“The wolf, I’m afraid, is inside tearing up the place.”
The severity of my daughter’s illness didn’t hit me until the day she collapsed at the hospital. An emergency response team whisked her into surgery to drain her lungs. The next morning, her heart. Her autoimmune condition, dubbed Lupus after the Latin word for wolf, the apex canine predator whose bites its facial rashes resemble, had her in its grip.
I remembered that Flannery O’Connor suffered and died prematurely from the same disease, one in which a body’s immune system wreaks warfare on its own organs. As an aspiring writer, I had embraced her stories then thrilled at the chance to teach them in literature and creative writing courses. With my students, although I’d point out the significance of her Catholicism and the South, I rarely referred to her illness. I failed to consider how the debilitating nature of her Lupus flares mandated that she live with her mother and how this development might have shaped her and the stories she chose to tell.
Flannery O’Connor believed in the autonomy of the text. She rejected the idea that her illness fed her preoccupations with distortion, humor, and redemption, saying, “The disease is of no consequence to my writing since for that I use my head and not my feet.” Her views, however, haven’t stopped critics from examining her work as a metaphor for illness, and her harrowing circumstances do validate the grotesque in her stories. Still, her stories are more than their particulars, these critical slants. They speak to the writer Ben Okri’s statement that “If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.” Sometimes revisiting a familiar story can help us do just that.
In the wake of my daughter’s diagnosis, O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with its murderous characters was an unlikely choice to read. As Okri writes, “Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.” I came to O’Connor’s story intuitively, craving solace and perspective in a time of dwindling hope and thus approaching it from this new, specific angle. I considered the hard rigor of O’Connor’s disease and the grace manifest in her writing with the aim of puncturing a hole in my fear. I came looking for the “crack in everything” of which Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem,” because “that’s how the light gets in.” The best stories operate in this realm, a transcendent place that offers a wider context for a painful ordeal.
Devotion and purpose blur emotions when one’s child falls seriously ill. There are tasks. The management of recovery takes up time and ignites skills of advocacy and organization and patience and above all empathy. Post-diagnosis, grateful I’d left my job the previous year and had a settled life that meant flexible time to care for my daughter, I thrummed with compassion, for her heart, her breath, her skin, her energy, for every part of her, for who she was in the world and how the world received her. Yet I had guilt, too, hovering around the edges.
As I taught the story to my writing students, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” explores/reveals the mysteries of faith and acceptance. Through a narrative so familiar to us these days, that of the sociopathic killer and the imprudent, well-meaning victims, O’Connor teases out greater questions about human existence and purpose. Reading the story now, I am struck by how those mysteries speak to the complexities of my own experience.
“I’ve discovered an alternative treatment for your daughter,” a friend says on a walk one morning. “No side effects. You have to go across the border to get it, though.”
She is referring to the visible side effects (weight gain, hair growth) my daughter endures from the corticosteroids that calm the inflammation and pain until her immune system settles, the same corticosteroids that saved her life. This friend’s suggestion demands we eschew a treatment which distorts my daughter’s body in uncomfortable, unattractive ways, even if it means choosing a riskier protocol (taking a drug not approved in our country, for example.)
I get her concern. To those of us not afflicted, the nuances of pain and inflammation, of bodily wounds and invasions, of hair growth and weight gain, of lost mobility and the need to rest, seem monstrous, and especially appalling for a child to bear. Although my friend’s advice expresses care for my girl, I keep a firm stance grounded in what is, rather than what I might wish were true. The exchange leaves me questioning my own empathy and flummoxed (as I often am) by the well-intentioned.
O’Connor endows her characters with afflictions of the body and soul in the name of pushing the boundaries of “mystery,” or the agency of the divine in human affairs. “The central mystery,” she writes, “is why human existence has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.” A character like The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” perverts the mystery, having decided to “reverse” his soul’s journey through wanton crime. He comes to represent the crux of the riddle of God’s love. Through him, O’Connor grapples with issues of belief and perhaps her own morbidity.
Tending my daughter’s illness raises other questions, akin to O’Connor’s mysteries, about the unusual amount of hardship allotted my child in her life. The Misfit boils down a central choice:
If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.
Indeed, O’Connor would seem not to address indiscriminate suffering, favoring themes of redemption and morality instead, with her focus on “goodness” and the choice to follow Jesus.
Yet, the world O’Connor builds in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is nothing if not random. Yes, the Grandmother insists the family visit the house from her childhood, steering them onto the rough country road; yes, her son, Bailey, doesn’t stand up to her. In fiction, character can drive plot. Then an accident occurs. And the Misfit and his gang happen to arrive to murder them all. In other words, bad luck, though faith does have a place in this world of chance and hapless choices. This world view I find oddly comforting as I can no longer subscribe to any of the “thoughts causing illness” philosophies floated by new age healing types (see Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life). Not when it’s my child. To me, the coexistence of randomness and faith make comforting sense.
O’Connor considered herself to be dying from Lupus from the time of her diagnosis, though she lived with the illness for 23 more years. She spoke to friends about taking steroids to treat her flares: “Cortisone makes you think night and day until I suppose the mind dies of exhaustion if you are not rescued.” She suffered joint pain in her arms, hips and shoulders; blood transfusions; ACTH injections; bed rest; hair loss; necrosis in her jaws; a bloated face, and grew to think that she had shaped the illness through her writing, especially during the creation of Wise Blood: “I conceived the notion that I would eventually become paralyzed and was going blind and that in the book I had spelled out my own course or that in the illness I had spelled out the book.”
Most illuminatingly, she spoke about life before and after a Lupus flare, the fears of what the illness would take and relief at what it allowed. In a letter to Maryat Lee, O’Connor wrote: “This is a Return I have faced and when I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned the way it is necessary to be resigned to death and largely because I thought I would be the end of any creation, any work from me. And as I told you by the fence, it was only the beginning.”
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is replete with symbols and small, vividly ordinary moments used to intensify horror. After the family, in the wake of their car accident near a “red gutted ditch,” meets The Misfit and his gang, comes the line: “Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.” Nature, like the human maw, consumes, a formless receptacle much like the evil the Misfit embraces.
O’Connor’s stories dwell in a sad emptiness as odd as her own circumstances. Much of her writing centres on issues of class and the equation of coming from “good people” and “goodness.” The Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” fits this bill. Foolish, vain, manipulative, and judgmental, she pins on a hat with a spray of violets to make the vacation journey. Several times, despite rising evidence to the contrary, she insists the Misfit is a “good man,” without “common blood,” who wouldn’t “shoot a lady.” His “row of strong white teeth” signifies nourishment and a lack of abject poverty and the possibility of being above crime. Indeed, O’Connor’s illness may have felt like a gun to her head, exhorting her to raise questions of faith and grace in her characters’ darkest moments.
One of my grimmest hours came a few days into my daughter’s first hospital stay, pre-diagnosis, when specialists were cycling through the room doing tests, and all options were on the table. My daughter’s white and red blood cell counts had fallen dangerously low. At 4 a.m. a pediatrician doing rounds stopped to tell me she expected the worst. Terminal cancer. As something inside me broke, I wallowed in the dread potential of my daughter’s death. When her diagnosis came two days later, that shattered part of me had retreated, unwilling to scuttle out into the light. It was the fear that chokes all parents made manifest in that half-lit hallway surrounded by lurking shelves of bleached flannel and antiseptic smells and machines humming and every three minutes a long, shrill beep.
O’Connor’s hard vision complicates grace. The Grandmother extolls prayer, chants Jesus’s name, recognizes the unity of The Misfit and her son, but as the Misfit wryly observes, her moment of grace comes too late for this life: “’She would of been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” By the end of the story, The Misfit acknowledges, “It’s no pleasure in life,” cementing his change.
On my daughter’s first day back to school in late October after six weeks off, we stood stoic in the lobby until her grade-four teacher approached. My daughter’s face pinked as she shyly turned into my side and dipped down her chin, her eyes glowing. My eyes watered at how still she held herself as other teachers came. It was as hard if not harder to let her go as it was on the first day of kindergarten. But she didn’t cling.
Aside from the nights when I stayed home with her sister, I’d sat with her through two months at the hospital. I’d witnessed how swiftly a health change could come on, the fever, the working at breathing, the chest pain, the flushed cheeks. I worried about a flare happening at school and nobody noticing. Perhaps my pain was atonement for the summer before her diagnosis when she ached and felt tired and I cajoled her into activities like swimming that she found excruciating. I tell myself I could have done more to make her comfortable. Though I took her often to Emergency and to the doctor, I tell myself I could have done more to find out what was wrong.
It took effort to walk out the school doors and leave her behind. It was the fragility and the attachment and the welling up of her return and what she’d endured and how she’d changed. As Ben Okri says, we are “living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaningless.” Writing about “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in the wake of my daughter’s Lupus diagnosis admits the story that makes the heart bigger and lets the light in. The story in which a random act can result in a moment of unexpected grace.
Image Credit: Pixabay.