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July 24, 2020
A sponsored Q&A with the author of 'Boys' Secrets and Men's Loves: a Memoir'

Accomplished constitutional scholar and gay rights activist Richards shares his memoir, which doubles as a searing indictment of patriarchal culture. 

Why did you decide to write your memoir now?

My work with developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan, with whom I have co-taught for some 20 years at the NYU School of Law, led me to think about her recent work on the different ways that boys and girls, men and women, are initiated into patriarchal gender roles and how girls and women are more psychologically able to both see and resist those roles than are boys and men. Since I am a gay man and have been an important figure among constitutional scholars for the last 50 years—for both my work in advocating for gay rights as human rights and my impact on cultural and constitutional developments—I thought it would be of interest and importance to investigate these findings. Using Carol’s empirically supported developmental views; my own experience of having a secret self, by which I concealed my sexual orientation from both friends and family for some 30 years; the process by which I came to develop my critical views of cultural homophobia, which I and others had once considered axiomatic; and my experience writing about these views during the early 1970s, when I first became a law professor and when very few people dared to write about these matters, I saw how my personal development was marked by a traumatic initiation into patriarchy—a trauma shared by many men, straight and gay—and how, through the arts, philosophy, and personal relationships, I found a voice to resist, both as a moral philosopher and as a constitutional lawyer.

Since you’re writing about things that happened decades ago, how did you refresh your memories when writing?

Several years ago, at Carol’s suggestion, I began psychoanalysis, and it enabled me to understand my own life history, including the roles that the arts, philosophy, and the experience of mutual love with another man—we have been together some 45 years—have played in my life. It enabled me to understand my struggles and how I should deal with their consequences in my personal and professional life. Psychoanalysis works through an astonishing recovery of memory, and my flood of memories underlies the memoir I have written. 

Do you think your experience growing up is still the typical experience? Or has time softened cultural expectations?

I believe that the initiation of boys and men into patriarchy remains still largely unseen or not taken seriously, including by many men. And yet, nothing could be more important than for men, straight and gay, to at least see what has led them to act out patriarchal gender roles that are so destructive to both their personal happiness and their sense of ethical and political responsibility.

Why or how do you think this book is particularly relevant now?

The election of Donald Trump led Carol and me to write Darkness Now Visible, published by Cambridge University Press and a sequel to our earlier The Deepening Darkness, also published by Cambridge. Nothing could make clearer the continuing effect of men’s traumatic initiation into patriarchy and its catastrophic consequences for American democracy than the election of Trump. In my memoir, I draw upon not only my work with Carol but also my teaching at the NYU School of Law with her husband, the psychiatrist James Gilligan, a leading figure in understanding male violence and a critic of the American prison system.

What’s next for you?

James and I recently completed work on a book, Shame, Guilt, and Violence in Shakespeare, based on our collaborative teaching about how Shakespeare illuminates the psychology of shame, guilt, and the catastrophic effect of patriarchy on men and women alike, in both their personal and their ethical and political lives. The book has now been approved for publication by editors at Cambridge University Press. Some of its readers for the press regard it as a pathbreaking interdisciplinary work on violence and how to end it. James is a leading advocate of the abolition of prisons and a leading critic of mass incarceration, and our argument reflects his critical views.