The Burning Bed: Thirty Years Later

Our third subject, Jessica, whose film will be completed in the spring, speaks about this movie and the impact it had on her. Thank you guest blogger, Danielle Kuffler, for writing this review of the film.

The Burning Bed, a NBC TV film directed by Robert Greenwald, opens in the small town of Dansville, Michigan on March 9, 1977. Francine Hughes, played by Farah Fawcett, tells her three young children to wait in the car as she sets fire to the home where her husband, Mickey, is sleeping. Mickey burns with the house, and Francine turns herself in for murder.

The rest of the film portrays, in flashbacks told by Francine to her lawyer, the 14 years of brutal abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. Concluding with her trial where she is found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, the film reveals the many-faceted horrors of domestic abuse and the tragic outcome that seems inevitable in the face of a lifetime of violence.

Thirty years later, the film is still powerful in its careful depiction of the nuances of abuse. Francine’s story is not only horrifying, but it’s also frustrating. The tale is a slow build to the dramatic climax – she divorces Mickey early on in the film, but just can’t seem to get away. She takes the kids and moves into her own house, but later rents a place next door to Mickey to nurse him after he injures himself. She attempts to have him arrested, but the authorities don’t do much to help her. Without money or prospects, she is trapped in a cycle of violence: Mickey abuses her, he apologizes, his family and Francine’s mother encourage her to forgive him and fulfill her duties as his wife, she resists but gives in, he abuses her, and so on, until she is finally driven to destroy him.

Francine first meets Mickey at a party in 1963. They are classic stereotypes of young lovers: she is sweet, beautiful and innocent, while he is “really wild,” the restless rebel.

She approaches him, refuses a cigarette but tells him she’s “not afraid of anything,” and soon enough they are slow dancing and making plans for a second date.

Mickey psychologically forces Francine into sex before marriage, telling her she will “destroy” him if she won’t give in. After marriage he drifts from job to job and becomes a heavy drinker, never taking on the traditional male role of provider and patriarch. He lashes out against impotence at the one thing he can control: his relationship with Francine. He objectifies and beats her whenever he is down. After every outburst, he slinks back to her, seeking her forgiveness and love to mend his delicate ego.

Guilty over losing her virginity and pressured by the women around her, Francine forces herself into marriage and motherhood. Her independence and identity are constantly under threat, and her ultimate triumph over Mickey is fraught with guilt. Before her trial, she tells her lawyer: “I loved him. I did.”  Francine reacted to an extreme situation with an extreme action, but it seems she will never escape the psychological damage.

In 1984, Francine’s story offered a perspective rarely heard, and The Burning Bed sparked national attention to the plight of domestic violence victims everywhere. The opening line of the film speaks to the destruction of identity that is the result of abuse:  “I felt like I was watching myself.” Today, the film is a reminder of how far we have come in recognizing and taking action against domestic violence, and how far we still have to go when it comes to equality and rights for all.

Danielle Kuffler, an Arizona native recently transplanted to Southern California, is a reader, writer and researcher with concerns about women’s rights.

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About JoAnne Tucker

JoAnne Tucker is the President of Healing Voices - Personal Stories, a non-profit organization with the mission of raising public awareness of women's strivings to overcome abusive trauma through the creation and distribution of film and video.
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