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THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCYA Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor
By JONATHAN ROGERS
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Jonathan Rogers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE GIRL WHO FOUGHT WITH ANGELS: SAVANNAH, 1925–1939
"Anybody who has survived his childhood," wrote Flannery O'Connor, "has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." Her childhood began in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925. O'Connor was born in St. Joseph's, a Catholic hospital of which her family were important benefactors, and she was brought home to Lafayette Square, the very center of Catholic culture in Savannah. Across the square from her tall, narrow row house was St. John's Cathedral, built in part through the generosity of John Flannery, the relative for whom Flannery O'Connor was named. At one corner of the square was the St. Vincent's Grammar School for Girls. At the opposite corner was the Marist Brothers School for Boys. Though Savannah (like the rest of the American South) was overwhelmingly Protestant, Flannery O'Connor's neighbors on Lafayette Square and adjacent streets were mostly Catholic.
O'Connor's family was Irish Catholic on both sides. Flannery's great-grandfather Patrick O'Connor came from Ireland to Savannah in 1851, along with his brother Daniel. Patrick O'Connor opened a livery stable on Broughton Street, about a half mile from Lafayette Square. Patrick's son, Edward Francis O'Connor, was a wholesaler of candies and tobacco and a banker in Savannah. His son, Edward Francis Jr., was Flannery O'Connor's father.
On her mother's side, Flannery's roots went even deeper into the Georgia soil. Her ancestors, Treanors and Hartys, first arrived in Taliaferro County, Georgia—about fifty miles northeast of Milledgeville—with a group of Irish Catholic families who emigrated from Maryland late in the eighteenth century. By 1845, Hugh Treanor, Flannery's great-grandfather, had come to Milledgeville, which was the capital of Georgia at the time. There he owned a gristmill powered by the Oconee River. The first Mass said in Milledgeville, according to Flannery O'Connor, was said in her great-grandfather's hotel room.
Two of Hugh Treanor's daughters married Peter J. Cline successively. Cline was a wealthy merchant and farmer; later in life he was the mayor of Milledgeville. Though Catholic, the Clines were among the most prominent families in Protestant Milledgeville. Cline fathered sixteen children with his two Treanor wives, one of whom was Regina Cline, Flannery O'Connor's mother.
Regina Cline met Edward O'Connor in 1922 when her brother married Edward's sister. The handsome World War I veteran was a little below Regina's social station. But at twenty-six (the same age as Edward) Regina may have felt a certain urgency to find a husband. On October 14, 1922, less than three months after they met, the couple was married.
A few months after the wedding, Regina's cousin Katie Semmes gave the O'Connors a loan that allowed them to move into the row house she owned on Lafayette Square. In a family full of strong and independent women, Cousin Katie was a towering figure. In her early fifties at the time, she was the widow of Raphael Semmes, nephew of the celebrated confederate admiral of the same name. She was also very wealthy; her father John Flannery, a banker and cotton merchant, left her nearly a million dollars when he died. Cousin Katie was generous with her money. Besides bankrolling her cousin's living arrangements, she had funded the Flannery Memorial Wing at St. Joseph's Hospital, a few blocks from her house. When Regina O'Connor gave birth to a daughter in that very hospital, she named the girl Mary Flannery in honor of the cousin who had been so generous to her and Edward.
For all her generosity, however, Cousin Katie could be controlling. When she bought and moved into the row house next door to the O'Connors, she cast an even longer shadow. She actually bought two houses on Lafayette Square besides the one where the O'Connors lived. She tore one of them down in order to have a place to park her electric car.
With Edward O'Connor's real estate business struggling, the O'Connors took care to cultivate Cousin Katie's goodwill. Biographer Jean Cash reports a revealing anecdote from a conversation she had with Sister Consolata, one of Mary Flannery's teachers at St. Vincent's: "I used to call her Mary O'Connor," said Sister Consolata. "And the mother came and she said, 'Sister, please, whatever you do, you can drop the Mary, but be sure to call her Flannery because of the income.'"
The little girl was known as Mary Flannery throughout her childhood and until she moved away to Iowa for graduate school. Her family and family friends called her Mary Flannery for the whole of her life. Mary Flannery was an unusual child, though not in a Wednesday Addams way, as readers of her grotesque stories might imagine. An only child, she spent almost all her time with adults. From her earliest years she spoke to adults as if they were peers. She always called her parents by their first names.
Mary Flannery's parents doted on their intelligent daughter and were highly protective of her. When she started school at St. Vincent's, on the other side of their quiet square, Regina walked with her every day rather than letting her walk with her classmates, who mostly made their way by themselves. Mary Flannery walked back across the square to eat lunch at home rather than eating with the other girls, until the nuns changed the rules and made her eat at school. Then she brought castor oil sandwiches so her classmates would not ask her to join in on their lunch-trading.
Mary Flannery was not especially well-liked by her peers; the feeling was mutual. When Regina made her take ballet lessons, her physical awkwardness became a metaphor for her social awkwardness. Looking back on the episode from adulthood, O'Connor wrote:
I was, in my early days, forced to take dancing to throw me into the company of other children and to make me graceful. Nothing I hated worse than the company of other children and I vowed I'd see them all in hell before I would make the first graceful move.
Elsewhere O'Connor described her youthful self as "a pidgeon-toed, only-child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex."
Most of Mary Flannery's playtime with other children was arranged and scheduled by Regina and often consisted of Mary Flannery setting her friends down and making them listen to her read stories that she had written. A cousin recalled little Mary Flannery tying one of her friends to a chair. One childhood friend described her not as misanthropic so much as afflicted by a loneliness that was exacerbated by the fact that she simply did not know how to make friends. And her mother, it seems, gave her little opportunity to figure it out for herself. Regina had a list of the children who were allowed to play with her daughter, and she was serious about it. A friend once came to the O'Connors' to play—at Regina's invitation—but she made the mistake of bringing a friend who hadn't been invited. Regina sent both girls home forthwith.
What Mary Flannery couldn't get from her peers, she tried to get from the chickens and ducks that she raised in the tiny backyard of the house on Lafayette Square. According to O'Connor, her obsession with chickens grew out of her first brush with fame. Somehow the people at Pathé News—makers of newsreels for movie theaters—found out about one of her chickens that could walk backward. They sent a cameraman from New York to Savannah to get footage of the unusual chicken and its five-year-old owner.
"From that day with the Pathé man I began to collect chickens," she wrote.
What had been only a mild interest became a passion, a quest. I had to have more and more chickens. I favored those with one green eye and one orange or with overlong necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings, but nothing in that line turned up.... I could sew in a fashion and I began to make clothes for chickens. A gray bantam named Colonel Eggbert wore a whte pique coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back.
Her taste for the ridiculous—and her interest in the grotesque—started early, it seems. O'Connor wrote her school papers about chickens and ducks whether chickens or ducks were appropriate to the assignment or not; and they usually were not. When she took home economics in high school, she made clothes for a duck. She drew pictures of chickens ("beginning at the tail, the same chicken over and over") and wrote stories about geese. Barnyard fowl would be a lifelong hobby of O'Connor's, culminating with the peafowl that came to be her trademark.
When she was not with her ducks and chickens, Mary Flannery was often drawing and writing. She typed and bound several copies of a booklet entitled "My Relitives," in which she described, in satirical tones, several members of her family. Brad Gooch wrote, "The series of portraits was so finely drawn and uncomfortably close to life, that the relatives given this treatment ... either hesitated—or simply refused—to recognize themselves." O'Connor wrote to her friend Maryat Lee of the work, "it was not well received."
Cartooning was another interest of Mary Flannery's that would find expression later in life. Kathleen Feeley described a cartoon from O'Connor's youth that is revealing in more ways than one. The cartoon, labeled "age 9," depicts Regina, Edward, and Mary Flannery O'Connor. The mother says, "Hold your head up, Mary Flannery, and you are just as bad, Ed." The little girl says, "I was readin where somebody died of holding up their head." The overbearing mother bosses both the daughter and the father. The daughter sasses back; the father is silent, neither taking up for himself nor correcting his daughter. The one-panel concision with which the nine-year-old O'Connor captured the family dynamic is astonishing. Her use of the telling detail to tell a whole history would be one of the trademarks of her adult fiction.
O'Connor also read voraciously as a child, though by her own account, her reading was not always the most edifying. She read the Greek and Roman myths from a children's encyclopedia, but she also confessed that she read less edifying works:
The rest of what I read was Slop with a capital S. The Slop period was followed by the Edgar Allan Poe period which lasted for years and consisted chiefly in a volume called The Humerous Tales of E.A. Poe. These were mighty humerous—one about a young man who was too vain to wear his glasses and consequently married his grandmother by accident; another about a fine figure of a man who in his room removed wooden arms, wooden legs, hair piece, artificial teeth, voice box, etc. etc.; another about the inmates of a lunatic asylum who take over the establishment and run it to suit themselves. This is an influence I would rather not think about.
If O'Connor herself preferred not to think about Poe's influence, it is understandable, but it is hard for the reader not to delight in the thought of those funny, macabre stories of wooden legs and insane asylums going into young Mary Flannery's imagi nation and coming out again decades later in the grotesque stories of her adult career.
* * *
The O'Connors were a devout family, attending Mass together every day. "I am a born Catholic," Flannery O'Connor wrote to a friend, "went to Catholic schools in my early years, and have never left or wanted to leave the Church." Nevertheless, the O'Connors also instilled in their daughter a certain independence when it came to matters they judged not to be of theological importance—particularly the rules laid down by the nuns at St. Vincent's. Perhaps it came of the fact that Regina's family had been such important benefactors of the Catholic institutions of Savannah and Milledgeville, but the O'Connors expected some latitude when it came to the rules that their co-parishioners followed. Mary Flannery, for instance, skipped the mandatory children's Mass at St. John's Cathedral every Sunday, instead attending Mass with her parents. Each Monday morning the nuns at St. Vincent's checked the previous day's attendance record to see if their students had attended children's Mass, and every Sunday Mary Flannery had not. A classmate reminisced, "She'd stand there and tell sister, 'The Catholic Church does not dictate to my family what time I go to Mass.'" She was six years old when she made this declaration.
O'Connor's relation to religious authority was always complex. On matters of ultimate importance, she submitted unequivocally to the teaching of the church. She welcomed dogma, describing it as "the guardian of mystery." In the face of the great mysteries, she rested in the doctrines of the church, confident that she did not have to grasp a thing in order to believe it.
On the other hand, O'Connor had little patience for sentimentalized versions of the faith, even if they came from those who were in authority over her. She spoke disparagingly of "baby stories and nun stories and young girl stories—a nice vapid-Catholic distrust of finding God in action of any range and depth." If the church that nurtured O'Connor from the cradle caused her distress ("It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it," she wrote), it was because she could never imagine finding real meaning anywhere else. She wrote, "I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed."
The tortured artist battling his inner demons is a time-honored cliché. Flannery O'Connor was more likely to battle her angels. When she was a student at St. Vincent's she often heard from the Sisters that she had a guardian angel who never left her side. The idea was not altogether comforting to young Mary Flannery:
I developed something the Freudians have not named—anti-angel aggression, call it. From 8 to 12 years it was my habit to seclude myself in a locked room every so often and with a fierce (and evil) face, whirl around in a circle with my fists knotted, socking the angel.... My dislike of him was poisonous. I'm sure I even kicked at him and landed on the floor. You couldn't hurt an angel but I would have been happy to know I had dirtied his feathers.
O'Connor's fiction has been described as having an Old Testament flavor insofar as "the character's relation is directly with God rather than with other people." The same might be said of the lonely little girl flailing away at her guardian angel. There is an Old Testament passion, even ferocity about it. She believed in the angel not because it was "emotionally satisfying" to do so, but because she had it on good authority that he was real. For all her rage and terror, disbelief seems never to have occurred to her any more than a rebellious child might disbelieve in her parents. Jacob, too, fought with an angel, hanging on for dear life until he got both a blessing and a wound that left him limping for the rest of his life.
* * *
At the beginning of Mary Flannery's sixth-grade year, Regina rather abruptly pulled her out of the neighborhood school and put her in Sacred Heart School. Sacred Heart was only a mile distant, but it belonged to another parish. Leaving St. Vincent's was an unusual move for parishioners as faithful as the O'Connors, and it caused a "minor scandal" among the neighbors, who speculated about their reasons for sending their daughter to the tonier school down Abercorn Street.
The move to Sacred Heart was the first of several big changes that Mary Flannery would experience over the next couple of years. She was entering a time of life, of course, when everything changes. But having been a grown-up all her life in some ways, in other ways she held tenaciously to her childhood, resisting the inward changes that other girls experienced with dawning puberty. "When I was twelve I made up my mind absolutely that I would not get any older," she wrote when she was twenty-nine.
I don't remember how I meant to stop it. There was something about "teen" attached to anything that was repulsive to me. I certainly didn't approve of what I saw of people that age. I was a very ancient twelve; my views at that age would have done credit to a Civil War veteran. I am much younger now than I was at twelve or anyway, less burdened. The weight of centuries lies on children, I'm sure of it.
It was 1937—the year Mary Flannery turned twelve—when her father showed the first visible signs of lupus, the auto immune disease that would kill him four years later. The same disease would kill Flannery O'Connor at the age of thirty-nine. At that early stage, when the first skin discolorations began to show on Edward's face, the family apparently did not discuss his disease openly. But Mary Flannery was an observant girl, and she must have known something was wrong. In the late 1930s, there was no real treatment for lupus, as there would be when Flannery herself contracted the disease in 1950. The victim simply suffered until he or she died, the immune system eroding various bodily systems. The patient was subject to almost any combination of aches and pains and fevers. And fatigue, there was always fatigue. Childhood friends of Mary Flannery who remembered little else about Edward O'Connor remembered that he regularly took naps after lunch.
Even in the Roaring Twenties, and despite the financial backing of Cousin Katie, Edward O'Connor's real estate business never took off. Not surprisingly, things weren't any better during the Depression years. He enjoyed considerably more success in the less remunerative realm of veterans' affairs; in 1936 he was elected commander of the American Legion for the state of Georgia. The Legion was the one area of his life that was not dominated by his wife and the women of her extended family.
By the end of 1937 Edward O'Connor was looking to parlay family connections (his wife's family, not his own) into government work and more regular pay than real estate had provided. In 1938 his efforts paid off. He took a job in Atlanta as an appraiser for the Federal Housing Authority.
The O'Connors left Savannah in the spring of 1938. They never lived there again. Regina and Mary Flannery moved into the Cline mansion in Milledgeville with Regina's unmarried older sisters, Mary Cline (often called "Sister") and Katie Cline. Mary played the role of matriarch in Milledgeville in much the same way Katie Semmes had played that role in Savannah.
Edward O'Connor spent weeknights in Atlanta. On weekends he made the hundred-mile drive to Milledgeville to be with his wife and daughter and sisters-in-law. A weekend visitor to the Clines' family seat, he was less relevant than ever to the everyday life of the family.
Excerpted from THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY by JONATHAN ROGERS Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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