In the 1920s, a young woman from Abilene shocked the world with her tell-all memoir—and then mysteriously vanished.
In 1987, my mother received a letter from Larry McMurtry inquiring about an obscure Texas author named Edna Gertrude Beasley, and another family obsession was born. My mother, Alice W. Specht, dean of libraries at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, and my father, Joe Specht, then director of the McMurry University library across town, love to investigate historical and literary puzzles most people couldn’t give a damn about, including my childhood self. I endured countless family dinner conversations hijacked by these enigmas, the sterling spoons on the wall holding more interest to me than their bibliographic ramblings. This mystery turned out to be different.
According to my mother, McMurtry’s letter “was the first time the world knew there was a mystery as to the ultimate whereabouts of our Beasley,” an alumna of Hardin-Simmons. Here is what was known at the time: Gertrude Beasley’s memoir of growing up dirt poor in and around the Bible Belt town of Abilene, My First Thirty Years, was released in 1925 by Contact Press in Paris. That’s the same press that published James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. H.L. Mencken hailed Beasley’s book as one of the best coming-of-age books ever and “the first genuinely realistic picture of the Southern poor white trash.”
Despite these accolades, her memoir is largely unknown. Its violent and sexually deviant material caused it to be banned in Britain, where Beasley was living at the time. Most copies were destroyed by Scotland Yard and U.S. Customs. The few that made it to Texas were mostly yanked off shelves by the Texas Rangers, probably on the orders of prominent Texans maligned in her book. Then the author vanished. She was 35.
My First Thirty Years was Beasley’s only work, but it stands the test of time. In his letter, McMurtry writes that her memoir “is one of the finest Texas books of its era; in my view, the finest.” On the letter’s envelope is a penciled question scribbled by my mother: “Cut the pages?” The originals of Beasley’s book were printed in hand-pressed style, so my mother had to slice the leaves open to discover the reason Beasley was one of the first female American writers to be banned. “Thirty years ago,” it begins, “I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in a sexual act of rape, being carried during the prenatal 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.”
My mother told me, “At first I wondered if this was someone who’d gone off to Europe and was writing about walking to school uphill both ways. But it rang true.”
On the second page, Beasley recounts her first memory, age 4: An older brother holds her down in the horse stall attempting to rape her. As the memoir progresses, her sister is fondled by a circuit preacher, another sister is beaten by their father until she defecates blood, and a brother is whipped for being “caught in the barnyard with the old cow.”
It’s not all sensationalism. The book is primarily about the hardscrabble and intelligent author attempting, and often failing, to retain her dignity as she strives to overcome the hardships of her roots. Beasley’s mother eventually divorces her father—unheard of at the time—and moves to Abilene, where she hopes to get her 13 children an education. Only Gertrude is interested. She writes that “it was like cutting me with a knife to say that I could not go to school.”
She teaches while earning her bachelor’s degree from Hardin-Simmons, writing that “my various ambitions … incapacitated me for supplying my quota of seven sons and six daughters.” Eventually she enrolls in graduate school at the University of Chicago, where she attends lectures by luminaries like Margaret Sanger, Alice Paul and Emma Goldman. Beasley becomes a political radical herself, a socialist and supporter of women’s rights. My First Thirty Years ends with Beasley sailing off to Japan, where she writes for National Geographic and travels to places like China and Russia before publishing her autobiography and disappearing for good.
McMurtry had written letters to every Beasley he could find in West Texas phonebooks in a futile attempt to gather more information for the afterword he was writing to the Book Club of Texas’ reprinting of Beasley’s memoir. Could she still be alive? Had she written anything else? Nobody seemed to know.
My mother, who became what she calls “a trader of information” on Beasley, kept a file of what she and a few others turned up over the years: school records, passport photos, the article Beasley published on women’s birth control in Russia—where she claims Tsarist sympathizers were “as sterile and emasculated, socially and intellectually, as the average Southerner in America.” She earns a brief mention in the memoir of her publisher, Robert McAlmon. “Only two authors got ‘temperamental’ and they were both Gertrudes, Stein and Beasley.” My mother found clippings about Beasley’s deportation hearing in England and a letter she wrote to the U.S. State Department on Jan. 7, 1928, from a ship bound for New York. She complains about her treatment by British authorities, but still no sign of what became of her after that ship docked.
We developed our own theories, shots in the dark. “There’s a rumor she died in Russia because of her political activities,” my mother told me. “But I doubt it somehow.”
When I finally read My First Thirty Years around the time I turned 30 myself, I was surprised at how Beasley’s tales of Abilene reflected some of my own experiences growing up there in the 1980s.
Part of it is the texture of place: Beasley was fired from a drugstore, whose building still stands downtown, for serving ice cream to a “mulatto.” She talks about going to college on a streetcar whose track still existed on the avenue where I grew up. There, she listened to daughters of the wealthy, prominent Guitars and Paxtons chatting “like the clatter bone of a goose’s ass.” Beasley does not come off as warm-hearted. She repeats hearsay about adultery and other small-town hypocrisies. She is not afraid to name names or slander the powerful and influential. Could that have been the reason for her disappearance, I wondered? After her memoir was published, there must have been a lot of folks happy to see Beasley go silent.
Her descriptions of Abilene’s overwhelmingly religious atmosphere were laced with the eyebrow-raisings of a soon-to-be atheist. The pastor of a Baptist church convinced Beasley’s mother to send Gertrude to the local Baptist college. It’s the same church where I went for after-school care in elementary school—until I told my horrified parents that women who wanted abortions deserved to die in back-alley catastrophes. I chuckled in recognition as she recounted endless debates trying to reconcile evolution with the book of Genesis. Like me, Beasley was attracted to the leftists and rabble-rousers sprinkled into even the most conservative communities.
The book club’s reprint of My First Thirty Years aroused the interest of Don Graham, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, who included selections from the memoir in his Lone Star Literature: A Texas Anthology. Graham told me that after every public reading, a handful of women would come up to say they were buying the anthology for Beasley’s passages alone. Those passages inspired actor and native Texan Veronica Russell to put together a one-woman-play about Beasley called A Different Woman: A True Story of a Texas Childhood. “I’ve always had a soft spot for aggressively intelligent, anti-establishment types that go out of their way to be a thorn in the side of authority, and that pretty much describes our girl to a tee,” Russell says.
Beasley’s memoir is important as an historical, regional and feminist document. Graham argues the memoir contains some interesting literary firsts: “Beasley introduced the confessional memoir into Texas writing long before Mary Karr,” he says, “just as she introduced bestiality as fact and literary discourse thirty-six years before McMurtry came on the scene.”
Those are not the real reasons this memoir deserves to be more widely read. My First Thirty Years is a damn good book. The voice is compelling, dark and full of complex motives. The setting is vividly rendered, the dramatic moments heart-wrenching and bold. It transcends its time to tell us the still-relevant story of a woman overcoming often brutal circumstances in the search for a different way to live—even if her own success was partial.
In 2000, one of my mother’s Beasley collaborators brought her attention to a 1930 New York state census that had just been made public. It listed a Beasley in a Suffolk County mental institution. “But was it our Beasley?” my mother wondered. She inquired, but since she wasn’t family, the state refused to release more information. In 2008, a grandniece of Gertrude Beasley, having seen a column in the Abilene newspaper, contacted my mother wanting to know more about Beasley’s story. Together they obtained a copy of the death certificate from New York, and it became official: Edna Gertrude Beasley, “our Beasley,” was institutionalized 10 days after her ship landed in New York. She lived out her last 27 years in gulag conditions, until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1955. She was 63.
The grandniece and Beasley “friends” and family have since located her grave, marked only by a number, and erected a headstone there. While Beasley’s body may be at peace, her story isn’t. New York State will not release details of her commitment hearing, even to family. The question remains: How did she end up there? The family has found a dictation from one of Gertrude’s brothers claiming she was committed by William Randolph Hearst, for whom she briefly worked as a journalist, though the brother claimed “she was no more crazy than you or I.” My mother found no mention of Beasley in the Hearst papers at the University of California at Berkeley.
Maybe she was crazy. The letter she sent to the U.S. State Department from the ship is full of grandiose suspicions regarding “a conspiracy against myself.” Beasley also claims to be “completing a work which I believe to be one of the most significant of its sort ever written.” She accuses British police and “certain people in Texas” of trying to stop her. She implies that once she disembarks from the steamer, her life will be in peril. She was never heard from again. My mother says, “Is it paranoia if they’re really out to get you?”
Gertrude Beasley wrote about the hardships of her first 30 years, but we can’t begin to imagine what her last 30 must have been like. She wrote in her memoir that “it is perfectly clear to me that life is not worth living, but it is also equally clear that life is worth talking about.” It seems the only thing she held dear was wrenched away: the chance to keep telling her story.
There is a moment in My First Thirty Years when Gertrude’s mother catches a hummingbird feeding on their tin-canned flowers. Beasley calls it “her first impression of beauty.” Her mother promises that if they keep the hummingbird in a jar, it will sing. It never does.
In an article for Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, Beasley writes about her generation of women “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.” Watching the final stages of Beasley’s mystery unfold, I realized that while the Abilene she describes might have seemed a simulacrum to the city of my own youth, the 80 years separating us had made an enormous difference in the lives we lived there. My mother could become the dean of libraries because of hardships overcome by women like Beasley. Women like me inherited that privilege.
Mary Helen Specht teaches creative writing in Austin. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times. Find her on the web at maryhelenspecht.com.