The memoir Hi, Harry has a special interest for me because it takes place in a town near where I grew up. The town is about thirty miles away as the crow flies (about 40 by driving), close enough we competed against them in sports and speech, but far enough that we didn’t know the local gossip and the “Who’s Who” of small town America. It is the story of a woman who fell in love, got married, had children, and did not live happily ever after. At least not until she got a divorce.
More importantly, though, it is a textbook case of how domestic violence happens and why women stay. It has profound implications for how we think about domestic violence if we just pay attention.
- She witnessed her father abuse her mother, imprinting the association of violence with marital passion.
- He witnessed his father abusing his mother and his stepmother and was also abused by his father and stepmother. He was emotionally neglected and abused.
- Her aunt and uncle and their friends normalized domestic violence as something to laugh about and joke about as part of the whole drinking and brawling routine.
- His family normalized domestic violence as well, even referring to the abuse and torture of his uncle’s wife to the degree she was brain-damaged as finally getting her “trained.”
- When she sought help from the sheriff; he talked and joked around with her husband and then told her not to worry, it will all blow over.
- Her husband repeatedly reminder her that she can’t go to the cops, because they are on his side.
- Her husband controlled her financially, taking her check and giving her just enough to put food on the table for the family, if she budgeted carefully.
- Her husband controlled her by threatening to take her children away.
- Her husband controlled her by threatening to kill her.
- Her husband also controlled her through romance and passion.
It is a miracle she found the will to escape, but she was motivated by fear that he would harm the children. He had already beaten them in anger, so she knew it was not hypothetical She also became convinced he would kill her, but then the will to escape is not enough. She also needed the means to escape and that was through legal aid which helped her get a divorce and welfare which provided enough for rent, food, health care and even sent her to college so she could eventually support herself. They did not have the cheeseparing approach of today, but were generous enough to provide a real escape.
I think the book is worth reading just for how perfectly it illustrates the trap women find themselves in and why it is so hard for them to find their way out, but it’s more than that. Newton writes with an engaging, conversational style and lived an exciting life. She lived in several states as she followed her husband around the country in the early 60s.
She tells one story of working at a diner outside Memphis during Freedom Summer and getting a call at the cafe that some civil rights workers were going to test the businesses by going in the whites only side. The sheriff called and warned her they were coming. He suggested she ask the customer who was there to stay with her, but as soon as she explained why the sheriff wanted him to stay, the customer took off to protect his barber shop if by any chance any of the civil rights workers wanted to test his whites only business. The sheriff was driving around the block to keep an eye out and the whole town was watching the cafe. You know she wanted to serve the civil rights worker, but he was only 12 or so. He came in and asked for a candy bar, she answered to an abusive husband who grew up with those mores, to a boss who would fire her and to the need to feed her family, so she apologetically turns him away. So he goes to the other side of the cafe and gets his candy bar from the black waitress and Newton says, “You must have really wanted a candy bar.” and he laughs and said he did.
She has a way of telling stories that bring them to life. You can hear the people and see the landscape. Her description of New Orleans where the Mississippi opens into the delta is the most evocative I can recall reading. You can see and feel the places she describes, the heat, the cold, the cockroaches! The pace of the memoir is fast and engaging and she had an adventurous decade, traveling all over the place.
There are some fundamental flaws that prevent this from being a great memoir. While Newton is brutally honest about herself and her marriage, she still, after all this time, makes excuses for her abusive ex-husband. Nobody made him drink, when he was given the opportunity and an expense account, the expense account did not put the drink in his hands. That was him. As to the idea of Jekyll and Hyde, while drink releases inhibitions, it does not make you do things you don’t want to do. It inhibits your self control, but it does not create desires out of nothing. He wanted to make her fear him, but when sober, he restrained himself…until he didn’t.
She also writes her husband and his family and several southerners in a dialect in a way that makes them seem ignorant and distances them from the rest of us. It is sometimes a bit difficult to recognize, too, what with “you’ins” and such. I think a lighter touch on the dialect would have made the book better and less likely to turn off people from the South. She also uses some unreconstructed racial language and shares some opinions that reflect the common human tendency to generalize about others while being particular about our own tribe.
For example, with an abusive husband that drinks all the time, a hard-drinking brother and aunt and uncle and the abundance of drinking, cheating, awful in-laws, that beam in her eye is pretty darn big when talking about Native Americans drinking. It is a reflection of the times that she was writing about and the place where she lived, where she could be aware of and condemning of the racism toward black people while expressing equally biased opinions about Native Americans. This is reflective of the time and the place, but a good editor would have asked her to reconsider and rewrite some events by being specific about a person’s actions while not ascribing them to her ethnicity. Newton is clearly writing in the moment, the way she felt at the time, in the 60s and today, she would feel differently and express herself more carefully.
And of course, that is what she needed, an editor who would challenge her to address the sections where she still blames someone other than her husband, to challenge her on using the dialect and the old, outdated and biased language. The first chapter, too, for some reason has several homophone errors. After that rough beginning, though, the rest of the book is well-written except for another cluster of homophone errors at the end, as though they are parentheses to the otherwise excellent, active, clear prose.
In all, I am glad I read it. In small town America, we all think we are so very picture perfect and it is good to recognize that we all have secrets, even in the beautiful rural communities of the heartland.