March 16, 1998 12:00 PM

THE WEIRD MAN AND THE SCARF Lady—that’s the way neighbors in Lexington, Ky., referred to the reclusive couple in the battered green house on Locust Avenue. What nobody realized was that the Scarf Lady was Gayl Jones, 48, the celebrated novelist who, until her reemergence last month with the publication of The Healing, her first novel in two decades, had virtually dropped from sight 15 years ago. And they didn’t know—until almost too late—that Jones was evidently under the dangerous spell of her husband, Bob, 51. “I believe that the woman has been emotionally abused for 15 years,” says Fayette County District Attorney Margaret Kannensohn. “He was the gatekeeper to her. Nobody made decisions but this man.”

Bob Jones’s last decision cost him his life—and nearly cost his wife hers. On Feb. 20, the pair engaged in a three-hour standoff with Lexington police, who were trying to serve a warrant for Bob’s arrest. After the Joneses allowed their house to fill with natural gas in an apparent suicide attempt, a SWAT team broke in, and Bob cut his throat with a kitchen knife. He died later that night. “I think we saved her life,” Police Chief Larry Walsh said of Gayl, who was taken to Eastern State Hospital, where she remains under observation.

Ironically, Jones’s brush with death comes at a time when her literary career is experiencing a dramatic rebirth. The Healing, hailed by Newsweek as “a major literary event,” represents an unexpected departure from her earlier fiction, which consists of disturbing accounts of black women ravaged by sexual and racial exploitation. By contrast, the new novel is about a faith healer who travels America’s small towns curing maladies both physical and spiritual. The Healing, Jones told Newsweek, “is meant to be a rejection of those earlier novels.”

But it also led police to Bob Jones, since Newsweek went on to report that he had changed his name from Higgins and was wanted in Michigan on an assault charge stemming from his menacing participants at a 1983 Ann Arbor gay-pride rally with a shotgun. Thus alerted, Lexington police seized the chance to arrest a man they had long considered dangerous, who had written dozens of threatening letters to city officials—claiming, among other things, that Gayl’s mother had been imprisoned at a local hospital while being treated for cancer in 1997 and that racist doctors had caused her death.

“I’m sure you realize that my brother-in-law was insane,” Frank Jones, Gayl’s older brother, told the Lexington Herald Leader. Yet no one from her past seems able to explain why she stayed with him. In fact, Gayl Jones has always been a bit of a mystery. The daughter of a cook and a housewife, she was raised in Lexington, where teachers at Henry Clay High remember her as a brilliant enigma—a quiet, wafer-thin girl with large luminous eyes that seemed to drink in everything. One of her teachers helped arrange a scholarship to Connecticut College, and in 1971 Jones entered a graduate program in creative writing at Brown University. She soon became a protégée of novelist Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, which in 1975 published Jones’s first novel, Corregidora, a work that drew raves from John Updike and Maya Angelou.

That same year, Jones began teaching at the University of Michigan, where she met Higgins. Briefly a student there, he is remembered as a troubled man with a strange hold on Jones. He was “like a character out of her fiction—a very domineering personality—the opposite of Gayl herself,” recalls Larry Goldstein, a Michigan English professor. “She submitted to him in a way that you would not have thought likely given her intellectual and imaginative power.”

Despite her growing reputation as a writer, Jones chose to flee with Higgins shortly before his trial in 1983. (He was later convicted in absentia.) “I reject your lying racist s—t,” declared Jones’s resignation letter to the university, which colleagues believe was written by her husband. “God is with Bob and I’m with him.” The couple lived several years in Europe before returning to Lexington in 1988.

Now, in the wake of tragedy, old teachers and colleagues are concerned about Jones and hope she will somehow recover. “Everyone here is kind of heartbroken,” says Michigan’s Larry Goldstein. “Gayl was such a vulnerable person and so talented. Hopefully, she will write about her [recent] experiences. She has always worked under a certain kind of tension and stress. She has always been unpredictable.”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

LUCHINA FISHER in Lexington, KELLY WILLIAMS in Chicago and MARK DAGOSTINO

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