(Click here for information on the 2021 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the first selection The Burning Bed By Faith McNulty)
Is it a sign of the times that we’re finally getting to our first Imaginary Summer Book Club book at the end of August? Yes! Also this was a really harrowing read.
Poised as the major work to bring attention to the issue of spousal abuse in the late 1970s, when 29 year old Francine Hughes, after enduring more than a decade of brutal beatings by her husband, Mickey, packed her children in the car, doused her home in gasoline and set it afire with Mickey inside, driving directly to the local police to station to confess.
Contemporary accounts in the media frame her subsequent trial as a cause célèbre amongst contemporary feminists; after Hughes was found not guilty due to temporary insanity, the media editorialized that this would mean that it was “open season on men.”
One of the details that seems to have gotten forgotten over the last 40+ years is that at time of his death, Francine and Mickey had been divorced for six years: after a series of events in which Francine acts in good faith to keep Mickey in his children’s lives, he simply moves in and refuses to leave, as Francine’s every attempt to gain legal protection for herself is met with indifference and bureaucratic red tape.
The book opens with three epigraphs, two from the Michigan state prosecutors, stating that the Hughes affair is “a typical murder case” and positing that Francine’s alternative was “not to commit murder.” A third, from the County Sheriff, glumly notes that
In my experience these situations between husband and wife end in one of two ways: the parties divorce and get out, or it will terminate in death.
The books opens with a procedural account of the night of the crime, taken from the police interviews with Francine Hughes after she turned herself in, giving the reader a clue that Mickey Hughes has been a known quantity in the community for some time, and showing the indifference that “domestic cases” were treated with.
McNulty, interviewing Francine extensively, then shifts to Francine’s background, going back several generations, describing a family that moved from rural Kentucky to agricultural/industrial southern Michigan, seeking better prospects, and the history of alcoholism, illiteracy, domestic violence and teenage marriages (Francine’s mother was 14 when she married Francine’s father, who was 25).
McNulty describes the promise of Francine’s early life as an intelligent, diligent student who was well-liked by her classmates; but by the time she was 16 Francine was growing increasingly bored with school, and she and her best friend impulsively decide to drop out.
It was through her friend that Francine had been introduced to 18 year old Mickey Hughes, the youngest son of a large local family who also had roots in Appalachian Kentucky, while he is initially indifferent to her, Francine finds Mickey interesting because he has both a job and a car; after a grim sexual encounter which Francine describes as “I just let it happen” she feels like she now has to marry him.
A few weeks before the wedding there is an incident in which Francine and her friend play an innocent prank on Mickey by moving his car down the block, which causes Mickey to fly into a rage, choking Francine and tearing her blouse. When Mickey apologizes, Francine tries to put the incident out of her mind.
The couple moves in with Mickey’s family, who turn a blind eye as Mickey becomes increasingly possessive of and violent towards his wife, even as Francine starts calling the police, who also shrug it off (unless Mickey takes a swing at one of them, for which he serves several brief stints in jail over the next decade).
Chronically indifferent to holding down a job, Mickey drags Francine and his growing family around the state of Michigan and then the entire Midwest, frequently abandoning Francine, and the children before summoning them back.
Throughout this time Francine is thwarted in her attempts to protect herself by the bureaucratic and paternalistic men in charge. Not only are local police departments uninterested in getting involved in “a family matter”, but her Catholic obstetrician refuses to prescribe birth control pills, and she learns that she’s ineligible for welfare because as a married woman she doesn’t qualify as the “head of household” to file the application.
Seeking help through Legal Aid to file for “separate maintenance,” her caseworker informs her that the fee to file is seven dollars and Francine responds “If I had seven dollars I probably wouldn’t be here.” When the caseworker pays the fee himself, Francine is surprised to find the papers she’s signing are a divorce decree.
Initially invigorated by the idea of a life free of Mickey and the social safety net that will enable her to get back on her feet, Francine’s hopes come crashing back down a few months after the divorce is finalized when Mickey is seriously injured in a car accident. Pressured by his parents, Francine moves into the house next door and soon Mickey has moved himself in.
McNulty horrifically describes how Mickey’s behavior escalates after the accident, directing his abuse not just at Francine, but for the first time at the children and the family pets. McNulty theorizes that Mickey had suffered a brain injury as a child and the accident further aggravated it, contributing to his behavior.
Having Mickey’s parents next door further exacerbates the situation, as he can seemingly do no wrong in their eyes. After Mickey attempts to stab Francine and the cops arrest him, Francine broaches the subject of having Mickey committed to a psychiatric hospital; she gets some support from his mother who agrees that
“I’d rather have him in the hospital than in jail… He ought to see a doctor and get help before he hurts someone real bad.”
But when her husband walks out on her for even suggesting such a thing, Mrs. Hughes quickly recants. After his parents reunite, Mickey again beats Francine, this time serving a 36-hour sentence when he “incautiously” punches a deputy sheriff summoned to the scene.
Declared disabled after the car accident, Mickey is eventually persuaded to “allow” Francine to attend GED classes, and then business college when she is approved for a federal grant.
Away from Mickey, Francine again finds that she does well in school and makes friends easily. At the business college in Lansing, she meets a George Walkup, a state trooper assigned to the nearby Capitol building; Francine develops a crush on him, eventually accepting a date with him, during which she frankly describes having sex in his car. Francine is hopeful about having a boyfriend with the power of the law on his side, but as the evening progresses it seems that the status of George’s divorce is fuzzier than he initially let on and Francine tells him she can’t see a married man, and puts him out her mind.
Unsurprisingly, Francine’s college career doesn’t sit well with Mickey, which is one of the factors that leads up to the night of the crime. For a second time, McNulty recounts the events of March 9, 1977, as Mickey becomes increasingly drunk, beats and humiliates Francine, including rubbing garbage in her hair, burns her college textbooks, threatens to kill her, rapes her and then passes out.
Almost in a fugue state, Francine gets the idea to escape and burn down the house behind her, so she’ll have nothing to return to. Putting it off, waiting for her older son, Dana, to return from a friend’s house, she is eventually overcome with fear that Mickey will wake up and follow through on his threats, so she gets the combination from her younger son for the lock on the tool shed, grabs the gas can and soaks the bedroom, lights a match and gets the hell out of there.
Only the last 100 pages are devoted to Francine’s arrest and trial, as she has the good luck to draw Aryon Greydanus as her public defender; a former state prosecutor, Greydanus finds Francine sympathetic and her case “interesting” and devotes himself to it. His devotion seems genuine, but, as slowly revealed by McNulty, he also has his own interests in winning the case: he left the prosecutor’s office for political reasons and relishes the idea of facing his old boss in court.
While throughout the legal procedural McNulty tries to build drama as she describes the various obstacles they encounter in building Francine’s defense… but by the time of the book’s publication everyone already knew how it was going to play out, so Greydanus seems like he has relatively smooth sailing as he deals with a clearly prejudiced judge (he is eventually pressured to recuse himself and the case is assigned a more sympathetic one); reluctant witnesses (they eventually come around), Mrs. Hughes perjuring herself (Greydanus has the police reports) and the bizarre reappearance of George Walkup.
In a truly stranger-than-fiction twist, Walkup gets back in touch with Francine while she is in jail, and they briefly correspond, Francine once again hopeful for a relationship with him. When the letters abruptly stop, she again tries to forget about him. Some time later the letters turn up and are handed over to the prosecution after Walkup has committed suicide after having been charged with “a sex offense involving the rape of a child.”
While the prosecution is smug that the letters show Francine had a motive for killing her husband, Greydanus showily explains to the jury that they had charged Francine with first degree murder months before the letters were even written.
Even the testimony of Francine’s two oldest children, called as witnesses for the prosecution to prove premeditation, only seem to stir up more sympathy for their mother.
Greydanus does decide to have Francine testify on her own behalf, the prospect of which she finds terrifying. While he has promised that he’ll give her advance warning, he instead decides it would be better to spring it on her at the last minute, which backfires, panicking her into incoherence. It is the judge who is able to talk her down and she is able to proceed with her testimony.
Within hours the jury returns a verdict on not guilty due to temporary insanity, and the next day Francine is adjudicated as being currently sane, and she is able to reunite with her children.
Published three years after the verdict, McNulty does provide an epilogue that tries to show that Francine’s happy ending wasn’t coming so easy, still dealing with the aftermath of the events and doing her best to help her children adjust while working “a series of factory jobs”.
She would remarry later that year to Robert Wilson, whom Wikipedia refers to as “a country musician” and her New York Times obituary notes “was on parole after serving more than 10 years of a 30-year armed-robbery sentence.” She would eventually become an LPN, and all reports indicate that she shied away from talking about her case for the rest of her life. She died of pneumonia in 2017, and a family friend raised money for her funeral expenses through GoFundMe.
Hughes’s case has remained in the cultural consciousness, including inspiring Martina McBride’s hit “Independence Day” and a 2017 documentary short film that recounted Hughes’s case and contrasted it with the treatment of Thomia Hunter, a Black domestic violence victim who was convicted of killing her abusive ex-boyfriend after he attacked her in 2005 (Hunter eventually had her sentence commuted in 2019).
But the case is still most associated with the highly successful 1984 TV-movie which revealed that Farrah Fawcett had some real acting chops, although I think the filmmakers were just as audacious in casting Paul Le Mat, one of the era’s most likeable personalities, as the violent Mickey.
The film has a 95 minute running time, so a lot of the story has to be streamlined (George Walkup is eliminated entirely), making parts of it seem both choppy and stilted; it never really manages to live up to the truly frightening opening scene in which Francine frantically drives away as the second-floor bedroom bursts into flames.
The filmmakers also manage a clever workaround on the constraints for language on television- while they can’t replicate the verbal abuse Mickey directed at Francine, they save up their one “bitch” and “whore” for Francine’s daughter’s testimony, maximizing the impact.
Availability: The books looks to be out of print, but copies are easy to find.
The TV Movie is available on DVD and streaming through Amazon.
The documentary short is available to stream on The New Yorker website.