In Bettyville, New York book editor George Hodgman returns to his native, rural northern Missouri home to care for his elderly mother. In the process, he crafts a Proustian remembrance of growing up gay in a small town amid the cultural revolutions of the sixties and seventies that at once seemed as distant as Fire Island in New York and as near as the campus of the University of Missouri.
The actual geographical location of Bettyville is Paris, Missouri, a town that like thousands of other small American towns finds itself slowly disappearing from the map as it struggles to transition into the twenty-first century. What separates Hodgman’s account from many other queer coming-of-age narratives of small-town life is his genuine affection for Paris despite the decades-old wounds he still nurses. Hodgman offers both a personal and sociological elegy for his hometown. Mourning Paris’s vanishing main street, he writes, “Wal-Mart, the store that wiped out the merchants, shuttered everything, has never offered a lonely widow a turkey dinner, a day of fellowship among friends, or hope” (217). He feels most at home where he never fit in and shows true affection and empathy for townspeople who were taught by their religion and their government to hate him.
While the generation gap and the politics of conservative nostalgia and denial inform their interactions, at its core, Bettyville is meditation on the mother-son relationship in the parent’s twilight years. In Hodgman’s words, they are “just a typical American family, torn between love and homicide, but united in [their] way” (153). [End Page 488] His mother thinks of him as “the Joan Crawford of elder care,” but George understands that as a now infirm product of her generation of stubbornly sedulous midwestern women, she must hate him because he is “the guard at the prison she will never get out of” (152). Betty may have been part of “a generation who existed before feelings were spoken of,” but in her silence she also found it in her heart “to give [Hodgman]—a gay man whose life she has never understood—a place to call home” (9).
Hodgman’s memoir uses this motif of typical midwestern emotional silence as a way to investigate the silenced existence of gay adolescence in a homophobic culture. Reflecting on his teen years when his mother found his gay magazines, Hodgman writes, “This was the beginning of many silences to follow, our struggle with words. At the time, I thought the silences, the secrets did not matter. As it happened, they did” (71). The silences are devastating for gay youth because “Gay kids hear everything. Because they are hidden in disguise or listening in silence. No one holds back. People will say anything about gay people” (105). Throughout the memoir, Hodgman beautifully narrates a string of gay silences: his parents’ attempts to straighten him out through football, his grandmother policing his effeminate dancing, his reluctance to admit he is in a relationship when he brings his “roommate” home, and his inability to admit that his drug abuse was a cover for his insecurities within the gay community. Perhaps this is why, when as an adult man living in New York during the aids crisis, he finds Act Up’s signature slogan “Silence Equals Death” to encompass his lifetime of silences (178).
As his mother’s caretaker, George must navigate these silences in order to reconcile with his past. He illustrates the dilemma that all gay children face when their parents tolerate but do not embrace their children’s sexuality. He wants to express his gratitude for her tolerance, but at the same time attempts in vain to find some kind of embrace and validation from a generation that lacks the conceptual vocabulary to speak it. For its deeply personal and politically conscious depiction of lgbt identity in rural towns, Bettyville makes a needed contribution to our literature on Queer Studies in the American West. [End Page 489]