Before she died at the age of thirty-nine, Flannery O’Connor dismissed the idea of a biography—believing her long illness and quiet life on a Georgia farm wouldn’t interest anyone: “Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.”
Fortunately, O’Connor’s self-deprecation hasn’t translated into any lack of interest in her life and work. Quite the opposite. Since her death in 1964, O’Connor has been the subject of an astounding number of essays, dissertations, books, conferences and courses. Soon, a long-awaited authorized biography, by her friend and scholar William Sessions, will appear.
And now comes Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor, the first major documentary devoted to this great Catholic writer. Released late last year and now available on DVD, Uncommon Grace is a labor of love by the Atlanta-based producer-writer Bridget Kurt. Kurt spent two years researching and scripting the film, acquiring rare photographs from every stage of O’Connor’s life, and interviewing a host of leading O’Connor experts. The result is a superb and often unexpectedly moving film—a welcome gift to anyone interested in her work, especially teachers and students.
In addition to interpreting her sparse but powerful fiction—she published only two novels and thirty-two short stories—Uncommon Grace unlocks the mysteries of O’Connor’s talent by highlighting aspects of her life that are often overlooked.
The first is her relationship with her parents, Edward and Regina. While she sincerely loved her mother, and appreciated the gift of faith her parents gave her, Flannery’s relationship with Regina was somewhat strained. Strict and from a well-to-do family, Regina was determined to raise Flannery a “proper young Southern lady”—which, in those days, meant constraining her choices and independence. Thus, Flannery frequently found herself in a polite tug-of-war with her watchful mother and like-minded relatives about the direction of her life.
She was more at ease with her father, Edward, who sparked her imagination and encouraged her knack for storytelling. When Edward died, when Flannery was only fifteen, she was shattered, saying she had lost not just her father but her best friend. Edward’s death also forced Flannery to confront the darkest element of human existence, mortality—a theme that would re-emerge in her mature fiction with striking force.
A second influence on O'Connor’s work was her devout Catholicism. Because her stories are so stern and unsentimental, one might assume she exhibited those traits in her religious life as well. But one of the fascinating revelations of Uncommon Grace is how endearing and childlike O’Connor’s faith was—just as Jesus said the faith of his disciples should be.
Some years ago, O’Connor’s prayer journal was discovered, begun when she was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1940s. The documentary makes fine use of this journal, noting that in a situation when most writers would be thinking about their own ambition and success, O’Connor was reminding herself where her talent came from and how it should be used. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument of Your story,” she wrote in one entry. And in another: “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.”
A third quality emphasized in Uncommon Grace is the tremendous courage O’Connor displayed when stricken with a deadly illness. Just as her literary career was beginning to take off, in the early 1950s, O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus—the same autoimmune disease that had killed her father. She suffered bouts of severe itching, joint pain, rashes, and fatigue, though she rarely complained to others. She endured numerous blood transfusions and experimental hormone treatments. Doctors gave her five years to live, but O’Connor beat those odds, living another thirteen. During that time, she never knew when she would draw her last breath, and so her most productive years of writing, after her diagnosis, occurred under the looming threat of death. This, perhaps more than anything else save her Catholic faith, is what gives her stories such vitality and power.
As Uncommon Grace conveys, and Kurt emphasized to me in an interview: “Flannery knew that her suffering had meaning when united to the power of the Cross. She knew that pain was part of a greater mystery of redemption. She ‘offered it up,’ as Catholics would say. When a priest wrote to her and asked her to offer up her physical sufferings for his intentions, Flannery replied that she would. She knew that suffering could have supernatural meaning and value in this life”—and she applied those beliefs to her stories.
O’Connor would have taken no part in the “culture of death” warned against by St. John Paul II. As Kurt continued: “She believed in the dignity of each human being and in the principle that we are made in the image and likeness of God.” Influenced by Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil,” O’Connor’s work, said Kurt, “explores how easily human beings can engage in an evil act such as murder by first dehumanizing the stranger, the one who is different, the one who is inconvenient.”
Many readers are nonetheless shocked by the acts of violence that occur in O’Connor’s stories. But this was a technique O’Connor employed to awaken people from their spiritual slumber. O’Connor wrote: “My subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”
Her stories consistently address moments when a character—invariably a fallen or seriously flawed one—is presented with a chance for redemption. The opportunity can be frightening and overwhelming, but the offer of grace is made, and challenges readers to examine their own lives and consciences. As one professor says in the documentary: “No matter what your background is in religion of any kind, you’re thrown up against that moment of who you are, where you are, why you are. … [T]here is a moment where that has to be dealt with, and I think O’Connor’s stories come down to that, and deal with that.”
The way O’Connor dealt with it was to become a daily communicant and humble herself before the Lord: “The mind serves best when it’s anchored in the Word of God,” she wrote, in her marvelous collection of letters. “There is no danger then of becoming an intellectual without integrity.” Thanks to Uncommon Grace, we now have a film that celebrates her resolution.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.