Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
June 2018 - Volume 18, No. 6
“The Burning Bed”
In 1977, Francine Hughes, a 30 year old mother of three, was living in the small village of Dansville, in southern central Michigan, just 22 miles southeast of Lansing. On March 22 of that year, having endured 13 years of severe domestic abuse, she set fire to the bed of her sleeping live-in ex-husband Mickey Hughes, killing him.
She was tried for first degree murder, and found by her jury to be not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Apparently the judge and the jury largely sympathized, feeling that the murder was a justifiable action.
Her story was made into a book (1980), and in 1984 into a widely popular movie of the same name, “The Burning Bed” starring Farrah Fawcett.
At the time of her trial and acquittal, I was working as a social worker on the psychiatric service of McLaren General Hospital in Flint.
I remember the news of her acquittal, but more memorable were the accounts many of our psychiatrists shared in a subsequent general staff meeting. They revealed that many of their female patients were deeply terrified.
Why terrified? Because all at once an abused woman killed her abuser, and got away with it. The terror was that all at once perhaps they could do the same unthinkable act and get away with it.
What had filled their imagination many times, could finally become a real possibility.A barrier had been both crossed and survived. What in God’s name could they do now that permission had been granted to accomplish the impossible. Fatal revenge was now an open option.
That’s why the women were terrified. A terrible doorway had been opened. What could protect them from the possibility of walking through it?
Now 40 years later
For the last couple of years I think often of the report of those local psychiatrists from Flint, Michigan - what they said, and what it means today.
I think many of you already know where I’m going with this.
A year and a half ago, our nation elected by legal and long-trusted means, a leader who delights in using his personality and elected ‘authority’ to brag how he can use his power to get and do whatever he personally wants. It’s everyman’s four-year old highchair tyrant’s dream of unbridled grandiosity.
When he bragged about doing whatever he wanted to women, who opposed him? When he claimed he could shoot a man in New York City and easily get away with it, who opposed him? When he demonizes to ‘outside’ status those who have looked to us as a cradle of tolerance and liberty... Yes, immigration is a problem, but who will protect us from the temptation to manage immigration through the dehumanization of others?
It pained me that even during the election campaign, it was the conservatives and the religious groups, those we’d expect to stand as the moral arbiters of our culture, who stood mute against the amorality of his grandiose self-presentation. They liked him!
His people like him because he tells them they can do anything they want, and he’ll help make it happen. He tells them he’ll get rid of as many rules as he can, because that’s the way he likes it too. If guns make you feel good, I understand. If somebody’s rules get in your way, we’ll get rid of the rules. My way is to get rid of rules and just make deals. Trust me, I understand you. I’m your best friend. Why, even my bowel movements pass through golden implements.
There’s no longer any moral imperative. There’s not even a moral center to hold us all together. Truth itself is held hostage to a newspeak that would make George Orwell shiver.
If a child yells out at a parade that the emperor has no clothes, these days he’ll either be drugged or deported to Guatemala, separated from his parents.
What does it mean to be human?
Remember when the Army advertised “Be all you can be.”My response, from the wisdom of the psychological as well as from my religious heritage is to say “my work is to sometimes keep folks from being all they can be.” The line between chaos and civil order has always been a thin one. We’ve come a long way over the millennia to gain the wisdom to honor and balance and care for each other. Such progress is generally slow.
But one man, whom we allow to take charge of the show and dispenses permission to come from the worst in us, can set us all back years, maybe decades, maybe even centuries.
More than at any previous time in my life, have I lately been pondering the question of what it means now to be human.
It seems to be that human nature at base, finds it easy to divide things, and especially people. Yet on the other side, slowly, a moral compass can emerge, where we seek to build and serve a ‘higher order’ where a more ‘common good’ can prevail. We’ve just observed our Memorial Day where we honored many of our military who have fought and died for that ideal. We surely have had foolish wars, but still there are those who have given their best and their all for the sake of a higher ideal for the rest of us, even the least of us. Bone spurs notwithstanding.
So, in the midst of an emerging culture that invites and allows the worst of us to dance a macabre street dance, it’s now up to even the least of us to speak up and teach each other and our children again of a moral world, its disciplines, its secrets, its wisdom and its joys.
The great documents upon which our country was founded speak of this. The heart of our Constitution speaks of this. Our spiritual foundations speak of this. Our own hearts can be encouraged to seek and speak of this.
Yes, it is right to be terrified by what has been unleashed in our midst. It is right to be terrified by the evil that can be so easily triggered within and against each other.
It is also right to open ourselves to each other in hope and love. That we are willing to see and serve the best in each other, and encourage that ‘best’ to become the active core of a life fully lived in this country and for this world.
A final thought - we often have no idea of the terror in which some people live. But reach out anyway, just in case you happen to pass near one of them.