In 1990, in a motel in New Paltz, a man in his early 30s who had grown up in that town died of a drug overdose. It was the final act in a long, heartbreaking spiral into depression, substance abuse, arrests for public drunkenness and barroom brawls, stealing from friends and family, walking away from attempts at rehab, driving under the influence. Three times he wrecked cars while driving drunk, and the third time, one passenger died and another suffered a crushed leg.
But Brian Hurley’s story didn’t start out that way. He was a brilliant, charming, thoughtful young man who excelled at both academics and sports. He was popular, had a wide circle of friends, had his writing published in the Huguenot Herald, won a National Merit Scholarship commendation in his junior year at New Paltz High School and was elected a class officer in his senior year. By then he was a local celebrity, having already competed twice in Golden Gloves boxing tournaments at Madison Square Garden as a protégé of former world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson.
That promising teenager is the person Janet Hurley wanted to remember and celebrate in writing her new book, Glove Shy: A Sister’s Reckoning (Lystra Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 2023). She will be doing a reading and discussion at 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 17 at the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz.
The memoir’s title derives from a boxing expression that never applied to Brian Hurley himself. “‘Glove shy’ is what they call it when a fighter sees a glove coming and closes their eyes,” Janet Hurley explains. “It’s a huge metaphor for how addiction and family trauma play out. There’s a lot of stuff that you don’t want to see.” This book tells the story not only of a young man whose life went awry in myriad ways, but also of the price paid by his sisters as their parents struggled to help the most problematic of their offspring. It also honors the community of young aspiring fighters that grew up around Patterson’s Huguenot Boxing Club, many of whom shared their admiration of Brian as they helped Janet piece together the convoluted story of his rise and fall.
Brian was the “golden child” and the only boy in a middle-class family that no one would have pinpointed as dysfunctional by the standards of the 1970s. Their father, Bill Hurley, was the athletic director for many years of the Kingston Consolidated School District – an “old-school coach” and “definitely a man’s man,” according to Janet. “My experience with him was that he was kind and generous, and that, like most men of his generation, he kept his feelings pretty close to his chest.” Brian admired and wanted to please his father, and like him, tended to turn inward when something was troubling him.
Bill Hurley also had a drinking problem for awhile, which nearly led to a breakdown of his marriage, but cleaned up his act after his wife confronted him about it. Sonia Hurley had a Master’s degree in Public Health Administration and worked for several years as the director of the substance abuse prevention program for the Poughkeepsie public school system. Savvy as her mother was, Janet notes, the 1970s were a time before even professionals in the field fully realized that addiction and mental illnesses were problems that often need to be addressed on a holistic, family-oriented level. Much of the story that she tells, interwoven with Brian’s personal saga, involves the way his loved ones were affected – in both the short and the long term – when his behavior became more and more self-destructive.
Young Brian got his first taste of fist-fighting at the age of 11 when the neighborhood bully beat him up following an unsuccessful day of running a lemonade stand. In high school he took up wrestling, but by age 15 had talked himself into becoming a trainee at Floyd Patterson’s gym on the edge of town. It quickly became clear that he had abundant natural talent for the sport, and a drive to win.
His rise was meteoric, his fall nearly as much so. People knowledgeable about the boxing world of those days told Janet when she was researching the story that Patterson’s protégés frequently were declared the losers in matches they objectively should have won, when challenging young fighters based in New York City gyms. So it was that both times that Brian competed in the Golden Gloves during his high school years, he didn’t make it past the quarterfinals.
Thus began a string of disappointments that culminated in disasters. When Brian and his fellow class officers came up with a brainwave to fundraise for a senior class trip by organizing a boxing exhibition, Patterson agreed to help and pulled strings to make it happen. But a misunderstanding about how the money raised would be divided up sparked a shouting match between Brian and the champ, and he canceled the event.
Already, says Janet, her brother was drinking too much, smoking a lot of pot, although his substance abuse “really got in conflict with his training… After his big argument with Floyd, there was a long time of his being depressed. He would disappear into his bedroom in the basement. He didn’t have a foundation to deal with the situational things.”
Eventually Brian “worked it out” with Patterson and returned to training at the gym, but his boxing career never really took off the way everyone had initially expected. After he graduated high school, he quickly lost interest in academics, took a job as a cab driver and spent more time partying. When the third car wreck in less than a year with Brian at the wheel caused the death of his friend Larry Young, Janet allowed herself to hope, “Maybe this’ll be a jolt for the good,” but it was not to be. Her brother’s sense of guilt further undermined his self-esteem and sent him into a tailspin from which he never fully recovered, despite Patterson’s efforts to reengage his interest in boxing and even a stint of psychotherapy – something boys weren’t supposed to do in those days, Janet notes.
While all this drama was playing out, Brian’s three sisters had lives of their own, and the usual challenges of adolescence to face. Expectations were high that they would not act out any behavior problems, since the family already had its hands full with one troubled son. “How could you do something like this after all that we have been through?” her mother said to her at one point, after she had been spotted making out with a high school boyfriend. For his part, Brian didn’t even show up when Janet won the lead role in the high school play, and her family barely noticed when she won a countywide writing contest.
She later began a romantic relationship with another promising boxer a few years younger than her brother, Andy Schott, who remained friends with both siblings over the ensuing years and eventually became one of Janet’s most helpful sources in the compiling of this memoir. The tale of how she tracked down people who had known Brian in her decades-long effort to reconstruct his life story is a parallel narrative woven in and out of the main timeline, to great effect. Her writing is fluid and compelling throughout.
Janet went away to attend the University of North Carolina and did well in school, but later embarked on her own arc of alcoholism and codependency with a man she almost married. Today she’s a firm believer in recovery and prevention programs, and is hoping that the publication of her new memoir will lead to opportunities to engage with them as a speaker and discussion leader.
She and her husband David have two grown children and live in Asheville, North Carolina. He is a financial planner; she is currently working as a grantwriter after a varied career of writing feature stories for regional magazines, teaching writing at Warren Wilson College and organizing writing camps for youth. On the same day that she’ll be reading from Glove Shy at the Elting Library, her latest piece of journalism – a feature story on the Mountain Area Abortion Doula Collective – will be published by the magazine The Bitter Southerner. To read samples of her other work, visit Janet Hurley’s website at www.janethurley.me.