Part of the problem with Jones’s novels is their lack of spiritual value: most of her characters have little faith, even in themselves. Has America done this to them? Is Jones’s dead despair the result of a kind of internalized racism that says Black people are thieving misogynists who suck pork and cabbage out of their teeth after a murder because that’s how they do? One could argue that the core of Jones’s writing is existentialist, that her novels are a Black American version of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” but that would be wrong: Camus was sick about humanity and the ways in which power can alienate one from oneself. Jones’s writing in these early books is closer to the vision of degradation in movies such as Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” (2005) and “Black Snake Moan” (2006) and Lee Daniels’s “Precious” (2009) and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (2021), or to the “surreal” Black world of Deana Lawson’s photographs. In these works, Black people are greasy artifacts from the old colored museum, a place where racist views are celebrated and Blackness is always a curse.
Jones’s 1977 short-story collection, “White Rat,” was the last book she worked on with Morrison. By the time it was published, Jones was teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and keeping company with a man named Bob Higgins, who had come back to Ann Arbor in 1975—he’d graduated from the university there—after a run-in with the Staten Island police. Publishers had rejected Higgins’s treatise on Hegel, and he had become so incensed that the cops were called; there was a standoff, the police teargassed his apartment, and Higgins jumped from the sixth floor to get away. The Times reported that Higgins had been abandoned by his mother, who eventually died, homeless and mentally ill, of alcoholism. He had grown up with relatives and in a series of foster homes. After returning to Ann Arbor, Higgins told the story of his Staten Island escape, as a way of proclaiming his “godliness.” His relationship with Jones quickly intensified, and soon he stepped in as her agent, a move that alienated Morrison so much that she stopped working with Jones. Then, with Higgins facing charges for assault, after attending a gay-rights parade where he declared that aids was divine retribution, Jones resigned from the university, and the couple fled to Europe.
Jones and Higgins stayed overseas for five years, living mostly in Paris. They returned to Lexington in 1988, and moved in with Jones’s mother, whose health was starting to fail: Lucille, the storyteller, had throat cancer. According to the Times, Jones’s devotion to Higgins was “seemingly total”:
While Lucille was being treated, and after she died, in 1997, Higgins, using the name Bob Jones, issued numerous statements and letters claiming, among other things, that she had been kidnapped by the hospital that cared for her and that she was the victim of nefarious white forces in the medical community, and threatening the president of the University of Kentucky. Still, Jones continued to write and had started working with Helene Atwan at Beacon Press, which had, in the eighties, published the paperback editions of her first two novels. In early 1998, Beacon published “The Healing,” Jones’s third novel. To commemorate the occasion, the author conducted an interview via e-mail with Newsweek, in which Higgins’s cover was inadvertently blown. The police realized that Bob Jones was, in fact, the Bob Higgins who was wanted for assault in Michigan.
When officers arrived at the Jones home with a fifteen-year-old warrant, Higgins shut the door on them and ran to the back of the house, where he grabbed two knives and pointed them at his throat. If they attempted to enter, he said, he’d kill himself. A swat team surrounded the house a few hours later, and Jones called 911. The Times published part of the call transcript, and it’s excruciating to read. It’s like being back in Eva’s mind. Jones tells the operator that the police want to kill her husband like they killed her mother. She mentions the “full-page article” about her that had appeared in Newsweek. She says that she and Higgins have turned on the gas in the house. Were they trying to kill themselves, or blow up the whole neighborhood? After evacuating the nearby houses, officers entered the home and Higgins stabbed a knife into his throat. He died at the hospital. Jones was handcuffed and taken to a state psychiatric hospital, where she was held for more than two weeks, until she was no longer considered a danger to herself.
I was already working at this magazine when the Jones story broke, and there was much discussion in the office that day about what could be written about it, and whether we could reach Jones or Harper, her former adviser, who, despite Higgins’s efforts, was still in touch with her. But Jones was not talking to anyone. In my heart, I knew that no article would be written with Jones’s help: if she spoke to the press, it would not only be a betrayal of Higgins and his Black masculinity; it would negate her role in the creation of that masculinity.
Michele Wallace, in her seminal 1978 text, “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,” argues that the ideology that informed the Black nationalism of the sixties wasn’t so much revolutionary as it was reactionary: for Black men to be men—and to enact the myth of the “bad nigger,” say—somebody had to crack the eggs, or get cracked in the head. I had seen some version of this my entire life. I had sat at rallies in Harlem while one of my sisters, charged with babysitting me, listened to a confused and confusing talk about nation time, a separate economic system, and how a “sista” was there to lift up her man. But what if that man was violent? Or crazy? There were many broken men who concealed their brokenness under a cloak of Blackness. Higgins believed in the power of his machismo because it was all he had. What could any woman do for him but serve the madness that his motherless loneliness had created? I wonder if Jones felt that she needed not just to live out one of her early stories but also to apologize for it—apologize for creating a Mutt who’d throw Ursa down the stairs, or a Davis who didn’t like the smell of a menstruating woman.
Jones’s relationship with Higgins seems to have been in part a performance of gender minstrelsy, with her walking a few yards behind him and covering her face. She was not allowed, as Wallace might say, her own subjectivity. Still, she took that subjectivity back, and what she has done with it is both sad and triumphant. Sad because “The Healing,” “Mosquito” (the novel that followed “The Healing,” in 1999), and “Palmares” are not good books; triumphant because, in writing them, she was still fighting to hold onto her own vision. Subjugation takes your options away but, in some cases, releases your mind: with so few choices to be made, you can allow yourself to imagine.
The narrator of “The Healing,” Harlan Jane Eagleton, a faith healer, grew up in a world of women: her mother and her grandmother own a beauty salon in Louisville, and for a while Harlan, too, worked as a beautician. We first meet her on a bus as she eats sardines, slurps mustard sauce, and ruminates on the beauty of the passing landscape. Harlan is a healer, not a preacher, and she makes that distinction early on—this is, after all, what Flannery O’Connor called the “Christ-haunted” South, where faith is synonymous with Jesus. In a sense, Harlan is her own Jesus, and the Scripture she reads has to do with the junk of the modern world. McDonald’s, Sally Jessy Raphael, Taco Bell: these are as much a part of America as the tepees in Wigwam Village, where people stay when they want to feel like they’re Native American.
To enhance her cred, Harlan has her old friend Nicholas come down from Alaska to describe to her followers his experience of witnessing her first healing—even though he’s implied that he’d like to retire from performing that particular truth. Nicholas, Harlan says, looks like the colored fellow in the Village People, “like them men that dances for them women in the nightclubs, you know, usually they costumes theyselves to resemble the masculine stereotypes of men.” She adds, “I thought about hiring me another ‘witness’ but that would be duplicitous and Nicholas the true one witnessed the first true healing.” These lines are fairly typical of the book as a whole, which veers associatively from one thought to the next, not so much to indicate the movement of Harlan’s mind as to encompass all that Jones wants to talk about: gender roles, faith, America.
What does Harlan heal? Sometimes pain or an ailing mind—and sometimes her presence alone is a comfort. (She comes from a line of Spiritualists, including her grandmother, who is convinced that she was a turtle in another life.) Eventually, Harlan meets a singer named Joan, and, as with other female relationships in Jones’s books, the connection is fraught. Joan is a richer character than, for instance, Elvira, in “Eva’s Man,” but she is still subject to Jones’s tendency to define women in degrading language. Here’s how Harlan introduces her: