Against My Better Judgment: An Intimate Memoir of an Eminent Gay Psychologist

Would this headline be clickbait? “Eminent Harvard Psychologist Admits That He’s Gay!

Ho hum, it wouldn’t work as clickbait today. Nobody today would be shocked (except perhaps by the choice of verb in this made-up headline). But back in the ’90s, when my 1968–1969 thesis advisor Roger Brown wrote Against My Better Judgment: An Intimate Memoir of an Eminent Gay Psychologist, some (many?) people probably were shocked. And you notice the 30-year gap there: when I knew Roger Brown — who indeed was an eminent Harvard psychologist — I didn’t have the faintest whiff that he was gay. Not only was he deep in the closet, it was also a question that nobody in the progressive straight community talked about. (I never thought about it in Brown’s case, but I was actually quite sure that one of my linguistics professors was gay; his mannerisms were so obvious that I don’t think he was in the closet. So it wasn’t that I was totally naive on this subject.)

Anyway, I only discovered Brown’s memoir last month; I had been unaware of it at the time that it was published. It’s a fascinating book, but also quite troubling in some ways. The vast majority of the pages deal with his psychological, social, and sexual life after the death of his life-long partner, BU English professor Albert Gilman, when Brown was in his sixties and his post-Gilman sexual partners were forty years younger. But the age difference is not really what is troubling, even if it does play into the stereotype of older gay males. What’s troubling — and this may be unfair of me — is that it reveals Brown to be someone different from the person I thought he was, not because he was gay but because he exploited these younger “escorts” and let them exploit him. These stories form the bulk of the memoir. Keep in mind that its a memoir, not an autobiography, so a lot is left out. In particular, there’s very little sense in it of Roger Brown as a dedicated scholar, but that he certainly was.

You really need to read his obituary in the New York Times. I particularly like the quotation from Jerome Kagan, another of my professors (he taught child development, and I remember him in part for inviting me to be on a small panel with him on a television show in 1968, concerning treatment of women in academia). This is from the NYT article:

Several of his colleagues described him as a scholar who had no academic rivals or enemies because he was never arrogant. ”Roger was gentle and had enormous humility,” said Dr. Jerome Kagan, a Harvard colleague. ”He won all those prizes but it never rubbed off, and therefore he had extraordinary moral authority.”

Dr. Brown’s first major achievement was to explore how languages are limited by the nature of human thought and that, conversely, the structure of any given language influences the thinking of those who speak it. It is a topic hotly debated by modern philosophers, and Dr. Brown made major contributions with a book titled ”Words and Things” (Free Press, 1958).

”Roger looked deeply into the logic of things,” said Dr. Philip Holzman, a colleague in psychology. ”He asked simple questions — what is this all about? — and gave elegant lectures that never dumbed down the ideas.”

That unusual combination of keeping things simple but never dumbing down his ideas gave me enormous respect for him. You may be wondering why my thesis for a masters degree in linguistics had a psychology professor as an advisor, but the clue is in the second paragraph of the quotation from the obituary. His speciality was developmental psycholinguistics, the subfield of my thesis, which Brown founded as an academic study. For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by topics that lie in the intersections of two or more fields, so developmental psycholinguistics grabbed me early on. In fact I even managed to write a long paper that joined together three different subjects (linguistics, psychology, and computer science) during my semester at MIT when I was on sabbatical from high-school teaching at Lincoln-Sudbury.

Speaking of MIT, I was rather surprised that Brown’s memoir contains no more than a single sentence about his five years teaching at MIT. There must be a story there, but I don’t know it. You may be wondering why he went from Harvard to MIT and back to Harvard, but that’s actually a common pattern, because of Harvard’s peculiar practice of not giving tenure to its own assistant professors. There’s no such thing as “tenure track” at Harvard, unlike most universities. It’s extremely rare for a non-tenured (assistant) professor at Harvard to get tenure directly; instead they want you to go somewhere else for four or five years and prove yourself there, and only then might Harvard offer you a tenured (associate, or in Brown’s case full) professorship. It seems strange, but that’s the way it is.

Even though in a sense I was part of Brown’s world — since he was my advisor for two years — he traveled in a different world than I did. In his memoir, he can casually write about going to a dinner party at Julia Child’s house, flying to Germany on a whim for the weekend to go to the opera, spending a week in a suite at the Ritz Carlton whenever he needed to get away from it all, and easily pulling out $500 (in 1996 money) from this wallet to give to his young friend. Too rich for my blood, as they say. But that’s all right. You don’t have to be part of his world to learn a lot from reading his memoir.

Categories: Books, Life, Teaching & Learning