Burning Bed: The True Story of an Abused Wife by Faith McNulty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Bookshelves: investigative-journalism, women, sleep-with-the-light-on, non-fiction, crime, social-commentary, as-seen-on-tv, in-the-news
A group of women I participate with was discussing a recent interview with Lorena Bobbitt, she of penis-ectomy fame, and remarking how deplorable it is that only now, decades later, is any focus given to what was done to her rather than to what she herself did. The movie The Burning Bed starring Farrah Fawcett came up, and it seemed to me it had been based on a true story. I checked around and saw that indeed it was, the story of how Francine Hughes got sick and tired of being beaten to a bloody pulp and having absolutely no help available to her, and during the desolate, desperate evening of March 9, 1977, she set her husband on fire to be free of him. It’s available in print but not as an e-book that I can see, and be careful–one Amazon seller is asking $69.81 for it! I found a used paperback at my favorite online used bookseller for about $5, including shipping.
Why do I read this stuff? I’m going to have to sleep with the light on again. This is a graphic, horrifying, and absolutely unfuckingbelievable story, not only of the emotional, verbal, and physical abuse one woman took, but the lack of laws or any kind of support that would help her escape him. Even if the cops came to the house, they couldn’t arrest Mickey unless they actually saw him assault her. Never mind that both of Francine’s eyes are blackened, her lips are puffed, she’s covered with bruises, the house is destroyed, broken dishes and furniture everywhere, children cowering and sobbing. Never mind that Mickey actually tells the police, on more than one occasion, that as soon as they leave he’s going to “break her fucking neck.” Our hands are tied, nothing we can do ma’am, so sorry, you try to stay calmed down now sir, ya hear? Repeat at least once a week, ad nauseum, for thirteen fucking years, and see what happens.
After her arrest for murdering her husband, even in the days before the Internet, Francine Hughes became a cause célèbre, and women everywhere owe…well, I don’t want to say we owe Francine anything. I’m sure she’d have given anything not to be the symbol she became, not to have had to do what she did, and the sense I get of her says she would not have wanted the label “hero” stuck on to her forehead. So I guess it’s to her defense attorney and the jury of her peers to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude, for seeing beyond the letter of the law and the norms of society, seeing deeper to the human beings our society is supposed to protect. Francine’s case shone a harsh light on the brutality levied on women every day, and helped to make things as much better as they are now. Francine Hughes did not have what we have now: Better laws, harsher consequences, protection orders, and shelters and assistance and education programs. It’s not enough, as violence against women remains a worldwide epidemic and will continue to be as long as patriarchal norms are maintained. But it’s a start.
The whole story is such a tragedy, and my heart particularly breaks for those children. (I found an interview wherein the oldest child said of her father, “I spit on his grave…He was a rotten son-of-a-bitch.”) As I read, I was trying to find a kernel of sympathy for Mickey Hughes’ family, empathy for their grief at losing a son and brother. And I actually had that kernel, right up until Mickey’s mother took the stand and said her son was a good and loving father and husband, that he had never hit her, that she had never seen him strike Francine, that Francine was always the cause of the trouble–all provable lies. I mean sure, it would have been wonderful if Mickey could have lived a full life in the loving bosom of his wife and children and parents and siblings.
You know what else would have been wonderful? If Francine Hughes had not had to endure more than a dozen years of endless shouting, name-calling, philandering, insults, oppression and repression, being the sole support of her children because their father was a lazy drunken piece of shit, almost daily beatings, and then having to live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she had deliberately taken a life, justifiable though it was. That’s what would have been wonderful. And at that point I lost any sympathy I’d had for Mickey’s parents. They created him, nature and nurture, and set the example, and he lived right up to it.
The takeaway: Mickey and Francine Hughes are but a single case study. John and Lorena Bobbitt are but another. This kind of shit still happens, everywhere, every day.
Added note: This book was considered a stellar forerunner in the genre known as creative non-fiction or literary journalism, which Truman Capote is generally credited for developing. It’s another shining example of a true story that reads like a novel.