For almost a century in Texas literary circles, Gertrude Beasley’s 1925 memoir My First Thirty Years has been more a legend than a book. Although it was published to a favorable review in the New Yorker and high praise from both preeminent American literary critic H. L. Mencken (“the first genuinely realistic picture of the Southern poor white trash”) and British Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell (“truthful, which is illegal”), the book was quickly banned in the U.S. and Britain and remained almost unobtainable for decades. The tangled history of My First Thirty Years, and Beasley’s horrific personal fate, are case studies in society’s merciless treatment of women of her era who gave voice to socially unspeakable truths. The memoir’s republication this month, which makes it widely available for the first time in 96 years, is a long-overdue moment of reckoning. It’s also a rich gift to the Texas literary canon.
Originally published by Contact Editions, the iconic Paris émigré press that also carried Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Beasley’s book brazenly advocates for birth control and socialism, both dangerous ideas in the 1920s. Her convictions stemmed from her experiences growing up in and around Abilene in a poor, dysfunctional family of thirteen children. Customs agents seized and destroyed much of the print run of My First Thirty Years on arrival in the U.S., and the book was banned with particular fervor in Beasley’s home state of Texas. The memoir discusses—with a frankness shocking in our era, let alone Beasley’s—marital rape, barnyard bestiality, and incest. It’s sometimes a queasy read, but also often a funny one, buoyed by Beasley’s self-searching voice and her acidic assessments of relatives, suitors, and anyone else who crosses her scorched-earth path through life.
Beasley’s book opens like a bat out of hell—or, if you will, out of the rolling plains of Texas. From the very first paragraph, readers can be sure that no punches will be pulled:
“Thirty years ago, 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 of 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.”
Beasley disappeared shortly after My First Thirty Years was published, and for decades nothing was known of her fate. Her memoir languished in deep obscurity, preserved in a few libraries, including at the University of Texas at Austin—although in 1941 a committee of the Texas legislature investigated the university’s acquisition of the book. (“There were folks here in Texas who tried their damndest to suppress it,” the book dealer who provided UT its copy, and whom the Lege hauled in for questioning, later said.)
Decades later, after the women’s liberation movement, My First Thirty Years enjoyed a minor renaissance. In 1989 Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, championed Beasley’s long-forgotten memoir, calling it the finest Texas book of its era and convincing the Book Club of Texas to produce five hundred copies for a high-end edition. This deluxe printing remained out of the price range of most readers. The great Texas literary critic Don Graham praised the memoir in Texas Monthly’s pages in 2000 and included an excerpt in his Lone Star Literature anthology in 2003. Most of those who know Beasley’s name today encountered her through that excerpt.
In the 1980s, spurred by a query from McMurtry, Abilene librarian Alice W. Specht went to work untangling the mystery of Beasley’s disappearance. Her daughter, Austin writer Mary Helen Specht, has written the gripping story of how the mystery was finally solved, in 2008. Long story short, in 1927, Beasley was run out of London, where she had been living, because Scotland Yard considered her book indecent and accused her of “sending improper matter through the mails.” She was loaded onto a transatlantic ship, where she penned an odd letter to the U.S. State Department claiming a conspiracy against her life by the British authorities and “certain people in Texas.” Days after she disembarked in New York, she was committed, most likely involuntarily, to Central Islip Psychiatric Center, a grim psychiatric asylum, since closed, which harkens back to a dark era of America’s treatment of the mentally ill—and of troublesome wives and daughters. Beasley remained confined in the hospital until her death 28 years later, at age 63.
It’s difficult from our present historical remove to know exactly why Beasley was locked away, or to say for sure who was behind it. There is the possibility that she suffered some sort of permanent psychotic break, and her rambling, paranoid letter from the ship makes this difficult to discount entirely. But there are many complicating factors that both explain her paranoia and make a case for false imprisonment.
Beasley was likely under police surveillance in Britain, and she may well have made enemies in the U.S., including the governor of Texas at the time, Dan Moody (1927–31), whose mother-in-law Beasley’s memoir implicates in an extramarital affair. Also, Beasley’s enthusiasm for socialism runs through the book, which provides a valuable illustration of how the ideals of leaders like Eugene V. Debs caught fire among the landless poor in places like West Texas in the first decades of the twentieth century. Public views of these ideals changed after the Russian Revolution and the First Red Scare in the United States, during which prominent socialists were jailed or deported. Beasley’s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, where she appears to have written some of the memoir, must have raised the eyebrows of authorities.
Beasley’s eagerness to tell secrets, including calling out rape, also put her in jeopardy in her era (or any era, really). She speaks bluntly about her older brothers’ assaults on her and her sisters—in fact, her first memory is of being molested by a brother. Nor does she shy away from allusions to her brothers’ experiments with the chickens and cows. (“I was just scared nearly to death before that old cow’s calf come . . . God, I didn’t know,” Beasley’s mother tells her at one point.) One imagines that Beasley had few, if any, defenders among her close relatives after the book was published.
Nina Bennett, the Dallas-based independent scholar who wrote the introduction to the new edition of My First Thirty Years, from the Illinois-based publisher Sourcebooks, points out that Beasley’s dismal portrayal of small-town and rural American pathologies cut against sunnier, more patriotic narratives of the era, like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books or Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations. Beasley tells the story of a neighbor’s suspected abortion, covered up by a story about a mishap with a dress pin. Later, in her twenties, she moves to Chicago, where, between work and classes, she organizes for Alice Paul’s Woman’s Party and goes to see Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, speak. “Mrs. Sanger was a woman who would have understood my mother, I am sure,” Beasley writes.
Beasley’s theme of the victimization of women by the men in their lives and by a broader patriarchal system might itself have contributed to Beasley’s institutionalization. “Those who called into question society’s inflexible ideas about how women ought to behave ran the risk of being declared insane and imprisoned in a lunatic asylum without recourse,” Bennett writes of Beasley’s era.
It should be noted here that Beasley’s sharp criticisms of patriarchy do not always extend to other aspects of American injustice in her era. Several times in the memoir, she repeats racial slurs that were no doubt ubiquitous in her upbringing, sometimes but not always with quotation marks or an explicit sense of disapproval. There’s a fraught scene in which she and her siblings worry over the possibility that they might have “Indian blood,” which would, in their view, mean they could never amount to anything. Suffice it to say that the book is an honest depiction of the life of a poor white family in Texas, with a keen critical perspective on the plight of women, and much less curiosity or empathy for the struggles of people of color. This is one reason among many that My First Thirty Years will never be taught in schools.
We may never know the full story behind her ghastly last decades of confinement, but Beasley’s unquiet ghost—outraged and fatally candid, but also trauma-stricken, ashamed of her origins, and confused between literary ambition and a desperate desire to be loved—lives on in the pages of My First Thirty Years. We watch her grow from a proud but nervous child into a rural Texas schoolteacher who could “fight her weight in wildcat” and brings a revolver to her classroom to fend off unruly teenagers; from a religious conformist who fakes being “saved” as a child to an adult atheist who sometimes prays for her mother in secret; and from a brownnosing student into an activist penning newspaper articles about labor issues in the teaching profession that nearly get her fired.
We never quite see the moment when Beasley shifts from quiet shame about her family’s dark secrets to a willingness to air them all in print, but there are a few hints. As she grows into an adult and finds herself the only sibling doing much to support her wretched mother, Beasley seems to discover an inner motivation more powerful than either shame or personal ambition. In one scene, her mother meekly shows her a manual on sex and childbirth that says it’s better for the baby if the parents are in love. The mother breaks down and says, “Ah, God, what a different woman I’d a-been if ennyone had cared for me.” Overcome with emotion, Beasley protests to her mother that she loves her, and she vows: “I will do something about it; I will tell, Mother; I will tell; I swear I will tell your story.”
For all the drama and tragedy in Beasley’s own life, it’s her mother who is in the end the best-drawn and most memorable character in My First Thirty Years. Beasley’s mother’s perseverance through birth after birth and scandal after scandal in her family—from a daughter’s out-of-wedlock child born in a brothel to her own divorce from an abusive marriage, after enlisting her daughters to sleep on either side of her to keep her husband from impregnating her with a fourteenth child—is like something out of a dark fairy tale. We are moved to ask, how could she have survived this awful life? But we know the answer—untold millions of women have, and still do, in societies without the sorts of recourses for women’s rights for which Beasley advocates. Reading My First Thirty Years, we can see that truth a little clearer, a little closer to home.
An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Silenced Voice of Texas Literature Is Finally Heard Again.” Subscribe today.