Charleston, S.C. -- What strikes you first about the two women is how comfortable they are together. They sit beside one another, laughing and talking about families and husbands, about good times and bad, and it's as if they have known one another all their lives. But they met only last summer.
What strikes you next is how different these two lives have been.
Josephine Humphreys, 49, is an acclaimed novelist, the wife of a lawyer and mother of two sons at Harvard; Ruthie Bolton, 33, is a former clerk in a garden nursery, the wife of a restaurant worker and the mother of six young children. And while both grew up in neighborhoods separated by only a 10-minute drive, they may as well have lived in different countries. In Charleston, the chances of Jo Humphreys, who is white, ever meeting Ruthie Bolton, who is black, were close to zero.
"Charleston is a very segregated city," says Ms. Humphreys of this historic and captivating seaport which even now remains close to its past. "And while both of us have known people of other races, this is, I think, for both of us an unusual friendship. There are very few people I feel as comfortable with as Ruthie."
"Jo and I, we hit it off," says Ms. Bolton. "I can tell Jo anything."
Which is precisely what Ruthie did: She told Jo anything. And everything.
She told her about growing up in the poor black community of Hungry Neck, S.C., where, after her 13-year-old mother abandoned her, she was brought up by her grandmother and brutal step-grandfather, whom she called Daddy; about the merciless beatings she and her aunts, whom she called sisters, suffered at the hands of Daddy; about the beatings Daddy administered to Ruthie's grandmother, one of which finally killed her; about a life so full of brutality and empty of love that one wonders, finally, how did Ruthie Bolton survive?
She did, however, survive. Even finished high school. And what is more remarkable, she went on to heal those deep wounds by trying to understand her past and forgive her tormentors -- including Daddy, who died some years ago. In some circles, this kind of self-understanding is accomplished through long years of psychoanalysis. In Ruthie Bolton's case, the road she took to arrive at peace and grace lies between the covers of her recently published book, "Gal: A True Life." (The life may be true but the name Ruthie Bolton isn't; it's a pseudonym used to protect her family.)
Her guide for part of that journey was Jo Humphreys. Without Jo's interest and devotion to listening to Ruthie's life story, there would have been no book. And there would have been no glowing reviews from book critics across the country, who are using words such as "powerful," "stirring," "eloquent," and "compelling" to describe "Gal."
And without Jo, it's possible that the little girl who still lived inside Ruthie -- the one called only by the name of Gal -- might never have allowed herself to do what she'd needed to do all her life: openly weep.
Now, sitting in Jo's airy studio -- the very one in which the book was talked out and which used to house Confederate widows -- Ruthie remembers how much she cried as she told her story to Jo. She lifts a doll from a shelf, one that has a tear on its cheek. It was a gift to Jo from Ruthie.
"When you see this doll," Ruthie says, "that tear is from me. I know for sure this is that little girl's tears that was hidden."
"All those years you wouldn't cry," Jo says softly to Ruthie, "you made up for them in this office."
It was less than a year ago when the groundskeeper for the building where Jo Humphreys has a studio asked a favor of her. "A young lady I met at the plant nursery is trying to write a book," he said. "And I promised you would call her. She needs some help."
"Oh, no," thought Ms. Humphreys, who at the time was hard at work on her fourth novel. Despite her misgivings, she agreed to make the call. Her first three books, "Dreams of Sleep," "Rich in Love" and "The Fireman's Fair" had established Ms. Humphreys as a leading contemporary novelist. Ruthie Bolton, however, knew nothing of her reputation. "I didn't want to call her," says Ms. Humphreys, "because I'm not a good teacher of writing and didn't think I could help. But when I talked to Ruthie on the phone something happened. I just really, really liked her voice. It was real pretty."
The pretty voice on the phone told Jo Humphreys: "I'm writing a book. It's about my childhood and my grandfather. It's all true. And I'd like you to look at it."
The next day Ms. Humphreys went over to Ms. Bolton's house and picked up the "book" -- a handwritten, 58-page manuscript tucked into a red folder brought home from school by her 7-year-old daughter. She read it that night and called Ruthie the next day.
Ruthie Bolton remembers exactly what Jo told her that day: "She said she see a story in there but it was not completed. There was too much missing. She said, if I wanted to, she could help me. But that she wasn't guaranteeing anything. I said, yes. So we agreed to meet on Wednesdays and Sundays. And that's where it started."
They agreed the best way to proceed was to tape Ms. Bolton as she talked out the story, the way people in the South have always told their stories. At that point, Ms. Humphreys wasn't even thinking about the sessions resulting in a book that would be published.
A difficult task
"I felt it was important for me to tell her that it's hard to write a book and it's almost impossible to publish a book. And I said over and over again, 'This is never going to get published. We're just doing this so that you can have it.' I recognized she wanted to be able to get it told, get it out of her and onto paper," says Ms. Humphreys.
"Yes," says Ruthie, "I needed to get that out of me. That pressure was in me for so long. And each time I would meet Jo and talk, I could feel little by little -- even though I was sobbing and crying every day -- I was feeling better. Every time I told something, I felt better and better."
Josephine Humphreys was not prepared for what happened when Ruthie walked into her studio with the $27 tape recorder she'd bought at Wal-Mart and began the first two-hour session.
"I was amazed," she says. "From the first minute on, it began to be clear to me that this was something really amazing. The way she remembered these things. The way she could tell it in scenes. Which she hadn't really done while writing. But speaking, she actually enacted it rather than reported it. She reported it in the red folder but when she was telling it, she relived it."
Ruthie Bolton is asked if she can re-create part of a session so that a visitor might see what it was actually like.
"Oh, God!" she says, her large eyes flying wide open. "I can't do it. You know, at the time I was doing it I really was that little Gal. I'm still Gal now, but I see the office now. I see you and her. But at the time I was telling it, I knew Jo was here, but I didn't see her."
"She never looked at me," says Ms. Humphreys. "And I learned pretty quickly not to interrupt . . . because it would kind of stop that flow and that trance for a minute."
Still, during that first session, Jo Humphreys did interrupt Gal. It was about halfway through the two-hour session and Jo was frightened by Gal's emotional reaction to telling about her grandmother's death. "Daddy" beat her to death when Gal was about 6. "She was crying and I stopped her and I reached out and said, 'This is too hard for you,' says Ms. Humphreys now. "It was almost too hard for me, too. I thought it was too big a strain on her. But she said, 'No, it's not. I have to do it.' "
Here is what appears in "Gal" about the night Ruthie and her child-aunts witnessed their Daddy deliver the fatal beating to their grandmother:
We were in the bed, and all I remember is we heard a glass break. I don't know if she broke it first or he did. But she told him she would kill him if he hit her again. We heard the scuffle in there. We heard the table fall down, and we were crying in the bed, crying and shaking, and we ran up the hallway and we were peeping around the door . . . and he beat her for worse, he beat her all in the head, and she was on the floor, there was blood, blood, and we were just too scared, anybody to do anything . . . And -- she didn't live long after that. She died.
Ruthie Bolton, a pretty woman who resembles actress Alfre Woodard, describes her feelings during the tapings in simple terms: "When I was telling it, I was there. I saw them. I talked the real talk."
She also talked in the voices of those she was seeing. "That pretty voice of hers," says Ms. Humphreys, "could be, as I found out later, terrifying. Because as she taped the story, I actually heard Daddy's voice come out of Ruthie. And it was scary."
One can only imagine the emotion in that studio when Ruthie relived the terror of being beaten by Daddy when she was about 6 or 7 years old:
"He said, 'Come on in here.'
"Went in there. I was shaking.
"He say, 'Now take off all your clothes.'
"I said, 'Daddy, can I please keep my drawers on?'
"He said, 'Take them all off.'
"I took off my clothes.
"And he said, 'Now get up on that brown table right there, stand up there.'
"I said, 'Daddy, don't beat me hard, Daddy, don't beat me hard . . . And he beat me. He beat me. He beat me, he beat me, he beat me . . . I was screaming and yelling but I never did cry. Never did cry. Never did cry."
The taping of Ruthie's story began in August 1993 and went on until late September. Early on, Jo Humphreys had stopped working on her own novel -- which was going very slowly -- and turned her full attention to Ruthie. She called her New York agent, Harriet Wasserman, to tell her what she was doing.
Ms. Wasserman, who understands writers' block all too well, remembers vividly the phone call: "Are you doing this because you want to postpone your own work?" she asked.
"No, no," replied Ms. Humphreys, "I really want to do this. It's the most important thing I've ever done."
"Look, you've started her out. Now let her find somebody else to do the rest," countered Ms. Wasserman.
Jo Humphreys remembers the split-second decision she made then. "Suddenly it just came to me," she says now, laughing, "what I had to say. I said, 'OK. You're right,' knowing it wasn't true. So I kept on with Ruthie without telling her."
Soon Jo was immersed in Ruthie's story. After each two-hour session, she transcribed the notes. "It would take me the whole ** time between sessions to type them up. When I finished the first tape I called Ruthie and said, 'You're not going to believe this -- but the tape is 50 pages!' But I wanted her to have that most recent tape when she came in the next time so she could read it and take it home with her."
By this time Jo was working long hours, often getting up and coming in to transcribe at 5:30 in the morning. "My family was going a little bit nuts," she says, laughing. "We started in August, so my sons were both home from Harvard and my nieces were around, and I couldn't talk about anything else."
It still amazes Ruthie: "Can you believe that?" she asks, her bright face registering a combination of awe and affection. "I felt sad for that. I just talked it out but she had to type it up."
Whose voice is it?
Which raises the question that eventually everyone asks: Just how much of a role did Jo Humphreys play in shaping Ruthie's raw material? Is the book a collaboration? Did Jo rewrite a lot? Tease out material from Ruthie? Or is the voice that's captivating reviewers really just Ruthie?
The short answer: It's Ruthie's voice.
The long, specific answer: "Basically," says Ms. Humphreys, "my real job was to transcribe as faithfully as I could those tapes. And secondarily, I was responsible for punctuation, spelling, paragraphing and chapter dividing. . . . The only organization I did was in dividing the chapters -- which was fairly easy and sort of followed the tapes."
Did she ask Ruthie to go back and embellish certain scenes? Did her novelist's eye ask for more details, more description?
There's a long pause. Then: "I'll tell you something interesting that happened in our first session. Ruthie had just done a remarkable scene when Gal and her then-17-year-old mother were sitting in the back yard eating candy together. I was almost speechless when she finished that. And I stopped her and said, 'You know, this is just an incredible event. Could you add some physical description of the yard or the weather or the clothing your mother wore?'. . . And Ruthie didn't say anything for a minute. Then she looked up at me -- and she looked kind of scared -- and she said, 'But I can't remember what it was.'
"And the fiction writer in me almost said, 'Well, it doesn't matter what it was. Put something in there.' But I caught myself. And I suddenly realized: This is a different kind of writing where the story is driven by memory and truth. So she remembered that it was afternoon and that her mother had on blue jeans. So she added that. But that was all."
One thing Jo Humphreys did suggest to Ms. Bolton, however, was that she add some material about the Florida family of the man Ruthie married. This caring family played a major role in bringing out all the love that was bottled up in Gal. They were the family she'd never had. It amazed her to find that people
actually said "Good morning" to her and hugged her and cared about her. "The family changed my life," Gal writes. "I came out of a no-love family, and I fell into a love family."
But just as Ruthie had found it difficult to accept their love, she found it difficult to write about. Until Jo suggested it.
Even now Ms. Bolton speaks haltingly and with deep emotion about her husband's family. And about why it took her so long to accept their love. "I don't know whether it was something I was afraid of or whether I was scared of letting go because I didn't know when they were going to stop being sweet and nice." She pauses, her voice trembles a little. "I wanted to tell people, 'Guess what? I found somebody to love me. I found a family.' But I was afraid. I was waiting for that day when it's going to stop."
The tears are running out of Ruthie's eyes; she reaches instinctively for Jo's hand. But Jo has already reached out to her friend. The no-love family, it seems, never could make Gal cry. But the family that finally loved that abused, defiant, little girl helped unlock her feelings.
"It was like they were trying to get whatever love was in me out of me," says Ruthie. "And somehow they breaked it."
On a morning in late September -- two months after Ruthie and Jo had begun the first of eight taping sessions -- literary agent Harriet Wasserman received a Federal Express package from her client, Josephine Humphreys. To her surprise, inside was a manuscript of "Gal" and a note from Ms. Humphreys explaining how important this project had been to her. But it is the postscript that Ms. Wasserman remembers most vividly. Ms. Humphreys wrote: "P.S. -- I think this is the first time I've ever disobeyed you. I apologize for that."
Ms. Wasserman sat down and read the manuscript immediately. "I couldn't put it down," she recalls. "It's an extraordinary work, both in what she says and how she says it . . . It's written from passion and it has that ring of truth which goes right to the inside of the reader." High praise, indeed, from a woman who represents the likes of Saul Bellow and Reynolds Price. She sent "Gal" over to Harcourt Brace editor-in-chief Cork Smith. He made a pre-emptive offer.
"My initial reaction was, 'What a voice!' " says Mr. Smith, who recently left Harcourt Brace to free-lance. "That's what I'm looking for all the time; a voice that seems fresh." Knowing that "Gal" was a dictated work -- he prefers the term "oral writing -- in no way changed his reading of the book. "It made no difference to me at all," he says.
He says he made few editing changes in the book. "I thought it was best left alone. That didn't mean no editing, but I didn't want to interfere with that voice which seemed so absolutely genuine."
In the end, it was Gal's genuine voice that convinced Ms. Wasserman and Mr. Smith that Ruthie Bolton's story was a true one. That and the word of Jo Humphreys. Still, Ms. Humphreys wrote a letter to Ms. Wasserman explaining exactly what her contribution was. And, says Ms. Wasserman, "we have the original tapings and the original notebook."
Now, there's talk of a movie deal. "I haven't closed it yet but I'm expecting to soon," says Ms. Wasserman. Ruthie Bolton, meantime, says she's working on another book, a novel. This time she plans to write it. And to use her real name.
"Gal: A True Life" is a literary success story, absolutely. But it is also a story of how friendships can flourish in the unlikeliest places. For Jo Humphreys it was a labor of love; she received no money from the publication of the book. When "Gal" was bought by Harcourt Brace, Ruthie asked Jo: "How can I thank you?"
"By making me a home-cooked meal," replied Jo.
So on a breezy November day Ruthie cooked, at Jo's request, rabbit cake, pigs feet, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie and chicken.
And then the two families -- the kids, husbands, sisters, fathers, brothers -- went out to Johns Island and had a picnic.
Ruthie Bolton, it seems -- that little Gal from a no-love family -- has fallen into another love family.