40 years after burning bed, domestic violence issue still smolders

by | Apr 2, 2017 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

Francine Hughes Wilson, who inspired ‘The Burning Bed,’ dies at 69.

A woman named Francine Wilson was laid to rest in Alabama last week. She was 69. She died, according to those close to her, of complications from pneumonia.

Forty years ago, when she was Francine Hughes, she feared she would die from something else: an abusive husband. James (Mickey) Hughes had beaten and threatened his wife so regularly, in front of their children, for more than a decade, that one night, as he lay sleeping in a drunken stupor, she poured gasoline around his bed and set it on fire.

She then turned herself into the police.

The story, the case, the book and the movie that followed all became known as “The Burning Bed.” But a truer name would have been The Burning Relationship. Because that is what Francine was trapped inside.

And what so many women are trapped inside today.

Many things have changed since 1977, when this story made headlines in Michigan, where the Hughes family lived. Our energy sources have changed. Our technology has changed. Laws about hate crimes and gay rights have changed.

But one thing has not changed. Men still hit women. Men still physically and emotionally abuse women.

And women still feel trapped.

Too much violence

Consider these words from Francine Hughes to People magazine in 1984, seven years after a jury found her not guilty of her husband’s murder by reasons of temporary insanity.

“I learned that if I fought back, it only made him more angry. I thought, well, maybe I could kill myself. But then I thought, if I kill myself, who is going to take care of the kids? Nobody could love them like me. I would conjure up schemes about how I would sneak off to the airport with the kids and leave. But I would picture us sitting on a park bench with nowhere to go. Then I would get scared thinking about what he would do if he found me.”

You could cut and paste that sentence to many of the nearly 5 million women who are abused by an intimate partner every year in America. One in four U.S. women will experience such abuse in their lifetimes. Twenty-five percent? At a time when we consider ourselves so “enlightened” about our sensitivity?

Let’s be honest.

Violence toward women is an epidemic. Nary a week passes without some story about a high-profile athlete or entertainer accused of such abuse. And those only make news because of celebrity.

Slapping a woman. Punching a woman. Shoving a woman out a door or down steps. Making her feel that if she leaves, she’ll suffer. This happens so often in every city and town, there’s no percentage that can accurately measure it.

I’m not sure it’s any different now than it was in 1977. Or, for that matter, 1927. Men have been beating women since the day they realized they were physically larger and stronger. It just gets exposed more.

Which, in the end, is a good thing. And why the legacy of Francine Hughes is important.

Too much suffering

At the time Hughes killed her husband, women were still largely expected to “take it.” In the film version of The Burning Bed, Hughes’ own mother tells her “You make a hard bed, you have to lay in it.”

Hughes’ own father was abusive to her mother. She witnessed it as a child. And, as is often the case, despite the shame and horror, she saw the pattern repeated and even tolerated in her own home.

The Burning Bed case was a landmark decision in domestic violence. Not everyone agreed with the jury. Some claimed that Hughes got away with murder.

But her husband got away with something for years. Endless, irrational violence. It was endured, kept quiet, hidden away in a closet the way abused women sometimes have to hide in a closet themselves.

Only a burning bed, a burning body and a jury, which understood that years of physical and emotional torture will make a person snap, allowed this case to become an example.

Francine Hughes had dreamed of becoming a nurse, to help other people. After her trial, she later met and married a man who encouraged her and achieved that dream, living quietly with a new name for decades. But she died unable to say that her signature issue had been addressed.

It shouldn’t be that tough for men to stop beating women. And if we men can’t stop it, then someone else should. Francine Hughes found a desperate answer. But burning in flames can’t be the solution to violent abusers, no matter how much the image seems fitting.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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