No other book in Texas literature is quite like Gertrude Beasley’s little-known memoir, My First Thirty Years. For one thing, it was published in Paris in 1925 by the avant-garde press Contact Editions, which included among its authors Ernest Hemingway, H.D., and Ezra Pound. Contact’s prime mover, Robert McAlmon, remembered Beasley in his own memoir of that era, Being Geniuses Together, as one of only two “temperamental” writers he had to deal with in those banquet years. The other was also named Gertrude, as in Stein.
From its first paragraph, Beasley’s book establishes itself as a provocative and highly subversive text: She recounts her birth as the violent outcome of marital rape by her father, whom she describes as a “monstrously cruel, Christ-like, and handsome man with an animal’s appetite for begetting children.” Things go downhill from there. Born into the trashiest family west of the Mississippi, Beasley grew up in West Texas—mostly near the thumpingly Christian burg of Abilene—and she was the ninth child, succeeded by “four round-faced mediocrities.” After the birth of her thirteenth child, “Ma” Beasley tells her husband, whom she despises, that “this is the last one” and eventually divorces him.
The Beasleys live from hand to mouth—the father never holds a steady job—and fight to present a respectable facade amid the chaos and disorder of a family in constant disarray. Beasley hates her brothers for their laziness, and she is unsparing in her depiction of their sexual assaults upon her and her sisters. What is perhaps most shocking, however, is her admission of her own sexual responses, inchoate and incomprehensible as her feelings were, to the crude gropings of her brothers. In the Beasley family sexuality knew no bounds. One scene describes the mother’s whipping of one of her sons because she “had caught him there in the barnyard with the old cow.”
What saved Beasley is what has saved many a miserable boy and girl living in poverty: education. Early on she evinced an insatiable intellectual curiosity and, by the age of seventeen, was accredited to teach elementary school. A few years later she graduated from Simmons College (now Hardin-Simmons University) in Abilene. She then left the state and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where she earned a master’s degree and listened to lectures by such “radicals” as Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman. My First Thirty Years ends with Beasley booking passage for Japan, and we know almost nothing about her life after the publication of her memoir. Unfortunately, copies of the book are hard to come by (the last edition was published in 1989, with a fine afterword by Larry McMurtry), but it is worth searching for, as Gertrude Beasley’s struggle to escape from her family, that “impossible outfit,” and to achieve a better life is powerfully told in a narrative that even now would be shocking to many citizens of West Texas.