Last year’s 90-minute documentary on Flannery O’Connor, simply titled “Flannery,” is a powerful, lively introduction to this unique American author from the deep South. Although she died of lupus at the tender age of 39 in 1964, she forged an impressive body of work, specializing in the short story. She is often classified as a Southern gothic, grotesque, dark, quirky writer — but she also transcends and defies genre, as one of her interviewers so aptly assesses her in the film: “You are a universal writer, writing about mankind.” What many miss about Flannery in part or altogether is that she is also a solidly Catholic writer. This is how she saw herself. And how does she answer the host of the TV show who asks her (at the outset of the film), “What’s the secret of a good writer?” “Revealing a mystery to the reader and oneself.” Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen picks up Flannery’s thick drawl, intermittently voice-reenacting through the rest of the film.
A tasty feature of the film is the delving into plots and characters of several of Flannery’s stories, accompanied by a smattering of comic-book style illustrations to great effect. Layers and textures of audial and visual artifacts — the sound of a manual typewriter, camp revival songs, archival footage of the times, shots of Flannery’s home and farm — create a palpable slice of her small-town world.
Last year’s documentary comes on the heels of another fine, complementary documentary, “Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor,” that was released by Beata Productions in 2015 and focuses on the supernatural faith and hope at the core of her moral and always redemptive imagination.
“Flannery,” the more recent film, is so rich that it may require repeated viewings for maximum absorption. An upbeat, folksy, almost humorous (reflecting O’Connor’s eccentricity and wit) soundtrack permeates throughout.
But who really was the woman who inspired such a film? And why are some calling her legacy into question in these “cancel culture” days?
A serious reader, writer and gifted cartoonist/illustrator from her youngest years (in a startlingly sardonic and sassy vein), Flannery followed the inexorable call to create. It didn’t take too long for her talent to be recognized and celebrated. She hobnobbed with the literary lights of her day and attended the prestigious Iowa Workshop and other artist’s colonies. After initial rejection by one publishing house, Farrar, Straus & Giroux began “printing everything she wrote” (Giroux is interviewed). Flannery didn’t get to see her novel “Wise Blood” (1979) made into a film directed by John Huston, but she did witness other of her stories hitting the small screen during her short lifetime.
The native Georgian’s very Catholic upbringing (documented in the film) and her unwavering belief in and practice of her faith in heavily-Protestant surroundings was not the only contrast and challenge to her way of life. At Yaddo Artists’ Retreat, while the other young literati were carousing, Flannery was attending daily Mass. Integrating her artistic sensibilities with her Christian ethos was not without a struggle, either. The filmmakers reveal that she would seek counsel from a priest about her vocation as a writer, and she addressed earnest and intimate prayers on the same topic directly to the God she loved in her prayer journal, published in 2013. This was not the scrupulosity of a fearful and repressed religionist, but the germane task of a mature and confident professional. (Flannery knew her work was good and was unruffled by those who disagreed.)
Does this mean she preached? Does this mean she used Catholic imagery? Does this mean she moralized? No, no and no. Mary Flannery O’Connor’s vocation was that of an artist through and through: excellence in craft informed by the totality of her person.
Flannery’s pen pal friend and amateur writer herself, Betty Hester, got it. Betty was discharged from the Air Force for having an illicit affair with a woman, returned to Georgia and began writing to her favorite author. She wrote: “Your stories are about God.” Thus began a nine-year correspondence. It’s not noted in the film, but Flannery brought Betty into the Catholic Church (which she subsequently left, to Flannery’s great disappointment), and when Betty eventually revealed her lesbianism to “F,” Flannery let her know that nothing had changed in her respect and admiration, and she also advised her to remain celibate.
Another early story of Flannery’s outlined in the film is “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” about a hermaphrodite (updated to “intersex”) onstage at a carnival, viewed by a young girl. Later, when the girl is in church and the Blessed Sacrament is raised in the monstrance, she thinks of what she saw and has an epiphany that everyone is a child of God. The story flopped. At this point, Flannery began using more Protestant touchstones that would be intelligible to her audience (e.g., “preachers” rather than “priests,” etc.).
What did Betty Hester see in “F’s” stories? That everyone gets a moment of grace — a moment when they see themselves and everyone else in the truth of God’s light, which is the way God sees us, and how that helps them understand the right thing to do. Flannery knew her audience were “those who think God is dead,” and she wanted to manifest that all of life is the action of God’s grace, summing it up in one whopping, jarring, propitious moment in each tale.
Rather than making “Flannery” interpret the raconteur and her works from afar, the filmmakers invite many of the penwoman’s family, friends and associates to give fresh insight and firsthand vignettes of their interactions with and impressions of her. These include unpublished quotes (usually a clever zinger), telling incidents and her reactions. When it comes to her oeuvre, no one in the wider circle of interviewees dissents with regard to Flannery’s storytelling prowess. In fact, hardly anyone has anything negative to offer, but rather proffers penetrating understanding and even indulgence when it comes to the author’s conduct, opinions, and the meat and meaning of her stories. This generosity is even extended (by fellow Georgian and best-selling author, Alice Walker, along with Hilton Als of “The New Yorker,” who are both Black) to her — wait for it — racism. They saw her in context. Walker states that “writers write to get out what’s inside them.” They explain that she was a product of an inbred culture that never looked at itself in the mirror.
(A glaring oversight, omission and even misrepresentation in the documentary is the fact that many of these interviews were recorded around 20 years ago. All it would have taken is a simple year to flash on the screen as contributors spoke. One stark example: Sally Fitzgerald, Flannery’s editor and housemate, died in 2000. Would Walker or Als have changed anything they stated or how they stated it if they had been interviewed in today’s political and racial climate?)
These are reasonable defenses, and understandable to a point. But it must be stated that simply to excuse on these grounds has the danger of making human beings into Rousseau-ian manufactured products of their environment and nothing more. We all have a heart, a conscience, eyes and ears. And isn’t it one of the basic points of being Christian that we are to be different? To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton: Jesus Christ frees us from being simply and sadly only a child of our own times.
That being said, there is also the remarkable point that, though Flannery could undeniably be labeled a racist, she eventually did look at herself in the mirror. And then she turned that mirror around and held it up to her own ilk.
Like the characters in her story, her big moment of grace in that hospital room, dying of the same dread disease that took her father from her when she was 15, answered who she was at the very end. It was not the racist Flannery. In fact, she was very concerned to finish her last story before her imminent demise, to “reveal the mystery” of who she was now, who she had become, by the grace of God and hard work. Flannery had evolved. To truly understand her completed life and her life’s complete work, read her last yarn: “Revelation.” She explicitly identified herself with the white racist, Ruby Turpin, who has a full blown epiphany and theophany in one: that there are no classes of people, only star differing from star in brightness, and that others she had looked down on were entering the kingdom of God ahead of her.
Flannery’s racism isn’t just being unearthed during today’s historical moment and movement of heightened awareness and redress. It has been problematic and the topic of discussion for a long time. But to simply cancel her and her legacy would be damaging to the views that she espoused in her writings, which were progressively anti-racist — as was her final revelation.
Sister Helena Raphael Burns, FSP, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA and Act One Hollywood. Follow her at www.HellBurns.com and on Twitter @srhelenaburns.