Everyday it becomes more apparent to me, and I think to her – a woman who still calls the refrigerator an “icebox” – that her world is gone and she is standing almost by herself now, the only one who remembers how it was here, wondering half the time what it is that people are talking about.
George Hodgman, a 54-year old magazine and book editor who recently lost his job returns home to Paris, Missouri (population 1,246) to care for his fiercely independent but ailing 91-year old mother. Struggling to take care of himself and Betty, George is frustrated, angry, and sad because he can’t quite figure out the road map that both and he and his mother are trying to navigate (“Betty and I are both crossing bridges we would rather avoid”).
Growing up in a small mid-western town in the 1960’s and 1970’s was not easy for a boy who knew he was gay from an early age. The local library was more apt to carry a copy of the National Review in which its famous editor, William Buckley, Jr. was known to call gays “queers,” than a copy of “The City and the Pillar” (1948) in which a homosexual relationship was written about that scandalized the keepers of godly living in suburbia. Consequently, George grew up thinking something was wrong with him. Decades later, George still recalls how he felt being called a “faggot” by kids in school and the hurtful things people would say:
People will say anything about gay people. It still goes on. Pick up a newspaper. We hear so many terrible things about ourselves. People think it is their right. They just don’t get what being different feels like, on the inside, for a kid and they don’t care.
So, coming back to Paris, Missouri after living and working in New York City, brought back bad memories and feelings of inadequacy which was only made worse by living with a mother who never accepted George for who he was. The motto of Bettyville: don’t ask, don’t tell. Except that George wanted to tell but didn’t know how. He shut down years before, running away from what he thought was a suffocating environment only to find that geographic moves don’t make feelings go away. The pain is still there but hidden and it takes him a long time – through alcohol and drug-fueled years – to get sober and realize “there is almost no truth better not known. The harder ones are tolerated more comfortably when shared.”
Bettyville is really the story of George Hodgman, the only son of Betty and George Hodgman, two parents who loved their son but didn’t love who he turned out to be. It is the true story of how George tries to make peace with his mother in the process of trying to make peace with himself and his inner demons. For anyone who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the story is a walk down memory lane (complete with cultural icons: Ladies Home Journal’s “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”) that will leave you laughing and in tears. Hodgman is funny, as in really funny. He knows how to see humor in the saddest of situations but it’s his commitment to move forward that steals your heart.
I think I have survived because of Betty, more than anyone. I will never stop remembering my mother’s strength, her struggle to remember words, to hang on to the world. I will always hear her at the piano, an old woman practicing, still trying to get it right, to find the right notes. I will see her walking, haltingly, in the dark, doing her best to find her way. We have sometimes struggled with words, but I am Betty’s boy. There are so many rings I will carry when I leave Bettyville with my old suitcase.