Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman


I learned about this book from Maureen Corrigan’s “best of 2015” list. What an ideal audiobook it has been. I’m sure it’s as good to read as it was to hear, but I spent happy hours cooking and washing dishes in Iowa while listening to this memoir.

George Hodgman moved back home to Paris, Missouri from the sophisticated life in NYC to take care of his mother, who was 90-something and could no longer live alone. She asked him over and over what that Christmas drink was, (eggnog), the capital of Portugal (Lisbon), but she still played the piano at church.

He is a gay man who had been an editor and had worked at “Vanity Fair.” Having lost his job, he returned to Missouri and focused on his mother and gave us insights into his own life. We come to love the strong-willed, sardonic Betty who is unwilling to give up her broken down sandals. She was, as the title implies, a village in her own right.

But it is the experience of the gay youngster who receives the clear message from everyone in his family and community that he is “broken” and “wrong” that is the most poignant. He never talked about that part of his life with his parents and the silence was deafening. He came of age during the AIDS years and saw the illness and death of so many friends. His work was all-consuming and he used drugs to get through until that didn’t work. Ending that addiction was a years-long process. Though he touches on these painful topics, he shows no self-pity and his eloquence was touching.

I don’t blame my parents for any hurts. I blame myself more than anyone, my silence. But everything in the world where I was raised told me I was bad and wrong and I took it in. I didn’t want to inflict it on them. I’m trying to forgive myself for not getting us all through this in a better way. But lately, being here, remembering, has helped me see what I carried. Everything I heard, from every corner when I was young told me I was bad…. I heard everything the people in the world around me said about who I was. It hurt me but I thought I had no right to say anything because I was wrong. I didn’t know what silence would cost, how it would change my life. It takes a long time to outrun the things that the world drills into you.

Getting to know the disparate worlds the author lived in (fast-paced New York, Bettyville) through the voice of a reasonable, clear-eyed man was a valuable experience. You can’t help loving Betty, but I came to be awfully fond of George too.

In an aside, he mentions Tessa Hadley, the author of a book high on my TBR list (The Past). He had worked with her.

George Hodgman, Bettyville: A Memoir, Viking, 2015, 288 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries.

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