Flannery, Lupus, and a Principle of Life

Elisabeth leseur.jpg

When I was a young mother, I spent countless hours in the silence rocking and nursing my babies. There were no iphones and the dial-up internet on our Apple was so maddeningly slow that even if I could have balanced it on my knee, I wouldn't have. 

Instead, I spent those long hours singing lullabies and reading almost every book in my husband's extensive library. My real intellectual education happened during that time only after my formal schooling had ended... when my mind was permitted the time to linger over and fight with and grasp great ideas. I never would have or could have had such an experience without that sweet period of maternal isolation. I'm no great intellect but I expanded greatly.

In the subsequent 20 years, that mothering space has been invaded by the almighty glowing screen of technology. I mourn for young moms today who don't even know what they have lost. But I will save that lament for another day. 

There was one uniquely memorable week during that slow and stretching time when my husband introduced me to Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene. Taken one at a time, they are heavy enough; but reading their collected works of fiction within the span of two weeks was something I have never had the desire to repeat nor would I recommend.

They were brilliant. They were horrible. I don't think a weeklong marathon of CNN could have burdened me more with the suffering of mankind. The evil on television is necessarily removed a pace or two by the medium, but O'Connor and Greene (O'Connor in a uniquely horrible way) set up shop in my very soul and camped out there for many, many nights after I first invited them in.

I cried and cried and cried long after the books were put back on the shelf. I had been a sad child and I carried sadness into my adult life. Those two authors ripped off my partially healed scabs (I was only 21 at the time) and poke, poke, poked me until that week was over and I was a sniveling mess. I was angry, particularly with O'Connor for taking me mentally and emotionally where I didn't want to go; for dragging me into a depth of reflection on depravity and evil that threatened to hide hope from me just as I was getting my footing in newfound joy. 

I'm sure she was brilliant. It's not that I can't grasp her accomplishment or understand the movement of grace in her stories. I was mesmerized. The problem is that I didn't need to enter so deeply into the depravity of evil in order to fully understand. Above all else, the world needs lovers and healers to minister to the broken body of Christ, not an immersion in sin. Although I could still recognize a pinhole of hope in her work, emotionally I couldn't reach it. 

By contrast, although dismal in his own right, Green left me with a residual hope that grew over time. I was drawn into, and properly horrified by, The Power and The Glory; and yet was also pulled toward a mysterious joy and gratitude for the faith.  

It was only recently that I learned of O'Connor's battle with lupus and it would have gone unnoticed by me except for my own recent diagnosis. During my internet searches for lupus healing, I frequently stumble across O'Connor's name and the persistent opinion that her lupus gave her unique insight into suffering and thus enabled her to tap her unique brilliance.  

One person writes (and I have lost the source to give credit and I'm sorry): "Unable to take for granted or to expect the normal life time of an able-bodied person, this brave and noble artist chose not to use SLE as an excuse for thwarted literary opportunity. Within the agony of lupus, persisted a literary genius more ecstatic, more defiant, more insistent, more enabling than any healthy time earlier in her life."

Perhaps... but not even on the worst days of my own struggle with lupus - days that I thought I would either be permanently disabled or die - was I ever drawn to write horror fiction. It isn't part of my personality to flesh out the inner workings of evil. Such an exercise would damage me in ways worse than lupus ever could. Lupus causes depression, there is no doubt... but I have a hard time believing that it was the underlying force behind O'Connor's darkness. It seems far more likely that her sickness simply magnified her existing tendencies.

Looking to another giant of feminine genius, we see that Elizabeth Lesieur did not suffer specifically from lupus but from very painful and debilitating chronic conditions for a large part of her life. Instead of writing horror, she wrote a spiritual journal which, after her death, converted her atheist husband (he became a priest), and was subsequently published in order to edify the faithful. I found her book the same year I first read O'Connor and found it so spiritually uplifting that I carried it with me for months to and from work. 

One of the stated principles of her life - to communicate through words and deeds "light and strength" to souls and thus to "reveal God to them" - comes into immediate conflict with horror fiction, especially when dealing with wounded souls (and aren't we all?). For someone who is carrying a burden of sorrow, I would never recommend O'Connor and always recommend Leseiur. 

SHOULD YOU READ FLANNERY?

O'Connor's work is fashionable right now in Catholic circles. “Have you read Flannery? You haven't? You must! You simply must read her. She is brilliant."

My perspective is different. Whether or not O'Connor had a gift is undisputed... but whether her fiction is for everyone is questionable. (Please note that I am referring specifically to her fiction and not to her entire body of work.) 

My experience with lupus (and suffering in general) is that it touches everything with a dusting of sorrow. I'm not sure it can be helped. But as I was carrying my own unknown burden of illness, O'Connor walked straight into my mind and handed me her burden as well. And not just hers, but the dregs of evil refashioned by her literary mind.

I was sick. I was in pain. I was struggling to find courage. And she almost sank me

While she trends on social media, I look on with some confusion at those who romanticize her suffering. She belongs to them in some way... they love her and claim her... and her cross of lupus is like a badge of honor some of them wear because their heroine was afflicted and strong. Perhaps it gives them courage and I honor that, but I definitely don’t feel that connection or consolation. 

WHAT IMPACT DID LUPUS HAVE ON FLANNERY?

The single most upsetting thing I read after my lupus diagnosis was an article discussing the influence of lupus on O'Connor's writing. I was googling for hope and healing but found something entirely different. The author seemed almost excited by the gruesome reality of the disease. He put his heroine and her suffering on a pedestal and talked about her agony of mind and body until I felt sick to my stomach. In all my internet searches before or since, I haven't found anything that depressed or terrified me more about lupus than that piece. I went to sleep anxious and weepy that night and angry at the authors, both O’Connor and her follower. 

Ironically, the author herself didn't want that. She suffered and she was an author. But in her own words: "My lupus has no business in literary considerations.” And still people won't leave it alone. 

Like the first time I met her 20 years ago, the oppressiveness of her work settled upon me at a time when I desperately needed "light." I needed hope and the peace of Jesus Christ. O'Connor's cross came through for me heavier than the weakly offered Easter, and my own burden of sorrow would not allow me to rise. It was like an instant depression. 

O'Connor... Brilliant but oppressive. Oppressed. Depressed. 

That she was able to pass on that oppression so fully to me with my first experience 20 years ago influenced my decision not to revisit or recommend her work. And yet here we are again, with the unlikely connection of lupus. I cannot do an internet search without running into her. 

If she were alive today, she would likely have lived longer with the modern medicinal cocktail of prednisone, chemo, immunosuppressants, and perhaps dialysis and anti-depressants. At the time, she received blood transfusions, ACTH injections, and suffered horribly from necrosis and the slow death of her body. Not as romantic as the peacock and the cane. 

I am impressed by stories of O'Connor's sickness because I have it... it's not romantic... it's horrible. It doesn't make me amazing or "strong." It has stolen from my family's happiness, resources, and time. It has robbed me at times of my ability to write, to sit in the sunshine, to walk a mile, and to sleep in peace. 

It isn't lupus which made O'Connor a great writer. It isn't lupus which made her courageous. 

My own lupus is a cross and a gift. As a cross, I often find that it suppresses my talents. As a gift, it reveals, not my own greatness, but God's... less because of what I can do and more because he gives me the courage to embrace what I can NOT do. 

The nobility, beauty, strength, and gift of lupus comes from grace alone and the mysterious way God works through suffering. The darkness itself is not the light and should never be confused for the light. It is the wolf and we cling to Christ for security.

I beg the good Lord to take away the burden of evil from my mind and soul... and just fill me with the hope and joy of Jesus Christ. Our world is full of despair and often seems blanketed in sin, depression, anxiety, fear, distrust, abuse, and despair. If O'Connor's horror fiction ever did have a place in the average Catholic's journey, I'm not convinced it remains a psychologically healthy element. 

Her supporters say that her violent writing was necessary to wake men up to the reality of pain and to bring spiritual clarity to complacent, numbed minds. I counter that we already understand pain deeply - with over 20% of our country's population on psychiatric drugs in order to function - and that it is the spiritual clarity of the true joy and peace of Jesus Christ which is what is sorely lacking. 

Modern science and experience tell us that increased exposure to violence does not make us more compassionate or spiritually sensitive... but that it oppresses and numbs. I would not go so far as to say that O'Connor's work should never be read, only that it should be undertaken with proper spiritual and mental health hedges in place if it is discerned to be a necessary reading. 

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)