On September 3, 1990, Dr. David Acer, a dentist who worked in Jensen Beach, Florida, died from complications from AIDS. Four days after his death, Kimberly Bergalis, a young woman who was also HIV+, accused Dr. Acer of infecting her with the AIDS virus during a recent visit to his practice. Ms. Bergalis also claimed that she was a virgin and that the only way she could have become infected was through her contact with Dr. Acer. Ultimately, Ms. Bergalis was joined by seven other individuals who all claimed that their HIV infections were the result of being treated by Dr. Acer.
In spite of it being highly unlikely that the virus could be passed from doctor to patient during dental procedures, Ms. Bergalis’ accusations resulted in a media firestorm. And, Dr. Acer, who had died prior to the accusations, was never able to directly address them or defend himself and his actions. He was vilified in the press and popular culture and is now mostly forgotten. Ms. Bergalis was deified as a blameless victim with the media focusing on her claims of sexual purity. There are still monuments that were erected in memory of Ms. Bergalis in the Florida area, where both she and Dr. Acer lived and died.
In A Quilt for David, poet Steven Reigns examines and recreates the events surrounding Dr. Acer, and those who accused him. More importantly, he portrays the thoughts, fears, and motivations of all of those involved. He looks beyond the overly simplified labels applied by the media to create portraits of frightened people who clung desperately to a story that seemed flimsy three decades ago, and has become even more insubstantial with the passage of time, to hide the secrets they could not admit to themselves or others.
Reigns also provides a terrifying reminder of how facts and data were, and continue to be, overlooked when they are in conflict with people’s fears, anxieties, and beliefs. It is difficult to read about the wild accusations and political maneuvering of three decades ago and not be struck by the similarities that are playing out now as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thoughtful, thought-provoking, timely and long overdue, A Quilt for David provides the “other sides” of the story sensationalized in the press. Reigns stresses that, while there were some monstrous actions taken by some, none of the people involved were monsters.
Read an interview with the author here.