Feministing Reads: George Hodgman’s Bettyville

In tender and often hilarious prose, George Hodgman’s memoir, Bettyville (Viking, March 2015), describes his experience moving from Manhattan to his hometown of Paris, Missouri, to live with his aging and ill mother, Betty. Hodgman, a writer and former Vanity Fair editor who spent much of his career in New York, chooses to transform his life by becoming his mother’s primary caregiver.

In addition to being a heartwarming read, Hodgman’s memoir is deeply relevant: Currently there is increasing attention to the needs of elder care workers, and policy changes are slowly beginning to reflect those needs. My Feministing review of activist Ai-jen Poo’s book, The Age of Dignity, highlighted the struggles of those who care for aging family members — and the many ways in which society has rendered their contributions invisible.

Hodgman’s depiction of his mother and his relationship with her as she ages mirrors many of the stories Ai-jen Poo shares in The Age of Dignity – particularly the helplessness both caregivers and recipients of care tend to feel.

bettyvilleHodgman writes, “I am never certain quite what I will wake up to. Recently, as she was preparing for our daily walk, I discovered her trying to put her socks on over her shoe. This interlude, I know, cannot last….Soon she will need more than I can provide, but she is not ready to give up. Despite her vision, her fading hearing, her stomach problems, and the rest, she tries to hold on in this place that is so familiar, her home.”

Hodgman’s story about his mother reveals the desperation elders often feel to stay in their own homes as they age. And the fear of being pushed into a nursing facility — abandoned — is ever present. During a visit to an elder care facility, Betty becomes deeply distrustful of her son. “I kiss her head, but she pulls away….I realize she believes I have brought her here to abandon her. This is actually what she thinks. She believes I want to run away and leave her. Clearly I am, in her mind, the Joan Crawford of elder care….Of all the changes that have transpired in my mother, it is this new belief that I should give everything up to stay with her that is the most surprising. This tells me just how worried she is, how much she cannot bear to leave her home.”

The glaring difference between Hodgman’s story and trends among care workers we see today is that he is a man taking on a caregiving role. It is typically women who take on caregiving roles for their own family members. And the vast majority of all domestic workers are women; many are women of color or women who have migrated from other parts of the world. These are workers whose labor has long been culturally and politically invisible. Globally, women have little agency or choice in whether they become caregivers. The job is a means of survival.

By contrast, it seems that Hodgman’s proactive decision to move to his hometown and care for his mother is a way to render himself invisible, in part to get away from the gay dating scene he experienced in Manhattan. Hodgman reveals that while he “has had loves you can’t quite put a label on,” he has never settled down. He has “reconciled” to being on his own. Moving from Manhattan to the rolling fields of Paris, Missouri may be the best way to fulfill that decision.

His sexuality is, however, a topic Hodgman and his mother never discuss. She does not accept, or even acknowledge, that he is gay. Yet he still devotes himself to caring for her, and his profound love for his mother despite their prickly dynamic is the heart of this memoir. It’s the kind of love that exists between caregivers and those in their charge: complicated, stifling, frustrating, and enduring.


Sheila is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family, was released by Ig Publishing in 2014 and chronicles the U.S. domestic workers' movement.

Sheila Bapat is reviewing books related to gender, domestic work, and economic justice for Feministing.

Read more about Sheila

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