Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review for Funeral in a Feminine Dress by MJ Burke Sr.

Funeral in a Feminine Dress: Depravity Reborn as Virtue by M.J. Burke Sr. is so much more than a memoir of a neglectful childhood in an alcoholic home. Burke’s clear and empathetic writing weaves in a larger message beyond his family that offers profound insights into society.

In brief the memoir tells of Burke’s childhood in 1950s and 1960s Denver. He’s the third of three sons. His parents Bill and Verma were never technically married. Bill always refused to grant Verma this fig leaf of respect after, in his opinion, she trapped him by getting pregnant.

Shacked up, Bill and Verma abuse alcohol while dragging their children from bar to bar or abandoning the young author at home day and night. His childhood was so deplorable that he insists that beatings from nuns at school were a good thing.

Years of misery go by for the author as he explains the sinister abuses put to his mother. As he grows up he participates in the family-wide dehumanization of Verma, who slavishly endures without love, kindness, or appreciation of any kind from anybody.

The author suggests broadly that the vicious abuse of his mother was rooted in the omnipresent social animosity toward the feminine. This socialization created the abhorrent attitude of his father toward his mother. Bill in many other ways was compassionate, but towards Verma he was monstrous.

His father calls his mother a “whore” for getting pregnant.

Often the author recounts how his father admonished him not to be girly. Even hugging his father was wrong.

Verma’s talents are ignored. When the family starts a business, Verma’s idea is overridden by Bill’s determination to have a cleaning business, which convicts them both to toiling with caustic chemicals and gives Verma no chance to excel.

The author makes a point to describe the domestic flare of his mother. Verma, despite poverty and alcoholism, decorated their homes thoughtfully, and Bill would always smash and break the d├ęcor.

Another shocking aspect of this memoir was that it showed social dysfunction beyond his family. They lived in poor neighborhoods where alcoholism was widespread. The suffering and lost talent reflected in the alcohol-poisoned environment were staggering to contemplate. But going deeper I understood that other forces were causing social despair that triggers this drinking and its attendant violence. Burke mentions the long hours, low wages, and workplace hazards that his father and many others endured. It’s also a culture where might makes right. Men are supposed to fight for their way. There is very little room for kindness.

For me, his presentation of a society tormented by systemic viciousness was related to hatred of the feminine. He masterfully peppered the memoir with this crucial point without being preachy.

This memoir is an addictive page turner. The writing and the candid glimpse into despairing lives riveted me. Burke’s story unfolds like a slow motion pile up of cars on a foggy freeway and tells his struggle to emerge from the wreckage a human being.