Friday, January 30, 2009

My Friend Christine


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“None of what’s happened to me and to my family has shaken what I know to be correct and true about science and medicine, and my experiences.”

— Christine Maggiore, ABC Prime Time Live, aired December 8, 2005

I got the call on December 29, 2008, two days after it happened. The caller identified himself as Paul Lineback and said he was with Reappraising AIDS, an international organization of scientists and lay people who question the mainstream view that the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the sole cause of AIDS. He told me he’d seen an item on the Los Angeles Times Web site that announced that 52-year-old Christine Maggiore, founder of the Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives organization in Los Angeles, a pillar of the alternative AIDS movement and someone I regarded as a personal friend, had died. The information the Times had published to its site came, ironically enough, from the office of the Los Angeles County Coroner, which had been sued by Maggiore and her husband, Robin Scovill, for publicly attributing the May 2005 death of their daughter Eliza Jane to AIDS.

When I got Paul Lineback’s call I couldn’t help but flash back to another phone call I’d got nearly four years earlier, when Fred Cline, alternative AIDS activist from San Francisco who was also close to Christine, told me Eliza Jane had died. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was true — so many rumors get spread so quickly, especially in the online age — so I called Christine’s number. I got a clearly harried woman who was working as her volunteer assistant, who put off my request to speak to Christine directly and finally told me, in a predictably exasperated tone of voice, “Don’t you realize she just lost her daughter?”

Oh my god it’s true it isn’t just one of those stupid rumors you hear on the Internet it really happened oh my god I’m so sorry … That’s about how my thoughts ran when I finally got the confirmation of Eliza Jane’s death in 2005. Christine herself eventually returned my call, and of course she was in tears — and at the same time oddly apologetic that I hadn’t been on the list of people she or her assistant had called directly. I babbled some of the inane attempts at comfort you speak when a friend has just gone through a terrible tragedy and you know the blow has been so hard that nothing you say is likely to comfort them, but you try your damnedest anyway and hope the words you’re barely able to stammer out offer some small degree of solace.

I first heard of Christine Maggiore in 1993 and first met her a year later. I interviewed her for the first of her two Zenger’s cover stories in 1995 and brought her down to San Diego to speak to our own alternative AIDS organization, the Association to Re-Evaluate AIDS (ATRA, later known as H.E.A.L.-San Diego) in the large auditorium of Craftsmen’s Hall — now the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. She told a story of how her life had been perfectly normal — she’d been an aspiring young businesswoman in Los Angeles preparing for a career in marketing and running an import-export business based on contacts in her family’s native country, Italy — when she’d gone for a routine exam with a new gynecologist who believed that all her patients should be tested for antibodies to HIV.

Maggiore’s world turned upside down when her test turned out positive. After all, she wasn’t a member of any of the identifiable AIDS risk groups. She wasn’t a Gay man, an injection drug user or a hemophiliac. In fact, when she first tested HIV-positive she was feeling better than she had in years because she’d just come off the thyroid medication she’d been put on by a doctor who’d misdiagnosed her. Nonetheless, at first she accepted the medical death sentence of an “HIV-positive” diagnosis and high-tailed it over to AIDS Project Los Angeles, where — she grimly noted later — the first service she was offered was help in drafting her will.

Throwing herself into AIDS volunteer work, she signed as a speaker for AIDS Project Los Angeles — where she was quite popular because, not being in one of the standard risk groups, she was a living illustration of the idea that “everyone can get AIDS” — and the Shanti Foundation. She was one of 14 board members of a group of HIV-positive women called Women at Risk — and she noted five years later that by then 11 of the co-founders had died and the only ones who were still alive were her and the two others who had refused the highly toxic “treatment” regimens then being offered to people with HIV and AIDS.

Her acceptance of the mainstream view of AIDS started to unravel when one of her doctors, telling her she didn’t fit the “profile” of a person with AIDS, suggested she take another HIV antibody test. This one came back negative. She underwent a succession of further tests that came back with a bewildering profusion of contradictory results — positive, negative, “indeterminate” and “seroequivocal” — the last two meaning that the people reading her test results couldn’t decide from the band patterns on her Western Blot test strips whether she was positive or negative.

That’s a far more common problem with the test than most people know. The HIV antibody test is regularly claimed to be 99-plus percent “accurate,” but the only experiments on which that claim is based were comparisons of different brands of antibody tests against each other. No one has ever checked the accuracy of the antibody tests against the only scientifically credible “gold standard” — actual isolation of live, infectious HIV from a living patient — because no one has ever actually isolated live, infectious HIV from a living patient. The researches Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barre-Sinoussi conducted at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1983, for which they won the 2008 Nobel Prize for supposedly “discovering” HIV, only came up with bits of protein and genetic material which Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi conjectured were pieces of a new virus. Montagnier admitted on French TV in 1997 that he never isolated the virus — and neither has anyone else.

What’s more, the test is surprisingly ambiguous, given the finality of the medical judgments issued to this day to people who test “HIV-positive.” There are at least 11 different criteria for reading it used in the world today, including at least five that are accepted in the U.S. — so a test that is positive in one lab can be negative in another and seroequivocal or indeterminate in a third, Christine Johnson, a former associate of Christine Maggiore’s and herself an alternative AIDS activist in L.A., went through the scientific literature and documented 64 possible causes of a false-positive reading on the HIV antibody test, including such common infectious as hepatitis, herpes, flu, malaria, cholera and lupus, as well as certain vaccinations and even pregnancy — especially in women who’d been pregnant before.

Christine Maggore would learn all this information, and it would change her life. She heard of Peter Duesberg, the controversial professor of microbiology and cell biology at UC Berkeley and the first science to challenge publicly the assertion that HIV caused AIDS, and sought him out. Originally she thought he was a medical doctor (he’s a Ph.D.) and tried to make an appointment. When she heard his information, her first impulse was to bring it to her superiors at AIDS Project Los Angeles, thinking they would welcome the possibility that AIDS might be more complicated than they believed — and taught — it was, and that an “HIV-positive” test result might not be a death sentence after all. Instead, at one APLA meeting she was denounced for advancing “dangerous information.”

Maggiore’s growing awareness of the case against HIV as the cause of AIDS, and the adverse reaction within mainstream AIDS organizations of any questioning of the HIV = AIDS dogma, propelled her out of mainstream AIDS activism and into the alternative movement. In 1995 she organized a Los Angeles branch of H.E.A.L. — an international network of alternative AIDS organizations (the initials stand for Health, Education, AIDS Liaison and the first chapter was founded in New York in 1984) — and started holding meetings, proudly and cheekily advertising her programs as “dangerous information.” In 1999 she took her organization out of the H.E.A.L. network and renamed it Alive & Well, and in 2000 she became the first — and, to this day, the only — alternative AIDS activist to have a table at the official international AIDS conference.

While devoting herself so totally to alternative AIDS activism that it literally became her career, she also met Robin Scovill, a filmmaker 13 years her junior, and had her first child, Charlie. Learning the hard way about how pregnant “HIV-positive” women were treated — she gave birth at home with a midwife because no hospital would accept her unless she agreed to take anti-HIV medications intravenously during labor — she later started an organization called Mothers Opposing Mandatory Medicine (MOMM) and told other “HIV-positive” mothers how they could escape being exposed to the cell-killing “anti-HIV” drug AZT during their pregnancies. When she became pregnant with her second child, Eliza Jane, she was photographed for the cover of Mothering magazine with her midriff exposed and a “No AZT” sign painted across it.

Maggiore also wrote a book summing up the case against HIV as the cause of AIDS, against the standard anti-HIV medications and against the HIV antibody test. She called it What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? and published three editions; a fourth was scheduled for release when she died. The first one had no author’s name on the cover because she didn’t want to pose as an authority on the issue — she wanted the attention to be on the scientists and researchers she cited as sources — but she was told by booksellers and prospective buyers that she needed to sign the book to accept responsibility for its contents. It became a sort of Bible for the alternative AIDS movement, the book we passed to friends and acquaintances as the first step on their AIDS re-education before we referred them to the more formidable tomes by Duesberg and other alternative scientists.

In the mid-2000’s, Maggiore began to cut back on her alternative AIDS activities. She started a business that had nothing to do with AIDS or activism and inched towards a more normal life. Then her daughter Eliza Jane died in May 2005. Maggiore and her consultant, toxicologist Dr. Mohammed Ali Al-Bayati, insisted that the three-year-old girl had died of an allergic reaction to the antibiotic amoxicillin, which a doctor had prescribed for an ear infection. The authorities, led by Los Angeles County senior medical examiner Dr. James K. Ribe, insisted — without having tested Eliza Jane’s blood for HIV antibodies — that she died from Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, an opportunistic infection associated with AIDS. Maggiore spent the next year not only grief-stricken but terrorized by threats of prosecution for felony child endangerment and even manslaughter — and though the Los Angeles County district attorney eventually decided not to prosecute, Maggiore still found herself pilloried by mainstream AIDS activists and media outlets.

Her reaction was just what those of us who knew her would expect. Feisty, indomitable and determined to channel her grief into productive activism, she started yet another organization, Justice for Eliza Jane, using the Internet to organize support and expose alleged misdiagnoses from Dr. Ribe’s office on so-called “shaken-baby syndrome” and other dubious medical concepts. In 2008 she re-started the monthly Alive & Well meetings and also launched a podcast called “How Positive Are You?” in association with David Crowe, president of the Reappraising AIDS Society of Alberta, Canada, and had recorded 11 episodes at the time of her death — including interviews with Gay men, social workers and others who had studied the evidence, as she had, and concluded that HIV could not possibly be the sole cause of AIDS.

The mainstream’s reaction was also about what those of us in the alternative AIDS movement could expect. Though Maggiore and her husband had been cleared by the L.A. district attorney’s office, at least three TV programs offered fictional stories loosely (or not so loosely) based on her case in which she either got prosecuted, died or both. The last one that aired during her lifetime was a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode called “Retro,” an ugly story in which the characters based on Maggiore and her pediatrician were pilloried and ultimately brought to justice. Maggiore, who despite constant rebuffs had never given up hope that someday mainstream and alternative AIDS activists could sit down and meet as equals working towards a solution to the AIDS problem, invited one of the show’s medical advisers, Dr. Jocelyn Dee, and she and Crowe interviewed her on what would turn out to be the last episode of “How Positive Are You?”

I heard this program in early December 2008 and was so profoundly moved that I called Christine and asked her for permission to transcribe the interview and publish it in Zenger’s. When we spoke on the phone, less than two weeks before her death, her voice sounded clear, bright and energetic, as it always had whenever we talked. She eagerly gave me permission to publish the show, and I signed off with no idea that Christine would soon die. When the Los Angeles Times published a print article on Christine’s death on December 30, it stated that she had died of pneumonia and said that unnamed “friends” had told the Times that she’d gone through a holistic “cleansing” about a month before and that she’d never really recovered from the death of her daughter.

The Times piece — interestingly, published as a news story rather than an obituary — was remarkably fair for a mainstream media outlet that previously had had no patience with anyone challenging the HIV/AIDS model. Brian Carter, Christine’s associate in Alive & Well in her later years, said the movement would survive her: “There is an outstanding number of prominent rethinkers, independent thinkers, doctors, scientists [and] lawyers who question AIDS causation.”

“Why did she remain basically healthy from 1992 until just before her death?” said David Crowe. “I think it’s certain that people who promote the establishment view of AIDS will declare that she died of AIDS and will attempt to use this to bring people back in line. But you can only learn so much from an unfortunate death.”

It’s true that Christine’s P.R. strategy of using herself and her family as exemplars of the possibility of living a healthy life despite an “HIV-positive” diagnosis was inherently risky. It’s also true, as Crowe commented in 2003 on the death of another alternative AIDS activist, Rob Johnston (a cancer patient who likely died of the side effects of chemotherapy), that no matter what an “HIV-positive” person dies of, the medical establishment will try to label it as “AIDS.” (Indeed, in the 1980’s clients of AIDS Foundation San Diego told me a joke that, if an “HIV-positive” person broke his or her leg, the medical chart would read, “HIV-related fracture in leg.”)

“Every time an AIDS reappraiser dies, people are anxious to know whether it was AIDS.” Crowe wrote. “Those who support the dominant paradigm are hopeful that, if it was, it will cause all the other ‘denialists’ to smarten up and get on drug therapy right away. Dissidents, on the other hand, often still have a sense of insecurity. Every time one of their number dies of AIDS they are forced to confront the possibility that they have been living a delusion. Somehow one person dying from symptoms that would not be called AIDS in HIV-negative people is ‘proof’ that the HIV-positive person really was killed by the virus.”

Nonetheless — as Christine Maggiore herself noted in the quote from her 2005 ABC Prime Time Live interview which I used as an epigram to this article — none of the deaths of prominent alternative AIDS activists (including H.E.A.L.-San Diego member Sandi Lenfestey, who passed away two weeks after Maggiore) change one whit the scientific logic that indicates that the HIV model of AIDS is not only wrong, but ridiculous. HIV is still a virus that has never been proven even to exist according to the strictest rules of virology, and even if it exists it certainly hasn’t been proved to cause a disease — as Dr. Dee admitted to Maggiore and Crowe in their podcast interview. Though the medical establishment has been proclaiming for a quarter-century that HIV causes AIDS, they still haven’t come up with a coherent explanation of how (its “pathogenesis,” to use the scientific term).

Supporters of the HIV/AIDS model don’t have an explanation for why many people get an “HIV-positive” test result and live for years with no medications and no health complications at all — they just write them off as “long-term non-progressors” (which once led Christine to ask why she had to get sick in order to “progress”) and hint at genetic explanations with no evidence to back them up — just as we on the alternative side don’t have a coherent explanation for why people who do take modern AIDS medications sometimes have dramatic improvements in health and live for years. AIDS mainstreamers are beginning to concede the horrific side effects of the HIV meds — from disfiguring body-fat redistribution to toxic liver failure — which alternative scientists like Dr. David Rasnick were warning about since 1996 (when I interviewed him on the subject).

In a sympathetic article despite her own proclaimed belief in the HIV/AIDS model, Connie Howard of the Edmonton, Canada magazine VUE put her finger on it when she wrote, “It’s time for research that compares outcomes of those who choose AIDS drugs and those who don’t.” The mainstream has consistently rejected calls for such research on the ground that it would be “unethical” to withhold drugs from a control group, and when organizations like Alive & Well and H.E.A.L. have offered to provide control groups from our members who have already decided voluntarily not to take the drugs, we’ve been turned down because — as one mainstream researcher put it — we’re a “self-selected sample” because the people who aren’t on the drugs tend to be healthier than the people who are.

Without that kind of research, the battle over whether AIDS drugs “work” — and whether, by working, they validate the HIV/AIDS model (it’s possible that they could be having some other positive pharmacological effect, unrelated to HIV, on the people who do survive and prosper on them) — devolves into a series of dueling anecdotes. No doubt Christine Maggiore was all too aware that if something happened to her health and she died prematurely, she’d be pressed into service by the mainstream as a cautionary example; after all, that had already happened with her daughter. But my sadness at seeing Christine’s name invoked to support a cause she abhorred is far, far less than the deep sorrow I feel at having lost a good and loyal friend.