Book Review: “Flannery” By Brad Gooch
Brad Gooch’s new biography of Flannery O’Connor is a tender and at times moving account of one of America’s preeminent Catholic writers, a writer often referred to as “Southern Gothic” who chose the grotesque and a powerfully disturbing fiction about human nature to advance a Christian understanding of a fallen world:
As Ms O’Connor wrote to a friend: “In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it. I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery…
My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be unconsciously infected with the Manichean spirit of the times and suffer the much–discussed distinction between sensibility and belief, but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
And shock she did, this quiet, socially awkward, deeply introverted woman who, when she entered college, intended to be a political cartoonist but found herself and her calling at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. After leaving Georgia for Iowa, New York City and Connecticut, her diagnosis of lupus at age twenty-six (the same disease that killed her father when he was forty-five) forced her return back to isolation on the 550-acre working dairy farm in rural Georgia run by her widowed mother. Over the years she collected a number of friends, confidants and like minded writers that Gooch has researched assiduously and formed into a well written biography that will leave you deeply appreciative of the price she paid for being Flannery.
Robert Giroux, her editor captures some of that struggle: “A tense moment occurred at breakfast the next morning when Mrs. O’Connor asked, over cornflakes, “Mister Giroux, can’t you get Flannery to write about nice people?” Giroux said, “I started to laugh. But Flannery was sitting utterly deadpan. I thought, ‘Uh, oh. This is serious to her.’ Flannery never smiled, or raised her eyebrow, or gave me any clue.” On his return to New York he told Lowell of the trip and the poet passed on the news, adding an even sharper edge. “Her life is what you might guess,” he wrote Elizabeth Bishop. “A small, managing indomitable mother, complaining that no one helps her, more or less detesting Flannery’s work, impressed however, wishing she would marry — Flannery silent in her presence. A tall ancient Aunt living next to the old State Capitol, the unwanted peacocks . . . her Mother forcing her to bathe at Lourdes, an improvement, announced as a miracle by the Mother, Flannery silent. Battles between the Mother and the Catholic priest about an unwished.-for altar tapestry.”
The story of her mother’s manipulation and how she learned she had contracted the disease that killed her father is memorable:
“While their time together was chaotic, Sally did use the occasion to share an important truth with Flannery, after uneasily holding back. A few weeks into the visit, they drove to Ridgefield to do household errands. On the way back, on a lovely summer’s afternoon, she. glanced over at her passenger, wondering how she could disturb such peace; but she had made up her mind, following much inner struggle, that Flannery should finally know the true nature of her illness. At that instant, Flannery happened to mention her arthritis. “Flannery, you don’t have arthritis,” Sally said quickly. “You have lupus.” Reacting to the sudden revelation, Flannery slowly moved her arm from the car door down into her lap, her hand visibly trembling. Sally felt her own knee shaking against the clutch, too, as she continued driving along Seventy Acre Road.
“Well, that’s not good news,” Flannery said, after a few silent, charged moments. “But I can’t thank you enough for telling me. I thought I had lupus, and I thought I was going crazy. I’d a lot rather be sick than crazy.” Reassured that her friend was not going to fall to pieces, Sally pulled off the hilly road, and up the long driveway. They then walked into the kitchen, where Flannery dutifully drank one of her twelve daily glasses of water, on doctor’s orders, as the sounds of the voices of the children playing in the yard, watched by Maria Ivancic, bounced through the open windows. “There’s not much to say about it,” she went on. “But don’t ever tell Regina (her mother) you told me, because if you do she will never tell you anything else. I might want to know something else sometime.”
Sally was only too happy to agree, relieved that she would not need to confess to Mrs O’Connor Their intimate conversation was broken, though, as a baby began to wail. “I have to go,” Sally apologized tentatively, unsure about leaving her alone “Well, I think I’ll go take a little rest,” Flannery responded. Before walking out the kitchen door to the inner staircase, she turned back once; using the polite Southern expression, she added, “I’m obliged to you”
“This was devastating knowledge,” Sally Fitzgerald later recalled “That she was going to have to live with uncertainty, that she would not be autonomous and independent. I didn’t minimize what she would have to go through up in her room over the garage when she left that afternoon after I had told her. But I never really regretted it. I knew it was what Flannery wanted. The atmosphere was cleared.”