Mary E. Latela August 31, 2015
“All sorrows can be coped with if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” -Isak Dinesen.
There is a story which saved me, so I will tell it here. The story that saved me was entitled “The Burning Bed.” (published 1/1/1980) by Faith McNulty, about Francine Hughes, a battered wife, who killed her husband after he made her burn her secretarial books with which she was trying to get a job so she could earn money and have a job. He didn’t want her to be more educated than he was.
The morning after the trial ended in which Francine Hughes was found not guilty, she was the guest on the Phil Donahue talk show, originating from Chicago. Donahue took on difficult topics, had guests with sad, terrible, or victorious stories. Members of the audience, mostly wives and mothers from the Midwest, asked questions and reacted. I watched every day I could.
When I turned on the TV that morning, after my husband had left for work and the children were playing, I sat very close and watched and listened to the horrifying story. It was the first time I had seen an actual TV report about an abusive marriage.
Francine Hughes looked dazed. Her face, even on our black and white TV, was haunting. She was so pale you had to wonder whether she would faint. She was coherent, but she spoke barely above a whisper. The jury, after hearing her recount her story, had decided she was not guilty.
After a long, long history of her husband’s cruel abuse, Francine had finally set his bed afire when he finally fell asleep after a rampage in which he destroyed many of Francie’s things. What causes her to “snap” was his demand that she burn the textbooks she had purchased and hid from him, in order to take classes, to have job skills in order to get a job and leave him.
My marriage was another story of abuse, learned helplessness, fear for my life and for my children. I knew by that time that I was not alone, after I read a small item in the local newspaper about a hotline in my town where you could talk to someone if you were being abused.
What shocked me most about the Donahue show was the reaction of some of the women in the audience. They were judgmental. They chastised Ms. Hughes for not being a good, submissive wife. They condemned her for killing her husband, quoted Scripture, the Ten Commandments, etc. They yelled her, called her a coward. She simply listened.
Donahue stepped in and said, “I don’t believe what I am hearing. My audience, mostly women who are smart, caring, and knowledgeable, have heard this horrible story. And you see her here, obviously the victim of horrifying abuse. Don’t you have any compassion?”
Francine Hughes’ story was turned into a book by Frances McNulty(1980), and later into a movie with Farrah Fawcett, entitled, The Burning Bed.The entire episode was a wake-up call for our culture, a confirmation of the reality of spousal abuse, the depth to which an abuser would sink, the destruction of the victim’s self-worth, and sometimes breakdown or death at his hands.
From that day onward, I knew that I could not wait to be rescued from my own situation. I had to end the abuse. As much as I regretted ending the marriage, I was already sure that I could be killed by my husband. It took some time; I made some false starts, but finally I restarted my life without him. Unfortunately, he kept the children from seeing me for quite a long time.
There is still pain, but I have moved into a place of relative peace and hope, which is like a new beginning.