If you do pull off the road and spend some time in an East Texas town, you'll see that this is not like any other part of the state. Some call this the place in Texas where the Old South begins, and while Louisianans are quite different from East Texans in many ways, with the magic of Cajun and creole, the similarities do pick up again in Tennessee and Arkansas. West of I-45 and U.S. 75, things are different. There are the granola culture in Austin, the desert moonscape of the Rio Grande Valley and southwest Texas, and the culture of Dallas, a place so artificial in so many ways that nature has even responded, giving us the humidity that befits a harbor, even though the sea is 300 miles away.
But in East Texas, you'll see a region that has coalesced into small towns that are fiercely loyal to their own, that mistrust the outsider and despise the snob. Everyone in your town will know your business, which can be a good thing when you need help, but can be a bad thing when your life turns upside down, because everywhere you go, people know about it. This is not an area in which homeowner's associations and zoning laws do well, because of the individualism that runs like a high-voltage power line through the area -- at least as far as personal rights go.
The church is the hub of the community in East Texas, in ways that larger cities have lost. In other parts of the world, there are synagogues and mosques and churches that have services in multiple languages -- but not in East Texas. In larger cities, more and more people are staying away from church, and megachurches and emergent churches and coffeehouse churches are trying to find them and bring them back in, but that movement has not made into the Piney Woods yet. Yes, the church is a place of worship, but it's also a place to maintain your friends, to hear the latest news, to see and be seen.
When I was a child, my great-uncle was a Baptist pastor who served several of these small churches in Grayson and Fannin Counties. My own family went to one of the largest churches in Dallas, and so when I went to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle, things were definitely different. The people in the churches that Uncle Harold served were happy to see me and remembered my name, even if it had been months since I had been there. There were no columns or arches in those churches, and the stained glass was probably plastic, and the organ had no pipes, but the feeling in those churches was warmer in those places, and it seemed like there was no place for anyone who was not genuine.
Of course, if you were different from those around you, you had to work harder to fit in. And that's where the story of Bernie Tiede comes in.
Bernie was a mortician's assistant in the town of Carthage, Texas. He was a single man in his late 30's with what his boss described as an amazing sense of how to design the inside of a funeral home, and how to serve the needs of the bereaved families, especially the elderly widows. He would dote on the elderly women in town after they had lost their husbands, and his singing voice and flair for the preparation of corpses for open-casket funerals made him one of the most beloved people in town. Even if he was seen as "effeminate," which might mean that people thought he was a closeted homosexual. In a town like that, there is no diversity that will ever be officially recognized; instead, you carry out your affairs privately.
Marjorie Nugent was a prickly widow who was known to be mean before her husband's death, and she became even more so afterward. Bernie reached out to her, and his warmth caused her to soften and make him her constant companion. However, she became so possessive and emotionally abusive that, in 1996, he shot her in the back and stuffed her body into a freezer in the garage. For nine months, he was able to cover for her absence, because she had alienated her family and her town from her.
The most unusual part of this story, though, is that when the rest of Carthage found out what had happened, no one wanted Bernie to go to jail (that link goes to a well-written article in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth). Everyone in town loved him -- and everyone hated the mean old woman who had made his life so miserable. In fact, the trial had to be moved to the tiny town of San Augustine, because the prosecution didn't think it would get a fair shake from the jury. I dare you to find another example of that.
Fifteen years later, this story has become a major motion picture. Here's the trailer:
Yes, that's Jack Black. Many of you may be fans of his body of work, but I was not one. He's all well and good as the voice of that panda, but Gulliver's Travels just made me mad. Turning an ignorant curmudgeon into a slacker trying to impress a girl? There are movies that will do that without making Jonathan Swift's most important work even less understandable. By the way, if Hugh Laurie is looking to change his brand after the end of "House, M.D.," the role of Lemuel Gulliver in a well-written script would be very interesting. After all, he only has Jack Black and Ted Danson preceding him in the role.
Back to Bernie, though. This movie also stars Matthew McConaughey as the district attorney who must sit in his church pew and hear his pastor call for prayers for Bernie -- even though Bernie confessed to shooting a woman who had given him over $3 million in the back. True, Bernie gave most of the money away, or bought things with it and gave those things to people who needed them, but it was hard to argue that a woman who had taken him to Egypt and New York City and Russia -- all first class -- could have goaded him to murder. So now he's in prison.
But Jack Black is simply amazing in this film. Instead of being that loud annoying moron that he seems to have played in about 136 other movies, here he has become that portly, effeminate mortician's assistant. His singing voice and his demeanor just nail, with precision, every oily minister of music who has stepped into a pulpit between Dallas and Shreveport. He oozes sincerity, whether it is comforting the bereaved at a funeral or struggling to handle the increasing meanness with which Marjorie treats him. Her habit of staring right at him, demanding eye contact without saying a word, while she chews each bite of food 25 times (even if it's refried beans), drives him crazy. And she keeps doing it because she knows it drives him crazy, and she knows she can manipulate him into taking her to lunch every time she wants him to. Her character is a bit too flat to merit attention from the Academy, but there are not many women that you would hate more, after seeing this movie. McConaughey's flustered, cornbread management of the role of the district attorney is true, from his imitation of the hand motions of the evangelists he'd seen in three-piece suits as a child during his closing arguments to the jury.
No matter what you think of people who live in towns without symphonies or even minor league baseball teams, without Trader Joe's or the Whole Foods Market, though, the spirit of this East Texas town comes out, ultimately, warm and comforting. People who don't quite fit in with the mainstream, in terms of lifestyle, are left alone -- but not excluded, if they want to be friends with everyone else. It is a real shame that this doesn't mean that diversity has gained acceptance in this part of the world, but the good intentions are such that it's hard to believe that won't change over the coming years. It will just take a little more time, just like it takes more time to crank a case full of peach ice cream than it does to run down to Kroger and buy a half-gallon. You can't force that ice cream to be ready any faster, but when it is ready, your mouth will remember it when you're sitting on your front porch, fighting off the trip to the nursing home, wondering why dessert just isn't good anymore.