NAPERVILLE – Once described as able to “fight her weight in wildcat,” University of Chicago graduate Gertrude Beasley came out swinging in her 1925 memoir, “My First Thirty Years.”
In the first sentence, she accused her father of raping her mother. By page 2, she was relating her first real memory: a sexual assault by her eldest brother when she was only about 4 years old.
Beasley’s blistering account of poverty and abuse on the Texas frontier was banned for “obscenity” in the 1920s, despite an admiring review in the New Yorker. Within two years, Beasley, a journalist with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, was committed to a Long Island psychiatric hospital where she would remain for the rest of her life.
But against the odds, the frank and feminist book at the center of the firestorm has lived on, finding safe harbor in academic libraries, and winning ardent fans such as Larry McMurtry, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel “Lonesome Dove.”
And now for the first time, Beasley’s memoir is available to the general public thanks to the efforts of Nina Bennett, her sister-in-law Marie Bennett and Dominque Raccah, Nina’s mother-in-law and Marie’s stepmother, who published it through Raccah’s Naperville-based Sourcebooks.
“(Beasley) blew my mind in those first 10 pages. Heck, the first paragraph. And that’s when I started digging in, and realized the backstory, and I was just so upset,” said Nina Bennett, 36, a municipal consultant in Dallas.
“We had come so far as a society and her words were still inaccessible. You could not access them unless you had connections to an academic library, which, because my husband’s a professor at (Southern Methodist University), I do. Marie’s stepmother founded her own publishing company 34 years ago. For random reasons, we were in the place and we had the connections to elevate her words.”
Nina Bennett and Marie Bennett, 48, a classical musician from Aurora, recently talked about Beasley’s life and work via Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Gertrude is such an extraordinary person. How would you describe her?
Marie: If she were suddenly transposed into the 21st century, I see her as an extremely articulate, extremely effective advocate or protest leader.
Nina: When I wrote the introduction to the book, that was really how I tried to frame her. I envision her doing protest cheers with her microphone and leading revolts and being the person who says, “This is not acceptable.” She is not a person who would be brokering negotiations; she would be the (one) that you would deploy (saying), “You’d better negotiate with us, because otherwise, we’re going to sic Gertrude on you.”
Q. Gertrude says multiple male siblings sexually abused her as a child, and suggests that there may have been similar abuse in other local families. Do you have any idea how common that was?
Nina: I don’t have any sense of how common sibling rape was. What I do have a sense of was that life on the frontiers, life as a farmer in the Great Plains or the Midwest, was so much harder than “Little House on the Prairie” depicts it, and so much less child friendly. You see it coming out in books that were published at the time: this real, horrible poverty, and how degrading that sort of impossible poverty is. None of those books have stood the test of time. I think part of that is because we didn’t want to know, as a country. I think the other thing is that no one would publish it. That’s part of why there’s so little documentary evidence.
Q. Chicago, where Gertrude studied and taught school in her 20s, was a place where she really blossomed.
Nina: I think Texas gave her the anger and the drive against degradation. Chicago gave her the causes into which she could channel that anger and that drive. She was given a vocabulary that she didn’t have before, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. She was exposed to woman professionals. She was exposed to advocates. She was exposed to feisty women that made men afraid. There was a great quote (from Gertrude) about the (Chicago Public Schools superintendent Ella Flagg Young): “It was my idea of a good time to see men afraid of a woman.”
Q. She let her guard down a bit. She let herself be vulnerable in Chicago.
Nina: Yes. She let herself be saddened, or almost mourning. In the first half of the book, particularly in the first 10 pages, she’s so, so angry. And by the end of the book, you feel she can allow herself to be sad and to mourn what she didn’t have and even go a step further and start to mourn what her mother didn’t have. She comes to this realization that her mother and all of their sisters — because they didn’t have the power of choice in their husbands, and when they had kids — they could not have a loving relationship. In some sense a loving relationship was reserved only for the wealthy and the privileged. There was a great quote in there, about her mom saying, love goes out the window when you’re poor.
Q. How much do we know about her time in the psychiatric hospital?
Nina: What we know is that she was (committed) within 10 days of her ship docking in Manhattan (in 1927). We know that she was sent to the Central Islip Psychiatric Center on Long Island. We know that she died there because copies of her death certificate were obtained and her burial plot was found on the site. We do not know anything about her records while in the hospital. My understanding is that those may exist, but the state of New York has not released them and will not release them, even to kin. In the Texas Monthly article that came out a couple weeks ago, the author made a compelling case (that) we don’t know. Maybe she had a total psychiatric breakdown. We just don’t know. There’s a lot of really compelling reasons to assume that (her hospitalization) was absolutely unwarranted, but we don’t actually know.
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