Better To Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril
This is a book about love - the passionate love Judith Merril had for particular moments and people in her life, of which this book is an expression, and the love of her granddaughter who completed the manuscript in her own expression of devotion. The title is a warning and a creed “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. This is not your typical autobiography where the chapters are equally chronological and tell the story of how a person was born, lived and died. Instead, it is how one woman loved, lost, and loved again.
Because only parts of the manuscript were complete in 1997 when Judith Merril passed, the final result is a collection of essays and private letters that are sandwiched in between first-hand memoir. Because of the different styles of writing, a larger picture emerges as to how this unique woman related privately and publicly. The first few chapters start out innocently enough although hindsight does creep in to color the tale, “A Member of the Universe” and “In the Beginning” talk about the start of Judith Grossman and her Jewish heritage as well as her father’s suicide in 1929. “High School” recites a movable childhood, which ended in the Bronx and Judith’s introduction to Trotskyism as well as her first husband Dan Zissman.
“What Kind of Feminist Am I?” begins the shift away from first person memoir and reflects on some of the difficulties Judith had with being a female in “a man’s world”. So does “Give the Girls a Break!” although the latter is tinged by the postwar return of men who needed jobs and resultant pedestal upon which women were placed. Also picked up is the issue of childcare, which some claim after the bra, should be the next major battle of the feminist movement.
Being a lone female in a sea of men, it was natural for Judith to love, some more intimately than others, a variety of science fiction writers. “A “Real?” Writer: Homage to Ted Sturgeon”, which appeared in NYRSF and other places circa 1993, was originally entitled “Better to Have Loved” and describes the arc of one of her tumultuous relationships and friendships. “In Appreciation of Mark Clifton” reveals a relationship that was less romantically passionate, but certainly shows Judith’s love of intellect. Then comes the sour end of love with “Walter Miller and the Custody Battles” which describes Judith’s fights with Dan Zissman and Fred Pohl over her right to raise their children.
“(Some Kind of) Writing” talks about Judith’s introduction to the Futurians of New York. From there stem a variety of personalities whith whom she became friends. “Virginia Kidd and Futurian Motherhood” tells how the two women bonded over the fact that they were Futurians as well as single mothers. They eventually moved into connecting apartments with their children. Frederick Pohl seems to be intertwined with “Getting Started as a Writer”. Then comes “[Cyril] Kornbluth and [Fritz] Lieber and All” and “Katherine MacLean and the ESP Letters” during which Judith was trying to become a writer and finally “Where Do You Get Those Crazy Ideas?” which tells the backstory on how she got a lot of her work published.
However, “A Power in the Ghetto” begins a new era of Judith. It started when she was in England doing research for England Swings SF. Upon returning to America, she attended the 1968 Democratic Convention and soon after left for Toronto, as other anti-drafters were doing. Her short time in Canada and the freedom she experienced persuaded her to move temporarily and accept a job at the experimental “Rochdale College” and details the chaotic arrangement that entailed. Slowly, but surely, Judith put down roots and “Toronto Tulips Traffic and Grass” as well as “Living and Working in the Toronto Cultural Scene” demonstrate her love for her new city, even as it was in revolution. They also chronicle the beginnings of the Spaced Out Library (now the Toronto Public Library’s Merril Collection) as well as Judith’s time as a writer for Radio CBC.
Japan Future Probable”, “The Whole World is Watching”, “Improbable Futures” and “Exorcism on Parliament Hill” show a writer who has evolved from the spirit of youth to the warnings of the wise. Starting with “The 1980s” there is a role reversal and now most of Judith’s friendships and letters are with females writing science fiction and not males. With “The Crazies are Dying” “Growing Old in the 1990s” and “A Message to Some Martians” the life of Judith Merril comes to a close.
The most shocking part for me in the autobiography was how Judith felt being sexually intimate made intellectual dialogue easier for her. Coming from a later generation, intellectual conversation with men seems to be a whole lot freer than it used to be, although perhaps my naivete is glaring brilliantly. I wonder if Judith doesn’t fit the image of a mistress. I’m talking about the religiously oppressive days when men married wives for money – one until death do you part, but had mistresses – for stimulation – sometimes physical, but sometimes intellectual, as many or as little as they could endure. Upon reflection, history makes quite a bit of those bastard sons who rose to great levels from humble beginnings. I wonder if they were truly starting off with nothing, when they had mothers who were not conventional but enjoyed a great deal of power, perhaps more so than official wives. Mistresses knew the perils and pleasures of love, in all its forms. Perhaps this is what gave them such wisdom.
Any autobiography is not about one person – Tibetan monks with stories to tell are rare – but also about all the people that have influenced their life. I discovered, especially through the conversations by letter, a lot about the person Judith was communicating with. I would hope that her collected letters are eventually published as well. There is a lot of good advice on how to write, as well as a host of other subjects upon which Judith commented, argued and praised. In the meantime, I honestly have to say this is the best SF book I have read in the past two years.
Better to Have Loved is an important record in the history of SF. Judith Merril was there in the beginnings of modern science fiction in the 40s 50s and 60s in New York. She was riding the wave of Canadian nationalism in the 70s 80s and 90s that birthed Canuck science fiction while she lived in Toronto. Editor, writer, anthologizer, the science fiction community owes a great deal to Judith Merril. Not only for that, but for being a feminist and political activist in a time where many would not question the status quo. Her corporeal presence may be gone, but we have Better To Have Loved – as a reminder and a memento of a life filled with love.
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu