Document:Kolhatkar on Farber
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New York Observer
3 July 2006
On the night of Saturday, June 10, the controversial journalist Celia Farber was holding court at a quiet cocktail party in a roped-off section of the Roosevelt Hotel bar in midtown Manhattan. “What does an animal do when they know they’re going to be killed?” she asked, her voice taut, as a handful of people looked on. “They play dead.”
Ms. Farber was in the midst of an anecdote about one of her preferred subjects, her persecution at the hands of a vast network of enemies, and its effect on her writing career. “I’ve been there,” she continued. “You lose interest in doing well; you stop caring about being successful.”
Most of the 15 or so at the party were members of Rethinking AIDS, a group of scientists, writers and others who propagate the radical idea that HIV does not cause AIDS. One of Ms. Farber’s beliefs, for example, is that the scientific explanations for the AIDS epidemic are corrupted by drug companies that seek to show that AIDS is amenable to drug therapies – profitable ones.
Their esoteric ideas have far-reaching implications, to say the least. If HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, then “safe sex,” drug “cocktails” – in short, everything that the medical establishment says about prevention and treatment – is wrong.
Not unsurprisingly, the group is small, marginalized and the object of intense criticism in public-health circles. (They view themselves as AIDS “dissenters,” while their critics refer to them as “denialists.”)
Ms. Farber is a central figure among the AIDS “dissenters.” She isn’t a scientist herself; instead, she champions the scientific work of Peter Duesberg, a cancer researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. Ms. Farber sees herself as some sort of modern-day Clarence Darrow to Mr. Duesberg’s Scopes – an advocate whose lonely battle will be vindicated through the prisms of history and science.
Her two-decade career has been dominated by her efforts to keep debate about the dissenting AIDS theory alive, and nearly every piece she publishes on the subject triggers a seismic backlash. An Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on June 4 accused her camp of “Deadly Quackery”: “The truth is that HIV does exist, that it causes AIDS and that antiretroviral drugs can prevent HIV transmission and death from AIDS,” it read. “To deny these facts is not just wrong – it’s deadly.”
One could argue that Ms. Farber gave her life for her obsession with the cause. A few months ago, she and her ragtag band of colleagues might have been considered, by some, to be one step away from the conspiracy theorist’s asylum, next in line behind the 9/11-was-an-inside-job crowd. But they’ve been feeling emboldened by two recent successes: the publication of Ms. Farber’s first book, Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS, by the independent press Melville House; and, perhaps more significantly, the appearance of a 15-page article by Ms. Farber in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Indeed, as one party attendee pointed out, not everyone in the media world regards Celia Farber as a petrified animal. “There are so many people who admire her,” said Thor Halvorssen, a personal friend of Ms. Farber, who was there solely to lend her moral support. He paused. “[Former Harper’s editor] Lewis Lapham, for one.”
Up close, Ms. Farber, 40, has a damaged, fragile air. She is tall and exceedingly thin, with limbs that look as if they might snap to the touch. Her facial features are dramatically chiseled, with large brown eyes topped off with carefully tousled blond hair. “After all these years, the spotlight is on me,” Ms. Farber said, sipping a glass of white wine. “It’s come at the same moment when I’ve ceased to care any more. There comes a point where I don’t crave respectability, I don’t expect to get it from the outside.”
Ms. Farber sees AIDS through the lens of totalitarianism (American society in general, American science specifically and the National Institutes of Health all earned the label). To engage with her is to enter a surreal plane where her intensity threatens to overwhelm. Dozens of emails arrive in the night filled with angry rantings, impassioned pleas, links to articles and letters to the editor – all offering a glimpse into the emotional seesaw that is her existence. She seems driven by anxious energy, and her long fingers tend to flutter around her temples like butterflies as she speaks.
At the Roosevelt, she was seated on a couch next to her friend Mr. Halvorssen, a preppy libertarian with a cowlick, whose preoccupations that night included the evils of communism, political correctness, environmentalists and the charges against the Duke lacrosse team.
“I’m an unusual subject in that for years it’s been written that I’m in denial of reality, a mass murderer...” Ms. Farber said.
At that moment, Barry Farber – Ms. Farber’s father, the anti-communist and conservative radio host who ran for Mayor of New York in 1977 – ambled over with a big grin, his tie askew.
“We’re talking about your daughter!” Mr. Halvorssen said to him.
“Ah, my favorite subject!” Mr. Farber said in his Southern drawl. He collapsed on the couch and started punching at his cell phone.
“If you are deprived of respectability over time,” Ms. Farber continued, “what happens is, it’s wounding – but eventually you get freed of the addiction to respectability. I think a lot of media people crave respectability.”
Her friend wasn’t buying it; he thinks she is too timid and insecure. “How often in the past two years have you pitched a story?” said Mr. Halvorssen in a scolding tone.
“Um...” Ms. Farber said, “I have pitched stories, probably...”
“She just does not do it!” Mr. Halvorssen said. “She could get $20,000 a story, she’s so good. But she just. Does. Not. Do. It. She’s still bleeding. If we could just cover these wounds...”
“I said this to Lewis Lapham, actually,” Ms. Farber said: “‘You are interfering with my persecution complex!’”
“You see this?” Mr. Halvorssen said. “She has a Joan of Arc complex!”
“A persecution complex does not develop out of nothing,” Ms. Farber said.
AIDS "has had me in its jaws for 20 years, and I’ve occasionally tried to get away from it. And I have found that there’s not nearly as much free will as you’d think,” said Ms. Farber. “I am not obsessed with it. I probably seem to be obsessed with it – people probably think, Can’t she shut up about AIDS? But in actual fact, I’ve been trying to, for a long time. But some portion of the culture keeps coming to me and asking me to please address it again.” Ms. Farber, however, is unable to “shut up about” AIDS for very long.
Celia Farber is a New Yorker by birth (she now lives on the Upper West Side). Her mother was a Swedish Pan Am stewardess and a nurse; her father is of Russian Jewish ancestry and grew up in North Carolina. She lived from age 11 to 18 in Sweden, which she described as an oppressive, overly socialist, weird place. She joined the alternative-rock scene, and when she returned to New York she enrolled at NYU and drummed in bands.
She began writing her infamous AIDS column, called “Words from the Front,” at Spin in 1987.
It was in the midst of the so-called “AIDS war,” when public fear (Ms. Farber likes to call it “mass hysteria”) about the disease was at its peak and there was a scientific space race underway to understand it. But: “I didn’t come in and say, ‘I wanna write about AIDS!’” Ms. Farber said. “I wanted to find something out, ideally something that really needed to be found out and nobody else had found out. That was my thing.”
Her pieces, many of which are collected in her book, raised questions about whether HIV was the sole cause of AIDS, about the side effects of the AIDS drug AZT and about the severity of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Her second installment was an interview with Mr. Duesberg, who is also known for his hypothesis that AIDS is caused by heavy recreational and anti-HIV drug use rather than HIV itself. Mr. Duesberg was shunned by the scientific community after publishing his theory that HIV cannot cause AIDS; Ms. Farber has been aligned with him ever since.
Needless to say, many in the medical establishment, as well as gay and AIDS activists – and Ms. Farber’s own colleagues at Spin – found her columns destructive. Spin’s publisher, Bob Guccione Jr., personally shepherded her pieces into the magazine. “There was always a sense of violence and sabotage,” Ms. Farber said, adopting the cadences of a grizzled war reporter. “There were times when Bob and I had to actually walk the boards to the printer – there were people, copy editors and fact-checkers, who hated the column so much they would cut things out.”
There was also another matter: Ms. Farber was romantically involved with Mr. Guccione, which created resentment in the office. This culminated in 1994 when an employee named Staci Bonner filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against the magazine and Mr. Guccione.
Ms. Farber had by then gone freelance, gotten married to someone else and given birth to a son just that year. In a time line she provided in an email, she wrote: “The years 1994-1997 were consumed with fighting the charges which culminated in Federal Court, 1997. Hospitalized briefly for suicidal urges. Lost 25 pounds. Lost will to live. Betrayed by best friend at Spin (plaintiff).” She said the trial “absolutely leveled me – it was the darkest, scariest, most traumatic, merciless, brutal thing I’ve ever seen or imagined; it took me 10 years to even begin to want to live again.”
Shortly after that, she went to Los Angeles and spent three months shadowing O.J. Simpson for Esquire, which resulted in a sensational cover story in 1998. She wrote for Mr. Guccione at his new magazine, Gear, and had an AIDS column on the Web site Ironminds. She separated from her husband. She organized a concert called “Rock the Boat,” which was intended to raise awareness about alternative AIDS theories; the concert fell apart, and Ms. Farber said that “financial decimation” followed. She worked at a series of odd jobs – in hotels, trade shows, making candles, catering, dishwashing.
Around 2001, Tina Brown commissioned her to write a story about gene therapy for Talk. The piece was killed. She said that she has been broke, and has given up on journalism, ever since.
(There was one bright spot: Ms. Farber said in an e-mail that after she wrote a piece for the New York Press about Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment case in 2004, the founder of American Apparel, Dov Charney, called her up “yelling about the whole fake feminism ordeal.” Mr. Charney had been dealing with his own harassment accusations, and he hired her as a “consultant and writer.” Ms. Farber referred to Mr. Charney as her “secret benefactor.”)
She speaks of her Harper’s article as if it was a divine accident, but in reality Mr. Lapham was the puppet master. After meeting him at a party several years ago, Ms. Farber said he urged her to pitch him stories. “He said, ‘I really need someone to write about science for me,’” Ms. Farber recalled. “He said, ‘I really have a sense that it’s kind of...’ and then he paused, and I said, ‘Diabolical?’”
She eventually proposed a piece about the same HIV-does-not-cause-AIDS virologist she’s been championing since Spin. “I had no intention whatsoever of writing about AIDS in Harper’s,” Ms. Farber said, somewhat implausibly. “The original story was about Peter Duesberg’s cancer theory. And I remember saying to Lewis Lapham: ‘The AIDS question – we’ll just fly right over that, right?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, we’ll fly right over that.’” (Mr. Lapham declined to speak to The Observer.)
Ms. Farber turned in that piece, which appears as the first chapter in her book. Mr. Lapham handed the text over to an editor, Roger Hodge, to edit. While it was being worked on, news of a problematic AIDS drug trial appeared in the press. Ms. Farber brought it to her editor’s attention and said that she was urged to look into that story: “I felt like, ‘Oh, God, what a pain in the ass. I don’t wanna go into that extraordinarily difficult, impossible, explosive, life-destroying stuff!’” Ms. Farber said. “But you don’t say that to your editors.”
The piece that ultimately ran was an awkward marriage of the two stories. Predictably, it triggered a considerable level of anger directed at Harper’s. Letters were published both in support of the article and taking issue with some of Ms. Farber’s contentions. The AIDS researcher Robert Gallo and doctors from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, among others, wrote in protest.
Ms. Farber said that she’d tried to warn Messrs. Lapham and Hodge of her reputation and biases. “In this discredited little cadre of scientists, I’m their champion,” she said she told them. In an email, Mr. Hodge, who is now Harper’s top editor, wrote: “Yes, we knew what we were getting into.” He also wrote: “Celia is an excellent reporter and I hope she brings us more good stories in the future.”
It’s not entirely surprising that a figure such as Ms. Farber would appeal to a particular brand of right-thinking liberalism, the type embodied by Mr. Lapham’s former magazine. By focusing her outrage on her opposition’s desire to silence dissent rather than on the actual scientific arguments, Ms. Farber finds protection under the idea that no subject or theory, regardless of its implications, should be taken off the table; continuing to ask the questions can be more important than answering them.
When asked how the endless contrarianism might have impacted Ms. Farber professionally, Mr. Guccione, another believer in the “fostering debate” approach to publishing, said: “I think she has paid a terrific price.” He continued: “You know, the flip side of that is, I think she spent too much time dwelling on the AIDS beat. It’s been a holy quest for her.”
In any case, Ms. Farber would be lost without her battles. She said that she’s always been fascinated by Stalinism, Communism, the Holocaust, witch hunts; she visits “as many dictatorships as I can.” She described herself alternately as a lapsed hard leftist, a proto-anarchist, a libertarian sympathizer and a “bit punk.” When asked if she somehow took pleasure in the turmoil triggered by her journalism, she said: “I would vastly prefer a quiet life, without roiling bands of furious AIDS activists – I mean treatment activists – smearing my name all over the world. I mean, I don’t like it. I don’t take it lightly.” Then she thought for a moment. “I think I was built to take it,” Ms. Farber said. “I just had a very, very unsparing childhood. And I was never any ‘the world is my oyster’ kind of person. Things were always tough, and I developed kind of an identity, I guess, where maybe I relished something about the dynamic of being attacked. It’s a really good question... It traumatizes me very much. Less now than it used to. I find it boring now. Very, very boring.”
© 2006 by Sheelah Kolhatkar
Originally published at New York Observer