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R.I.P.: JUDY POLIKOFF (1943-2024), the woman who probably saved my film.

I just learned this morning that Judith Eileen Polikoff passed away last January 16th. My deepest sympathies go out to her family and friends.

 

I only met Judy once, having filmed her for a brief interview almost two years ago. But she provided me with one of the most important and telling testimonials of the entire film...and in doing so, she very likely saved it.

 

It was Judy who I wrote about in my August 22, 2022 blog post, “Family Truth” – where I finally shed some light on my longtime struggles in dealing with Richard Amsel’s surviving family, and some of the dynamics Amsel himself had faced growing up.

 

I shall be forever grateful that she reached out to me for the film, and consider myself lucky to have met her.



Every family has its drama, I wrote. Those words ring true, now more than ever. Richard’s death was a terrible tragedy, but the passing of years, and the family’s continued silence, mark yet another tragedy. Both of Amsel’s parents, and his younger brother Michael, have all since died. This leaves only one surviving sibling, who has refused my (many) pleas to participate in the project.

 

So…I’ll finally go out on a limb and make public an excerpt from a candid letter I sent to this person, more than once. (I had also sent it to Michael Amsel prior to his death, but he never responded.)

 

I would be remiss in not giving you and your family an opportunity to share your memories of Richard. I would be even more remiss in denying you an opportunity to share your perspectives about what happened – namely, the family dynamics, Richard’s illness, and some painful rumors that were discussed after his passing.

 

It has never been my desire to air your family’s “dirty laundry”. Yet if we continue to address (or whitewash, or sidestep altogether) the circumstances of your brother’s life, illness and death in the same hushed tones and ashamed whispers as had been done thirty years ago, we are not only disrespecting and dishonoring the man’s life and legacy, but also the thousands of people of that time – and the millions of people of our time – who have been forced to die quiet deaths at the hands of AIDS.

 

(Redacted), please understand that this is not a narrative I have chosen. Rather, it stems from the repeated testimonials of a number of people I have interviewed, all of whom were close friends with your brother. Richard’s death has, in many ways, remained an opened wound for many people. That pain is compounded by the way much of his work has been lost – literally and figuratively – over the years.

 

My heart goes out to you and your family. I lost a sister when I was very young, and the pain of her death was nearly matched by the psychological turmoil my family experienced in the years that followed. Many of us grew apart, and some wounds were never healed.

 

And yet…I can’t help but wonder, from your perspective, if perhaps the time has come to talk about all this? The good as well as the bad? The life Richard lived as well as the death he faced? The joy he experienced as well as the heartbreak?

 

And yes, I want the film to share the joy of Richard Amsel. The eccentric, creative genius – a fascinating, complex individual, with his own unique brand of peculiarities and attributes. And despite his considerable success, he also had a great many heartbreaks and unrealized dreams. I want people to know about the great work that was, and the magnificent work that should have been.

 

I’m sure you have many happy, loving, wonderful moments to share about Richard. But such memories stand to be lost forever without someone like you to voice them. It would also be a terrible shame to have your family’s involvement limited to a simple title card that reads, “Richard Amsel’s family declined to participate in this film,” and leave others’ testimonials to speak, unmatched, in your family’s absence.

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