A visual look at the AIDS epidemic

This Terrible True Thing, by Jenny Laden

3 minute read
Book cover. Yellow title text with floral illustrations intertwined w/ text against solid blue background, review quote atop

When Jenny Laden took her stool in front of a packed house at the William Way Center in September for the launch of her debut novel, the front rows were filled with exuberant family and loved ones—mother, daughter, fiancé, and friends spanning a lifetime. The one person missing was Laden’s father, whose life is celebrated and whose death is plumbed for wisdom in This Terrible True Thing. Dubbed a young adult (YA) “visual novel” by the publisher, the book chronicles one year in the life of an artistic Philadelphia teenager whose father dies of AIDS in the 1990s during that raging epidemic.

A varied, impactful career

The story is loosely autobiographical. While Laden did lose her father, who identified as gay, to AIDS in 1996, she was already in her 20s and living in New York City. After watching her dad and so many others suffer senseless, terrible ends—due largely to silence and victim-blaming by the government, the mainstream medical community, and a heteronormative society—Laden realized that the isolated life of a fine artist was not her path. She felt driven to connect with others and find ways to make a difference in the midst of a crisis. And she did.

An alum of Barnard College, Laden worked initially as an AIDS educator in New York City and a puppet doctor for MTV. In 2009, she returned to Philadelphia to raise her daughter as a single parent and took positions that included environmental art curator at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and development director for Pig Iron Theatre Company and Art-Reach. Through it all, she made art. Currently, she is director of development for the Institute of Contemporary Art, a museum that exhibited the homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1988, which sparked a firestorm of congressional outrage. The art was quickly banned by many institutions. Ironically, Laden’s new book could easily be banned today by school boards that are frenetically policing content related to LGBTQ+ lives. Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation in the number of school library book bans, outdone only by Florida and Texas.

More than a novel

Laden says she felt an urgent need to retell the history of AIDS for a new generation, including her own daughter. Gen Z didn’t experience AIDS as an immediate death sentence. And in the US, their only experience with an epidemic or pandemic is Covid-19, which erupted when Laden was almost finished writing This Terrible True Thing. She quickly points out the fundamental differences between the two public health crises: “Everybody was vulnerable to Covid and it wasn't sexually transmitted, so the stigma wasn't there. The reason the AIDS crisis became so wholly tragic and enormous was the fact that nobody would talk about it, and that silence came from hatred and homophobia.”

Laden punctuates This Terrible True Thing with original black-and-white drawings presented as those of the narrator, 17-year-old Danielle. We get to know this irreverent, funny, endearing protagonist through her pitch-perfect teenage voice, her journal drawings and poetry, plus a wealth of Philadelphia cultural references and song-title chapter headings. (Check out the Spotify list!) Who else lovingly buys a dress for her father’s funeral at Zipperhead (a real punk boutique on South Street from 1981 to 2005) without a trace of irony?

Turning grief into grace, Laden has created an engrossing piece of fiction for any reader and a cautionary tale for our time.

At top: This Terrible True Thing by Jenny Laden was released this September. (Image courtesy of Blackstone Publishing.)

What, When, Where

This Terrible True Thing. By Jenny Laden. Ashland, Oregon: Blackstone Publishing, September 5, 2023. 374 pages, hardcover; $19.99. Get it here.

Book reading and signing of This Terrible True Thing. Thursday, October 12, 2023, 7pm, at Main Point Reading, 116 N Wayne Avenue, Wayne. (484) 580-6978 or

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