Interview with Tom Glenn

  • June 6, 2014

“Our job was to help men die.” A Vietnam vet writes about men dying of AIDS.

Interview with Tom Glenn

Tom Glenn’s fiction has dealt largely with Vietnam where he spent the better part of thirteen years as an undercover intelligence operative. But Glenn spent five years as a volunteer buddy for AIDS patients; two years aiding the homeless; and seven years ministering to the dying in the hospice system. Glenn’s newly published novel, No-Accounts, comes from those years.

Why did you write No-Accounts?

Because I couldn’t not write it. The years I spent caring for gay men dying of AIDS and patients in the hospice system left indelible marks on me, memories as vivid today as they were when they were engraved on my soul. As Ron Capps said, you have to control your memories, or they’ll control you. I take charge of my memories by writing.

Please give our readers an example of a memory and explain how you take charge. Does writing it down alter or at least make the memory less emotional?


One memory that haunts me was something that happened only a few days before the death from toxoplasmosis of one of my AIDS patients, Jim. He was a chronic liar. Nobody believed anything he said. No one trusted him. The toxo had disabled him to the point that he couldn’t speak or walk. As I stood by his side, he grasped my hand and put my index finger between his teeth. I knew if he bit me, I’d get AIDS. I decided to trust him and left my hand in his mouth. Tears filled his eyes. He opened his mouth, took my hand in his, and kissed it. For once in his short life, someone had trusted him.

Isak Dinesen said, “Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story, or if a story can be told about it.” Once you write down what has happened and own your role in it, the memory exists outside of you. In the writing process, you give meaning and structure to the experience, reduce its chaos, force yourself to face it directly, and allow yourself to see it in a new light. And the writing is a gift to readers: you can express for them what they cannot express for themselves. In the process of communication, you dissolve one of the worst features of trauma, isolation. The memory doesn’t become less emotional — it never weakens or goes away. But now you can face it, live with it, come to terms with it. So you’re able to channel your despair into your writing, not into your living.

You took care of seven men, all gay, all died. But you’re straight. Why?


When the AIDS epidemic started in the early 1980s, no one knew how the HIV virus was transmitted. As a result, nearly everyone, including doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, was terrified of being in contact with gay men infected with AIDS. A few men actually died on the street because no one would rent to them or come near them, let alone touch them. I watched what was happening and couldn’t tolerate it. So I told my wife I wanted to volunteer to help people suffering from AIDS. Because we didn’t know how AIDS was transmitted, there was an unknown likelihood that I’d contract the disease. If I did, then she would, too, simply because she lived with me. She agreed to take the risk, and I signed up at Whitman-Walker to be a caregiver to AIDS patients.

So you didn’t share the then-common bias against gay men? If you did share the bias, how did you put it aside in order to help the men that you helped?

Sure I was biased, though not at the conscious level. When I first started working with AIDS patients, I was the only straight man at the clinic. The gay staff and volunteers pulled back from me, treated me as if I smelled bad. I learned that there’s such a thing as anti-straight bias. But as we faced death after death together, the bias on both sides faded. I grew to respect and admire the gay men I was working with. None of the anti-gay stereotypes fit. The bravery, dedication, and self-sacrifice these men displayed in caring for their dying brothers was greater than I had observed anywhere except on the battlefield. They carried on even though their lives were in peril — or so we all believed at that the time. In short, bias no longer mattered. Our job was not to judge. Our job was to help men die.

Much of No-Accounts is taken up with the gay perspective on life and death. How could you know that?


Dying men told me things they’d never revealed to another human being. In so many cases, their families had abandoned them because they were gay. No one would go near them. I was the only person they saw. They came to trust me. I wasn’t a lover or a parent or a colleague. I wasn’t going to use what they told me against them. Besides, I was so often the man who literally kept them alive, feeding them, medicating them, bathing them, dressing them, cleaning up their diarrhea and vomit. They saw that I wasn’t there with them to pass judgment on them. I fell in love with every one of them, in much the same way that men in combat who fight together form an unbreakable bond. And I have never doubted they loved me. Maybe most important, they knew almost instinctively that I’d never violate their confidences.

So the events in No-Accounts are all fictional, not based on things that actually happened?


Nothing in the novel is made up. Every incident really happened, though I fictionalized the narrative to assure that the events I described couldn’t be traced to real people.

Despite the morbid subject, I found flashes of humor in No-Accounts. Were your patients deliberately funny?

That was one of the devices they used to cope with death. I don’t repeat the jokes they told me because coming from a straight man, they sound like put-downs. But gays know how to laugh at themselves, and gallows humor, despite the name, can be very funny. One of the funniest incidents is not in the book. One of my patients decided to flout every societal taboo and asked me to take him not just to a gay bar but to a lesbian bar while he was still well enough to get around. We were the only males in the place. I needed to urinate so I asked a bartender if they had a men’s room. With a twinkle in her eye, she pointed to a large sign on a door that said “Men.” Once inside, I unzipped my pants, then froze. The one urinal in the room had been converted into a flower pot sporting a large fern.

No-Accounts is a grim read. Knowing what you know now, would you volunteer again to care for AIDS patients?


At my current age, I don’t have the physical stamina. It was hard physical labor, involving long hours and frequent need to carry the patients from the bed to the bathroom, for example. That aside, I would do it all again without hesitation. I learned so much from the men I cared for and from their caregivers. The only other place I’ve seen such raw courage was in combat. My experience in ministering to men dying of AIDS reshaped me as much as the battles in Vietnam did. Despite the psychological scars, I’m grateful and frankly proud of what I did.

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