In 2011 George Hodgman left Manhattan after a notable career as an editor for various magazines and publishing houses, including Houghton Mifflin and Vanity Fair, to return to Paris, Missouri to care for his aging mother. He had recently lost his job and was working freelance, feeling at loose ends alone in his apartment all day, and she had recently lost her drivers license after a minor mishap. Betty was in her late 80s and experiencing dementia. It was time to go home.
But going home was complicated. George Hodgman was gay. He’d struggled with addiction. He’d never felt completely accepted in Paris. He found his home and the support he needed in New York, and yet, Paris, Missouri would always be home.
At a wedding, he recognizes it:
“All around that night at the wedding were people I had grown up with . . . all my childhood was gathered around me. This was not just a collection of the elders of Paris, Missouri, it was more to me. It was Bettyville, my mother’s home, her place, with most of its surviving souls, those who had known her as a girl and who had been kind to me and watched me grow . . . all I wanted, all of a sudden, was to stay with them forever. I love my town. I love my home.”
Bettyville was billed as a remarkable, laugh-out-loud book by the New York Times, and there are many, many funny lines and moments. Like when George tells an old high school friend that he can’t go to Branson with him and his family to see Kenny Chesney because he cannot forgive Kenny for what he did to Renee Zellweger. When he visits the homes of friends and neighbors, he enjoys hiding their copies of books by Glen Beck and Ann Coulter in bags of peat moss in their garages. He wears a Cardinals cap, but can’t always remember what it is that they play. He brings dessert to a sick friend of his mother and fears that after eating his sludgelike pudding, she’ll need life support.
Bettyville was published in 2015, and I came to the party late. George Hodgman committed suicide this past summer and I read it with that new knowledge — not as a voyeur, but as someone who has lost family members to suicide – as a seeker, an empath, someone struggling to understand.
Perhaps there were clues in Bettyville. As a high school kid, his father wanted him to play football. “Can I go to boarding school?” he asks his dad after a particularly grueling practice, one where he is kicked by an older player and called a faggot. He tried, but something changed for him on that field.
“On the football field, I thought I was going to cry, but I told myself that whatever came, whatever happened, I could not do that. Not there. I didn’t. I swallowed my tears; I pulled them in. And they never came back. I cannot cry. Not since that day . . . I don’t think a coming together will happen to me in this lifetime. I am not sure I will ever again connect up – the watcher and the other unfiltered part of me—in the way other people do. There has been a rupture, and here, in this house, on these days when the sounds my mother makes seem especially loud I feel it, see the cost of long-lasting silences.”
George Hodgman remembers as a child saying his prayers at night with his mother. He also recalls the night that he decided it was time to say them alone. His mother was having a surgery and he was scared for her. He didn’t want her to worry by praying for her. But it changed something in their relationship. After telling her he wanted to pray alone, his mother abruptly leaves the room.
“I wanted to take it back, but it was too late, she was gone. She left so fast. She didn’t bring it up, but the next night she did not come to my room. Never again would we have our special time. She would not risk being sent away again. I grew up to be just like her. Like my mother, I flee at the slightest suggestion I am unwanted.”
If you’ve read Bettyville, maybe it’s time to read it again. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it for its insight as well as its humor.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.