Northeast Missouri native George Hodgman is a veteran magazine and book editor in New York who has worked for Simon and Schuster and "Vanity Fair" magazine, and his writing has appeared in a number of major magazines. In his New York "Times" bestselling memoir "Bettyville," Hodgman describes returning to his small hometown of Paris, Missouri in 2012 to take care of his ornery 90-year-old mother who was suffering from dementia. The "Times" called it a "remarkable, laugh-out-loud book." The Missouri State University College of Arts and Letters, the MSU English Department, and Missouri Center for the Book will sponsor an appearance by George Hodgman in Craig Hall Coger Theater to read from the book and discuss his work on Tuesday April 18 at 7:00pm. Hodgman talked with me by phone from his “half-time” apartment in New York City.
His mother did finally pass away at the age of 93. Aside from being grateful that she’s no longer suffering, Hodgman feels that “she got every good day that she could have, and she never completely lost herself. Up until the very end she had some lucid times. In the end one is left with gratitude, in a certain way, that you’ve gotten that much time with them and they were able to maintain a quality of life as long as they could.”
And the fact is, had his mother not developed dementia, Hodgman might not have spent nearly as much time with her at home at the end of her life. “No, it completely changed my life too. I moved home to Missouri from New York City, and I’ve stayed there for the most part. I still have an apartment that I rent half-time in New York—I’m in New York City right now. But mostly I’m in Missouri”—even after the death of his mother. “Yeah, I’ve traveled a lot (to promote) the book, and it’s been very convenient to be in Missouri because I’ve done so much promotion there. But it’s also a matter of choice—I like being there. It’s home, and it’s beautiful. And I have a dog, and I’m scared to death that he’s so crazy he wouldn’t adjust very well to New York City. And Missouri’s a really good place to write, because you’re not as distracted by as much going on as one is in New York. Ultimately, I think I’ll kind of drift, slowly, towards being there fulltime.”
While he spent a number of years as a literary and magazine editor, George Hodgman always harbored a desire to write. “But I’d kind of given up on it. I didn’t know whether I could write fiction, and I wasn’t a reporter, and I didn’t really have any specific expertise. This book just kind of ‘announced’ itself. It began with some memories. And then one day we had this woman who was a family friend, who hadn’t been around us much in a long time—certainly not both of us together at the same time. And she said, ‘You all are so FUNNY together!’ I had been thinking a little bit about trying to write and turn these memories into a book. But at that moment I thought: that would make it different, if we were just kind of a quirky comedy team, going through this in a way that was not just sad, and not just sentimental. Because my mother was a tough lady—an ornery lady—I liked that. And she was determined and headstrong. And I think that is a sign of life, a sign of somebody who wants to maintain control and independence. And when you lose that—well, that’s when things go downhill.”
Hodgman feels his mother never really lost that. “She wanted to do what she wanted to do, and she was rebellious.” But dementias such as Alzheimer’s take a huge physical toll on their sufferers as well. “She lost energy, and she had more pain, and I think she had a lot of anxiety about what was going on”—a very common problem for dementia patients. Although, Hodgman asserts, “Dementia is not treatable—but I think anxiety IS treatable. And part of what I tried to do was lessen the anxiety, and distract her from her own condition.” He’s not sure if his constant presence did help—“or maybe made it worse! I don’t know,” he says with a chuckle.
During the course of his visit to the Missouri State University campus on April 18, George Hodgman will meet with students as well as giving his public presentation. “I’m looking forward to it—I haven’t been to Springfield since I was in grade school. It’s a pretty town.” (His family visited southwest Missouri to go—where else?—to Silver Dollar City on vacation.)
Hodgman plans not just to do readings from “Bettyville” as published during his lecture in Coger Theater. “I’ll probably read some sections that I wrote after the book was turned in, that kind of finish up the story. You know, I wanted to finish the book before my mother passed away, because I didn’t want her to die in the book. I thought it would be too sad. And you know, if you have a book, and she’s alive in the book, then she’ll always be alive.”
“Peggyville” was only on the New York Times Bestseller List for a month, but Hodgman says he was “tremendously grateful. I mean, this book was NOBODY’s idea of a ‘commercial’ book! It was not considered to be ‘blockbuster’ material. And a lot of people turned it down. But I was really happy because as I have traveled around in Missouri, I have realized that people are happy that someone has told this story from our part of the world, and with people from small towns.” And it’s not just a matter of the lack of support networks for dealing with dementia in small towns and rural areas. Hodgman equates it to what he calls “the Trump phenomenon. There are parts of the world where people don’t feel that they’re heard, and don’t feel that their stories and lives are being documented like they would be if you live in New York or Los Angeles. And it has been really gratifying to me because I’m in Madison, Missouri or Paris, Missouri—or even in St. Louis—and people say, ‘Oh, I remember that person!’ or ‘I remember doing that same thing or shopping at that same store,’ or.... One of the thing the book is about, it’s not just about dementia. It’s about Missouri, particularly small-town Missouri. And I am really happy that I was able to capture some of the places where I grew up, and that I still love.”
As a parting comment about his presentation at MSU, George Hodgman said, “Come on down, I’d love to meet you. The book is about caring for someone with dementia, but it’s about a lot of other things. And a lot of the things that I had read about the subject, they’re kind of about people, particularly women, who really know how to take care of their parents and didn’t have any fear. And my book is really about someone who didn’t know whether they could do it, whether he could get through this period of his mother’s life and help her. And so, if you’re a person who’s scared that they can’t do it, well, maybe come on down and you can talk about that.”
George Hodgman’s talk on April 18 at Coger Theater is free and open to the public. For more information call 836-6605.