Poet Steven Reigns, who worked in the HIV field for over a decade, calls his new book, A Quilt for David, “documentary poetry.” In it, he tells the story of the late David Acer, an HIV-positive dentist in Florida in the early 1990s “who is known in popular culture as the dentist who infected his patients,” he said. Lawsuits from eight HIV-positive patients followed the revelation of Acer’s diagnosis, including one from Kimberly Bergalis, who, along with two others, received $999,999. Doubt was later cast on the CDC’s findings in the case, and Reigns says because so little is known about the facts, he uses poetry to fill in the gaps.
Steven Reigns is a Los Angeles poet and educator and was appointed the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. Alongside over a dozen chapbooks, he has published the collections Inheritance and Your Dead Body is My Welcome Mat. Reigns holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida, a Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, and is a fourteen-time recipient of The Los Angeles County’s Department of Cultural Affairs’ Artist in Residency Grant. He edited My Life is Poetry, showcasing his students’ work from the first-ever autobiographical poetry workshop for LGBT seniors. Reigns has lectured and taught writing workshops around the country to LGBT youth and people living with HIV. Currently he is touring The Gay Rub, an exhibition of rubbings from LGBT landmarks, and facilitates the monthly Lambda Lit Book Club. His newest collection A Quilt for David will be out by City Lights Books in September and is the product of ten years of research regarding dentist David Acer’s life.
You write, “’Who were these people?’ I wanted to find out, and I wanted to tell that story.” Was the inspiration as simple as that?
It was just starting off with that question: “What happened in that dental office?” It was known as the only reported case of [a dentist infecting his patients with HIV.] I did not realize this situation is just a microcosm that represents so many larger issues. But what prompted my research was just curiosity about what happened. And then, of course, that curiosity extended to the individuals — David Acer and all the people who claimed their infection was from him.
Why choose poetry as a form, other than to compensate for gaps in the narrative? Did it offer other advantages?
One, it’s my beloved form. Also, it seems like people’s response to that situation at the time was emotional. It didn’t seem to have a lot of data or science behind it. Being that poetry is the language of our emotions, I wondered if, using poetry, I could have people start to consider and empathize with David Acer. I also think because Kimberly Bergalis claimed to be a virgin, right away, that cultural memory is pulling on the Virgin Mary, the pure, the innocent. And that worked in her favor.
You write of Kimberly Bergalis’ lawyer, Bob Montgomery, “Gut or guilt (or greed) made the / southern man believe.” What is it about this story that is particular to the South?
Robert Montgomery had a reputation for being a straight shooter, kind of a good ole boy. He had some big-profile cases. He was the one who sued the tobacco industry in Florida. He was skillful at getting the press’ attention. He purposefully scheduled a press conference for Kimberly. Robert Montgomery was fascinating, because, as I reveal in the book, he had a son who died of AIDS as well. I’m really curious. Did his dying, gay son receive the same treatment from Robert that Kimberly did? Was he more generous to Kimberly, in terms of love, care, affection, attention? I think it’s a good question, and I’m not quite sure of the answer. What I know is that he did a lot of interviews talking about Kimberly, and there’s only one interview in which I found him talking about his son.
What are the parallels that we see today? Are there any events or attitudes in the book that, in your view, have been resolved?
It’s so interesting to revisit [the AIDS crisis] with COVID-19 and the delta variant, where we are thinking about infection, who is infectious, how infections happen, who gets blamed for infection. What risks are forgivable? What risks are not? Also, we’re in a moment of cancel culture. While it’s nice that there are so many people supporting something, and I appreciate that about cancel culture, at the same time, something gets lost with the quickness of it. There’s a loss of compassion and consideration for everyone involved.
As you write in A Quilt for David, “What risks do we forgive, and what risks do we punish?”
I want to believe everyone involved was doing the best they could. The purpose of this book is not to slam Kimberly Bergalis or the other people who made accusations and made money. It’s not an easy situation for anyone. It was a small town in Florida. I lived in Florida for over ten years, and it’s so disappointing that Florida is the punchline of so many jokes, and I think there are so many wonderful, well-educated, well-meaning people in Florida. And also, there are some people who are uninformed and scared, and people whose fear creates bias and prejudice. And there are also people in really bad positions who use those biases as leverage to work in their favor.
What emotions do you hope to evoke in the book that are universal?
Because these are human experiences and human emotions, hopefully, they are universal. [The book] is my attempt to humanize David Acer, because people forgot he was human. This was someone who had ambition and goals. He went into the military to pay for his schooling. He was on an accelerated track at the university. But the media made a monster out of him. What happened to David Acer could happen to any of us. At the time the accusations came out, it was just a handful of days before his death. From his hospice bed, he wrote a letter to the newspaper, where he said he was informed that a patient believes they were infected by him, he does not believe that happened, and he urged all of his patients to get tested to make sure they were okay. He didn’t have much of an opportunity to defend himself, being a gay man. Who were his associates at the time? They were other gay men. Why would they out themselves to defend someone, when the deck is already stacked against their friend? His parents moved to Stewart, Florida to be caregivers to their son. When the news was coming out, they checked him into a hospice about two hours south, and checked him in under a different name so reporters wouldn’t disturb him in his final days.
How did you decide which moments in David Acer’s story to write about?
I wrote about the moments that I found meaningful. Then, when going over the work as a whole, I did sometimes choose moments to fill in the gap. I was so immersed in this story that it was important for me to not skip over anything. I would also look for information that was helpful for a reader to know to give them the full picture. I think the reason I was drawn to Florida is sometimes there’s an elitism and a devaluing of Southern-ness. That happens a lot in the South, and I think it really happens a lot with Florida, when Florida’s the punchline of jokes.
You write at the end of Acer’s life, “the shackles of secrecy lifted.” Where is the line between telling the truth as a balm and as an intrusion?
David was closeted to his parents at the time of his diagnosis. He was telling his patients he had cancer, and that’s why he was closing his office. To socialize on weekends, he would travel to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. When he first had symptoms, he traveled to a doctor in Fort Lauderdale and used an alias. This is a man who had so much shame and fear, and so much that he would be shamed for. At the time of his death, all of that was revealed. I imagine that’s probably what he always wanted. Wouldn’t it have been great to have lived so openly? There’s something nice about the truth being out there. We have an opportunity to sit with it and accept it. Though it might initially feel uncomfortable or invasive, we get to meet reality. It provides us an opportunity to love what is.
You attempt to absolve and compare both Kimberly Bergalis and David Acer. What is the benefit of examining the humanity of them both?
Wouldn’t we all want that, for ourselves or anyone that we love? There’s so much complexity to our selves and the decisions we make. For whatever reason, it was important for Kimberly to have that virgin status. One report from the CDC stated that Kimberly was concerned about what her mother would think. How hard it probably was to have been Kimberly in that moment. Who wouldn’t want someone to blame?
At the end of the book, you write that Acer’s office becomes a casino after it closes. The book ends with the lines, “There are no sure things. / No one comes out clean. / Everyone feels cheated.” There are notes of hope in the book, yet you end on one of bitterness. What is the moral of the story?
Because it’s true. I don’t think there’s one person involved in this situation who feels good about it. The CDC investigators; the accusers; the legal staff; the independent investigators that were hired by insurance companies; David Acer’s office staff; the family members: everyone feels so robbed.
A Quilt for David
By Steven Reigns
City Lights Books
Published September 8, 2021