How Flannery O’Connor Became Human to Me

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the day I accepted an offer from the lawyer representing the executors of the estate of the late author, Flannery O’Connor, to work for the executors to establish the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation. Among other objectives, this nonprofit organization would be charged with preserving Andalusia, the farm where O’Connor lived the last 13 years of her life and where she completed her published books. The year was 2000, and I was serving as the director of the local public library. I had been a devoted fan of O’Connor from the time I had studied her work as an undergraduate English major at her alma mater, Georgia College. The institution was called Georgia State College for Women during the time Mary Flannery O’Connor was there in the 1940s. She was larger than life, as so many writers of fine literature are to me. I was in complete awe that someone could write a novel like Wise Blood at the age of 27. She is considered an artistic genius by critics, an intellectual force by most scholars, and even a candidate for sainthood by some of her fellow Catholics. She was almost mythical in my imagination.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

I spent most of 2001 working with memorabilia and artifacts associated with O’Connor’s life and career as a writer. O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, donated a collection of material to Georgia College six years after the author died. This gift included many of the manuscripts from O’Connor’s published works, along with much of her personal library. However, Regina O’Connor held onto a considerable archive of books, manuscripts, published and unpublished letters, photographs, visual art, cartoons, sketches, journals, notebooks, business and personal records, and juvenilia. I was charged with sorting through and organizing the archive, creating an inventory, and preserving the items using archival containers and methods of storage. The vast majority of that remaining archive is now reposited at Emory University in Atlanta.

I sifted through hundreds of images of O’Connor in posed and candid photographs from infancy to shortly before her death from lupus at age 39. Particularly touching were pictures of her as a young child with her father, Edward, who also died from lupus when she was only 15 years old. I held in my hands the cartoons and sketches that O’Connor created while she was in high school and college, with characters and captions that foreshadowed the wicked humor so central to her fiction as a seasoned writer. I read every letter to her mother when O’Connor was away at graduate school in Iowa, some of which revealed strong emotions as she seemed to be searching for her own voice and an identity independent of the Cline family based in Georgia and Massachusetts. I read through her personal journals where she articulated deep feelings, thoughts, and struggles. I suspect she would be more than embarrassed to know that one of those journals has been published as a monograph.

When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation was officially established in 2002, the board of directors hired me as the organization’s executive director. I collaborated with professionals to design plans for restoring and preserving the farm and launched a campaign to raise money for the work ahead, which was monumental considering the farm was 544 acres with a main house that was not exactly in stellar shape and a dozen outbuildings in various stages of serious deterioration. While preparing the main house for public tours, I touched or picked up almost every object in the two-story 19th century structure, including many of Flannery O’Connor’s personal effects that had been left in the house for over three decades: medicine bottles, paint brushes, clothing, furniture, furnishings, Catholic paraphernalia, and of course, her crutches.

Main house at Andalusia
Main house at Andalusia

Honestly, I felt a bit uncomfortable at times in O’Connor’s private space, even decades after her death. I always tried to be respectful and mindful of the intrusion, necessary as it was. I arranged her bedroom/study as much as possible to the way Robert Fitzgerald described it in his introduction to O’Connor’s posthumous short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. He had visited Andalusia shortly after the author died. He described the austere conditions under which O’Connor had written some of the best fiction of the 20th century. Indeed, I always sensed a certain ascetic atmosphere whenever I walked into that room.

Sadly enough, when a diagnosis of lupus forced her back from Connecticut to live at Andalusia with her mother, Flannery O’Connor faced a situation where privacy was almost impossible.  A plaster wall with a connecting door separated her bedroom from her mother’s. The young writer had to adapt the first-floor sitting room on the main floor into her bedroom/study because the steep steps would have made walking upstairs an insurmountable challenge for her. The two women shared the only bathroom on the first floor. They ate almost every meal together, many of which were at the kitchen table. During the time I was working at the property, the kitchen was still equipped with the same table, sink, stove, cupboard, and the Hotpoint refrigerator O’Connor purchased with proceeds from the sale of the television rights to her short story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

Andalusia Farm kitchen
Andalusia Farm kitchen

The house still contained much of what the O’Connors had when they lived there. The curtains that her mother had sewn while O’Connor was away on a speaking engagement were still covering the tall windows, clearly a hasty job performed by an otherwise gifted seamstress to avoid objections by the room’s unamenable occupant. On the mantle above the room’s fireplace, small photographs of grandparents in tarnished frames were nestled in with an assortment of novelties and knickknacks, several of which may have been gifts from some of her more unconventional long-distance friends.

Still hanging precariously in the bedroom window was the heavy air conditioner that O’Connor told one of her correspondents was an office supply, which she intended to write off her taxes. If the IRS questioned her, she had decided to argue that it “supplied” her office with cool air and was therefore a legitimate deduction. The humid summers of middle Georgia can be brutal and oppressive without air conditioning. Installed at the opening of the fireplace was a propane gas heater, which likely produced insufficient warmth on the coldest nights of the year to comfort O’Connor’s aching joints, under constant assault from disease and the effect of steroid treatments. She hated bitter cold temperatures, not only because of the physical pain they brought, but because they often resulted in frozen and burst pipes – no water, no plumbing. I can personally attest to the inadequacy of space heaters, which we were still using to heat the drafty old house while I was working there. The frigid air seeping in around the windows and doors and up through the hardwood floors chilled me to the bone. On some days, I wore two pairs of socks and thermal underwear in my office, formerly Regina O’Connor’s bedroom.

Mrs. O’Connor moved back into the Cline family home in town shortly after her daughter’s death, and the main house at Andalusia was never fully occupied again. No one was attempting to keep it clean or regulate the temperature. Regular maintenance was no longer a priority, although family members renovated the back portion of the house, replaced the roof, and rebuilt the front porch in the 1990s. The two-over-two spacious front rooms of the house, which included O’Connor’s bedroom, were mostly closed off for about 35 years. Time was not kind to the interior. Paint peeled and chipped away from the surfaces. The walls cracked, and in some places chunks of the horsehair plaster fell on furniture or to the floor. Insects took up permanent residence, along with the spiders who fed upon them and filled curtains and corners with cobwebs.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

I worked at Andalusia for 13 years, the same amount of time that Flannery O’Connor lived there. I was alone in the main house a lot of that time, especially before the visitor traffic picked up and the foundation hired a part-time staff member to assist with tours and other tasks. His name is Mark Jurgensen, and he was a lifesaver. During those 13 years, I don’t know how many times, probably hundreds, I paused at the doorway of O’Connor’s bedroom and contemplated what her life must have been like at Andalusia. My eyes wandered around that room with its small bed, beautiful barrister bookcases, reading chair, and the crutches leaning against the wardrobe. O’Connor stared at the back panels of that piece of wooden furniture that served as her closet for several hours each morning at her typewriter, with only a brilliant imagination to assist her in crafting such powerful stories, letters, essays, and speeches.

I thought about the physical challenges she faced, the emotional and mental anguish she must have endured, perhaps the occasional sense of despair, the hopes and dreams she shared with no one, the doubts that surely surfaced, and the questions that remained unanswered to the very end. I am not superstitious. I tend to discount the metaphysical. I could never embrace the faith that was central to O’Connor’s understanding of the universe. And yet, there were moments when I genuinely sensed her presence in that place, not as a spirit or a ghost as so many visitors to Andalusia were ever hopeful to encounter. For me, the presence was a memory of someone I had never met. It was the manifestation of a courageous woman with an unusual name whose fictional characters were so bizarre, yet I recognized them immediately. It was the reflection of a living, breathing person, with all the flaws and imperfections inherent in our species, but one with a remarkable gift that is rarely exhibited or nurtured. For so many of us who have trouble hearing and seeing clearly, what she left behind is extraordinary.

Note: Andalusia is now one of several historic properties of Georgia College, which is responsible for its preservation and interpretation. Learn more at https://www.gcsu.edu/andalusia

Georgia College is also host to the Andalusia Institute, a public arts and humanities center that supports Flannery O’Connor scholarship, nourishes writing and the creative arts, and engages community members with the arts and humanities. Learn more at https://www.gcsu.edu/andalusiainstitute

2 thoughts on “How Flannery O’Connor Became Human to Me

  1. I was delighted as a college freshman to meet Flannery at a wedding in Millegeville some months prior to her death. I had read her in high school in Macon where I grew up, my college English teacher in Milwaukee was a fan, as was my mother and our dear friend Fr. James H McCown, SJ would stay with us when he came back to Macon to visit her. She was legendary for all kinds of reasons in my life. Thank you for sharing these memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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