Dr. Anthony Fauci recently announced that he’ll be retiring in December. But while he became a household name as the public face of the U.S. COVID-19 response, few people realize that a character based on him was included in The Destiny of Me, the sequel to the renowned gay author and HIV activist Larry Kramer‘s autobiographical 1985 HIV drama The Normal Heart.
Modern viewers may know The Normal Heart from its 2014 TV film adaptation which stars Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, and Alfred Molina alongside gay actors like Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, and Jonathan Groff. In it, Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, a passionate New York City writer — based on Kramer — who becomes a fierce HIV activist as his lover and friends are struck down by the deadly epidemic.
The play was based on Kramer’s real-life experiences as a founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). The doctor in the play is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein who treated some of NYC’s first HIV cases. Ned’s reluctantly helpful brother Arthur was also based on Kramer’s real-life brother who was an attorney with the same first name.
The Normal Heart ends with Ned’s lover dying, and Ned coughing and feeling ill, an indication that he too has contracted HIV and might soon die of it. However, at the start of The Destiny of Me, which premiered off-Broadway in 1992, Ned has checked into the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to undergo an experimental treatment for HIV that has reduced the viral load by up to 90 percent in mice.
The name of Ned’s attending physician is Dr. Anthony Della Vida.
The real-life Dr. Anthony Fauci and the fictional Dr. Anthony Della Vida
Like Dr. Fauci, Dr. Della Vida has an Italian-sounding surname (which roughly translates to “of the life.”) And like Fauci, he also works at the NIH. While serving at the NIH, Fauci met his wife, Christine Grady, who worked there as a nurse. In the play, Vida’s wife, Hanniman, is also an NIH nurse, but she’s Black. Grady is white.
The play’s stage directions describe Vida as “short, dynamic, handsome and very smooth, a consummate bureaucrat.” And like Fauci during the pandemic, Vida gets viciously criticized by the media. Weeks mentions that The Washington Post calls Vida “the biggest waste of taxpayer money,” The Village Voice calls him a “f*cking-son-of-a-bitch Hitler,” and Vanity Fair accuses him of “pulling off the biggest case of scientific fraud.”
While Vida and Hanniman care for Weeks, Weeks has hallucinatory flashbacks in which he views his younger self growing up in Brooklyn with his abusive father, complacent mother, and disapproving older brother, Arthur. Meanwhile, angry HIV activists surround the NIH, handcuffing themselves to lab tables (which then had to have their legs cut off), throwing red paint onto Hanniman’s labcoat, and plastering posters of Vida’s face with the words, “You are murdering us.”
In real life, Fauci was at the forefront of U.S. efforts to fight HIV. In his labs, he focused primarily on the body’s immune response to HIV and developing therapeutic strategies to rebuild patients’ defense systems. On TV, he appeared regularly to give information on preventing the virus’ spread. But because of the Reagan administration’s seeming indifference to the epidemic and the lack of public treatment information given to the gay community, numerous activists vilified Fauci as the public face of institutional medical homophobia.
As The New Yorker wrote, on October 11, 1988, “Fauci watched from his office window as activists surrounded the [NIH] building and tried to scale its walls. Some were dressed in black robes and carried scythes. Many waved pink-and-black banners, bearing the words ‘NIH Wake Up!’ or ‘Stop Killing Us!’ All over campus, a chant could be heard: ‘F*ck you, Fauci!'”
Many assumed that Fauci controlled the drug-approval process and was opposed to opening access to clinical trials so that volunteers could receive potentially lifesaving medications, the magazine wrote. In truth, Fauci had no such power.
Kramer told The New Yorker, “God, I hated [Fauci]. As far as I was concerned, he was the central focus of evil in the world.” Kramer called him an “incompetent idiot” and a “pill-pushing” tool of the medical establishment, insulted his wife, and compared him to the Nazi Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann. In a 1988 open later, Kramer wrote, “Anthony Fauci, you are a murderer. Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers.”
In the play, Vida asks Weeks, “Why do they hate me? You drown my wife in fake blood. You chop the legs off my lab tables. You’ve got some crazy gay newspaper up in New York that claims I’m not even studying the right virus. They call me Public Enemy Number One. Why aren’t you guys proud of me? If I’m not in my lab, I’m testifying, lobbying, pressuring, I’m on TV ten times a week, I fly to conferences all over the world, I churn out papers for the journals, I supervise hundreds of scientists, I dole out research grants like I’m Santa Claus — what more do you want?”
Ned says activists hate him because Vida tells Congress and the media that he has all the resources he needs, that the president cares so much, and that scientists know more about HIV than any other disease in history. Meanwhile, the epidemic has no end in sight.
Vida replies that if he didn’t publicly say all those things, then he wouldn’t get any funding to fight HIV at all.
The Destiny of Me ends on a very bloody note, but Kramer’s real life ended differently
During Act II, Vida has to restrain Weeks as he experiences a violent reaction to the treatment. By the end of the act, Vida happily announces that the treatment has been successful so far, halfway through its course.
At the start of Act III, Vida appears dressed in the white dress uniform of a Public Health Service officer — ready to appear in front of the president at the White House — before hooking up Weeks to an elaborate dialysis machine that he calls the “Ex-Cell-Aerator.”
During this final act, Weeks comes to terms with the saddening and enraging fact that his imperfect family can’t admit the damage they’ve done to him. At the end of the play, Vida announces that activists have wrecked his lab and that Congress is slashing the NIH’s HIV funding. When he tells Weeks there’s nothing he can do to restore funding, Weeks becomes enraged.
Vida responds with matching fury, saying, “I am sick to death of you, your mouth, your offspring! You think changing Presidents will change anything? Will make any difference? The system will always be here. The system doesn’t change. No matter who’s President.” Vida also tells Weeks that he may experience a very long, unpleasant course of medical experimentation before he finally dies.
Weeks then pulls the Ex-Cell-Aerator’s tubes out of his arms, leaving blood to spurt all over the stage as he yells, “What do you do when the only system set up to save you is a pile of sh*t run by idiots and quacks… Why do I never stop believing this f*cking plague can be cured?”
Weeks tells his younger, imaginary self that, throughout his life, he will see 11 psychologists and remain loveless for 40 years, adding, “And when a nice man finally comes along and tries to teach you to love him and love yourself, he dies from a plague which is waiting to kill you too.”
The play ends with Weeks repeating his dying lover’s last words, “I want to stay a little longer.”
In real life, Kramer died in May 2020 at the ripe old age of 84, living much longer than he ever expected to. Before he passed though, Kramer hailed Fauci as “the only true and great hero” among U.S. government officials during the height of the HIV epidemic.