For thirteen years, Francine Hughes’s husband, James (Mickey) Hughes, beat her routinely. Something as small as the inflection of a word would set him off: he’d pin her down in a chair and pummel her. They divorced in 1971, but, later that same year, he moved back in. “She did try to get away,” her son, James Hughes, remembers in “The Burning Bed,” a new short documentary from Retro Report. “But he would also tell her, ‘There is nowhere you can go, bitch, that I won’t find you.’ ”
One night, in 1977, Mickey subjected Hughes to a particularly humiliating beating. “Smashing food in the kitchen, dumping out the garbage, rubbing it into my hair, hitting me,” Hughes recalled in a television interview, years later. “I thought, I’m never coming back, never, and then I thought, Because there won’t be anything to come back to. That’s when I decided I would burn everything.” When Mickey fell asleep, drunk, that night, Hughes doused his bed in gasoline, lit it on fire, packed her four children into her car, and drove away as flames engulfed the house. Hughes was then charged with the murder of her ex-husband.
Hughes’s story has been told before—the new “Burning Bed” documentary borrows its title from the journalist Faith McNulty’s 1980 book about the Hugheses and from the 1984 TV-movie adaptation, starring Farrah Fawcett. The documentary emphasizes how groundbreaking Hughes’s case was. Lee Atkinson, who was an assistant prosecutor in her case, says that, at the time, police officers would not arrest someone for a misdemeanor unless they saw the crime committed. For Hughes, this policy meant that the police came to her house repeatedly and did not arrest Mickey. “Does she have bruises? Yes. Does she look like she’s been abused? Yes. The police will take a report, but they wouldn’t make an arrest,” he says. At a time when the criminal-justice system failed to deal with domestic violence because—as an “Evening News” broadcast put it—“traditionally, wife-beating has been considered a family affair,” Hughes’s case initiated a sea change, forcing a long-suppressed conversation about domestic violence in America.
In interviews for the film, Hughes’s lawyer recalls that, because Mickey had been asleep, “I did not think that I could convince the jury necessarily that she was not guilty because she was defending herself. So I used the temporary-insanity hook.” He invoked an idea that would come to be known as “battered-woman syndrome,” a term coined by the psychologist Lenore Walker, based on her research with abused women in the U.S. and the U.K. Walker identified an assemblage of psychological symptoms—fear, guilt, and denial—that occurs in victims of intimate-partner abuse. This combination, which has since been classed as a form of P.T.S.D., can make discerning the level of risk in a given moment amid an ongoing pattern of trauma difficult. The defense worked: Hughes was acquitted, in an unexpected victory for her and for the feminist movement.
The film follows the legacy of Hughes’s case, focussing on the ways that, despite changing the national conversation about domestic violence, her acquittal is still very much an outlier—the vast majority of women who kill their abusive partners are not acquitted. The documentary moves forward to 2005, when a Black Ohio woman, Thomia Hunter, was charged with the murder of her boyfriend. (Black women are abused—and incarcerated—at higher rates than white women, and those who fight back against their abusers face an uphill battle in the courts.) Hunter pleaded self-defense, having stabbed her boyfriend while he was choking her. But she was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison, her history of abuse hardly addressed at the trial.
In interviews for the film, the prosecutors in the two cases—both white men—make similar arguments: abuse is horrible, but women have “options.” This claim reflects the view that people in abusive relationships can simply leave. The truth is more complicated, and the perspective of Hunter’s lawyer, Tiffany Smith, who represents ten women who are incarcerated survivors of domestic violence, offers a corrective: “A woman doesn’t go on a first date, get punched in the face, and stay with this person. What happens is very calculating, very slow.” For many women, the decision not to leave is another, paradoxical form of self-defense, Smith points out, and evidence shows that women leaving an abusive partner are “more likely to be killed immediately upon leaving than any other time.”
Last year, Hunter was granted clemency and released, after serving fifteen years. Since the late nineteen-seventies, the number of women in the prison system has grown by more than eight hundred per cent—twice the rate of increase for men—and a majority of them have been victims of domestic violence. Yet the options available to women for legally defending themselves remain dismally limited: as Elizabeth Flock demonstrated in this magazine earlier in the year (“How Far Can Abused Women Go to Protect Themselves?”), Stand Your Ground laws should, in theory, apply to women who kill their abusers; in practice, however, such cases are far more difficult for women to win than men. Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, argues in a paper titled “Real Men Advance, Real Women Retreat” that Stand Your Ground laws mostly benefit white males with guns (as in the case of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin). Men are seen as acting courageously and rationally when they use force. Women’s self-defense, on the other hand, remains reliant for justification on the battered-woman syndrome that saved Hughes four decades ago. Women who defend themselves, Franks says, are still treated “as if there is something wrong with their brains.”
But awareness of how abuse can escalate is not pathological: three women in America are killed by a partner every day, and male partners are responsible for nearly half of the murders of women in the United States. With these figures in mind, it is safe to assume that, for many women who kill their abusers, the alternative was to be killed themselves. Toward the end of “The Burning Bed,” Hunter tells the filmmakers that she is sure that this would have been her fate had she not picked up a knife off the countertop and used it against her alleged abuser: “I definitely take full responsibility for my actions,” she says. “The only thing that I do know is that if I didn’t defend myself that night, it would have been me, not him.”