Literary Lives

A piece of art depicting Tales of the City, part of the Neurology, Illustrated exhibition at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.Armistead Maupin
Tales of the City
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Armistead Maupin was not one to shy away from topical, and at times difficult, themes in his series Tales of the City. First appearing in the 1970s, the story was published as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle. It featured characters living in the Bay Area and confronted issues such as the AIDS epidemic. One character in the series, Michael Tolliver, is struck by Guillain-Barré Syndrome—an inflammatory condition of the nerve roots exiting the spine, potentially causing severe paralysis. The character’s worry about the disease and how it will affect his life occupies a large portion of the plot of the second book in the series.

A screenshot of the Maupin book.Tales of the City, the first in a series of nine novels by Armistead Maupin, was initially published as a sequence of short daily installments in The Pacific Sun newspaper in 1974. It was later moved to the San Francisco Chronicle, with subsequent adventures of the characters published directly as novels (the most recent was released in 2014). The story, set in San Francisco, follows the lives and interrelationships of a series of unique individuals, and tackles many important contemporary issues, such as the AIDS epidemic. One of the main characters is Michael Tolliver, known as Mouse, and in the second book, More Tales of the City, he is struck with Guillain-Barré syndrome. In 2007, 18 years after the publication of the sixth book, Maupin wrote a seventh, Michael Tolliver Lives, told from the point of view of Mouse and featuring other familiar characters from the series. The books had as many gay as straight characters, who all had similar problems in life, relationships, work, and travel. The success of the series allowed many readers to be exposed to normalized gay characters for the first time. One of the most beloved characters was the city of San Francisco itself whose 1970s, pre-AIDS zeitgeist was lovingly portrayed.

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is caused by the immune system attacking the cranial nerves in the head or the nerve roots as they exit the spinal cord. As it typically follows a mundane type infection, often a stomach bug, it is usually described as “post-infectious.” It is thought that part of the immune response that fought off the original infection starts to misfire and attack the healthy nerve cells instead. Symptoms progress over several days starting with achy back pain and perhaps some tingling in the extremities. Then weakness begins—usually first in the legs and then the arms. At its worst, patients can be completely paralyzed, unable even to generate breaths. These patients require intensive care and advanced life support (such as ventilators). Others have a slighter course with only mild weakness. Treatment is directed at managing the symptoms and, if needed, altering the immune system.