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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: Penitent, with Roses: An HIV+ Mother Reflects by Paula W. Peterson

TITLE: Penitent, with Roses: An HIV+ Mother Reflects 
AUTHOR: Paula W. Peterson 
PUBLISHER: Middlebury College Press
FORMAT: Hardcover, 256 pages 
GENRE: Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-1584651284

Penitent, with Roses is a series of essays by a white, middle-class Jewish mother who is diagnosed with AIDS when her son is 11 months old. The first part of the work encompasses several years of her life, including the birth of her son and her diagnosis, her attempt to notify a former lover of her condition, and her experiences as an activist and a hotline volunteer. It is followed by a series of autobiographical sketches of her childhood and young womanhood, framed as a letter to her small son. Throughout, readers accompany Paula W. Peterson as she re-forges her personal identity in the face of physical and spiritual crises.


I chose to read this book in recognition of HIV/AIDS Awareness Month, which won the 2000 Katharine Bakeless Nason Creative Nonfiction Prize. It is a collection of essays written by a woman named Paula W. Peterson, who is not the typical person that you envision when you hear the word “HIV” or “AIDS.”

Paula is a white, Jewish, middle-class, married woman with an 11-month old baby when she receives the devastating news that she is stricken with AIDS. She is not a prostitute or an intravenous drug user, and she and her husband were in a monogamous relationship. However, as with the majority of people in the 70s and 80s, “safe” sex was not practiced and she was unknowingly infected before she even met her husband. She does not know who infected her, but she believes that she began exhibiting symptoms of infection at least ten years before she was diagnosed in 1996. Neither her husband nor her son has been infected.

This book shatters the myth that HIV/AIDS is a “gay man’s disease” as many like to think. How many times have you heard, “It won’t happen to me, I’m not gay!” The reality is that it could happen to any one of us at any time who are not in a monogamous relationship with someone who has been tested negatively twice with six months between each test because it takes up to six months for antibodies to HIV to appear in the blood after infection.

I did not learn anything new that I did not already know in terms of the disease. I have first-hand knowledge because a dear friend succumbed to it. However, I would still recommend the book to others simply because Paula is a woman who would be considered in the “low risk” category yet she still became infected. She is an admirable woman who is very proactive in educating others about the disease, manning self-help telephone lines, and travelling to Washington to lobby on behalf of non-profit organizations for government funding to provide social and medical services for people with AIDS.

The last part of the book is a series of candid letters to her son, which she wrote in the event that she died before he grew up. According to Wikipedia, Paula is still alive so she has lived 16 years post-diagnosis!


3 stars! It was good, and I enjoyed it.

This book qualifies as:


  1. What a wonderful story. I'm glad to know Paula is still living.
    2nd quarter reading is up for the Versatile Reading Challenge

  2. This does sound like a heart-wrenching story. I'm glad that you shared it.


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