As a mother, after the murder:
After the acquittal, her four children returned to school. Aside from their regular classes there were now new lessons to learn. The geography of guilt, for instance. The teasing crossed the known frontiers. No, said their classmates, we won't come to your house to play. If we do, your mom might burn us up.
Francine Hughes thinks her children haven't told her the crueler things their classmates said.
After the trial was over, she spoiled her children for a time. Naturally they were irritated when she married again and their stepfather began to post the assignments for the daily chores on the door of the refrigerator. Christy, her eldest daughter, is 16 and wants never to be married; at that age, Francine already was.Her eldest son Jimmy is in counseling now. At 14, his rages form like black clouds, seeded, says his mother, by his own remorse. I wish you were dead, he used to scream at his father.
The younger children, so young then that even a day could drown the voices of the past, seem to have forgotten. Nicole, her youngest, was 6 at the time of the trial and the day after the acquittal, she asked her mother why she did it. Francine doesn't remember what she answered. She remembers they both cried.
The tears were lost among the feminist cheers: Francine Hughes became something of a symbol on that day, three years ago. She was "the beaten wife who rebelled," as she is described in the subtitle of the book that contains her life's story. The rebellion claimed a life -- her husband Mickey's life. He was sleeping in his bed when she set it on fire.
As a mother, before:
It was just that the children hadn't eaten all day, that was all. It wasn't as if she made TV dinners every night or even often, but that night she thought it would be quicker. "No-good slut," he said, when he saw what she was serving. "I told you you weren't fixing TV dinners, and you ain't gonna."
He threw the food on the floor. He forced her to clean it up. As soon as she had finished, he threw it on the floor again. He rubbed the ruined dinner in her hair. "If you think things were bad before," he told her, "they're gonna be worse now. I'm gonna make your life so miserable. . ." She could see what he meant.
As a daughter, before:
She was born in 1947. She was named for a French chanteuse who was singing on the radio as her mother sat dreaming of her unborn child. If the past is to be searched for the roots of her actions, then it would have to be said that her father drank and that he beat her mother. Her father died of natural causes. Her mother, she remembers, taught her much of what it meant to be a good wife. "She said that you did what was best for your husband. She said that if you had to pick up and leave, then you picked up and left and that was that." Her own daughter, she says, would laugh at such advice.
As a daughter, afterward:
"Right after the trial, I moved back in with my mother, I became very dependent. I would poke my head out very nervously when the mailman came. I would stay very close to her. If my mother wasn't right there next to me while we were shopping, I panicked. I would shout, 'Mom, Mom, where are you?' I realized then that the kids and I would have to move out on our own."
As a woman, posing for her picture:
Her blouse is ice-blue. Her eyes are ice-brown. Her blouse shines. Her eyes are opaque.If her mind is a harbor, the harbor is mined. Her features protect her; eyes, lips, mouth, brow, they blockade her thoughts. She sips water, smokes cigarettes.
As a wife, before:
Francine Moran married Mickey Hughes on Nov. 4, 1963. The beatings began with the honeymoon. She wore the clothes she always wore, but he said the blouse was too revealing, tucked into her ski pants that way, and he tore them both to pieces.
It got worse, of course. He ran around with other women, he was always drunk, he lost the few jobs he bothered to look for. Sometimes there was nothing to feed the babies but a little jelly dissolved in water. She and the older kids ate popcorn. When the look in his eyes grew cold and mean she ran to his parents' house or called the police for protection. It had little effect.
Nevertheless, she stayed.
"The first time it happens [the first time she was beaten], there's shock and hurt. For a long time I took it because I thought that's what you're supposed to do. I thought, 'What did I do wrong?' Then you lose your self-esteem. I was a beaten-down, scared animal. There was no help. I thought, 'It doesn't matter to anyone. It's just something I have to accept.'
"You get into a situation like that," she adds, "and there is a way in which two people can get addicted to each other. The things that happen between them become a habit, a way of life. No other way seems to exist."
As a wife, after:
She describes her second husband as a strong man, "with an inner kind of strength. We can talk about anything and we do. I used to be afraid to open my mouth. Now I put in my two cents' worth whenever I please. I'm learning how to say what I feel when I feel it. But I come from a part of the country that still thinks a woman's place is in the home, you know, barefoot and pregnant. I get very defensive when I hear things like that."
Their relationship is limned in commonplace pleasures. "We go dancing, we go to dinner, in the summers, we went fishing and swimming. We like to do a lot of different things. I'm still learning about different things. The things I missed."
As a feminist symbol, after:
After the trial, she felt guilty "that there were these other women killing their husbands and that I was to blame. I kept thinking, 'Could I have done something different? Why did I have to do that?'"
There were those who, at the time of the trial, saw her on the barricades, a representative of oppressed women everywhere. "I thought that was kind of funny," she says. "I don't know what they expect of me. I was just a housewife then. And I'm just a housewife now."
As the ex-wife of Mickey Hughes:
She refers to her husband as "him," as in, "I don't have any emotions at all about him. I did when he was alive, I thought, 'He's missing out on so many things.'" She doesn't speak his name. She refers to the fact of her burning him to death as "it," as in, "It happened. It's over. I'm certainly not going to dwell on it."
As she was, the moment before:
"I was as calm as though I were doing an ordinary thing," she told the author of "The Burning Bed." "I felt very light, clear-headed, free. This was the easiest thing I had ever done. I picked up the gas can and unscrewed the lid and went into the bedroom. I stood still for a moment, hesitating, and a voice urged me on. It whispered, 'Do it! Do it! Do it!' I sloshed the gasoline on the floor. If I saw Mickey lying there, I don't remember it. I don't believe I looked at him at all."
As she was, the moment after:
"Only then did it hit me. 'My God, what are you doing!' The fumes of gas caught with a roar and a rush of air slammed the door with tremendous force, almost catching my hand.
"I ran for my life."