Christal Ann Rice Cooper

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Through the Eyes of Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan from THE HELP . . .


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CRC Blog on Kathryn Stockett’s The HELP’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan
“Walking That Hot Mile”

I used to walk that hot mile myself, when I was a girl.  If I begged and practiced my catechism, Mother would sometimes let me go home with Constantine on Friday afternoons.  After twenty minutes of walking slow, we’d pass the colored five-and-dime store, then a grocer with hens laying in back, and all along the way, dozens of shacky-looking roadside houses with tin roofs and slanting porches, along with a yellow one that everybody said sold whisky from the back door.  It was a thrill to be in such a different world . . .
Page 71 (Above Left:  Tenant family at Marrella Plantation in Tchula, Mississippi in 1939.  Image attributed to Marion Post Wolcott)

       It is June of 1962 and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a college graduate from Mississippi University with a  double major in English and Journalism.  Skeeter didn’t feel the need for her parents and older brother Carlton Jr to have to travel three hours just to see her walk the stage to get her diploma when her Mother really wanted to see her walk down the aisle to get married. Instead she returns to her Daddy’s cotton plantation home Longleaf with her typewriter and her head full of dreams of being a writer.  (Above Right:  Lakeport Plantation in the Arkansas.)
      
She doesn’t feel accepted by her mother who was first runner up for the Miss South Carolina Pageant and she doesn’t look like her mother, either.  Her mother thinks of her daughter as a freak of nature and is on a mission from God to make her daughter acceptable to a refined socially acceptable man of her day.  She does this by insisting her daughter wear only flats – she’s too tall.  She tries to make her daughter have better posture, not make certain facial expression because it is bad for her face’s complexion, wear certain clothes, and last but not least tame that wild frizzy, kinky curly white blond hair that appears as if it has been torn apart like hay, and makes her appear inches taller than her already unfashionable height of 5’11.  In fact Skeeter’s mother has no faith in her daughter’s own ability to find a husband that she sets up a dowry of $25,000 to the suitable man who marries her unattractive odd looking daughter. (Left:  Skeeter Phelan by Christal Ann Rice Cooper)
Skeeter will never meet her mother’s expectations – she’s not interested in the things her mother is interested in; she’s not the typical southern bell; she doesn’t look like any southern bell; she is not the least bit interested in the Ole Miss football games that all of Jackson seems to celebrate; and lastly she can’t share with her mother her passion and dreams of writing because “She’ll only turn it into yet another thing that separates me from the married girls.” (Above Right - Ole Miss football team 1962)
There are two  people that have given Skeeter comfort and self-esteem – her maid, companion, and “true mom” Constantine who raised her since she was a baby;  and her best friend Miss Hilly Walters Holbrook, whom she has known since elementary school 

With other people, Hilly hands out lies like the Presbyterians hand out guilt, but it’s our own silent agreement, this strict honesty; perhaps the one thing that kept us friends.  
Page 103

Skeeter and Hilly even shared a dorm room at Ole Miss for the first two years before she decided to quit college and marry Mr. William Holbrook. Strange though Skeeter never went out with her co-eds even Hilly – instead she stayed in her dorm room or at the Ole Miss library reading, writing, and dreaming of being a writer of books that people will actually want to read. 
She also wrote letters to Constantine once a week and Constantine would write back two times a month and then in April of 1962, Constantine wrote to her that she had a big surprise for Skeeter, and Skeeter hadn’t heard from her since.  Only to return home in June to discover that, according to her mother,  Constantine quit to move back to her sister’s family in Chicago.  Skeeter knew she had lost her precious Constantine.  (Above Left: Clip from Imitation of Life which could be Constantine with Skeeter as a child)
At least she still has her circle of friends, including Hilly, whom all meet at Elizabeth Leefolt’s house for Bridge Club Day, Wednesday August 22, 1962.   Skeeter, Elizabeth, Hilly, Hilly’s mom Mrs. Walters, sit at their table playing cards when Hilly mentions her Home Help Sanitation Initiative about how all white families who have the colored help should build a separate bathroom for their help to prevent the spread of diseases from the coloreds to the whites.  Aibileen can’t help but write about Skeeter’s reaction one of being appalled enough to cause Skeeter to not only frown but to stall the game by facing her cards down FACE UP:

“Maybe we ought to just build you a bathroom outside, Hilly.”
And Law, do that room get quiet.
Mrs. Hilly say, “I don’t think you out to be joking around about the colored situation.  Not if you want to stay on as editor of the League, Skeeter Phelan.”
Miss Skeeter kind a laugh, but I can tell she don’t think it’s funny.  “What, you’d . . .kick me out?  For disagreeing with you?”
Miss Hilly raise a eyebrow.  “I will do whatever I have to do to protect our town.  Your lead, Mama.”
Page 10

In Skeeter’s eyes for Hilly to say what she said to her reveals that there is a negative change in Hilly that departs from what their friendship is all about.   But despite this deep hurt what bothers her the most about the conversation was Hilly’s view toward the help.  She is disturbed and appalled that she can’t be silent and approaches Aibileen about the conversation, which Aibileen recalls in her own writing.

She shake her head, just a little.  “Aibileen, that talk in there. . . Hilly’s talk, I mean. . . “
“Do you ever wish you could. . . change things?”  she asks.
She got a confused, disgusted look on her face, like she done salted her coffee instead a sugared it.
I turn back to my washing, so she don’t see me rolling my eyes.  “Oh no, ma’am, everything’s fine.”
“But that talk in there, about the bathroom-“  and she smack on that word, Miss Leefolt walk in the kitchen.
Page 12

Skeeter also asks Aibileen if she knows about Constantine, if she has an address for her to get in touch with her, and Aibileen tells her she doesn’t know anything, but Skeeter doesn’t believe her.  This makes Skeeter more homesick for her Constantine, whom she described as her greatest ally.  By September of 1962 she has no choice but to recognize that she does not belong in Jackson anymore.

I’ve been dropped off in a place I do not belong anymore.  Certainly not here with Mother and Daddy, maybe not even with Hilly and Elizabeth.
Page 66

Her spirits are uplifted when she receives a letter from Miss Elaine Stein, Senior Editor of Harper & Row’s Adult Division located in Manhattan, New York, (Left in 1962) and dated September 4, 1962.  In the letter Miss Stein responds to Skeeter’s own letter of applying for an editor’s position with Harper & Row that a minimum of five years is required for the position she is applying for.  She also gives Skeeter some words of advice:  find a position at a local newspaper to gain experience; and to only write about things that deeply disturb her.   Then in ink Miss Stein writes at the bottom of the print:

P.S.  If you are truly serious, I’d be willing to look over your best ideas and give my opinion. I offer this for no better reasons, Miss Phelan, than someone once did it for me.
Page 83
      Skeeter immediately writes up her list of things not that disturb her but things that she think will disturb Miss Stein:  illiteracy in Mississippi; the rise in drunk driving accidents in the United States; and the lack of opportunities for women in the United States.  She mails it to Miss Stein the very next day. 
Skeeter follows Miss Stein’s advice and gets a job for the Jackson Journal answering the Miss Myrna Domestic Column letters.  With Elizabeth’s permission, she asks Aibileen to help her with the letters and Elizabeth says it is fine.  So for the next few weeks Skeeter and Aibileen meet at Miss Leefolt’s house and she helps her with the letters.  Skeeter also asks Aibileen if she knows anything about Constantine and where she is.  Aibileen reveals that Constantine was not fired and then she changes her mind and says she must have misspoke:  “I must be misrememoring.”  Skeeter believes Aibileen the first time – that Constantine was fired and approaches her mother about it. Her mother admits that she did fire Constantine but refuses to explain why:  “It was nothing but a colored thing.  And that’s all I’m saying.” (Above Left:  cropped photo from the film clip The Help
  Skeeter knows that Aibileen knows more than she’s telling about Constantine and plans on asking her again but waits for the right time.  In the mean time she and Aibileen continue to meet at Miss Leefolt’s house to answer the Miss Myrna letters.   When Mrs. Leefolt’s is not in the house - Aibileen shares with her the story about her deceased son Treelore who wanted to be a writer and was a big fan of the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a book that Skeeter has never even read.  Aibileen tells Skeeter that Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man inspired Treelore to write 50 pages his experiences as a colored man working for a white man.

Aibileen stops peeling.  I see her throat move when she swallows.  “Please don’t’ tell nobody that,” she says, softer now, “him wanting to write about his white boss.”  She bites her lip and it strikes me that she’s still afraid for him.  Even though he’s dead, the instinct to be afraid for her son is still there.
“It’s fine that you told me, Aibileen.  I think it was . . . a brave idea.”
Pages 99-100

In the middle of October of 1962 Skeeter receives another letter from Miss Stein to inform her that her  ideas are  shallow, lack authenticity, and that special punch.  Skeeter is discouraged but forces herself to write the Junior League newsletter deliberately leaving out Hilly’s Home Help Sanitation Initiative despite Hilly pressuring her to do so.  Skeeter finds herself in a daze staring at her copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on her window ledge.  She walks over to cradle the book in her hands, afraid the sun will fade the cover.

The book is warm and heavy from the sun.  I wonder if I’ll ever write anything worth anything at all.  I turn when I hear Pascagoula’s knock on my door.  That’s when the idea comes to me.
No.  I couldn’t.  That would be . . . crossing the line.
       But the idea won’t go away.
Page 104

       Skeeter visits Elizabeth’s house once a week to visit with Aibileen and they talk so much more than the Miss Myrna Column, but she hasn’t gotten the courage to approach Aibileen about her idea –until just before Thanksgiving of 1962.   Skeeter goes to Aibileen’s house dressed in a red dress and red shoes and waits for her to return home when she finally tells her about her idea of writing about maids working for white families.  She asks Aibileen to participate and Aibileen tells her that it is too dangerous.  Skeeter asks her if she would at least think about it.  Aibileen’s response is simply, “No ma’am.” (Above Right:  Aibileen's house in Greenfield, Mississippi used for the movie The Help
      
Skeeter is discouraged by Aibileen’s response but she is not going to give up.  And with her first date with the congressman’s son Stuart Whitworth she has a needed distraction – until she meets him – arrogant, drunk, and rude.   So drunk that when they return from the supper club to William and Hilly’s house it is expected of Skeeter to take Stuart home.  That is something she cannot and will not do and instead she walks back to Hilly’s house and asks William to take Stuart home and that she will spend the night.  The next day on Sunday she returns home and receives the phone call that will change her life – Aibileen wants to do the book.   
Unfortunately, due to the holidays and sicknesses the two are not able to meet until February of 1963 when Skeeter dresses in dark clothes, lies to her mother that she’s going to one of the churches in town, and drives to Aibileen’s house.  The first meeting is a complete disaster- both our fearful – both know of the violence that is occurring in Jackson and both know they are breaking the law.  And then Aibileen begins to lose her nerve to the point that she vomits  and she finally tells Skeeter she is just not ready to talk.

I look over at my notebook on the white leather seat.  Besides where she grew up, I’ve gotten a total of twelve words.  And four of them are yes ma’am and no ma’am.
Page 171
       
Two days later they meet again – late at night at Aibileen’s house with the condition that Aibileen write her experiences down and then read them to Skeeter.  And Skeeter agrees and this time instead of bringing her notebook she brings her fifty-pound Corona typewriter with her. And this time she tells Mother that she is going feed the hungry at the Canton Presbyterian Church.  Skeeter ends up “feeding the hungry at the Canton Presbyterian Church” every other night for the next two weeks and is impressed with Aibileen’s writing.

       Aibileen’s writing is clear, honest.  I tell her so.
       “Well, look who I been writing to.” She chuckles.  “Can’t lie to God.”
Page 177

       They continue their visits well into spring 1963 when Aibileen tells Skeeter that she wants to read books in hopes it will turn her into a better writer.  Skeeter suggests she goes to the State Street Library and Aibileen reminds her that coloreds are not allowed in the library.    Skeeter asks Aibileen to make a list and goes to the white library to check them out for her.  And Aibileen’s list of book choices is impressive:   To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Boise, Poems by Emily Dickinson, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and books by Sigmund Freud and Walden.   
    
Skeeter finally mails Ms. Stein twenty-seven pages of her interviews with Aibileen otherwise known as Sarah Ross.  Afterwards she comes back home and collapses on her bed with exhaustion and worry.

What if Elizabeth or Hilly catches us at what we’re dong?  What if Aibileen gets fired, sent to jail?  I feel like I’m falling down a long spiral tunnel.  God, would they beat her the way they beat that colored boy who used the white bathroom?  What am I doing?  Why am I putting her at such risk?
       I go to sleep.  I have nightmares for the next fifteen hours straight.
Page 181
       
Her nightmares turn to hopeful dreams when Miss Stein calls her and tells her to interview twelve more maids and to have everything done by New Year’s Eve 1963.  The  trouble is Aibileen has asked over 30 maids to contribute to the book with the same response of “no”.   Skeeter is a bit desperate until she gets another phone call from Aibileen to tell her that Minny is going to contribute but has some interesting demands one of which is that Skeeter can not drive her Cadillac to Aibileen’s house.  
Two days later Skeeter tells her mother she’s going to the church to pick her new King James Bible and she wants to use the truck instead of the Cadillac because she feels guilty for using a nice car when all those children in Africa are starving to death. And this time she doesn’t bring her typewriter but pencil and paper.
And Skeeter is nervous
and feels only hostility from Minny who doesn’t even crack a smile and won’t even look at her as she’s speaking.  She doesn’t dare ask Minny to slow down like she was able to with Aibileen – her hands dancing with that pencil as fast as she can run.   Finally Minny ends the interview for the night.

She suddenly stands up, throws her bag on her arm.  “I got to go.  You giving me the heart palpitations talking about this.” And out she goes, slamming the door behind her.
I look up, wipe the sweat off my temple.
“And that was a good mood,” Aibileen says.
Page 193

Skeeter decides to visit the local library to see if there are any narratives from black maids but can’t come up with any. Instead she finds the booklet  “Compilation of Jim Crow Laws of the South” which lists the laws of segregation for all of the southern states.  She reads the laws and experiences her own revelation:  Jim Crow or Hilly’s bathroom plan – what’s the difference?

    
   It’s not until the summer of 1963 that Skeeter learns what she long suspected – that when she left her red satchel at Hilly’s – Hilly “stole” the pamphlet and is angry at Skeeter for having such paraphernalia.  Skeeter convinces Hilly that it is nothing but reading material.  And Hilly seems to believe her.
      In July of 1963 Skeeter learns that her own maid Pascagoula is actually first cousins with Yule May and tells her that Yule May wants to contribute to the book.  Skeeter is thrilled and finally reaches Aibileen to tell her and she’s thrilled too.  But all changes when, just a few days later,  Pascagoula hands her a letter that Yule May wrote from prison – where Hilly had her sent for Yule May stealing a garnet ring after Hilly denied her a loan to send her other twin boy to college.   Skeeter is furious and wants to try to do something – even ask her Daddy to hire a white lawyer for her, but Pascagoula tells her that she already did have a white lawyer.
      
Hilly goes to Aibileen’s house that night at 8 p.m. only to be greeted by Aibileen’s Reverend and other church members who are having a prayer service for Yule May.  The church not only prayed for Yule May but also is making sure that her twin boys have the college tuition paid for.   Skeeter experiences guilt, shame, rejection, dislike –none of the church members will even look her in the eye, and some bow their heads away from her “as if looking at me might burn them.  I look down.”  Skeeter can’t blame them.   Everyone starts to gather their bags and raincoats to leave until one woman in a white uniform tells Skeeter that she is going to help her with her stories.  Both Aibileen and Skeeter are shocked especially as more maids offer to share their stories – making it a total of 13 maids.
      By August of 1963 Skeeter and Hilly have a showdown – Hilly is angry that Skeeter has not printed her Home Help Sanitation Initiative in the newsletter and Skeeter tells her that she possibly cannot include it in the newsletter.  Sparks fly – and Skeeter responds by typing it in the newsletter but also including the new coat drive, asking the social ladies of Jackson to drop off any unused coats at Ms. Hilly’s house- except she doesn’t use the word coats.    By 8:30 a.m. Hilly’s lawn is covered with a-rainbow-color collection of used toilets. (Above Right:  photo from the film The Help)    
  By November of 1963 Skeeter is completely shunned by her community, her friends, and kicked out of Bridge club, and finds herself seated alone at the Jackson Junior League Annual Ball.
       Two weeks after President John F Kennedy’s assassination Miss Stein changes the due date from New Year’s Eve 1963 to December 21, 1963.  Miss Stein also wants Skeeter to talk about her own maid Constantine. Skeeter once again approaches Aibileen about what really happened between Constantine and her mother.    Aibileen finally agrees to tell her but that she has to write it down for her and to give her a few days.(Left:  JET issue from November 7, 1963 and LIFE issue dedicated to the slain President John F. Kennedy) 
       During those few days Stuart tries to charm Skeeter back into his graces.  And it is here that Skeeter’s mother finally seems to show some approval, some pride in her daughter.
      
       “If Stuart doesn’t know how intelligent and kind I raised you to be, he can march straight back to State Street.”  She narrows her eye out on the winter land.  “Frankly, I don’t care much for Stuart.  He doesn’t know how lucky he was to have you.”
       Page 420

On December 15, 1963 Skeeter goes to Aibileen’s house where Aibileen reads from her own prayer book about what happened between her mother and Constantine and then hands her a letter in a sealed envelope that she wants her to read when she returns home.   Skeeter is appalled by her mother’s behavior toward Constantine.  She knows she cannot possibly include what happen with Constantine and her mother in the book for her mother’s sake.  And Aibileen agrees that is something any good daughter would do.   And Skeeter approaches her mother to hear her side of the story, hoping that Aibileen’s version is not the truth, but she is sadly mistaken.

I let my head sink into my hands.  There is no redeeming piece of the story.  I know why Aibileen hadn’t wanted to tell me.  A child should never know this about her own mother.
       Page 429

A little over a week before the deadline Skeeter meets Aibileen and Minnie at Aibileen’s place with the 266 page  manuscript in hand, and all three began to worry – what would happen if the upper crust society such as Hilly discovered it was all about the white women in Jackson? Aibileen and Minny decide the Terrible Awful should be put into the book and finally tell Skeeter what happened.

Minny narrows her eyes at me.  I pull out a pencil and pad.
“I’m only telling you for the book, you understand.  Ain’t nobody sharing no heartfelt secrets here.”
Page 433

Skeeter agrees that Aibileen and Minny are right – to include the Terrible Awful in the book is their best insurance for safety.  Skeeter spends the entire right incorporating Minny’s Terrible Awful to Hilly and places the Terrible Awful chapter toward the end of the book.  She finally mails it to Miss Stein’s office in New York.
The first week of January of 1964 Stuart presents her with a diamond and ruby ring asking her to marry him.  And Skeeter responds with a resounding yes and she tells him all about the book.  Stuart is horrified and walks away taking the ring with him.
On Friday January 17, 1964 Skeeter walks into Aibileen’s kitchen and tells Aibileen and Minny that Harper & Row will publish the book The Help – that they will print a few thousand copies with a $800 advance which Skeeter will split 13 ways giving each maid $61.50.  There are still edits to do and the book will not come out until August of 1964.
The Help ends up being featured on the Dennis James People Will Talk Show in local Jackson.    Everybody and his brother watches the show and a hurricane begins to happen – Hilly insists it is about Jackson and calls her social white friends to convince them to fire their maids.  And some of them do. (Right:  Dennis James hosting THE PRICE IS RIGHT on August 11, 1975)  
Skeeter is discouraged and begins to wonder if The Help was a huge mistake and if it really is helping anyone but her discouragement ends when she runs into Lou Anne Templeton at Brent’s Drugstore. (Left:  photo of film clip from the movie The Help)

“The doctors want me to go up to Memphis for …shock treatment…”  She covers her face but a tear slips through her fingers. “For the depression and the . ..tries,” she whispers.
       I look down at her long sleeves and I wonder if that’s what she’s been hiding. I hope I’m not right, but I shudder.
“Skeeter, Louvenia is the bravest person I know.  Even with all her own troubles, she sits down and talks to me.  She helps me get through my days.  When I read what she wrote about me, about helping her with her grandson, I’ve never been so grateful in my life.  It was the best I’d felt in months.”
“If you did write it, if Hilly’s rumor is true, I just want you to know, I will never fire Louvenia.”
I watch Lou Anne slip away in the parking lot, thinking, There is so much you don’t know about a person.  I wonder if I could’ve made her days a little bit easier, if I’d tried. If I’d treated her a little nicer.  Wasn’t that the point of the book?  For women to realize, We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I’d thought.
But Lou Anne, she understood the points of the book before she ever read it.  The one who was missing the point this time was me.
Pages 491 – 492

 Then it is obvious Hilly read about the Terrible Awful because all of a sudden she is now insisting The Help is NOT about Jackson, but inside a storm is a brewing and she is set on getting her revenge.
Skeeter then receives a job offer from Harper’s Magazine in New York City as a copy editor’s assistant.  And she has made the decision to not take it – so she can be close to her mother, but more importantly so she can be close to Aibileen, Minny and the other maids to make sure nothing tragic happens to them due to The Help, which is on its second printing of 5000 more copies which will guarantee another $100 to each of the 13 maids.
Her road still has got many more hot miles for her to travel – a heated showdown with Hilly but more sadly the knowledge of what her mother has done to Constantine,  and lastly that this is the closest that her mother will ever come to accept her – if she can even call it “accept.” (Right:  December 1964 issue of Harper's Magazine)

Maybe in the end Skeeter has to accept herself for who she is – an intelligent compassionate human being that strives for the rights of all – even if it means the rejection by one’s own family and community.

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