and that Yale has something to answer for, then as now.
It is not news to Kramer that he loses friends and institutions the way other people lose glasses. Sometimes he says he doesn’t care, but other times he admits it pains him deeply. “I’m complicated, what do you want?” he explains. His good name matters to him; he begs me to contact people who will say nice things about him. There is no shortage of fans, in fact. But few are unmindful of the danger of exile, especially those who have returned from it. Alison Richard, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge university, says Kramer is now her “dear friend,” though she no doubt remembers his calling her a “termagant woman” when she was Yale’s provost and stood in his way. “How we got from ‘there’ to ‘here’ is among the joyful mysteries of my life,” she wrote in an e-mail, “and I’m content to leave it that way!”
For someone so loving and sensitive, Kramer has a strangely vague sense of the effect his anger has on people. After all, in writing an autobiographical character like Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart, he would seem in some way to be acknowledging, if valorizing, his own bullying. (Kramer admits that he can see his fingerprints on what happened to him at GMHC.) Having learned at an early age to fight back loudly—his father “never spoke in anything but top volume”—he may not even hear his yelling as an expression of anger. Trillin thinks it’s usually just pump-priming, a clearing of the throat. “But the essential thing about Larry and AIDS,” he says, “is that he was right. And the theater of it had an effect. It made you think: If this normally civilized man was acting in this manner, then it really must be as bad as he says.”
But who is the enemy now? Not that old standby, the medical Establishment, which gave him a liver and thus his life. Nor his insurance company; Kramer gratefully pays almost nothing for the thousands of dollars’ worth of anti-viral and anti-rejection drugs delivered monthly to his door. As for homophobia, it may now be too diffuse to respond to the full-bore strategy of a Kramer-style attack. The “lack of anger” he finds around him, and which he has attempted in recent years to replenish from his own apparently bottomless supply, similarly cannot be attacked head on. And sitting on a sofa in his third-floor apartment (he’s terrified of heights because they invite jumping), sweet little Larry—asking after one’s health, cuddling his terrier—seems to know it. Of course one quickly remembers that even pets are made part of the struggle. A few years (and another dog) ago, when Koch moved into his building, Kramer was ordered by management to keep his distance, at least verbally. So when Kramer ran into the ex-mayor in the mailroom one day, he looked at his pooch and said, “Don’t go near him, Molly, that’s the man who murdered all of Daddy’s friends!”