Oneof the last things Gertrude Beasley wrote before her disappearance in 1927 was an article called ‘I Was One of Thirteen Poor White Trash’. It came out in Hearst’s International Cosmopolitan (which became Cosmopolitan) and was billed as ‘The personal Story of Edna Gertrude Beasley, who came from the WORST POSSIBLE environment and ACHIEVED international success’. In 1925, Beasley had published a memoir called My First Thirty Years with the Contact Press in Paris, now reissued in only its third edition (Sourcebooks, £12.30). For decades it has been almost impossible to find. In 1989, with Beasley’s fate still a mystery, Larry McMurtry encouraged the Book Club of Texas to bring out an edition of five hundred copies for which he wrote an afterword. Most of these are now in libraries in Texas. As early as 1934, Beasley’s original publisher, Robert McAlmon, was complaining that a rare book dealer was asking $40 for a copy of the book, which had been priced at $2.50. (Copies of the Texas Book Club edition occasionally surface, selling at $125 or higher.)

The memoir recounts Beasley’s difficult childhood and her triumphant escape. ‘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, 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.

This is the first paragraph. The second starts: ‘It is perfectly clear to me that life is not worth living, but it is equally clear that life is worth talking about.’ And talk she does. Beasley’s mother had a child every two years; there were also a few abortions. The mother (whose name is never given) took to keeping weapons by her bed to fend off her husband’s attentions. The family were tenant farmers and frequently on the move, something she at last escaped by taking off with her brood and setting up a boarding house in Abilene. ‘I assure you,’ Beasley writes (and we believe her), ‘there is nothing in the content of my early life which I should care to remember. I put it down here because I can’t forget it, and because I want to see what forms it will take as I talk about it.’

Beasley’s earliest memory was of being held down by several older brothers on the floor of a horse stall while the sixteen-year-old eldest (‘though he was very small for his age’) attempted to rape her. She was four years old. Each of her five older brothers tried ‘at one time or another’ to have sex with her, encountering varying degrees of resistance depending on whether it was one of the three nasty eldest boys or one of the two closest to her in age. With the latter she felt ‘no fear, only shame in case we should be found out’ and they explored ‘the field of sex together, watching and talking about animals in their sex acts’. When the mother gave birth to her eleventh child (‘a red, soft, little wad lay near her and wriggled a little’) Beasley became its nursemaid. She didn’t enjoy this role and resented being reminded that she was once the object of her older sisters’ care.

In addition to routine incest, various brothers were caught in acts of bestiality with farmyard animals (cows and hens) and beaten by their horrified mother. While Beasley’s father was still around he was affectionate with his small daughter, but ‘I knew that my father beat his animals unmercifully, a thing which terrified me; and that he sometimes beat my brothers with as little concern as though they were cast iron.’ The mother’s hatred for her husband, whom she eventually divorced, was based on his sexual demands and what she considered to be the Beasley clan’s inferiority to her own family. ‘He was one of the meanest men who ever lived,’ she said, and ‘the Beasleys is the sorriest people that God ever made.’ It was rumoured that there was a Native American connection in the family’s past (West Texas was still frontier country).

As soon as Beasley started school, a sporadic activity dependent on farming schedules, she proved a prodigy. Although religion played little part in her life or that of her family, she showed similar zeal at Sunday school. She was aware that knowing how to read and write would be her way out. Her parents’ divorce became a new source of shame, however, along with the reason for it: the simple fact of there being too many children. Beasley spent a lot of time trying to conceal the situation, dreading questions about how many siblings she had, or where her father was. She experimented with answering that her father was dead, but this brought another kind of shame and guilt. Her oldest siblings grew up and left home; a sister was found to have become a prostitute and given birth to an illegitimate child. Their father took her in, but this led everyone to assume the child was his. Various brothers disappeared or joined the army. The younger children were left to help their mother, who was gamely trying to make a living while inveighing against the world and her former husband.

Beasley had in the meantime attracted the notice of a wealthy woman, who arranged for her to get a scholarship to a local school. From here, things began to look up. She became a rural schoolteacher – managing her pupils with the aid of a familiar brutality when necessary – and got a degree from Simmons College in Abilene as well as a Master’s in education from the University of Chicago.

Beasley was interested in socialism and feminism, attending lectures by Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. Contraception, then illegal, was a cause she took up with particular enthusiasm. She herself was ambivalent about sexual relations. She describes falling for various boys and young men, receiving several offers of marriage which she skittishly rejected. The only man she found herself able to accept turned out to have a wife and children. Her book ends with her leaving Vancouver on 23 June 1920, on board the Empress of Japan, with a secret wish in her heart: ‘I hoped I was going to find someone.’

She spent five years abroad, working as a journalist for National Geographic and the Nation; she lectured in China (where she met Bertrand Russell) and wrote articles for Italian publications, travelled to Japan and the Soviet Union, and lived in London. We are told on the first page of My First Thirty Years that she began writing the book in Moscow. She later travelled to Paris, where she met Robert McAlmon who encouraged her to finish her memoir, which he promised to publish.

McAlmon notes in his own memoir, Being Geniuses Together (1938), that the only authors who ‘got “temperamental”’ with him were the two Gertrudes, Stein and Beasley, ‘both megalomaniacs with an idea that to know them was to serve them without question in all their demands’. (There is some misogyny in this: it’s hard to believe that Hemingway and Pound were docile and self-effacing; in any case, Stein and Beasley had their reasons for being prickly.)

The frankness of the account and the timing of its publication – between the scandals of Ulysses in 1922 and the appearance of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Well of Loneliness in 1928 – meant that My First Thirty Years inevitably attracted the attention of censors in Britain and America. In November 1925 Janet Flanner’s Paris dispatch for the New Yorker discussed the brouhaha caused by Beasley’s ‘naughty’ book: ‘It is perfectly frightful, unless viewed by a cold scientist, which I am not; and it is supposed that it will have a nauseous circulation in America, clandestine of course.’ Flanner concluded by noting that ‘the book is undoubtedly an amazing one on the score of accuracy and fluent style.’ Sylvia Beach pronounced it ‘anything but dull’. It was reviewed in the American Mercury by H.L. Mencken, who observed that no home publisher could have risked publication, adding: ‘This is freely speaking, surely, but only a Comstock, reading it, would mistake it for an attempt at pornography.’ It was, he said, ‘as overwhelmingly real as a tax bill’.

Three hundred copies were seized by American customs, and more in the UK. Russell later wrote that he

knew a lady from the rural South of the United States who wrote an autobiography which I read in typescript. It was a serious work telling of undesirable conditions which ought to be known. The work was accepted by a Paris publisher who sent the proofs to her in England. She never received the proofs, but instead had a visit from Scotland Yard officials threatening her with prosecution for obscenity on the sole ground that she had related facts which the police thought ought to be kept dark.

It was at this point that Beasley vanished.

In 2008 Alice Specht, a librarian at Beasley’s alma mater (now called Hardin-Simmons University), discovered what had happened. In 1927, after the police had tried unsuccessfully to have her deported for having written ‘an indecent book on American life’, Beasley smashed a window with an umbrella during an altercation with a policeman who was trying to evict her from her lodgings in London. She was arrested and committed to the mental ward of Holborn Hospital, then turned over to the American authorities on condition that she left the UK. On the ship back to the US she wrote a letter to the State Department claiming that people in Texas and England were conspiring to destroy her. When she arrived in New York she was committed to the Central Islip Psychiatric Centre. All that is known of her last thirty years is that she died of pancreatic cancer at 63 and was buried in the grounds of the asylum.

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