Larry McMurtry, our principal critic of Texas, once described the condition of women there:
Years ago someone pointed out that Texas is hell on women and horses. He was wrong about horses, for most horses are considered to be valuable, and are treated well. He was absolutely right about women though, the country was simply hell on them, and remained so until fairly recently.
We could quibble with that last point, but overall it’s still a pretty solid judgment. Texas is currently intensifying the suffering of women, particularly poor women and women of color, with its notorious law placing a vigilante-style bounty on abortion providers and those aiding women who seek to have the procedure. The law has no exception for rape victims or survivors of incest. What won’t Texas do to humiliate and subjugate women? Very little, it appears.
McMurtry had an unerring eye for the casual cruelty and endemic social hypocrisy that made his state a pit of sexual viciousness, long chronicling the local appetite for behavior ranging from bestiality to incest between siblings. In a 1968 essay, “Eros in Archer County,” he revisited a passage in his novel The Last Picture Show (1966), the scene in which rural youth copulate with a blind heifer, a practice represented as traditional, cows not being the half of it. “Farm kids did it with cows, mares, sheep, dogs, and whatever else they could catch,” he wrote, calling the scene “sober realism.” Indeed, Texas was keeping its options open on that front even lately. Bestiality did not become illegal there until 2017, when the state legislature made it a felony.
A scholar of state history and a bookseller, as well as a writer devoted to demythologizing the West, McMurtry was always gratified to discover “sober realism” wherever he could find it, often in rare or out-of-print sources that addressed life on the frontier as it actually was. Thus he came to admire, and eventually republish, Gertrude Beasley’s breathtakingly frank memoir, My First Thirty Years, which originally appeared in 1925.
Born in 1892 in Cross Plains, a stagecoach crossroads in central Texas, Edna Gertrude Beasley was the ninth child of William Isaac Beasley and Lucy Beasley, and grew up dirt poor in a state specializing in dirt. Her account openly acknowledges bodily functions and features sketches of domestic violence, rape, incest, molestation, bestiality, bullying, prostitution, and abortion. To call her memoir unflinching is an understatement: it’s a virtual encyclopedia of misogyny. For its time and place—and even now—it’s unprecedented.
This scandalous book was published in Paris in 1925 by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions, famous for bringing out works of the Lost Generation, including those by Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Mina Loy, and others. Beasley and her book would be lost too, albeit literally. After the United States’ 1921 ban on Joyce’s Ulysses for obscenity (following publication of a chapter in The Little Review), Beasley’s work was vigorously suppressed, but unlike Joyce she found few defenders, although Bertrand Russell, whom she met on her travels, tried to help her, sending money and recommending a lawyer.
So far as we know, the only public comment she made on this suppression occurred in the January 1926 issue of Hearst’s International Cosmopolitan, which featured a sanitized version of her experience titled “I Was One of Thirteen Poor White Trash.” Packaged as one of the sensational first-person accounts for which the magazine was known, it appeared alongside contributions by Theodore Roosevelt, Ring Lardner, and W. Somerset Maugham. Beasley was clearly trying to promote her work.
Yet the existence of the memoir was mentioned only in the caption beneath her author photo. She referred to the censorship of the book obliquely in her melancholy conclusion:
Those who have been through my long road of poverty, family sorrows, and social discriminations, recognize the scars which such a struggle leaves. They are mostly distrust, hysteria, suspicion and fear—the results of an overwrought body and soul.
There are many women who like myself have hacked their way out of the labyrinth of superstitions, lies, ignorance, unfair advantage and poverty, who have been great warriors in a mighty battle, in a battle so horrible that if they told the truth about life it would take away the last breath of the censors of Anglo-Saxondom.
Two years after this was published, Beasley was silenced forever. Ten days after her return to the US from England in 1928, she was committed to an asylum, the Central Islip Psychiatric Center on Long Island, where she remained until her death in 1955. Her diagnosis and the circumstances of her committal remain unknown.
In an afterword to the limited edition of My First Thirty Years published by the Book Club of Texas in 1989, McMurtry speculated about the book’s fate, saying that “three hundred copies were lost in America, presumably to Customs,” a hunch later confirmed. As a result, McMurtry writes, the memoir became “to an unusual degree a book known only to…antiquarian booksellers.” Although reprints appeared once or twice, the memoir has now been released by a trade publisher, making it widely available for the first time. The timing could not be more fortuitous: My First Thirty Years provides a foundational exploration of the Lone Star State’s treatment of women, which, if not uniquely brutal, shows real ambition in a crowded field.
McMurtry called the opening of My First Thirty Years “as violently indignant as any in literature,” but it’s not merely the aggrieved tone that sets it apart. Beasley is attacking every mawkish preconception about the sanctity of life:
Thirty years ago, I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in a sexual act of rape, being carried during the pre-natal period by an unwilling and rebellious mother, finally bursting from the womb only to be tormented in a family whose members I despised or pitied, and brought into association with people whom I should never have chosen. Sometimes I wish that, as I lay in the womb, a pink soft embryo, I had somehow thought, breathed or moved and wrought destruction to the woman who bore me, and her eight miserable children who preceded me, and the four round-faced mediocrities who came after me, and her husband, a monstrously cruel, Christlike, and handsome man with an animal’s appetite for begetting children.
A photo of the entire Beasley clan posted on the genealogical website Ancestry.com roughly confirms her description of her father, if Christ sported a handlebar mustache, wore suspenders, and looked mean. In the image all seven Beasley boys, with the exception of the youngest, seated on his mother’s lap, are together on the left side of the image, the six girls on the right, the sexes divided by their mother’s heavy presence, seated in the middle, scowling and squinting in the sunlight.
The division was only too appropriate, for Gertrude’s first memory is of her older brothers trying to rape her:
I was lying on my back on the hard, dirt floor of the stalls in my father’s horse lot. My hands were being held by my older brothers and my feet also, I think, and the great weight on my body seemed about to crush me. God, what an awful thing! Would the consciousness, the struggle for breath, which seemed about to be pressed out in case my frame broke in, my ribs stuck into my entrails and heart, ever return! Thus was I first made conscious. The rest was only a dark whirl; perhaps the wind was blowing, and it seems to me now there was laughter. My oldest brother, then about sixteen years old, though he was very small for his age, was trying to have sexual intercourse with me, although I was only about four years old at the time.
She follows up with a description of her own early fascination with copulation, which is just as unsparing, casually admitting that she and her younger brothers enjoyed “watching and talking about animals in their sex acts, and…I was quite as interested in our childish efforts at sexual intercourse as they were.” That degree of honesty is Beasley’s mission throughout the book. She addresses every physical sensation, including the “contraction or movement in the region of my sexual organs, which was nothing more or less than sex desire,” and moments of corresponding guilt or shame.
After the umbrage of her opening, she records her consciousness of physicality in a remarkably matter-of-fact manner. She notes as well the process of learning to suppress such feelings, beating down sensual daydreams with “mental blows like those of my father’s sledgehammer against the anvil.” She candidly acknowledges having a score to settle with her brothers yet relates their escapades in the same tone that she uses to describe church meetings. When her mother whipped one brother for having sex with a cow or another for making free with the hens, leaving “their rectums torn and bleeding,” it was just another day in the life.
What’s more, she refuses to make a joke of herself or the grotesqueries of her family, and her direct tone prevents this book from becoming a forerunner to the weird American vogue for comedies about enormous broods, such as the 1940s best sellers The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald’s rural memoir in which the fecund couple are the hillbillies Ma and Pa Kettle, and Cheaper by the Dozen by the siblings Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, retailing life among a family of twelve. Fascination with profuse human litters continues today, with reality television gawking at the Duggars, a Baptist family in Arkansas, in 19 Kids and Counting. That show, as Beasley herself could have predicted, was canceled after it emerged that their eldest son had sexually molested some of his sisters.
At a time when large farming families were still common, Beasley was mortified by the size of hers and especially by their vulgarity of speech and behavior. Despite the presence here of western elements—covered wagons and dryland farming—this family had none of the modest airs and graces of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s. Lucy, Beasley’s ma, constantly raged over her husband’s failure to provide, because Beasley’s pa, like Wilder’s, wasn’t much of a farmer. His daughter recalls his griping about the grass being “too dry, or the summers too hot, or the cotton crop too little…. Something or other was always wrong with the big central taps of the resources of life.” This pa drank; he played the fiddle missing three fingers from his left hand after blowing them off with a six-shooter, and he had a habit of expectorating on the walls and urinating outside the front door. He regularly abused his children and livestock, whipping an old mare with a chain until one of her eyes popped out, beating his sons “with as little concern as though they were cast iron,” flaying a daughter until she defecated blood.
On several occasions he struck or choked his wife, and Lucy, for her part, delivered “slaps and thrashings” to the children. Not without reason, Lucy was “obsessed,” according to her daughter, with the notion that her husband intended to kill her. After the birth of their tenth child, she begged him to desist, whereupon he denounced her in terms the current Texas legislature would surely admire: “There’ll be more wimmen in hell for trying to keep from having babies than for any other one thing.”
It was Lucy Beasley’s exhaustion, fearing that she would die if she had any more children, that precipitated the breakup of the family. After recovering from her thirteenth birth (it emerged later that she had also had three abortions, though we never hear the details), Lucy prevailed on two of the older girls to sleep in bed with her, guarding against further marital duties with a poker and a shovel. Not long after, she and the children left her husband on the farm, ostensibly to pick cotton for the season, promising to return. Instead, borrowing money to supplement the cotton proceeds, she bought a small house in Abilene, moved the children there, and filed for divorce, an act considered so shocking in the community that Gertrude could not bring herself to say the word even as an adult. In response to questions, Lucy and her children would imply that William Beasley had died, saying, “He is not living,” a euphemism for “He is not living with us.” While her ex-husband was still alive, Lucy described herself on one census form as widowed.
A year or so after the split, the household was again thrown into turmoil: Lucy received an urgent call saying that Willie, the eldest daughter, was “dying” in a town twenty miles away. It transpired that she was actually giving birth in a house of prostitution, having sought shelter there after being “ruined” by a man who had promised to marry her. She and the “bastard” were instantaneously banished by Lucy, amid loud laments that the family was now “disgraced.”
While relaying these tumultuous scenes, Beasley begins to analyze her intense physical and emotional sensitivity, ranging from tears and trembling to “nervous prostrations” and delirium, a fear that her body might fall “into pieces.” She attributes her nerves not only to the mayhem at home but to her will to succeed in school, an ambition she steeled herself to pursue even when it exposed her to the mockery and jealousy of her siblings, none of whom shared it.
The family’s financial situation grew perilous, with Lucy peddling vegetables from a cart, taking in boarders, and sending her children out to pick berries or cotton, exposing her daughters to further sexual harassment. The Beasley girls were fondled or molested by males aside from their brothers, including a preacher and the one-armed proprietor of the berry-picking operation, who tried to rape Gertrude’s older sister Emma in the middle of the night, excusing himself (after she threatened to “knock hell out of him”) by recalling the eldest sister’s degradation.
The word “whore” assumed immense power in their lives. At eleven or twelve, Beasley found herself practically paralyzed by shame, waiting inside the school outhouse with her teacher to use the “privy,” when she spotted a fresh obscenity carved in large letters on a wooden seat: “Fuck me you whoar.” Teacher or whore seemed to be the two likeliest roles available to her. Given her mother’s travails, the third option, wife and mother, had no appeal. In later life, despite temptation, she adamantly refused to allow any of her many suitors to so much as kiss her. “All the trouble in the world came through kissing,” she writes.
Beasley’s pursuit of an education was an epic task of physical heroism, conducted amid the domestic equivalent of the Augean stables. As a young child, she was assigned to do the “disgusting washing” for her two next-youngest siblings:
I had stood over whole tubfuls…and shaken off the worst in the water; then secured a tub of clean water and continued until the baby’s diapers were rid of all their dung and ready to be washed with the other things.
Until the age of twenty-two, she “consumed all my surplus energy” in such perpetual household tasks, washing and ironing before breakfast, after school, and on Saturdays. “How much I have washed!” she cries at one point. Her hatred of her older brothers was intensified by their refusing to help, even when out of work.
Keeping up with her studies alongside such labors led to breakdowns: fits of weeping and a delirious collapse at a school graduation exercise. Nonetheless, she pressed on, winning a scholarship to attend a Christian academy, earning her first teacher’s certificate at seventeen, and completing a bachelor’s degree at Simmons, a local college. By the time she was twenty, she was the chief financial support of the family, teaching in tough rural schools, proving her mettle by whipping a seventeen-year-old boy for “making obscene pictures.”
At twenty-one she moved to Chicago, where she spent five years teaching and studying for a master’s degree in education at the University of Chicago. There she heard Margaret Sanger speak on contraception and the birth control movement, becoming an acolyte. When she learned that an older sister was expecting, she was apprehensive, writing that “it was a terrible thing to bring a human being into the world under any circumstance; a tragedy, yes, a crime to bring one unloved, unwanted.”
In other ways she was not progressive: racist attitudes she absorbed as her mother’s child (Lucy was raised on an Alabama plantation where her father was the overseer) were challenged by friends and fellow students when she saw fit to defend the Texas taste for mob violence, earning her the nickname “Lyncher.” “Ain’t your people civilized yet?” one asked, and she decided to adopt northern ways “in Yankee land,” jumping into a swimming pool with “negro girls.” It’s unclear, however, how open-minded she became.
Even as she achieved success, she railed against authority, denouncing the Chicago School System, where she taught, as “a perfect hell of lies and stupidities,” symptomatic of larger evils. “America is the land of murderous institutions,” she wrote, throwing her lot in with the Socialists. In 1919, after earning her master’s degree, she went to teach in Bellingham, Washington, and promptly offended the president of her school by publishing an article in The Seattle Times criticizing teachers’ low salaries. The editorial listed many jobs requiring less training that paid more, including waitressing and bricklaying.
The official retaliated by telling her she was “out of harmony” with the school and calling her doctor (who once consulted for the school) to inquire about her health. Having previously seen the physician about her difficult periods, she began to fear gossip about the state of her “genital organs” or “sexual virtue.” Enraged, she browbeat the president right back, shaming him for “his nonsense” and emerging victorious, with her job, if not her privacy, intact.
On June 23, 1920, she sailed for Japan and went on to China and Korea, writing as a freelancer. There’s no explanation of why or how her “dream” of world travel evolved, and she ends her account abruptly, on a wistful ellipsis, betraying a surprisingly conventional hope: “A secret wish hid in my heart; I hoped I was going to find someone…” There are few memoirs one wishes were longer, but this is one. It was composed at least in part in Soviet Russia (where she also wrote about policies on contraception for Sanger’s Birth Control Review), and in her book, which actually covers twenty-seven years, she reveals little more about her travels and nothing about her later journalism career.
One distinction of My First Thirty Years lies in Beasley’s devotion to accurately recording a portrait of the mother–daughter relationship in all its emotional weathers, its dark frustrations and disappointments, its seasons of helpless love and nostalgia when she and her sisters found a cozy refuge with their remaining parent, listening to Lucy wax sentimental over her southern childhood. Herself a victim, Lucy had nonetheless often tormented her children, telling them they were just like their father. In moments of distress, she acted like an animal, “hissing” and “rearing and pitching,” invoking vermin to berate them: “toad frogs” and fleas.
Losing her fear of Lucy as an adult, Gertrude yearned to rescue her, vowing that she would tell her mother’s story. In what must have been one of their last meetings, she squired Lucy around Chicago, embarrassed by her friends’ astonishment at the older woman’s uneducated talk, then ashamed of herself. “How I ever dared to be critical of a woman whom life had hurt and scarred as it had hurt my mother was incomprehensible,” she writes. She marveled, too, at how her sensitivity to Lucy had shaped her own personality, observing that there “was something inside me that looked just like my mother.”
In a harsh irony, Beasley’s fate may have been sealed by repeating her mother’s gossip. Recalling Lucy’s mockery of a Baptist pastor who appeared in their down-at-heels Abilene neighborhood “to preach to the washerwomen and the prairie dogs,” Beasley casually notes in her memoir that Lucy suspected a friend’s mother, Mrs. Paxton, of fooling around with the pastor. Her friend’s sister, Mildred Paxton, would marry a powerful lawyer, Dan Moody Jr. By 1925, when Beasley’s book came out, Moody had become the attorney general of Texas. Two years later, Beasley found herself in a contretemps in London that saw her briefly institutionalized there.
According to Bert Almon, a Texas scholar who researched the suppression of Beasley’s book for This Stubborn Self: Texas Autobiographies (2002), British customs seized proofs of her book, which they characterized as “grossly obscene”; she was arrested in August 1927 after deliberately breaking the window of a hotel from which she was being evicted. Released, she sailed for New York, writing a paranoid letter to the US State Department while on the boat, claiming there was a conspiracy to have her “executed.” She then ended up in the asylum. By that point, Moody was the governor of Texas.
She died in 1955, at the age of sixty-three, in obscurity. In 2018 The New York Times published a belated obituary in its Overlooked No More series, referring to Almon’s suggestion that Moody may have been responsible for an “unofficial interdiction” of her book. In the 1940s Texas Rangers did detain a bookseller for selling a copy to the University of Texas library. Lucy had begged her family never to reveal their shameful sexual secrets, and the book’s revelations apparently upended all of their lives. The year it appeared, Lucy moved from Abilene to California. It’s hard to believe the timing was an accident.
The West as hell on women and horses emerges as a theme in Robin McLean’s stunning debut novel, Pity the Beast. The hero of our “garish and transient frontier fiction,” as R.W.B. Lewis once wrote, is the American Adam, a conception expanding on Crèvecoeur’s definition of the continent’s “new man,” a breed born into a world without aristocracy, forging the principles of freedom. So what happens when Eve takes the reins? Can she ever enjoy such freedom? That’s a question posed by this revisionist western. It opens with a long first section culminating in perhaps the most memorable gang rape since the Sabine women.
Pity the Beast does not take place in Beasley’s Texas but might as well. The time is an eternal present; the setting is somewhere remote out on the range, near the fictional Mormora Mountains. It begins with a timeless scene, a man excoriating his wife for being unfaithful: “You fucked me over. You fuckin’ fucked me over.”
That’s Dan. They’re in the barn, and Dan’s wife, Ginny, is tending to a pregnant mare whose water has just broken. The mare is in trouble because she too has had illicit sex (at the same time as Ginny) with a Percheron, a breed of heavy draft horse originally bred for war. This Percheron, owned by Shaw, a neighbor and Ginny’s lover, is so big that the small mare, bought at a cannery auction, may be killed by the size of the foal she’s about to deliver. The birth is thus a bitter reminder of Ginny’s infidelity, the hottest gossip in town. The couple have been together for twenty years; sentiment is running heavily against the cheater.
Dan leads the horse up a hillside to the shade of a lone oak, a spot overlooking Shaw’s land and the Percheron’s paddock. There, for the next sixty pages, Dan and Ginny continue their argument. The mare struggles to give birth to a dead foal; by the time it has left her body, she’s unable to stand. Together, the couple carry the dead foal to an offal pit and hurl it in.
At the oak, others arrive, bearing liquor: Ginny’s venomous half-sister, Ella, who sees herself as the good woman; Ella’s husband, Saul; an array of neighbors who’ve heard about the mare’s plight; a guy with a pistol; a mule skinner; a rodeo kid. Over the course of the afternoon, they drunkenly try to bring the mare to her feet by lifting her with ropes tied to the oak; by evening, they’ve constructed a bizarre wooden contraption to support her with a sling.
The scene turns into a picnic, then a party, then a melee. The sisters bicker; Ginny smacks Ella. When the more benign guests depart and the day’s drinking takes effect, an angry knot of Ginny-haters gathers around a bonfire, embroidering elaborate images of her sexual crimes in graphic language that excites them: “Screwing…groping and sucking…dripping and moaning.” Her face, one man suggests, “is sin.” Egged on by Ella, Dan drags Ginny behind the oak, rapes her, beats her unconscious, and the remaining men, including Saul and the rodeo kid, take their turns. Then they drag her body to the pit, throw her in, and shovel lime on top.
Ginny, however, is not dead. By dawn she has regained consciousness and manages to climb out by creating a staircase of calf carcasses. Putting a merciful bullet in the mare’s temple, Ginny takes off into the mountains on a cob, pursued by Ella, Saul, Dan, the mule driver with his string of mules, and a tracker. They’re intent on killing her to cover up their crime; she’s intent on wreaking vengeance on them. A greenhorn deputy from New Jersey follows their trail, and so does the rodeo kid.
It’s a slow-motion chase, the stuff of westerns from time almost-immemorial, or at least since The Searchers (1956), but as it develops, we take a sharp turn into experimental metafiction, as the author begins self-consciously parodying the genre itself. Ginny, who we learn is the sixth in a line of women named Virginia, may be a reference to the first western novel, Owen Wister’s 1902 The Virginian, and to “virgin,” which Ginny is not. In westerns, as in the Bible, women require constant sexual classification and, if warranted, elimination. These searchers conclude that Ginny deserves to die: “Adam would have dropped Eve in a pit too.”
Things get murky. The narrative is soon littered with Ella’s numbered “Mule Thoughts,” written in a notebook; the doomed deputy’s postcards to his mother; and stage directions revealing that the rodeo kid is a stock figure: “Ain’t it time for another rip-roaring episode of The Long Trail of That There Kid?… Starring the kid as THE KID.” There are science-fiction passages, too, introducing geological deep time, notes from a post–climate crisis future when shallow seas have again flooded parts of the West and biologists are attempting to reintroduce a giant race of mules, beginning with “Adam” and “Eve.”
The whole thing eventually devolves into Quentin Tarantino–style violence, but it’s those first hyperrealistic sixty pages that stay with you, an opening so arresting that it stands apart and unbalances the rest of the novel. The rape in Pity the Beast takes up the problem of the whore, stretching back in an unbroken line through Western life and literature. Beasley knew the power of such epithets, lasting “far beyond childhood.” The issue is ubiquitous in the genre and beyond. Cormac McCarthy’s men are beset by “Goddamn whores.” McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, probing Hollywood sentimentality, ends on the word, a whispered explanation for the suicidal burning of the town saloon by a man torn by lust and self-loathing: “The woman. They say he missed that whore.”
That’s a line harking back to John Ford’s seventeenth-century revenge tragedy ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the Renaissance handbook on women’s vile “hot itch” and “belly-sports.” And farther, as McLean implies, to the Bible, which is full of whores and what they deserve. Pity the Beast, at its best, suggests that women have always been the half-dead horse men beat because they hate themselves for being animals.