The Abuse Storyline

Posted on October 17, 2010

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“If I didn’t hit you Minny, who knows what you become?”

And that dear readers, is Leroy. A brutish man who’s verbally and physically abusive to his wife Minny. He wields control over his children by hollering, yet the reader is supposed to believe he doesn’t harm his kids in the same manner that he harms his wife.

Inside I hear Leroy yell, “A Eff?” He won’t touch the kids. He’ll yell, but that’s what fathers are supposed to do. (Pg 411)

Thank you for this baby, I pray. Because that’s the only thing that saved me, this baby in my belly (Minny thinks on page 413)

“He throw the kids in the yard and lock me in the bathroom and say he gone light the house on fire with me locked inside!” (Pg 437)

That last quote proves Leroy, at least in this instance did more than just holler at his children. He physically put his hands on them. But what’s confusing, is that since he only works sporadically (the book mentions he’s often drunk), then Minny is the true wage earner in the family, along with their oldest children who also work. So why he’d be so enraged is another puzzle to the characterization of Leroy. He’s a secondary character with more questions than answers. There’s only one instance of affection that he shows Minny, and that’s when he brings Okra home one night because he knows she enjoys the food. But his moments of affection, or when he’s not raging are few and far between in the book.

From the novel:

I lay there grinding my teeth., wondering, worrying. Leroy, he’s onto something. And God knows what’ll happen to me if he finds out. He knows about the book, everybody does, just not that his wife was a part of it, thank you. People probably assume I don’t care if he finds out-oh I know what people think. They think big strong Minny, she sure can stand up for herself. But they don’t know what a pathetic mess I turn into when Leroy’s beating on me. I’m afraid to hit him back. I’m afraid he’ll leave me if I do. I know it makes no sense and I get so mad at myself for being so weak! How can I love a man who beats me raw? Why do I love a fool drinker? One time I asked him, Why? Why are you hitting me?” He leaned down and looked me right in the face.

“If I didn’t hit you,  Minny, who knows what you become. ” (Page 413)

It takes until page 413 to find out what Minny really feels about Leroy’s abuse. The book ends on page 444. And yet, the torment Minny goes through is not fully explained or explored. Because the bossy joking maid stereotype she’s portrayed as overshadows the abuse storyline.

The character of Minny Jackson is one I truly believe deserved further exploration, in addition to a serious re-write. This could have been a character as strong in the same vein as say, a Fannie Lou Hamer. And I fully recognize that for many readers, the character of Minny is a favorite.

A lioness for Civil Rights, Fannie Lou Hamer

What’s missed  in all the accolades for Minny’s humorous bravado and posturing, is that she’s an abused wife. Maybe why this important fact gets pushed into the background is that for all the violence inflicted on her, Minny behaves contrary to known medical data on women who’ve suffered years of abuse.

In the story, Minny has been married to Leroy for some time. They have five children, and it’s mentioned that he’s abusive early on. Their oldest child is a teenager. According to her good friend Aibileen, “Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to.”  (Pg 13) refering to how strong Minny appears to be.

When Stereotypes Collide

In The Help, Aibileen is the compassionate, blindly loyal minority. Minny is the bossy comic relief. So what happens when Stockett adds in the domestic violence scenario? Well, in this case the stereotype wins.

In an attempt to make Minny a bit more sympathetic, I suspect Stockett thrust volatile Leroy into the mix.  The problem is, Minny behaves at times like the abuser whenever Leroy isn’t present. She blusters, she bullies, she gossips. The character intimidates, though she’s powerless in her own home to stop the man she loves from beating her.

And yet, she still comes off as a woman who wouldn’t put up with such prolonged abuse. As I read the character of Minny, I’m reminded a bit of Sofia,  from The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Sofia had a tumultuous relationship with Harpo. She even states that she’d been fighting all her life. But when her own husband decides to put his hands on her (at Celie’s urging) Sofia has her last fight with Harpo and leaves him. My point is,  the character Stockett created would have fought back.  And like Sofia, she would have left Leroy a long time ago.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

 Note what Minny doesn’t do:

Minny does not withdraw from her social circle. Even bruised, she attends church and is as belligerent and gossipy as ever.

Minny doesn’t discuss her abuse, keeping the anguish to herself. Does she get depressed like Celia? Is she unable to function? Apparently not.

Note what Minny’s somehow able to do:

Minny verbally argues with Leroy, the example being when she needs the car to get to Celia Foote’s house and he wants it also. In an attempt to interject humor, Stockett has Leroy saying he’ll ride the bicycle. But how is it possible, with the amount of abuse that’s inflicted on her, that she’s even able to argue with him?

And as the novel progresses, Minny becomes even more aggressive when protecting Celia Foote, her employer. Minny confronts the naked pervert with a knife no less, in order to protect Celia. And she smacks her own daughter for laughing and gossiping about Celia, though she does it quite often herself.

It’s not until the end of the novel, when Leroy attacks her while she’s many months pregnant that Minny finally has the will to break free.

But this was no character who was a timid spouse. If anything, Minny is portrayed as a woman who could not only take care of herself, but others.

In awe and admiration, Aibileen says this of her friend:

Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me lucky to have her as a friend. (Pg 13)

But just what kind of friend is Aibileen, who offers daily affirmations to Mae Mobley while outright ignoring the children of her best friend?

Aibileen feels so badly for what Mae Moblely is going through that she decides to take it upon herself to teach the child her own self worth.

From the novel, Aibileen encouraging Mae Mobley:

“Mae Mobley,” I say, I say cause I got a notion to try something. “You a smart girl?”

She just look at me, like she don’t know.

“You a smart girl?” I say again.

“She say, “Mae Mo smart.”

I say, “You a kind little girl?”

She just look at me. She two years old. She don’t know what she is yet.

I say, “You a kind girl,” and she nod, repeat it back to me. . .

After a while, Mae Mobley come over and press her cheek up to mine and just hold it there, like she know I be hurting. I hold her tight, whisper, “You a smart girl. You a kind girl Mae Mobley. You hear me?” And I keep saying it till she repeat it back to me. (Pg 92)

Aibileen (Viola Davis) with Mae Mobley in the film The Help

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what happened?

And how is it that the uber-empathetic Aibileen wasn’t able to bestow some of her nurturing onto her good friend Minny and Minny’s children, victims themselves after witnessing their father’s relentless abuse of their mother? I cover the problem with Aibileen’s blind eye when dealing with Minny’s abuse and also the problem with a complacent character like Aibileen here and here.

When the abused wife becomes the abuser:

“I ain’t never gone get no work again, Leroy gone kill me.” (Minny, Pg 21)

I sigh. Seventy-two more hours and I’m a free woman. Maybe fired, maybe dead after Leroy finds out, but free. (Minny, Pg 135)

For as much as Minny expresses real fear over Leroy, she appears to give as good as she gets. Several times in the novel she talks about doing him harm also, from giving him a “knuckle sandwich” to making him scream.

Benny’s asthma has gotten a little better but Leroy came home last night smelling like Old Crow again. He pushed me hard and I bumped my thigh on the kitchen table. He comes home like that tonight, I’ll fix him a knuckle sandwich for supper. (Pg 135)

Yet she experiences debilitating terror when boldly confronting the naked pervert, an unwise move. Frozen in panic once she realizes he has the upper hand, she appears to have a flashback of Leroy coming to beat her. Here’s a woman who’s had more than her share of physical violence, and her panic attack comes at a crucial time:

As soon as I look back up, whaam! I stagger. The ringing comes harsh and loud, making me totter. I cover my ear but the ringing gets louder. He’s punched me on the same side as the cut. He comes closer and I close my eyes, knowing what’s about to happen to me, knowing I’ve got to move but I can’t. (Pg 307)

It should be pointed out that the cut Minny’s referring to is from an assault that very morning from Leroy. He’d thrown a sugar bowl at her and now she’s got a bad slice on her eyebrow.

I turn and face the sink. I keep thinking, This ain’t nobody’s business, just do your work, but I haven’t had a minute’s sleep. Leroy screamed at me all night, threw the sugar bowl upside my head, threw my clothes out on the porch. I mean, when he’s drinking the Thunderbird, it’s one thing, but . . . oh. The shame is so heavy I think it might pull me to the floor. Leroy, he wasn’t on the Thunderbird this time. This time he beat me stone cold sober. (Pg 304)

But instead of Stockett following up on this, the focus shifts to Celia, and how SHE MUST BE PROTECTED. And a woman who has just gone through a night of abuse, both emotionally and physically, somehow decides she has the strength and presence of mind to go outside and confront another male, all on Celia’s behalf.

From the novel:

I jump back from the little square window just in time for the rock to smash through, feel the sprinkle of shards hit my face. Through the big window, I see the man backing up, like he’s trying to see where to break in next. Lord, I’m praying. I don’t want to do this, don’t make me have to do this . . .

Again, he stares at us through the window. And I know we can’t just sit here like a duck dinner, waiting for him to get in. All he has to do is break a floor to the ceiling window and step on in.

Lord, I know what I have to do. I have to go out there. I have to get him first.

“You stand back, Miss Celia, ” I say and my voice is shaking. I go get Mister Johnny’s hunting knife, still in the shealth, from the bear. But the blade’s so short, he’ll have to be awful close for me to cut him, so I get the broom too. I look out and he’s in the middle of the yard, looking up at the house. Figuring things out.

I open the back door and slip out. Across the yard, the man smiles at me, showing a mouth with two teeth. He stops punching and goes back to stroking himself, smoothly, evenly now.

“Lock the door,” I hiss behind me. “Keep it locked.” I hear the click. (Minny, Pg 306)

At times the scene is pure slapstick, with Minny running out of breath because she’s too heavy to chase the naked pervert.

The characters were already bonding. The naked pervert scene only added insult to injury, especially since Minny didn’t seem to recall that she was the mother of five children who depended on her staying alive. Had anything happened to her, Benny with his asthma, Kindra with her “sassy” mouth and the others would have been left at the mercy of Leroy.

But maybe Minny can’t think of her children, because the author never once has Minny admitting that she loves them. More than once Minny expresses her displeasure and need to get away from her family.

Plus Leroy was in a good mood and playing with the kids so I figure, if he wants them, he can have them.  (Pg 126)

“Nothing eating me accept five kids and a husband. Y’all driving me up a wall. . . I’m going to Aibileen’s. Mama need to be with somebody not pulling on her for five minutes.” (Pg 226)

Yet Hilly, the villain of the novel at least gets mention that she cares for her children:

One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children (Pg 184, Aibileen)

Bossy Minny seems to have something to say about  everyone, even her own church members:

“Oh Lord, hide the food.”

Hoity-toity Bertrina Bessemer waddles toward us. She leans over the pew in front of us, smiling with a big, tacky blue-bird hat on. (Minny Pg 127)

At Sunday church service, Shirley Boon get up in front of the congregation. With her lips flapping like a flag . . .big nosy Shirley points her finger at us and says, “The meeting is at seven so be on time. No excuses!” She reminds me of a big, white, ugly schoolteacher. The kind that nobody ever wants to marry. (Pg 216)

“Last meeting everybody was holding hands and praying they gone let blacks in the white bathroom and talking about how they gone set down on on a stool at Woolworth’s and not fight back and they all smiling like this world gone be a shiny new place and I just. . . I popped. I told Shirley Boon her ass won’t fit on no stool at Woolworth’s anyway.” (Pg 217)

It’s hard to really feel for the character, when she comes across as a 1960s mean girl. And when she does this to her own child:

I looked up from my sink and saw Sugar headed straight for me with her hand on her hip. “Yeah Mama, she upchuck all over the floor. And everybody at the whole party see!” Then Sugar turned  around laughing with all the others. She didn’t see the whap coming at her. Soapsuds flew through the air.

“You shut your mouth Sugar.” I yanked her to the corner. “Don’t you never let me hear you talking bad about the lady who put food in your mouth, clothes on your back! You hear me!

Sugar, she nodded and Iwent back to my dishes, but  I heard her muttering “You do it, all the time.”

I whipped around and put my finger in her face. “I got a right to. I earn it every day working for that crazy fool.” (Minny Pg 334)

To be continued. . .

 

Read how both Aibileen and Minny wrongly treat Kindra, the youngest black child in the novel:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/comparing-mae-mobley-to-kindra/

More on the character of Minny can be found here: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/is-minny-the-mouse-that-roared/

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