Bettyville: A Book Review
Bettyville: A Memoir. George Hodgeman. New York: Viking Penquin, 2015. 278 pp.
Bettyville is an autobiographical story of one man’s navigation through what he refers to as “Bettyville.” “Bettyville” is a place both familiar and foreign to the author, George, that is more so the description of the mental and emotional places George resides through caring for a mother with dementia than a physical place. George begins his journey certain his trip will be short as he plans to sell the family home and place his mother in a facility. A week becomes and year and George soon finds himself a permanent resident of both “Bettyville” and the small town he abandoned years ago. Betty is insistent on being home and out of love and devotion George sets himself about becoming her primary caregiver. The story veers from traditional linear stories and bounces frequently between memories and moments often blurring the lines between the two. The book exhibits great balance between the highlighting the symptoms of dementia and how it affects those involved.
“I’ll Be Your Soldier” was song loved by the author during his time on Fire Island that signified staying or standing with a person through whatever troubles come, and seems to perfectly encapsulate the author’s journey through “Bettyville.” Bettyville’s dance between George’s childhood memories, his time as an adult struggling as a gay man, and the begrudging care of his aging mother covers what seems to be most every emotion from fondness to sadness with an underlying sense of anger at the disease that is slowly taking Betty away from them both.
George is a free lance editor who has spent his life in New York currently caring for his elderly mother suffering from “Dementia and maybe worse.” Betty is a 90-year-old widow who has spent her entire life in the small town of Paris, Missouri certain of who she is and what she wants. In contrast, George was a fifty-year-old gay man who spent his life struggling through broken relationships, feeling alone, and always wondering if his mother truly knew who he was; though he wasn’t quite sure himself. A loss of George’s job and surgery that hindered her caregiver Carol, lands the two reconnected in the home George grew up in, but this time roles were reversed.
Through both sadness and anger George shares moments with his mother that relate strongly to other texts regarding the signs and symptoms of Dementia. Flores and Ahmed (n.d.) report that Dementia has an uncertain beginning and progresses slowly, but is evidenced by a loss of memory and orientation, difficulties with word choices, and in the end impairs all mental functions. George speaks of small events that originally made him feel concerned for his mother, at times feeling that something was off but not being able to place it exactly. This is common with caregivers of those with Dementia, especially those who do not live together (Quadrango, 2014).
Betty was frequently frustrated by an inability to remember everything from words to events and people in her life. At points in the story she seemed almost obsessive over forgetting certain words such as “eggnog” or the names of hymns she played when she was young which is consistent with Quadrango’s (2014) description of Dementia including confusion and repetition. The book reminded me of my own experiences with my great grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and frequently forgot things almost as soon as you said them. I wasn’t very close to her so I could not relate to some of the more intense feelings George describes navigating as Betty’s caregiver, though I believe he did an excellent job describing them.
It is clear that both Betty and George realize that something is wrong, though they never speak about it. This same silence has been the cornerstone of their relationship, as they loved each other “in spite of” the contrast between the person they wanted one another to be and reality. For George, he longed for his mother to be the robust, energetic, and steadfast woman of his childhood instead of the frightened, frail, and ever disappearing old woman she had become. Betty had plans for her son, to marry and live a “normal” life that was squashed when he revealed himself to be a gay man. The lack of communication is something that most every reader can identify with.
As the story progresses dementia both draws them closer as Betty’s needs increase due to cancer, and pulls them farther apart as she struggles with known symptoms of dementia: Personality changes, being withdrawn, physically aggressive, sleep disturbance, fatigue, and obvious depression (Quadrango, 2014). Like many women, Betty has many people in her support network aside from George to help provide her with emotional and instrumental support, though George is her primary provider (Quandrango, 2014).
The book describes many occasions throughout George’s life when his interactions with his mother strengthened his resolve to be her “soldier” through the end rather than place her in a care facility. These support bank deposits allowed George to continue on as he struggled with his own anxiety, depression, and anger related to caregiver fatigue (Quandrango, 2014).
The story ends not with an explanation of how things ended with Betty but an imagined account of George’s own struggle with dementia in his last days. I really wish that there had been a conclusion to Betty’s story. I have a lot of questions like: Did George stay in Missouri or return to New York? Was Betty able to finish out her last days at home or did her cancer make her so sick she died in the hospital? Did Betty’s acknowledgement of his good care of her and her joking about him having a gay relationship with his doctor bring George any comfort in his final days or did he attribute the change to her Dementia?
Bettyville is an excellent depiction of the struggle to care for someone with Dementia. It summarizes both the joy and struggles of being able to help someone navigate their illness with tinges of sadness about what that illness steals. The signs and symptoms of dementia are accurately depicted while including their emotional and psychological impact on both the sufferer and their caregiver. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time yet never fails to convey the author’s intense devotion to his mother.
Flores, R., & Ahmed, N. (n.d.). Dementia: A brief overview. Retrieved from Houston Geriatric Education Center website: http://www.houstongec.org
Quadango, J. (2014). Aging and the life course: An introduction to social gerontology (6th ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.