Trigger warnings: discusses death, sexual assault, abuse, ableism, sexism, LGBTQIA-misia, racism, and antisemitism.
Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus at age 39 in 1964, was both a disabled writer and a precursor to the fields of disability studies and disability literature as we know them today. As a white, disabled, woman writer from a Catholic background, I have complicated, ambivalent thoughts towards O’Connor and her work, as I recently wrote on Book Riot. O’Connor’s stories resonated with me on a deeply personal level as a student at Stonehill, articulating a form of ableist sexual harassment that I’d already experienced for several years.
“The death of the author” is an interpretative issue, not a moral or ethical one. As such, I believe it is fallacious to “separate the art from the artist” in any meaningful, ethical sense. Paul Elie’s excellent New Yorker article, which I also cited on BR, changed my perspective on O’Connor by exposing more of her racism. I don’t want to give any more money to living authors whom I personally object to. With long-deceased authors, like O’Connor and Freud, I’ll probably choose to analyze and grapple with their work for the rest of my life. Both have been incredibly influential on my subjectivity as a disabled writer.
I Tweeted my initial thoughts after first reading Elie’s piece:
Jun 16, 2020
As a white, disabled writer (including published short stories!) from a very Catholic family, I certainly have lots of thoughts on Flannery! Based on her own remarks, she was quite racist, & we shouldn’t make excuses for it!
I do get it. These very racist white characters often get a moment of transformation, guilt, or grace, but it’s a very pedestrian, on-the-nose approach to racism. “There aren’t enough real (n-words), so we got to have an artificial one.” By the way, the title of that story is literally “The Artificial (N-Word).” Slur in the title! And the artificial (slur) in question is one of those awful ceramic (lawn) jockey statues.
Maybe this should be a separate essay, but another thing I’ve always seen in O’Connor is the Southern Gothic & the grotesque. Predating formal disability studies, I see lateral ableism in her work. Smart characters, with disabilities like hers, are sympathetic. But what about characters with facial differences, disfigurements, uneducated, or possible IDD/LDD characters? Less sympathetic, even in a crude, grotesque or symbolic way.”
Watching the episode of American Masters on Flannery O’Connor, as it premiered on March 23rd, complicated my feelings even further. The documentary is excellent and contextualized her work in terms of her biography and society. It opened with a content warning for racist slurs in her work and racist and antisemitic slurs in the historical footage. Her stories also contain language considered ableist and anti-LGBTQIA today. I say this not to be ahistorical but the opposite: to warn people trying to get into her work and biography today. Before you read or assign her work, know that the n-word is there, uncensored even in the table of contents, in her collected stories.
O’Connor saying in her letters that she wouldn’t like James Baldwin “if he were white” is also racist and obviously makes no sense. Elie also quoted this in his 2020 article on her racism. A white man with James Baldwin’s level of talent wouldn’t experience racism or segregation, and he’d be a totally different person and writer. It’s just a patently ridiculous and racist idea in every way.
Flannery O’Connor quotes I’ve always found fascinating or relatable:
Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. — Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.
I write to discover what I know.
(I don’t remember the exact quote, but she is quoted in the documentary as saying that loneliness, or needing other people, often drives people to create art. She also says that she can feel trapped in her body — very relatable as another physically disabled person!)
For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified.
― Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
Here’s a quote that’s much less clear and relatable to me: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” This O’Connor essay from 1960 is also filled with racist examples to make her points.
O’Connor often said that she wrote about freaks and the grotesque. As a disabled Millennial from New England, I don’t feel qualified even to interpret or venture to guess what she’s trying to say here. Rather than misrepresent it, I’ll just stay in my lane and say that my perspective is limited. I do think she considers the white, non-disabled, cis, heterosexual bigots, in her stories and elsewhere, the real “freaks.” In her stories, the world labels disabled and intersex people as freaks, sometimes literally in freak shows, as in her 1953 story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Her stories clearly push back against that level of abject marginalization and objectification. Hopefully, we no longer need these kinds of epiphanies today, even fictional ones (that is, realizing other people are human! It’s the baseline!).
Obviously, I’m writing only from my own perspective here! Other disabled people — Black people, intersex people, blind people, Deaf people, people with lupus, facial or limb differences, or intellectual disabilities, undoubtedly have very different perspectives on O’Connor and her characters than I do.
There’s a fascinating moment in the PBS documentary when O’Connor says that she doesn’t want to go to Lourdes (a popular Catholic pilgrimage site) to be cured of her lupus. I relate to acknowledging painful symptoms while not wanting to cure my disability. Here, O’Connor’s words reveal self-acceptance in not wanting a cure, juxtaposed with her equally strong Catholic faith and belief in miracles. She believes that she would probably be cured if she visited Lourdes; hence, her reluctance to go. She clearly had strong convictions.
This desire not to be cured also demonstrates a belief in bodily autonomy. Flannery O’Connor lived before patient privacy laws. A family friend says that O’Connor thanked her for telling her that she (Flannery) had lupus. At the time, it was legal for doctors to tell patients’ friends and family about their diagnoses while withholding their own diagnoses from the patients themselves. When I say that I grew up in a different world from O’Connor, post-HIPAA, the ADA, and the Civil Rights movement, this is part of what I mean.
In 1940, Flannery and her family moved from Savannah, GA to Milledgeville, GA. The city was the site of Central State Hospital, which was then the world’s largest mental institution. There’s a line in the PBS documentary that Flannery would be teased just for having a Southern accent or from being from Milledgeville, “where all the crazies are from.” The documentary doesn’t explicitly comment on the ableism, maybe because it has been in production for over 10 years. However, this clearly illustrates the ableist environment in which Flannery was raised. It shows how isolated, abused, and socially segregated disabled people were. Massachusetts had infamous institutions, too, at the time.
As I explain on BR, I consider the use of blindness in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood an ableist example of narrative prosthesis. Another example is the body of a little person, or person with dwarfism, used as a prop. Sabbath Lily, a young woman who is infatuated with Hazel Motes, presents him with the mummified body of a person with dwarfism. Another character has stolen the body from a museum attached to a local zoo. Lily cradles the body like it’s her baby, but Motes smashes it against the wall. This continues the “freak show” motif in much of O’Connor’s work. Her work views freak shows rightly as evil and exploitative, but it also uses a human corpse as a prop/object in the story in a shocking way.
I also wrote about narrative prosthesis here in April 2020. When discussing Shakespeare’s Lavinia from Titus Andronicus, I wrote: “Predators often target disabled people because they think we’re incapable of defending ourselves: fighting back, running away, identifying our attackers, or being believed.” This description applies equally well to Hulga, the protagonist of O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” or even to my own experiences of sexual harassment and assault. “Good Country People” still feels so personal to me that I might write about it again later from other angles.
Certain interpretations of fictional rape victims, like Lavinia, literalize the character’s disability and trauma or attempt to sublimate them into metaphors. O’Connor’s “Good Country People” defies this tradition, which is why I found it so revelatory as a college freshman. Manley Pointer targets Hulga in particular because she is a disabled woman, and he fetishizes her wooden leg specifically. However, I don’t interpret Pointer stealing the leg as a metaphor for rape. He may also rape her; that much is ambiguous. He has condoms with him. However, stealing her leg and stranding her in a barn is a uniquely ableist, violent assault on its own. He does it because she is disabled and he is fascinated by her leg. I consider Wise Blood ableist but do not personally consider “Good Country People” ableist. O’Connor clearly understood the experience of ableism intimately and described it brilliantly here.
As a fiction writer, literary critic, and critical theorist, I find inexpressible but unpleasant experiences very distressing. It helps me to analyze and name them. Analysis helps me to parse out ableism and dispel the idea that ableism is life as it should be. O’Connor’s stories hit me very hard in 2007–09 because they describe ableist sexual assault, but I didn’t yet know the terms disability studies or ableism. If you teach stories like these, please assign disability theory with them or at the very least, explain ableism. Leave it to disabled professors if possible. Hire us disabled writers to Zoom in.