Judge Me, Judge Me Not: A Memoir of Sexual Discovery – James Merrick (Butterworth Books)

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James Merrick, an eighty-something gay man, chronicles his lifelong struggle for self-acceptance in a memoir that will be nostalgic for older queer readers and educational for anyone.

Merrick chose a linear approach to telling his story, which felt (ironically) refreshing, as flashback/flashforward narratives predominate so much of modern memoir and fiction. His intention is also uncomplicated from the start to finish. Through reflecting on his life’s journey, he hopes to share with readers the deep impact of homophobia on how we come to understand ourselves and navigate the world.

He grew up in a white, Evangelical, working class family in southern California. He was aware of a sense of ‘otherness’ early on. He lacked the traditionally-gendered interests of other boys and found himself more comfortable with an intimate female friend who he went on to marry, start a family with and sustain an over three-decades-long marriage even after he came out as gay. 

Primary among Merrick’s concerns is the harm of Evangelical bigotry. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, he didn’t know that gay men existed or that his otherness was an evolving gay identity. Whenever he became aware of being attracted to men, he was overcome by religious-based fear and shame. Merrick portrays that internal conflict through debates by the “companions” in his head, who alternately make the case to banish, subjugate, minimize, or rationalize his inclinations. Beyond the wounds of religious condemnation, the author adds that his psychological strife was exacerbated by flashpoints in the sociopolitical conversation about gay men over the decades: the pathologization of homosexuality in the 1950s, casting gay teachers as pedophiles in the 1960s, and the anti-gay fearmongering by politicians and religious leaders in response to the AIDS pandemic.

Like many (most?) men of his generation, such forces were sufficiently terrifying to keep him in the closet for most of his life, until the early 1980s. He had the opportunity to move his family to Puerto Rico to take a teaching position at a U.S. Naval base, and through various social contacts, began to meet gay men and have sex with them. Still, he kept his gayness secret from his wife and family, disbelieving that an openly gay life was possible career-wise and emotionally.

Merrick provides great detail in describing his affairs, demonstrating his growth from clandestine encounters to love affairs that showed him the way to sharing his life with another man. He pours quite a lot of story into the book, having eight decades to cover, but like most lives, some parts are more riveting than others. Toward the end, when he tells the story of fighting for legal status for his undocumented Mexican husband amid the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant hysteria, one turns the pages rapidly. In lengthy passages of fights with the voices in his head and reminiscences of the physical attractiveness of his past lovers, not so much.

Still, Merrick has recorded an important history of how gay men managed through a hostile climate, from pre-Stonewall, post-Stonewall, AIDS, and the recent resurgence of white nationalism and its close cousin, LGBTQ+ scapegoating. A good book for readers who are struggling to come out themselves and those with interest in gay history.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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