The title I selected for this post is a phrase often used by friends and colleagues of someone who is going through or has just recovered from an unusual set of circumstances, often stressful and almost always unexpected. The situation may be a life-threatening, horrifying experience, or it may be extremely bizarre or even comical, at least in hindsight. At any rate, the event seems to be right on the verge of the unbelievable to the individual in question and certainly to outside observers. What has happened sometimes illustrates the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction,” thus the idea and suggestion that the experience would make for an entertaining story. Quite a few people who knew me during my tenure as the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation suggested that I should write a book about some of the outrageous things that happened during my thirteen years with the organization. A question I heard over and over was, “So, do you ever feel like you’re in a Flannery O’Connor story?” The answer was always the same: “Well, of course.”
Where to begin? How about with the family of Flannery O’Connor. I was hired by two of O’Connor’s first cousins, who had been selected by O’Connor’s mother, Regina, to serve as executors of the estate (both real and intellectual property) and as trustees of the Mary Flannery O’Connor Charitable Trust, which was charged with making distributions from the estate and controlling the copyrights of O’Connor’s work, among other responsibilities. I worked for them as an independent consultant for two years while a nonprofit foundation was being established to maintain Andalusia, O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, Georgia. Once the foundation was established, I became its director. About one third of the governing board of the foundation was made up relatives of Flannery O’Connor, all on her mother’s side — the Cline family. One of these relatives was the younger sister of the co-executors who had a career as an elementary school teacher. Unfortunately, she was often overshadowed, and in my opinion, was not treated with the respect she deserved as a sibling or as a professional. O’Connor once wrote in a letter to a friend that irritation was the only respectable emotion in her family, a tradition that continued long after her death. To say that board meetings were characterized by antagonism and contention would be a gross understatement.
The chair of the board was the husband of one of the two executors and trustees mentioned above. He was a remarkable biomedical engineer and professor who was credited with developing an early prototype of a bionic prosthetic arm. His wife was a brilliant woman (a trait that did run in O’Connor’s family) with more than one advanced degree. In addition to serving on the board and fulfilling her roles with the estate, she had worked for NASA for a while during the development of the solid-rocket boosters that would eventually propel the Shuttle into space. Sadly, she passed away shortly after the foundation was established. As intimidating and as tough as they were, I respected them both and always believed they wanted the foundation to succeed under my leadership. They were very patient with me and supportive. Her husband continued in his role as the board chair, and it was a pleasure to work with him until his death several years later. Her sister became the sole executor after this woman’s death and shared her responsibilities of the Charitable Trust with her brother-in-law, the board chair, who had been named by his wife as her successor for that position. These two in-laws had a rather contentious relationship, which is where the story becomes book-worthy.
I have had many years to think about my interaction with the executor, going all the way back to the time she and her sister hired me in the fall of 2000. A Harvard-trained lawyer (among the first females to graduate from the institution with a law degree) who had worked almost her entire career for federal government agencies, she was already well known among the scholarly community as being extremely difficult to deal with regarding copyrights and permission requests for publications. She was absolutely devoted to maintaining the reputation of the Cline family, most especially a couple of the patriarchs who had either purchased the Andalusia farm where O’Connor and her mother lived or had helped with its operation as a dairy in the 1950s. The executor was also highly discriminating when it came to who was actually a part of the family and who was a “wanna be,” as she called them.
Almost every board meeting ultimately disintegrated into a shouting match, usually between the executor and the board chair. For the non-family board members, some of whom had impressive credentials, this type of organizational dysfunction was painful to watch. The executor became more and more of an obstructionist, taking every opportunity to criticize the operation and everyone else involved. She resisted opening Andalusia farm to the public, and once it was open, she wanted to be directly involved in its daily operation and how the property was interpreted to visitors. I refused to accommodate her in this regard, which drove a thick wedge between us that would continue and grow during the rest of my tenure at the foundation. She desperately wanted to be recognized as an authority about the history of Andalusia farm, but she failed to understand that the real significance of the site is directly related to Flannery O’Connor’s time there as a writer, the very part of the site’s history she knows nothing about because she wasn’t a part of it.
Realizing how poisonous the executor had become to the foundation’s operation, the next board chair began to put pressure on her to either be supportive in her roles as executor and trustee or leave the board. Within a short time, she resigned from the board; however, she continued to exert her influence on policy and procedure with the assistance of a few board members who were sympathetic to her. In the years that followed, her criticism of my efforts as foundation director became more acute, to the point that she would appear at our public programs or show up unannounced at Andalusia and voice her discontent openly. Of course, devoted fans of O’Connor were always drawn to her and wanted to meet her and talk with her because she was a relative and a contemporary of the writer. She can be extraordinarily charming when she wants to be, and her sense of humor is wicked. Ironically, she rarely would discuss O’Connor with anyone but elected instead to talk about other family members and her personal memories of the farm going back to her childhood, which had nothing to do with Flannery O’Connor at all. The fact is that she didn’t know Flannery O’Connor very well — they were not close, even though their mothers were sisters and the executor and her sisters spent summers with O’Connor when they were young children.
But it’s more than that, and here’s where the story turns tragic. The executor was not friends with her famous cousin. As they left childhood behind, these two women took very different paths. In spite of spending time together as children during the summer months, they lived in two different parts of the country for most of their early years. They earned their respective educations far apart from one another. This cousin’s career took her to the nation’s capital and elsewhere, while O’Connor’s illness took her back home to live the last thirteen years of her life with her mother on a farm in middle Georgia. Long after O’Connor died and her mother became a very old and frail woman, this cousin moved to Milledgeville to handle Regina O’Connor’s affairs and supposedly to protect her from threats outside the Cline family.
Here was a woman who was educated at Harvard, who was among the first females to graduate from there with a law degree, who had worked for the federal government and had even argued before the Supreme Court. In almost any American extended family, such a woman would be considered a groundbreaking hero and would no doubt enjoy all kinds of attention and accolades . . . unless, of course, her first cousin happened to be a famous American writer. Not only was her cousin a great writer, but the characters she created were terribly grotesque and some of them had noticeable similarities to people she knew in real life. The language, the plots, and the black humor were shocking for polite society of the mid-20th century and a bit embarrassing to readers whose fictional palates were better suited for Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, or even Eudora Welty.
There is no doubt at all that the Cline family members had a difficult time appreciating, much less discussing, Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories when they were first published. The executor is no exception. Only in recent years has she started voluntarily acknowledging her familial relationship to Flannery O’Connor. I can recall a time when she would rudely scold anyone who introduced her as Flannery O’Connor’s cousin. Now she introduces herself that way. She has made every effort, sometimes successfully, to control how O’Connor’s work is treated, examined, studied, criticized, and made available to the world. I suspect that any appreciation she has for O’Connor has more to do with the author’s role as an apologist for the Catholic Church, not as a gifted fiction writer. It is most unfortunate that someone who, on several levels, was not very close to Flannery O’Connor at all ended up being in charge of the author’s estate and making decisions about how her work can be used. I can’t imagine how disappointed, or totally entertained, O’Connor would be.