The Bullet in the Side

As a child growing up in Savannah, Georgia, Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) felt a strange and powerful connection to her father, Edward. Some of this naturally stemmed from their striking physical resemblance—the same large, piercing eyes, the same facial expressions. But more important to Mary, their whole way of thinking and feeling seemed completely in sync. She could sense this when her father participated in the games she invented—he slipped so naturally into the spirit of it all, and his imagination moved in such a similar direction to her own. They had ways of communicating without ever saying a word.

Mary, an only child, did not feel the same way about her mother, Regina, who came from a socially superior class to her husband and had aspirations of being a figure in local society. The mother wanted to mold her rather bookish and reclusive daughter into the quintessential southern lady, but Mary, stubborn and willful, would not go along. Mary found her mother and relatives a bit formal and superficial. At the age of ten, she wrote a series of caricatures of them, which she called “My Relitives.” In a mischievous spirit, she let her mother and relatives read the vignettes, and they were, naturally, shocked—not only by how they were portrayed but also by the sharp wit of this tenyear-old.

The father, however, found the caricatures delightful. He collected them into a little book that he showed to visitors. He foresaw a great future for his daughter as a writer. Mary knew from early on that she was different from other children, even a bit eccentric, and she basked in the pride he displayed in her unusual qualities.

She understood her father so well that it frightened her when in the summer of 1937 she sensed a change in his energy and spirit. At first it was subtle—rashes on his face, a sudden weariness that came over him in the afternoon. Then he began to take increasingly long naps and suffer frequent bouts of flu, his entire body aching. Occasionally Mary would eavesdrop on her parents as they talked behind closed doors of his ailments, and what she could glean was that something was seriously wrong.

The real estate business her father had started some years earlier was not doing so well, and he had to let it go. A few months later, he was able to land a government job in Atlanta, which did not pay very well. To manage their tight budget Mary and her mother moved into a spacious home owned by relatives in the town of Milledgeville, in the center of Georgia, not too far from Atlanta.

By 1940 the father was too weak to continue at his job. He moved back home, and over the next few months Mary watched as her beloved father grew weaker and thinner by the day, racked by excruciating pain in his joints, until he finally died on February 1, 1941, at the age of forty-five. It was months later that Mary learned that his illness was known as lupus erythematosus—a disease that makes the body create antibodies that attack and weaken its own healthy tissues.

(Today it is known as systemic lupus erythematosus, and it is the most severe version of the disease.)

In the aftermath of his death, Mary felt too stunned to speak to anyone about the loss, but she confided in a private notebook the effect his death had on her: “The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency, like a bullet in the side. A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.”

She felt as if a part of her had died with her father, so enmeshed had they been in each other’s lives. But beyond the sudden and violent wound it inflicted on her, she was made to wonder about what it all meant in the larger cosmic scheme of things. Deeply devout in her Catholic faith, she imagined that everything occurred for a reason and was part of God’s mysterious plan. Something so significant as her father’s early death could not be meaningless.

In the months to come, a change came over Mary. She became unusually serious and devoted to her schoolwork, something she had been rather indifferent to in the past. She began to write longer and more ambitious stories. She attended a local college for women and impressed her professors with her writing skill and the depth of her thinking. She had determined that her father had guessed correctly her destiny—to be a writer.

Increasingly confident in her creative powers, she decided that her success depended on getting out of Georgia. Living with her mother in Milledgeville made her feel claustrophobic. She applied to the University of Iowa and was accepted with a full scholarship for the academic year beginning in 1945. Her mother begged her to reconsider, thinking her only child was too fragile to live on her own, but Mary had made up her mind. Enrolled in the famous Writers’ Workshop at the university, she decided to simplify her name to Flannery O’Connor, signaling her new identity.

Working with fierce determination and discipline, Flannery began to attract attention for her short stories and the characters from the South she depicted and seemed to know so well, bringing out the dark and grotesque qualities just below the surface of southern gentility. Agents and publishers came calling, and the most prestigious magazines accepted her stories.

After Iowa, Flannery moved to the East Coast, settling in a country house in Connecticut owned by her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, who rented out a room to her. There, without distractions, she began to work feverishly on her first novel. The future seemed so full of promise, and it was all going according to the plan she had laid out for herself after the death of her father.

At Christmas of 1949 she returned to Milledgeville for a visit, and once there she fell quite ill, the doctors diagnosing her with a floating kidney. It would require surgery and some recovery time at home. All she wanted was to get back to Connecticut, to be with her friends, and to finish her novel, which was becoming increasingly ambitious.

Finally, by March, she was able to return, but over the course of the next few months she experienced strange bouts of pain in her arms. She visited doctors in New York, who diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis. That December she was to return to Georgia once again for Christmas, and on the train ride home she fell desperately ill. When she got off the train and was met by her uncle, she could barely walk. She felt as if she had suddenly turned elderly and feeble.

Racked with pain in her joints and suffering high fevers, she was admitted immediately to a hospital. She was told it was a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, and that it would take months to stabilize her; she would have to remain in Milledgeville for an indefinite period. She had little faith in doctors and was not so sure of their diagnosis, but she was far too weak to argue. The fevers made her feel as if she were dying.

To treat her, the doctors gave her massive doses of cortisone, the new miracle drug, which greatly alleviated the pain and the inflammation in her joints. It also gave her bursts of intense energy that troubled her mind and made it race with all kinds of strange thoughts. As a side effect, it also made her hair fall out and bloated her face. And as part of her therapy, she had to have frequent blood transfusions. Her life had suddenly taken a dark turn.

It seemed to her a rather strange coincidence that when the fevers were at their highest, she had the sensation that she was growing blind and paralyzed. Only months before, when she was not yet ill, she had decided to make the main character in her novel blind himself. Had she foreseen her own fate, or had the disease already been there, making her think such thoughts?

Feeling death at her heels and writing at a fast pace while in the hospital, she finished the novel, which she now called Wise Blood, inspired by all of the transfusions she had undergone. The novel concerned a young man, Hazel Motes, determined to spread the gospel of atheism to a new scientific age. He thinks he has “wise blood,” with no need for any kind of spiritual guidance. The novel chronicles his descent into murder and madness and was published in 1952.

After months of hospitalization and having sufficiently recovered at home, Flannery returned to Connecticut for a visit with the Fitzgeralds, hoping that in the near future she could perhaps resume her old life at their country home. One day, as she and Sally were taking a drive in the country, Flannery mentioned her rheumatoid arthritis, and Sally decided to finally tell her the truth that her overprotective mother, in league with the doctors, had kept from her. “Flannery, you don’t have arthritis, you have lupus.” Flannery began to tremble. After a few moments of silence, she replied, “Well, that’s not good news. 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.”

Despite her calm reaction, the news stunned her. This was like a second bullet in her side, the original sensation returning with double the impact. Now she knew for sure that she had inherited the disease from her father. Suddenly she had to confront the reality that perhaps she did not have long to live, considering how quickly her father had gone downhill. It was now clear to her that there would be no plans or hopes for living anywhere else but Milledgeville. She cut short the trip to Connecticut and returned home, feeling depressed and confused.

Her mother was now the manager of her family’s farm, called Andalusia, just outside Milledgeville. Flannery would have to spend the rest of her life on this farm with her mother, who would take care of her. The doctors seemed to think she could live a normal length of life thanks to this new miracle drug, but Flannery did not share their confidence, experiencing firsthand the many adverse side effects and wondering how long her body could endure them.

She loved her mother, but they were very different. The mother was the chatty type, obsessed with status and appearances. In her first weeks back, Flannery felt a sense of panic. She had always been willful, like her father. She liked living on her own terms, and her mother could be quite intense and meddlesome. But beyond that, Flannery associated her creative powers with living her own life outside Georgia, encountering the wide world, among peers with whom she could talk about serious matters. She felt her mind expanding with those larger horizons.

Andalusia would feel like a prison, and she worried that her mind would tighten up in these circumstances. But as she contemplated death staring her in the face, she thought deeply about the course of her life. What clearly mattered to her more than friends or where she lived or even her health itself was her writing, expressing all of the ideas and impressions she had accumulated in her short life. She had so many more stories to write, and another novel or two. Perhaps, in some strange way, this forced return home was a blessing in disguise, part of some other plan for her.

In her room at Andalusia, far from the world, she would have no possible distractions. She would make it clear to her mother that those two or more hours of writing in the morning were sacred to her and she would not tolerate any interruptions. Now she could focus all her energy on her work, get even deeper into her characters, and bring them to life. Back in the heart of Georgia, listening closely to visitors and farmhands, she would be able to hear the voices of her characters, their speech patterns, reverberating in her head. She would feel even more deeply connected to the land, to the South, which obsessed her.

As she moved about in these first months back home, she began to feel the presence of her father—in photographs, in objects that he cherished, in notebooks of his that she discovered. His presence haunted her. He had wanted to become a writer; she knew that. Perhaps he had wanted her to succeed where he had failed. Now the fatal disease they shared tied them together even more tightly; she would feel the same form of pain that afflicted his body. But she would write and write, insensitive to the pain, somehow realizing the potential that her father had seen in her as a child.

Thinking in this way, she realized she had no time to waste. How many more years would she live and have the energy and clarity to write? Being so focused on her work would also help rid her of any anxiety about the illness. When she was writing, she could completely forget herself and inhabit her characters. It was a religious-like experience of losing the ego. As she wrote to a friend with the news of her illness, “I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.”

There were other blessings to count as well: Knowing early on about her disease, she would have time to get used to the idea of dying young, and it would lessen the blow; she would relish every minute, every experience, and make the most of her limited encounters with outsiders. She could not expect much from life, so everything she got would mean something. No need to complain or feel self-pity— everyone had to die at some point. She would find it easier now to not take so seriously the petty concerns that seemed to roil others so much. She could even look at herself and laugh at her own pretensions as a writer, and mock how ridiculous she looked with her bald head, stumbling around with a cane.

As she saw it, people were losing their humanity and capable of all kinds of cruelties. They did not seem to care very deeply about one another and felt rather superior to any kind of outsider. If they could only see what she had seen—how our time is so short, how everyone must suffer and die—it would alter their way of life; it would make them grow up; it would melt all their coldness. What her readers needed was their own “bullet in the side” to shake them out of their complacency. She would accomplish this by portraying in as raw a manner as possible the selfishness and brutality lurking below the surface in her characters, who seemed so outwardly pleasant and banal.

The one problem Flannery had to confront with her new life was the crushing loneliness of it all. She required the company of people to soothe her, and she depended on the cast of characters she met to supply her endless material for her work. As her fame grew with the publication of Wise Blood and her collections of stories, she could count on the occasional visit to the farm from other writers and fans of her work, and she lived for such moments, putting every ounce of her energy into observing her visitors and plumbing their depths.

To fill the gaps between these social encounters, she began a lengthy correspondence with a growing number of friends and fans, writing back to almost anyone who wrote to her. Many of them were quite troubled. There was the young man in the Midwest who felt suicidal and on the verge of madness. There was the brilliant young woman from Georgia, Betty Hester, who felt ashamed for being a lesbian and confided in Flannery, the two of them now regularly corresponding. Flannery never judged any of them, feeling herself to be rather odd and outside the mainstream. To this growing cast of characters and misfits she offered advice and compassion, always entreating them to devote their energies to something outside themselves.

The letters were the perfect medium for Flannery, for it allowed her to keep some physical distance from people; she feared too much intimacy, as it would mean getting attached to those she would soon have to say good-bye to. In this way she slowly built the perfect social world for her purposes.

One spring day in 1953, she received a visit from a tall, handsome twenty-six-year-old man from Denmark named Erik Langkjaier. He was a traveling textbook salesman for a major publisher, his territory including most of the South. He had met a professor at a local college who had offered to introduce him to the great literary figure of Georgia, Flannery O’Connor. From the moment he entered her house, Flannery felt they had some kind of mystical connection. She found Erik very funny and well read. It was indeed rare to meet someone so worldly in this part of Georgia. His life as an itinerant salesman fascinated her; she found it humorous that he carried with him a “Bible,” what those in the business called the loose-leaf binder of promotional materials.

Something about his rootless life struck a chord with her. Like Flannery, Erik’s father had died when he was young. She opened up to him about her own father and the lupus she had inherited. She found Erik attractive and was suddenly self-conscious about her appearance, constantly making jokes about herself. She gave him a copy of Wise Blood, inscribing it, “For Erik, who has wise blood too.”

He began to arrange his travels so that he could pass often through Milledgeville and continue their lively discussions. Flannery looked forward to every visit and felt pangs of emptiness when he left. In May of 1954, on one of his visits he told her he was taking a six-month leave from his job to return to Denmark, and he suggested they take a goodbye car ride through the county, their favorite activity. It was dusk, and in the middle of nowhere he parked the car on the side of the road and leaned over to kiss her, which she gladly accepted. It was short, but for her quite memorable.

She wrote to him regularly and, clearly missing him, kept discreetly referencing their car rides and how much they meant to her. In January 1955, she began a story that seemingly poured out of her in a few days. (Normally she was a careful writer who put stories through several drafts.) She called it “Good Country People.” One of the characters is a cynical young woman with a wooden leg. She is romanced by a traveling salesman of Bibles. She suddenly lets down her guard and allows him to seduce her, playing her own game with him. As they are about to make love in a hayloft, he begs her to remove her wooden leg, as a sign of her trust. This seems far too intimate and a violation of all her defenses, but she relents. He then runs away with the leg, never to return.

In the back of her mind she was aware that Erik was somehow extending his stay in Europe. The story was her way of coping with this, caricaturing the two of them as the salesman and the cynical crippled daughter who had let down her guard. Erik had taken her wooden leg. By April she felt his absence rather keenly and wrote to him, “I feel like if you were here we could talk about a million things without stopping.” But the day after she mailed this she received a letter from him announcing his engagement to a Danish woman, and he told her of their plans to return to the States, where he would take up his old job.

She had intuited such an event would happen, but the news was a shock nonetheless. She replied with utmost politeness, congratulating him, and they wrote to each other for several more years, but she could not get over this loss so easily. She had tried to protect herself from any deep feelings of parting and separation because they were too unbearable for her. They were like small reminders of the death that would take her away at any moment, while others would go on living and loving. And now those very feelings of separation came pouring in.

Now she knew what it was like to experience unrequited love, but for her it was different—she knew that this was the last such chance for her and that her life was to be led essentially alone, and it made it all doubly poignant. She had trained herself to look death square in the eye, so why should she recoil from facing this latest form of suffering? She understood what she had to do—transmute this painful experience into more stories and into her second novel, to use it as means to enrich her knowledge of people and their vulnerabilities.

In the next few years the drugs began to take a toll, as the cortisone softened her hip and jawbone and made her arms often too weak to type. She soon needed crutches to get around. Sunlight had become her nemesis, as it could reactivate the lupus rashes, and so to take walks she had to cover every inch of her body, even in the stifling heat of the summer. The doctors tried to remove her from the cortisone to give her body some relief, and this lowered her energy and made the writing that much harder.

Under all the duress of the past few years, she had managed to publish two novels and several collections of short stories; she was considered one of the great American writers of her time, although still so young. But suddenly she began to feel worn down and inarticulate. She wrote to a friend in the spring of 1962, “I’ve been writing for sixteen years and I have the sense of having exhausted my original potentiality and being now in need of the kind of grace that deepens perception.”

One day shortly before Christmas of 1963, she suddenly fainted and was taken to the hospital. The doctors diagnosed her with anemia and began a series of blood transfusions to revive her. She was too weak now to even sit at her typewriter. Then a few months later they discovered a benign tumor that they needed to remove. Their only fear was that the trauma of the surgery would somehow reactivate the lupus and the powerful episodes of fevers that she had experienced ten years before.

In letters to friends, she made light of it all. Strangely enough, now that she was at her weakest, she found the inspiration to write more stories and prepare a new collection of them for fall publication. In the hospital she studied her nurses closely and found material for some new characters. When the doctors prohibited her from working, she concocted stories in her head and memorized them. She hid notebooks under her pillow. She had to keep writing.

The surgery was a success, but by mid-March it was clear that her lupus had come roaring back. She compared it to a wolf (lupus is Latin for “wolf”) raging inside her now, tearing things up. Her hospital stay was extended, and yet despite it all, she managed here and there to get in her daily two hours, hiding her work from the nurses and doctors. She was in a hurry to scratch out these last stories before it was all over.

Finally, on June 21, she was allowed to return home, and in the back of her mind she sensed the end was coming, the memory of her father’s last days so vivid within her. Pain or no pain, she had to work, to finish the stories and revisions she had started. If she could manage only an hour a day, so be it. She had to squeeze out every last bit of consciousness that remained to her and make use of it. She had realized her destiny as a writer and had led a life of incomparable richness. She had nothing now to complain about or regret, except the unfinished stories.

On July 31, while watching the summer rain by her window, she suddenly lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital. She died in the early hours of August 3, at the age of thirty-nine. In accordance with her last wishes, Flannery was buried next to her father.

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