At the age of twenty-six, Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with disseminated lupus, and given five years to live.
She was staying with friends in Connecticut when she fell ill. Flannery had left the South after college with no intention of returning for more than an occasional visit. She had attended the famous writers’ program in Iowa, and done a stint at Yaddo. She’d worked on early drafts of the novel Wise Blood while living in New York City. When she felt her shoulders begin to tighten during a harsh northern winter, she attributed the discomfort to arthritis. She was a gifted writer who was building a reputation; she had her whole life ahead of her. She brushed off her friends’ concern, but planned a trip to visit her mother. When her uncle picked her up from the train station in Georgia, he barely recognized the pale, crumpled girl on the platform. Flannery was, although she didn’t know it at the time, home for good.
Flannery endured steroid shots, surgeries, blood transfusions, a strict diet and a litany of medications. Her hair fell out temporarily, her face swelled, and she had to use metal crutches to walk. She kept her sense of humor though, and almost never complained about her situation. Her letters from this period are bright, sarcastic, and concerned about the world beyond the borders of her family farm, Andalusia. She developed a quiet routine that allowed her to devote her limited strength to her work. In the morning she sat at her desk and wrote stories. In the afternoons she rocked on her front porch and composed letters to faraway friends. She wrote to the poet Robert Lowell, “I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.”
Flannery traveled occasionally and reluctantly, to give talks at various colleges. She found the trips taxing, but accepted the invitations for the financial remuneration. Otherwise, her social life was limited to Andalusia, and therefore to her mother, Regina. The two women had a close, complicated relationship that is hilariously depicted in Flannery’s letters, collected as a volume in The Habit of Being. Regina didn’t understand her daughter’s fiction, but she loved and respected Flannery, so she created a life on the farm that supported both her daughter’s work and her health. Regina also permitted Flannery to populate the farm with her beloved peacocks, despite despising the noisy birds.
Flannery completed two novels and more than two-dozen stories while battling lupus. She wrote stories that the reader experiences as a series of blows to the chest. The stories are often upsetting, the characters ugly, and the endings dark. The sentences are bold and sharp; her use of language is uncompromising. A paragraph written by Flannery could be penned by no other. Her voice is unmistakable, and inimitable. Her stories also hold up a mirror that is important to face. The truths she wove through her work are intended to make us uncomfortable—you will think, I am nothing like these awful characters. But you are, and I am too.
It’s difficult for me to write about Flannery O’Connor because she’s lived in my head for the last seven years as a character in my novel, A Good Hard Look. She exists for me as a semi-fictional character, as well as the writer of some of the best short stories ever written. I know the facts about her, and I know the internal life I created for her. Neither is the whole truth, and so I hesitate as I try to depict her here. This struggle feels appropriate and familiar, however; Flannery has always demanded a lot of me. I wrote endless drafts of my novel and in particular, hundreds of drafts of her scenes, because I wanted the book to be worthy of her.
In the end, Flannery defied the doctor’s prognosis. She was given five years to live; she took thirteen. She died when she was thirty-nine years old. She is now an acknowledged master of the short story, and an icon of American literature. Her place on this list of “well-lived lives” is hard earned. Flannery was dealt a horrible blow with her diagnosis; many of us would have taken to our beds in her position, lost to a black hole of self-pity. Flannery refused to do that. She had the bravery to squeeze value out of every minute she had left. She poured herself into her work. She was robbed of time, energy and a future, and still she chose to reach for the moon.