Nan Hocking-McDonough is a Jacksonville native who grew up watching her mother and father’s abusive relationship. It was a situation that ended tragically. Her father was Milt Hocking, who served as Jacksonville’s mayor. The documentary Mother’s Day sheds light on the abuse Hocking inflicted on his wife, Phyllis Oxley Hocking.
Nan Hocking-McDonough lives in Massachusetts where she’s a faculty member and administrator at Cambridge College, but she’s coming back to her hometown to show the documentary about her parents tonight. Rachel Otwell brings us this story:
CLICK HERE for more information about the film screening and discussion tonight at 7pm at MacMurray College.
Nan Hocking-McDonough says the memories of her parents fighting go back to when she was a young child. At night as she lie in bed sometimes the sounds of her mother’s screams would leave her horrified. Her mother, Phyllis Oxley Hocking, was the victim of domestic abuse.
HOCKING-McDONOUGH: “It’s hard for me to ever remember loving my father, yet I have lots of memories. I remember the first peach I ate when I was like two and half years old … so you know, I have memories going way back, but I think that even before I became aware of the level of abuse, you know, being inflicted on my mother by my father other things happened and were done that were of great concern and upset for me.”
Nan says her father Milt was the kind of person who got high on power-trips, an aspect of his personality that was likely heightened by his role as Jacksonville mayor. She says he would tease people in a mean way, always making it clear that he was in control.
Nan says sometimes his abuse against his wife came in a fit of alcohol propelled rage, and sometimes it was dealt while he was sober. Regardless, at times Nan’s mother, Phyllis, was left in such bad shape that a doctor would need to make a house call. And sometimes family members would come to her aid:
HOCKING-McDONOUGH: “She was reaching out to them for help, and they did try to help. But mostly … the help centered around sometimes them coming to the house when my father was hurting her if she’d been able to reach them by phone. And you know, they would come and, you know, my father was always intoxicated and probably frequently in blackouts and he would get put to bed and they would stay with her. And most often she would say, ‘Well, it’s all over now, so you can go home.’ And that’s something that my aunt and uncle talk about in the documentary I made, ‘Mother’s Day’, that she’d say, ‘It’s okay, it’s all over now.'”
But for Phyllis, it was never was over. The cycle of abuse continued, and as time went on Nan says it got worse. Meanwhile, Phyllis’s personality and self-esteem eroded. Family encouraged her to leave. Nan says starting when she was ten should would tell her mother they should just get in the car and drive away. But Nan says her mom was afraid that if she did, her father would track them down, and then there was no telling what his rage would be capable of. She says her mother was held hostage by the belief that leaving would only make things worse. Nan says, like is common with cases of domestic abuse, there was a lot of denial and purposeful ignorance going on:
HOCKING-McDONOUGH: “The situation was … sort of a barely-concealed secret of my parents. I think that certainly my father’s active alcoholism and his behaviors were known throughout the community. I was you know, home visiting one time and the police brought him home … they didn’t put him in a jail-cell like they would some other person, but they just brought him home, to the front door. It’s that kind of enabling that occurred, and it occurred I think frequently and in different situations with different people that just kept the situation going. “
At one point, Phyllis went to an attorney seeking a divorce. He told her he couldn’t help her, and called Milt to tell him about it. In 1982 she visited a crisis center for victims of domestic violence in Springfield and met with a counselor. She made an appointment to go back. Nan remembers taking her to an Al-Anon meeting too, for family members and those close to alcoholics.
HOCKING-McDONOUGH: “When we left I said, ‘Well, what did you think?’ And she said, ‘Well … I feel bad for those people.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know sometimes it’s not a bad idea just to try it a few more times and see what you might think.’ And she said, well she thought she might … And she didn’t go back to the crisis center, and she didn’t go back to Al-Anon. And I think for me, it was pretty much at that point that I lost hope for her.”
On Mother’s Day in 1984, Nan got the phone call she says she always expected, but not like this:
HOCKING-McDONOUGH: “I actually, I thought when the phone rang that it might be my mother calling, but anyway it was my uncle Dee, my father’s youngest brother and sibling, and he told me that, he said, ‘They’re gone.’ And I said, ‘My parents are gone?’ And he said, ‘Yeah they were found dead in the house.’ And I said, ‘Well, does anybody know what happened?’ And he said, ‘Well, no, no we’re not sure, we don’t know what had happened, they were just found this morning.’ And then you know, it was hard to comprehend that both of them were gone, and the dog had also died … it was shocking, but not shocking. It was traumatizing, there’s no question about that, but I had thought for at least twenty years that something would happen if they didn’t get help.”
Phyllis had gone to the garage, gotten into her car, and let it idle until it was out of gas. While she committed suicide, the carbon monoxide made its way inside the house, where Milt was upstairs in the bedroom, and he died as well. In a way, Phyllis had finally gotten in the car and left.
Nan was back in Jacksonville in 1987 when the city’s crisis center for domestic abuse victims was established. She created a trust in her mother’s name to benefit the women and children there. Coming back to screen the documentary, she says she’s not sure if the darker details of her family’s past are common knowledge in Jacksonville.
HOCKING-McDONOUGH: “I think it could be news to some people, and they always kind of wondered about that thing that happened. But even back in the mid/late eighties, a story was done in the Springfield paper after I set up the trust for my mother and talked about this barely-concealed secret of theirs … I got responses from a few people saying that it was really cathartic to hear the story … and then you know, other people, there was no response, I think people really thought I shouldn’t be talking about such things.”
OTWELL: “Was anyone critical about your decision to go public with this information?
HOCKING-McDONOUGH: “Oh yes, people have been critical, yeah, yeah, yes. I think it’s really unfortunate.”
But Nan doesn’t seem to pay much attention to people who say she should have kept her family’s secret to herself. She says she’s used to having people tell her they’re not interested in hearing about her experience as the only child in an abusive household. She’s presented her documentary which features commentary from her aunt and uncle around thirty times at a variety of venues. The reason she made the film is simple.
HOCKING-McDONOUGH: “It’s a serious social and public health issue, domestic violence is. And we need to educate ourselves and be aware, and know what it is we might do when somebody reaches out to us or we become aware of a situation where someone’s being harmed, and/or the children as well … For me, I’m an educator, so it’s about educating people about the issue of domestic violence. I think when we talk about details of situations, people are better able to identify or connect to a story, and so I think they take away a deep sense of learning and understanding that maybe they didn’t have before … and in some cases people have seen the documentary and they’ve decided they need to change their lives, so that they don’t need to go through what they’re going through anymore. And that’s really what it’s about. That’s what it’s for.”
Nan says it’s her role to be the voice that her mother went without.