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The face of Mary: Flannery O'Connor, disability and theology

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Presented to
the Faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary
in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements
June 2010
UMI Number: 3414879
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The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
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Dissertation Publishing
UMI 3414879
Copyright 2010 by ProQuest LLC.
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ProQuest LLC
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Copyright 2010
By Timothy J. Basselin
Center for Advanced Theological Studies
School of Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary
Dissertation Approval Sheet
This dissertation entitled
The Face of Mary: Flannery O'Connor, Disability, and Theology
written by
Timothy J. Basselin
and submitted in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
has been accepted by the Faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary
upon the recommendation of the following readers:
Amos Yong
March 22, 2010
Table of Contents
Chapter One
The Face of Mary Ann: A Disabilities Studies Perspective
Chapter Two
The Face of Mary Flannery: Disability's Affect
Chapter Three
The Face of Mary Grace: the Grotesque in O'Connor's Fiction
Chapter Four
The Face of Mary, Christ's Mother: The Grotesque as Womb for God
Flannery O 'Connor Reconsidered
Works Cited
Flannery O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus just as she was becoming a
professional writer, and she died 14 years later at the young age of 39. Five years
after diagnosis, she wrote about her illness in a curious way: "I have never been
anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip
to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can
follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who
don't have it miss one of God's mercies."1
O'Connor's words here are foreign to us, just as her doing what she had
"done in Milledgeville" would have been to the Romans.2 Understanding
sickness as "appropriate" and as "one of God's mercies" challenges our cultural
ideals concerning autonomy and self-sufficiency as well as our theological ideas
about bearing the imago Dei. Her perspective on illness is in line with the
critiques, replete within her work, of the Utopian visioning of a Manichean
modernity that would have imperfections eradicated thereby reliving society of its
need for God. The profundity of O'Connor's writing lies in precise contrast to
these ideals as she enfleshes humanity's need for God within our imperfections.
For this study, what is particularly significant in O'Connor's above quote
is her use of illness, human physical imperfection, as the site for an appropriate
visitation from God. Modern culture's obsession with "unflawed" bodies rarely
allows for speech about death or sickness, much less their being appropriate.
Flannery O'Connor. The Habit of Being. {HE) New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980. p.
In a letter to Maryat Lee on May 19, 1957, O'Connor wrote: "My standard is: when in Rome, do
as you done in Milledgeville." HB, p. 220.
Likewise, the current proliferation of theologies focusing on "wealth and health"
would find sickness-as-divinely-appropriate blasphemous. In our culture,
including our theologies, sickness and death engender fear and pity. In
O'Connor's fiction, however, they are mysteriously transformed into loci for
God's mercies. Part of my contention here is that her own sickness and
impending death contributed to her fiction's ability to perceive God in the
Even though O'Connor was disabled for nearly her entire writing career,
surprisingly little has been written about the affect lupus had on her life or her
writing. This is partially because O'Connor denied that her illness had any affect
on her writing, as we will see in chapter two. Her denial, however, was primarily
aimed at the presumption of any pity that may lead others to sentimentalize her
life, or worse, her fiction. Despite downplaying the illness' affect, she regularly
credited the circumstances of her life, including those created by the lupus and the
lupus itself, for making her writing better. She touted her move and confinement
to Georgia as the best thing that could have happened to her writing. Though
these comments admittedly come on the back end of ironic statements whose
purpose is not to praise the illness but to tear down certain assumptions about its
affect on her writing, there is within these statements a truth about how she
perceived her disease and, by extension, how she viewed the world, particularly
how she understood the abnormal and grotesque.
Her method in these statements that appreciate illness is to posit the
unthinkable. Popular wisdom would have it that a writer should be out
experiencing all the world in order to write about it, which was also her view
before contracting lupus. When diagnosed, she had recently been living at the
writers institute at Iowa State University, and then at an artist colony in Yaddo,
New York along with a brief stint in New York City, and was currently with the
Fitzgeralds in Connecticut. At this point in her life, she was certain being
confined to rural Georgia would entail the end of her creativity, her vocation. She
rather quickly found, however, that the best of her work would be done there.
The unthinkable and socially grotesque, her disease and her return to Georgia,
allowed her focus and to truly enter her "country," as she explains in "The Fiction
Writer and His Country."
Her statements, which we will examine in chapter three, that she did not
have any business doing anything besides writing and that moving to Georgia was
the best thing for her writing work on two levels. First, they deconstruct the
societal definitions of what should be normal. Positing the unthinkable as actual
calls into question what is considered possible. Denying culture's sentimental
pity for her losing her independence, she states the sickness is a "blessing in
disguise." This perspective counters the cultural definitions of what is good, in
this case self-sufficiency and mobility, and what is bad, confinement and
dependence. The back end of these ironic statements, then, is an affirmation of
the unthinkable, a suggestion that what was thought of as bad may be, once
accepted, actually good.
This methodology is also how her fiction works more generally. Her
quote "To the hard of hearing you shout and to the almost blind you draw large
HB, p. 234.
and startling figures" is one of her most famous because it sums up her style. She
places the authentic good within the socially constructed grotesque, large and
startling figures, in order to call into question societal definitions of what is
"good" and "bad." That is, the actual good in her stories often comes through the
socially defined "bad." In her fiction, sickness, the grotesque, even death, are
transformed from the pit of the social grave into the womb of God's mercies. I
will suggest, particularly in chapter three that the perspective which made this
possible came largely from her living with a disability.
Yet, as noted, scholarly attention to her disability and the disabilities of
her characters is scarce, which is why the still formulating field of disability
studies has a great deal to offer O'Connor studies. As the field of disability
studies has begun to examine the social realities of disability and listen to the
voices of the disabled, a certain perspective or worldview has emerged. This
disability perspective holds a great deal in common with Flannery O'Connor's
writing. Though O'Connor did not have the benefits of the language of disability
studies, she knew instinctively, perhaps at times prophetically, what disability
studies has since learned, and this perspective gets testified to over and over in her
fiction and letters. Examining her work from the vantage point of disability adds
to our understanding of her life, her work and her theological purposes. I will
argue, in fact, that a disability perspective gets at the very heart of her writing
style and genius.
As we will discover in the first chapter, disability studies critiques the
modern, medical definition of disability. Since the Enlightenment, medicine has
increasingly defined disability as a problem to be solved, an abnormality to be
fixed or eliminated. The medical field has too often viewed the person with a
disability along these lines as a science experiment that needs resolution. The
goal has been to normalize patients in order to re-enter them into society as
productive members. This perspective has led society to push the disabled to the
margins until they can be made "normal" again. Living with a disability at the
end of the eugenics period, O'Connor was terribly aware of such marginalization.
Disability studies counters this perspective by exploring the social and
political concerns of disability. For disability studies, the problem is not
deficiencies or abnomalties persons may have but how society responds to variant
physical and mental attributes. The disability rights movement has fought for
access and equal employment opportunities. Operating within the academic
world of the humanities disability studies has been concerned with how disability
is represented in cultural forms, e.g. questioning whether media portrayals of
disability treat the individual as a whole person or only use the individual as an
embodiment of that which is "other" than normal. In contrast to the medical
model, disability studies argues differentiation in corporeal forms is normal and
even beneficial.
O'Connor's writing parallels these concerns because she diagnosed and
critiqued a similar problem within modernity more generally. She understood the
modern, Enlightenment agenda of perfecting humanity by its own efforts to be an
impossibility, and furthermore a demonic hoax. Her fiction thus centers on
exposing the original sin within all of humanity that cannot be removed by any
scientific method, whether medical, psychological or political. What I find most
intriguing, and will explicitly address in the last chapter, is how this perspective
affected her theology. O'Connor's work includes, but moves beyond, religion's
tendency to appropriate disability as a reminder of universal depravity or a picture
of God's special concern for "the poor" and instead perceives disability, and other
things society labels grotesque, as possible loci for God's activity in the world. In
a theological move echoing the cross, she suggests the "face of the good" may
well be a face half eaten away by cancerous tumors (more on this in chapter one).
To be clear, O'Connor does not present a shifted philosophical perspective
in which bad is good and good is bad. The point is not that things will be better if
we simply think about them differently. She instead suggests our need to fix
everything leaves no room for the mysterious activity of God in the world. This is
not a lack of mental recognition concerning God's ethical imperatives. Rather, it
is a lack of recognizing and experiencing God's presence within broken humanity.
The answer is not to change one's perspective about the meaning of life's
circumstances as good or bad, but to change one's perspective about life in a
broader sense, to understand that life is a gift to be accepted.
One changes what one can, but the rest must be accepted as is, for we do
not always know where God is at work in the world. The Good Friday cross that
seems desperately abandoned by all things good awaits the disciples' response.
Even with Christ's continual warnings and exhortations that the Son of Man must
die to be raised again, they experience a failure of imagination. They cannot
comprehend the greatest good being accomplished. No teaching, not even
Christ's instructions to them, can prepare them to discern the authentic good from
evil. Though they cannot imagine any of it is true, they are called to believe,
accepting what has been given and waiting within the unknown. It is in this
waiting that faith forms. O'Connor wrote that evil is not a problem to be fixed but
"a mystery to be endured"4 that leads to faith. As we will see in chapter three,
acceptance of life as given, even those aspects of life that culture labels grotesque,
is central to her work, and is so because it was central to her endurance of the
mystery of her disability.
My method for this dissertation is multi-disciplinary, making use of
disability studies, O'Connor studies and theology. I will particularly focus on the
interdisciplinary fields that have begun to emerge between these three larger areas
of study: disability and literature studies and disability and theology studies. As
Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu notes in her methodology for her recent dissertation,
the purpose of a multi-disciplinary approach is not to synthesize disparate parts
into one explainable whole, the consequences of which inevitably do violence to
the integrity of the parts. I will thus attempt to avoid forcing O'Connor's thought
through the sieve of disability studies or theology, or any combination thereof.
Noting the significance of context and referencing Frank Burch Brown's
work, Gonzalez-Andrieu suggests that instead of minimizing differences we
should thematize their potential. She writes,
As poet Tim Nuveen also notes in his short poems Moon and Mountain
Sunset, space and distance need not detract from the revelatory
Flannery O'Connor. Mystery and Manners (M&M). New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1957. p.
possibilities of something; rather the very consciousness of the gap that
separates us from what we are attempting to see can be what brings about
awe, respect, and wonderment.
At least five thousand times I've seen the moon
and with great benefit.
And only just last night I saw
the space between myself and it.
Mountain Sunset
So many times I've watched the sun go down,
A yellow slice of lemon in a cup.
Today, I'm sure, perched high above the town,
I sat amazed and watched the earth come up.
In another example about how the distance between Bach and contemporary
audiences does not necessitate dissonance in understanding but can produce
beneficial connections, unimaginable even to Bach and his original audience,
Gonzalez-Andrieu suggests any multidisciplinary study, when it does not attempt
to force cohesion, can enrich the perspective of each field of study involved.
Accordingly, it is my hope that the following approach of combining
O'Connor studies, theology and disability studies sheds new light on all three
areas of study. Where a disability studies perspective is applied to theology, it
helps unmask ways in which theology has participated in modernity's tendency to
think all problems can and should be solved by humanity and helps unmask
religion's continual mistaking of power for God's blessing. As a theological
perspective is added to disability studies, it widens disability studies' concerns
beyond its narrow critique of the medical model and helps it perceive larger issues
of what it means to be human. O'Connor studies benefits in this dialogue because
Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu. Garcia Lorca as Theologican: The Method and Practice of Interlacing
the Arts and Theology. Dissertation. Graduate Theological Union, March, 2007. p. 88.
very little has been done in thinking about disability in O'Connor's fiction or even
about how her own disability influenced her work. O'Connor helps the other two
fields because she so thoroughly critiqued modernity that she exposed the
tendencies of modernity within both theology and disability studies. Also, and
most importantly, she embodies what would be mere theory. Through her fiction,
she enfleshes God's activity in the world within the grotesque, broken, disabled.
That is, her work is incarnational. Her readers identify with characters and
situations and are drawn into her stories. In the end, readers are both surprised by
their complicity in the sin she unveils and challenged to choose between the
authentic good, often hidden in the grotesque, and false goods, veiled by the
misguided ideals of modernity.
My weaving of disciplines will begin in the first chapter by explaining in
more depth what a disability perspective is. The second chapter brings O'Connor
into the conversation, exploring what affect her disability had on her life and
thought. O'Connor's thought will be rounded out in the third chapter as I
examine themes of disability and acceptance in her fiction. The final chapter will
then explicitly consider the theological significance of her perspective as it relates
to a theology of disability, and the conclusion will hint at ways a theology of
disability might be constructive.
The Face of Mary Ann: A Disabilities Studies Perspective
Mary Ann and the "New Perspective"
Mary Ann was grotesque. Born with a tumor on one side of her face, she
arrived at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta at the age of three and
carried a certificate of death with a six month prognosis. She had endured blood
transfusions, radium, x-rays and the removal of one of her eyes, but the tumor
continued to grow. Her mother was young, also ill, had three other children and
could no longer care for her, so Mary Ann was transported from Louisville to
Atlanta to live with the Sisters. The next nine years of her life proved a great
blessing to the home and anyone that visited Mary Ann, as is attested in a book
the sisters wrote about her entitled A Memoir of Mary Ann, a book for which
O'Connor wrote the introduction.
In June of 1961, three years before her death, O'Connor wrote in a letter to
Betty Hester, "In the future, anybody who writes anything about me is going to
have to read everything I have written in order to make legitimate criticism, even
and particularly the Mary Ann piece."6 This is an intriguing statement since her
introduction to the book is not the forceful fiction that has established her as a
preeminent American short story writer. Nor is it one of her famous essays that
elucidates her vision as an artist. Nevertheless, O'Connor felt that this short
reflection on a little girl whom she never even met held the key to any legitimate
criticism of her work. Though O'Connor never specified why she felt the
HB, p. 442.
introduction was so significant, the "new perspective" on her own work that she
references at the end of the introduction is the most logical place to start looking.
The Sisters were so touched by Mary Ann's life that after she died, they
sent O'Connor a letter asking her to write Mary Ann's life story. Upon opening
the letter, O'Connor glanced at a photo of Mary Ann and quickly put it aside.
After reading the letter, she determined she was not the person to write the story,
and she picked up the photograph "to give it a last cursory look before returning it
to the Sisters. It showed a little girl in her First Communion dress and v e i l . . .
Her small face was straight and bright on one side. The other side was
protuberant, the eye was bandaged, and the nose and mouth crowded slightly out
of place."7 O'Connor's reply suggested that the Sisters write the memoir of Mary
After doing so they visited O'Connor at Andalusia to discuss the
manuscript. Having read some of O'Connor's stories, one of the Sisters asked
why she wrote about such grotesque characters, why the grotesque of all things
was her vocation. O'Connor recounts, "I was struggling to get off the hook she
had me on when another of our guests supplied the one answer that would make it
immediately plain to all of them. 'It's your vocation, too.'" 8
This statement, that O'Connor's vocation was the same as the sisters'
working with dying children, was an enlightening statement for the sisters - and
O'Connor. O'Connor explains, "This opened up for me also a new perspective on
the grotesque. Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in
M&M,p. 215.
M&M, p. 225
the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do
not argue." O'Connor is here summarizing how her fiction generally gets
interpreted, indeed how she interpreted much of her work for most of her life.
The physical grotesques in her fiction are metaphorical mirror images of the
characters' (and readers') moral grotesques. She thus characterizes her work as
drawing "large and startling" figures on the outside to wake us up to the
immensity of our shared original sin. As O'Connor continues her explanation,
however, she provides a new understanding, "but good is another matter. Few
have stared at that long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that
in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive
worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a
smoothing-down that will soften their real look." O'Connor does not say the
grotesque can be good. She does not offer the reader a mere pastoral platitude
that God can use evil as a tool to work all things together for good. Instead, she
says the face of the good is grotesque. She continues, "When we look into the
face of good, we are liable to see a face like Mary Ann's, full of promise." That
is, the face of the good may well be misshapen and half eaten away by a
cancerous tumor that carries with it a death sentence. Or put in larger theological
terms, the face of redemption is God crucified on a Roman cross.
This is the significance of the work of the sisters, of their vocation of the
grotesque. Because of their close relation with the ill children, they break the
cultural and seemingly necessary connection between the grotesque and evil.
Their work proclaims that the greatest good can be found in the center of what
M&M, p. 226.
society labels evil. This perspective helped O'Connor clarify the meaning of her
own work. Both vocations, that of the sisters and O'Connor, displace the cultural
definitions of good and evil with definitions of what is authentically good and evil.
O'Connor's new perspective ripples throughout her work. Her stories
continually point out that because society has wrongly identified "the good," the
face of the authentic good is often "satisfied with a cliche or a smoothing-down."
Thus an old lady's "Oh, bless you darling!" upon seeing a child in a wheelchair.
The "good" country characters in O'Connor's fiction are full of such cliches that
smooth down and soften the look of the authentic good. However, the weight and
violence of O'Connor's stories crumble the facade of her characters' culturally
defined goods, revealing to the reader the true evils of original sin upon which
they are built and in which her readers share.
Disability studies has pursued a similar perspective in relation to cultural
views of disability, claiming that what society labels "disabled" is as much or
more a disability of society than of the person with a physical or mental limitation.
Despite tremendous gains in disability rights that have allowed political access to
cultural spaces, Western society continues to perceive disability as a lacking of
wholeness, which is particularly crippling in a culture based morally upon selfsufficient autonomy and economically upon free-market competition.10 Tying
Ladislava Khailova and others have noted disability studies' position in relation to Foucault's
philosophy. She writes, "From Foucault's observations, we can infer that society's perceptions of
disability as a deviation located in the individual and of normalcy as an unmarked site from which
disability is observed are closely related to the efforts of the capitalist industrial power structure to
discipline human beings into functioning as efficient machines. In line with Foucault, new
disability studies scholars expose these dynamics, hence destigmatizing the bodies configured as
deviant through a constructed norm." '"Where the Average White Male Scored in the Imbecile
Range': Changing Paradigms of Mental Retardation in Twentieth-Century Southern Fiction."
Dissertation, University of South Carolina, 2004. p. 12-13.
this perspective to the United States' history, Lisa Roney comments on this in a
passage worth quoting at length:
[T]he United States had been built upon the progressive ideals of
independence and self-reliance. Discrimination against the disableddependent has been a part of United States philosophy since the beginning:
"Disabled individuals were prohibited from settling in the towns and
villages of our Thirteen Colonies unless they could demonstrate ability to
support themselves independently" (Bowe quoted in Fleischer and Zanies
11). By the beginning of the twentieth century, even moderate tolerance
for "weakness" had begun to fade in a nation which promised "a new age
of well-being and vigor." In the turn-of-the-century U.S., "disease and
death [had] become affronts to the glories of the new material life"
(Burbick 2, 3) and our now well-established national model of the selfmade lone man.11
In U.S. culture, disability-as-lack stigmatizes persons with disabilities as morally
insufficient and economic liabilities, the opposite of the consummate cultural
heroes that align with the Lone Ranger.
Disability studies attempts to reverse the cultural definitions of good and
evil as they pertain to disability. Rather than the problem being located in the
person who lacks some "normal" function, disability studies argues that the
problem is located in society's inability to accept persons with disability and
allow them physical and social access to society. Social ideals of what constitutes
a "good" citizen are newly conceived as the very ideas that oppress the disabled,
and the things that are socially judged as bad become life enhancing necessities.
Disability is viewed as another of the many variations of the human form, all of
which add to the complexity of what it means to be human. Or put more simply,
disability is beautiful.
' Lisa C. Roney. Beyond the Pale Chronic Illness, Disability, and Difference in the Fiction of
Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O 'Connor. Dissertation in English:
Pennsylvania State Universtiy, 2001. p. 68.
Though O'Connor did not use the language of disability studies (she was a
few decades too early for it), strong parallels can be drawn between the critiques
of culture she and disability studies' provide. Both refuse the culturally created
definitions of good and evil, and both exhibit an appreciation of what society
condemns as abnormal. These themes are writ large throughout O'Connor's
stories. The revelation of a "wart hog from hell" is found deep in the heart of one
of her "good country people," and grace appears in grotesque of places, such as
upon the over-tattooed body of Parker.
As we see when she admits to quickly setting Mary Ann's picture aside,
O'Connor was also affected by social constructs of beauty and the good. But
since she was an unwed, disabled woman in the south, she also understood what it
was to be quickly set aside by society, and it is partially due to these experiences
that she was able to recognize that the true residence of evil had been misplaced.
It is no coincidence that O'Connor's new perspective on the grotesque, this key
for critics to understand her work, was realized in relation to another person who
died from a disability yet lived a spectacular life.
Introduction to Disability Studies - History
Disability studies provides a language to the changed perspective
O'Connor noted as "especially" significant to understanding her work. Before
applying disability studies to O'Connor's life (in the second chapter) and her
stories (in the third chapter), this chapter will explain more precisely perspective
disability studies engenders.
Disability studies is a young field of study and has been a result of the
disability rights movement.
Disability rights arose in the United States in the
1970's on the coattails of the civil rights and women's rights movements and
gained firm footing in public discourse and policy with the passing of the
Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Only in this very recent history,
however, has disability rights been a distinct concern. The previous lack of
concern is due to the paradox of a severe abuse of persons with disabilities and a
more inclusive social structure whose organization did not necessarily ostracize
the "weak."
Both sides of the paradox can be seen very early in history.13 The ancient
Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninmah, predating even the famous Akkadian myth
of Enuma Elish, provides what is likely our oldest perspective of disability, hi
this myth, the gods Enki and Ninmah have a discussion about creating humans:
Enki (the god of the arts) challenges Ninmah (fertility goddess) to create a human
for whom he cannot find a purpose. Ninmah fashions six humans with various
abnormalities, all of whom Enki employs. A blind man is given the musical arts
and likely (the text is broken) assigned a court function; a woman unable to
conceive is placed in the service of the queen's court; a man with both feet broken
becomes a silversmith; and a person without a penis or vagina is given the role of
For a general overview of the field, see The Disability Studies Reader, Lennard J. Davis, ed.,
New York: Routledge, 1997; and Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, Sharon L. Snyder,
Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, eds., New York: The Modern
Language Association, 2002. Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical
Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996; and Nancy L. Eisland's The Disabled God:
Toward a Liberation Theology of Disability, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
The following paragraphs rely heavily on Neal Walls' chapter "The Origins of the Disabled
Body: Disability in Ancient Mesopotamia" in This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical
Studies. Eds. Hector Avalos, Sarah Melcher and Jeremy Schipper. Society of Biblical Literature:
Atlanta, 2007.
eunuch in the king's court. For the most part, Ninmah's variant humans are not
only given places in society, they are given high posts in the royal court with their
abnormalities specifically purposeful to the assigned office. These varied humans
would now be considered "disabled," but Enki finds them perfectly abled.
The perspective on disability created by this myth is one of inclusion, and
even embrace, of human physical variation. As Neal Walls concludes, "the
Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninmah is clear in its rhetorical attempt to
incorporate people with a range of disabilities into the larger social structure."
Wall's bigger argument in "The Origins of the Disabled Body: Disability in
Ancient Mesopotamia" is that many Ancient Near East sources presuppose a
community model of society in which human variation is absorbed into the larger
community and is in some cases even honored.15 For much of human history,
being unable to care for one's self was considered a regular part of life, as was
caring for others. The prologue to a set of ancient Mesopotamian laws, for
example, notes, "I made the father support his children, I made the child support
his father."16 Disability often fit into this communal framework of dependence.
Despite evidence in Ancient Near East texts for practices, or ideals, of
inclusion of physical variation, life for people with disabilities was not easy, nor
were they regularly honored. Persons with disabilities have always been abused
and used for others' purposes. Infanticide, for example, was practiced in the
Walls, p. 19.
Adele McCollum also argues that traditional folklore is prone to inclusion and acceptance. He
contrasts this with urban legends that are prone to defining difference and otherness. See
"Tradition, Folklore, and Disability: A Heritage of Inclusion" in Human Disability and The
Service of God. Nancy L. Eisland and Don E. Saliers, eds. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998. p. 167-186.
Walls, p. 16.
Ancient Near East, though not as prominently as in Ancient Greece. Some
severely disabled children in Mesopotamia were burned alive in order to cleanse
the family and the earth of the child's disease and spirit, which was possibly an
early form of eugenics.17 My purpose here is not to argue for a return to a
premodern understanding of disability, for there is much not to be desired. In fact,
modernity has accomplished great feats in bettering and especially in sustaining
the lives of persons with disabilities. Rather, my purpose here is to point out a
particular discrepancy between pre-modern and modern understandings of
disability, for current perceptions of disability are afflicted by ideals peculiar to
modernity. A premodern, communal society often allowed space for the care of
individuals without attaching a stigma to those individuals. Society could
therefore be more inclusive of a larger range of what we would today term
disabled persons.
This same inclusivity is recognizable in under-developed countries today,
particularly in rural settings where every person is seen as part of the communal
whole. Amos Yong argues that
especially in underdeveloped areas, social relations are structured not by
the market economy but by reciprocity and patron-client networks. In
these basically premodern socioeconomic contexts, people with
disabilities (except for the severely disabled who often do not survive the
childhood years) generally fit a role somewhere in the social order. . . .
Arguably, these rural environments are more inclusive and hospitable to
people with disabilities before rather than after the onset of
industrialization and modernization.
"Walls, p. 22.
Amos Yong. Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity. Waco,
TX: Baylor University Press, 2007. p. 131.
Yong's insight hints at a large underlying cause of detrimental views of disability,
for many current negative views of disability are connected to the rise of
industrialization and modernization. I will briefly point out three examples of
shifts toward modernization that negatively impacted social perceptions of
disability and thereby persons with disabilities as well: industrialized economies
based upon physical labor, the rise of the ideals of self-determinism and
autonomy and the emergence of the medical field. Since disability studies is in
large part a reaction against such shifts, it is necessary to understand these
disempowering shifts in order to understand disability studies.
The first shift occurred as a result of industrialization. In cities, entire
economies, as well as their social structures, became based upon the needs of
factories. A person's value began to be measured by the person's ability to work,
to physically and economically contribute, and those who could not work (even if
due to an injury in those factories) were given little place in that society. For
example, Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, published in
1861, divided the Victorian poor into three categories: those who will work, those
who cannot work and those who will not work. Sally Hayward notes that
Mayhew's "vigorous and detailed analysis reveals, somewhat obviously, a focus
not only on wage relations or on the conditions of employment, but more simply
on the ability of the working classes to participate in a capitalist economy that
holds up 'labor' as the primary capital of working-class men."19 The ongoing
Hayward, Sally. "Manufacturing Masculinities: (Dis)Abled Men and Nineteenth-Century
Social Reform" in Culture + The State: Disability Studies & Indigenous Studies. James Gifford &
reality of this perspective is easily seen in the first question newly introduced
people usually get asked: "Where do you work?" or "What do you do for a
living?" - questions the disabled get asked much less often.
In further explaining Mayhew's categorizations, Hayward notes the
implications for persons with disabilities:
Subsumed under those who will or will not work, those who cannot work
(i.e., the disabled) are seen only in relation to their ability or inability to
perform some kind of labour. Those who belong to the category of "those
who will or who can work" are used by Mayhew to promote his ideal of
self-reliant masculinity. However, the disabled "who will not work"—
even if they are technically in the category of "those who cannot work"—
have no recognized place in the system and become representative of a
weak morality and masculinity.20
Without a place or a purpose in industrialized society, those with disabilities were
pushed to the margins, left to die or beg to stay alive. Furthermore, self-reliant
masculinity became a matter of work ethic and therefore morality. Those who did
not work were divorced from ethical behavior and suspected of a weak morality,
and the social imagination stigmatized them as embodiments of their own fears of
not making it in the new economy.
Self-sufficient Autonomy
Gabrielle Zezulka-Mailloux, eds., p. 220. Available online at A version of this paper also appears as '"Those
Who Cannot Work:' An exploration of disabled men and masculinity in Henry Mayhew's London
Labour and the London Poor." Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Marian E. Lupo, eds. Disability
and/in Prose. New York: Routledge, 2008. p. 43-61.
Hayward, p. 221.
Hayward further explains, "Mayhew's configuration and obj edification of the disabled
foreshadows the increasing capitalist value and utility-based secularization of the dominant culture
and of human bodies in particular, as well as, more specifically, the institutionalization of the
disabled and the instigation of the concept of rehabilitation that rose out of the developing
infrastructure of the Victorian metropolis. As we go into the twenty-first century, it is possible to
see that class, race, and disability prejudices and/or sympathetic passions combined with national
and personal interests continue to determine who is and who is not valued." p. 225-226
A second cultural shift was also partially due to the rise of
industrialization: a movement away from community toward autonomy. As
people moved from the country sides and into cities to find work in factories,
communal and familial ties paid a heavy toll. The son in the city was less able to
care for the aging father on the farm, and the father less able to care for the son
many miles away.
The glorification of autonomy flourished in its most realized form in the in
the American Romantics, such as Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. In this period,
the hopes for the abilities and potentials of the individual became central to the
hopes for the country, infiltrating American politics and the American ethos. In
Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Disability in American Culture and Literature,
Rosemarie Garland Thomson explores Emerson's use of disabled persons as
contrasts to his ideal of an American man.
The "American Ideal" posited by liberal individualism is structured by a
four-part self concept.. . The four interrelated ideological principles that
inform this normate self might be characterized as self-government, selfdetermination, autonomy, and progress. Such a self-image parallels the
national ideal in an individualist egalitarian democracy that each citizen is
a microcosm of the nation as a whole. A well-regulated self thus
contributes to a well-regulated nation. However, these four principles
depend upon a body that is a stable, neutral instrument of the individual
will. It is this fantasy that the disabled figure troubles.... Disability's
indisputably random and unpredictable character translates as appalling
disorder and persistent menace in a social order predicated on selfgovernment . . . it mocks the notion of the body as compliant instrument of
the limitless will and appears in the cultural imagination as
ungovernable . . .
Again, the cultural imagination stigmatized the disabled as embodiments of chaos
and a lack of will. This stigmatization was especially strong in the United States
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Disability in American Culture
and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. p. 42-43.
where people were not only cut off from family, as industrialization lured them to
cities, but they were also cut off from entire cultural heritages as they had recently
left their homelands. The resulting need for and embrace of self-determining
autonomy created a social order defined by competition in which persons with
disabilities too often did not measure up in a world being constructed according to
the "survival of the fittest."
The Medical Field
A third cultural shift that also had a tremendous affect on persons with
disabilities was the rise of the medical field. As the science of medicine grew in
its precision and comprehension of the body, understandings of disability shifted
from cultural and religious enigmas to physical defects that required fixing by
experts. Persons with disabilities thus became further ostracized from social
networks of care as their families proved lacking in the necessary knowledge and
skill to "cure" them. The end result was the institutionalization of millions of
disabled persons, particularly the mentally disabled but also others with
disabilities such as Mary Ann. Not only, though, did the medical model continue
the breaking of communal ties, it also disempowered the person with the
disability. "That many perceive themselves as victims of a personal tragedy,
which reduces them to needy recipients of medical care, demonstrates how the
medical model can be internalized and appropriated by disabled persons."
society more and more felt the need to "fix" the disabled, it lost its ability to care
Thomas Reynolds. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand
Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. p. 26.
for the disabled.24 I will further attend to the ills of the medical model in the
following section.
Societal views of disability are deeply rooted in these cultural shifts of
modernity. Disability studies' challenge to societal views of disability therefore
implicitly challenges modern conceptions of what it means to be human. As we
will find in the next chapter, O'Connor leveled a parallel challenge to modernity.
Introduction to Disability Studies - Deconstructing the Medical Model
More than anything else, disability studies attempts to wrest the meaning
of disability away from the medical model that has dominated Western
understandings for the past couple centuries. The medical model's goal is to
rehab persons with disabilities, so they can be reentered into society as productive
members. Advances in medicine have added a great deal to the lives of the
disabled, the greatest of which has been extended periods of life itself. However,
the medical model has viewed disability exclusively as a bodily and individual
problem. Deborah Creamer notes, "The perspective of the medical model is that
the body is a biological machine that functions to a greater or lesser extent.
Disability, then, is located solely within the body, with no appeal to societal or
environmental factors. It is an individual rather than societal condition."25 Ato
Quayson agrees,
The notion of disability as personal tragedy places people with disabilities
within a narrative in which accommodation to the impairment is squarely
For lack of space I will not address the ways society demonizes the disabled as the horrifying
"other" whose distance from "normal" clarifies the "normal" and comforts them. For a social
science perspective on this, see Jeffrey Cohen's Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Particularly interesting are the seven thesis of "Monster
Culture" he describes in the first chapter.
Deborah Creamer. Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive
Possibilities. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 24.
their own responsibility or that of their families. The medical and social
systems are then tasked with corrective, ameliorative, or reprimanding
roles, reminding the person with disability to "get a grip'" and take charge
of the process of his or her self-improvement and adjustment. Indeed, in
the medical model, the person with disability is placed under an obligation
to want to get well, his or her multiple social roles, of parent, worker,
spouse, and so on being suspended temporarily in exchange for a sign of
strenuous effort toward improvement.26
This medical perspective has become the dominant social view of
disability, which has been problematic for persons with disabilities. Christopher
Newell writes, "Disability, in this model, is almost universally a negative analysis
because it concentrates on the idea of disability as a loss of function in one way or
another. Disability is, therefore, 'a lack, a deficit, an inability...disability is a
problem that is experienced by an individual; it represents a deviation from a state
of normality because of an impairment.'"
Despite the great feats of medicine,
this model has simultaneously objectified disabled people as problems to be
solved, as patients subservient to the authority of "healing" medicine and, at its
worse, as social deviants that must be separated or even eliminated from society.
Ato Quayson. Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2007. p. 2.
Christopher Newell, "Disabled Theologies and the Journeys of Liberation to Where Our Names
Appear." Feminist Theology 15(3) 2007. p. 324. For a more historical understanding, see
Thomson's discussion of Aritstotle's '"generic tyepe' against which all physical variation appears
as different, derivative, inferior, and insufficient. Not only does this definition of the female as a
'mutilated male' inform later depictions of woman as diminished man, but it also arranges somatic
diversity into a hierarchy of value that assigns completeness to some bodies and devidiency to
others" p. 20.
Christopher Newell argues along these lines in the following paragraph, ending with a move
toward theology that I will later also make: "Despite the enormous development of medical
services, particularly in the West, that seek to 'treat' the diagnozed disability of a person, and the
benefits that has accrued to individuals, families and communities, the idea of the disability itself
as a medical problem to be fixed has effectively professionalized the idea of disability and
marginalized and stigmatized persons with disabilities. A deep rooted dualism or dualisms have
demarcated the professional from the person, the disability from the body and mind within which
it resides, the them who are disabled from the us who are not and the power and control to treat
and intervene from the voice of those who find themselves treated and invaded. Therefore, the
very act of reflecting upon the nature and experience of disability, even as we attempt to describe a
purely medical model, if such a pure model exists, plunges us into deep waters of theological
Creamer explains how the medical model has translated disability into a particular
social stigma. "[T]he underlying assumption of rehabilitation is that people with
disabilities need to be changed (normalized) in order to become accepted by the
nondisabled. The medical model has the principle of normalization at its core,
attempting to modify, repair, or relocate individuals with disabilities until they are
congruent with societal expectations of normalcy and acceptability."
In contrast to the medical model's concern for normalizing individuals'
bodies, disability studies provides a social model for understanding disability that
relocates the "problem" of disability. Jackie Leach Scully puts it succinctly, "The
social models' most fundamental criticism of the medical model is that it wrongly
locates 'the problem' of disability in the individual and neglects the social and
structural."30 While the medical perspective tries to "fix" an individual's
impairment, disability studies explores how the true impairment is in society's
response to disability, not in an individual's inability to be "normal" and/or
Allow me to provide an overly simplistic example of the social
construction of disability. If a person needs to get to the 4th floor of a building
that has no elevator, and this person is in a wheelchair, she has a very definite
disability. However, if the building has an elevator, the person is not xm-able to
tradition and existentialism." "Disabled Theologies and the Journeys of Liberation to Where Our
Names Appear." Feminist Theology 15.3 (2007): 325.
Creamer, p. 24.
Jackie Leach Scully. "Drawing Lines, Crossing Lines: Ethics and the Challenge of Disabled
Embodiment." Feminist Theology. 11(3), 2003. p. 266. However, while arguing the social
constructedness of disability, one must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far. Johnson Fan
Cheu writes, "I do not mean to claim here that there is no biological basis for impairment; rather I
am suggesting that what constitutes an "impairment" and an "impaired body" must also be
understood to be culturally constructed." "Disabling Cure in Twentieth-Century America:
Disability, Identity, Literature and Culture." Dissertation. Ohio State University, 2003. p. 14.
get to the 4th floor, thus the person is not disabled. For disability studies, the
problem is not a matter of physical or mental impotence, but society's limiting
who has access. It is a moral/ethical prejudging of the abnormal according to
socially defined hierarchies. Therefore, the problem to be fixed sits in the middle
of society, not the middle of a wheelchair. For another overly simplistic example,
in a society built upon, infused with and empowered by competition and
efficiency, persons with profound developmental disabilities are considered
highly deficient and disabled. However, if our society were based upon affection
or giving, some of these "disabled" people would become our teachers, as Henri
Nouwen found at Daybreak, or as Jean Vanier learned 40 years ago when he cofounded the L'Arche communities.31
When the medical model defines healing as "an individual's bodily
adjustment to fit society's definition of normalcy," the un-"healed" person
remains un-"normal" and thus on the margins of society. I am reminded of the
debit card commercial run around the holidays where shoppers are filing in and
around and out of a toy store all in perfect unison, all swiping their debit cards.
Then one person pulls out a check book and the entire flow of the orchestrated
movement is disrupted. People bump into one another, toys crash to the floor and
everyone stares at the person "lame" enough to not have a credit card. I
purposefully used the word "lame" here, because its use as slang belies how
similarly our society perceives persons with disability. The disabled person is a
A noted professor and priest, Henry Nouwen spent the end of his life at a L'Arche community
outside Toronto. He chronicles his helping and being helped by a severely disabled man named
Adam Arnett in a book entitled Adam: God's Beloved. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.
Reynolds, p. 26.
disruption of the flow of self-sufficient and autonomous individuals needed for a
free-market economy and a democracy. As society has taken on this medicalized
perspective, it has viewed persons with disabilities as "lame" and related to them
according to a presumed lack instead of a presumed wholeness.
Resistance against the medical model does not come easy, for it is
resistance against what Lennard Davis terms "the cult of the normal." Davis uses
this phrase to describe not only the cultural obsession with fitting in but also the
cultural necessity of being "normal," which has had a devastating affect on those
whose physical or psychological profiles cannot be altered to fit the mold. He
writes, "Disability Studies demands a shift from the ideology of normalcy, from
the rule and hegemony of normates, to a vision of the body as changeable,
unperfectable, unruly, and untidy."33 Others refer to this particular ideal of a selfsufficient body that permeates social interactions as "ableism," placing it in the
same category as racism, sexism, ageism and other isms.
This assumption that
the able-bodied are better than the disabled causes society to totalize the disabled
according to their disability. Consequently, the person with the disability is
perceived to be unwhole.
Another aspect of the "cult of the normal" is that it has co-opted the voice
of disabled persons, speaking for them and controlling the circumstances of their
lives and care. The experts of medicine have decided what is "best" for the cure
of the disabled. The disability rights movement has countered this tendency with
Lennard Davis. Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodemism, and Other Difficult
Positions. New York: New York University Press, 2003. p. 39
Creamer, p. 25.
the mantra "Nothing about us, without us."
Beginning with the voices and
beliefs of the disabled takes authority away from the medical experts and
broadens concerns about disability beyond the terribly narrow focus of cure to
include social healing, since disability is as much a social construct as it is a
physical or mental variation and is quite often only a social construct.
O'Connor wrote to a friend who showed sympathy toward her having to use
crutches, "To get back to the crutches, the truth about them is that they worry the
onlooker more than the user."
Disability studies concerns itself primarily with
changing the social and political landscapes that have been ignored by medical
To be clear, disability studies does not in any way reject medicine. There
are no calls for boycotting hospitals or prosthetics manufacturers. Rather, it
rejects the singularity of medicine's traditional view of persons with disability.
The argument is not that the social model should replace the medical model, but
that it should be added onto medical concerns. Persons with disabilities are more
than the deficit that medicine is trained to quantify and "fix." The social reality of
disability must also be understood and fixed.
What emerges from the above analysis is a perspective that is helpful in
many ways. As noted, this perspective has brought about great political change
and secured many rights for those with disabilities. This perspective, which
For more on this see, James I. Charlton, Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability, Oppression,
and Empowerment. Berkeley: U California P, 1998.
While arguing the social constructedness of disability, one must be careful not to swing the
pendulum too far and argue disability is only socially constructed. Johnson Fan Cheu writes, "I do
not mean to claim here that there is no biological basis for impairment; rather I am suggesting that
what constitutes an "impairment" and an "impaired body" must also be understood to be culturally
constructed." p. 14.
HB, p. 164.
Deborah Creamer refers to as the social or minority model, has done well to
challenge societal definitions of what is normal, uncovering the myth of the
perfect body upon which "normal" is based. One way the social model has done
this is by centering the marginal, focusing on those whom society has cast out and
raising their questions and their critiques of the dominant society. Thus, in place
of the medical model's negative analysis of disability, the perspective suggested
by disability studies allows for an appreciation of difference and variety. Rather
than constantly grasping for a "normal" - though unreal - ideal, society can learn
from differences. Rather than limitation being viewed negatively, it can be
embraced as the womb of innovation, improvisation and creativity.
The medical model so dominates social perspectives that when we
question the medical model we are questioning more than just medicine. Creamer
notes, "The medical model pervades our legal, therapeutic, financial, political,
and social worldviews to such a degree that we barely see it as an interpretation.
The perspective, with its emphasis on normalization, seems so 'normal' to most of
us that it is difficult even to think of disability as anything other than a functional
loss, which itself creates an impediment as we try to explore alternative
perspectives."39 Questioning the medical model questions some of the most
foundational ideals of Western society, such ideals as self-sufficiency, autonomy,
escaping suffering or death, and Utopian visions of "perfected" bodies.
Jay Dolmage argues convincingly that disability has generally been used as negative metaphors,
but that the power of metaphor can be flipped so that metaphors of disability can be used
positively. "Between the Valley and the Field: Metaphor and Disability." Brenda Jo
Brueggemann and Marian E. Lupo, eds. Disability and/in Prose. New York: Routledge, 2008. p.
Creamer, p. 25.
Theology of the Social Model
Thomas Reynolds takes on some of these larger questions in his book
Vulnerable Communion. Arguing that the ideal of self-sufficient autonomy runs
deep in our history and social psyche, he names this ideal as the major factor in,
using Lennard's terminology, the "cult of normalcy." He traces the roots of this
ideal to the founding of the United States: "The liberal Enlightenment picture of
the person portrays an autonomous and self-determining individual capable of
entering into social collaboration on the basis of rational self-interest. Reason is
that which enables us to govern our own lives . . . and its benchmark is
autonomy."40 While this social contract has created great opportunities for many,
and has allowed minorities to seek equal rights, based upon their equal mental
abilities, it also has a harmful side. Reynolds goes on to explain from a disability
perspective what is problematic about American "equality," autonomy and selfsufficiency.
Ironically, "equality" ends up meaning "like the majority." Equality is
defined by certain limitations. For a democratic society, self-sufficiency and
reason are part of the definition of equality: we have equal opportunity to pursue
happiness and contentment within a free-market economy. Such an economy,
however, makes certain demands. For disabled persons, "equality" too often
means pressure to pass as able-bodied, to become like the majority and a
"productive" member of society. "The result," Reynolds notes, "is either
assimilation through processes of normalization or exclusion through processes of
Reynolds, p. 80.
marginalization or confinement."
In other words, we are all equal as long as we
fit the certain profile of what our society considers "normal." As can be imagined,
and I will discuss a bit later, this "equality" is particularly lacking for persons
with developmental disabilities.
Reynolds also questions the ideals of self-sufficiency and autonomy upon
which our culture is politically, economically and socially based. He writes that
our democracy presumes "that the individual is self-sufficient and prior to society,
having a dignity and self-directed character that precedes the relationships that tie
her or him to a social world. This is a false abstraction."42 Besides ignoring those
who are not self-sufficient, this ideal prioritizes the individual over his or her
social context. In contrast, Reynolds argues that we do not simply show up as
completely self-sufficient persons. Rather, we become people only under the
influence of others. "The idea of an autonomous and self-constituting person is
an illusion. It neglects the role community has in identity formation. Relation
with others is primary, not secondary." Despite this truth, the ideals of selfsufficiency and autonomy are so ingrained in our culture that they dominate our
understandings of health and wholeness, to the point that "[dependence upon
others is often deemed a moral, developmental, or biological failure, a passivity
denigrating human life . .. The display of neediness becomes a source of shame,
something to be hidden from others." 43 Society in general and especially the
medical authorities that give counsel to those with disabilities recommend they
learn how to pass as normal, as un-needy, as self-sufficient.
Reynolds, p. 82.
Reynolds, p. 82.
Reynolds, p. 83.
All the while, the irony is that complete autonomy is a sham. We all live
within elaborate webs of dependency. We are all shaped by those who raised us,
those who taught us, those who led us, those who became our friends and lovers.
Still, we have created a hierarchy of dependence. Dependence on others is mostly
demonized because it threatens our individualistic ideals. Though we do
occasionally praise dependence in our society, such as that found between a
husband and wife on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, our reverence for
autonomy continually denies healthy dependence and suggests all forms of
dependence are deficiencies and deviations from the norm. Just as we tend to
give individuals too much credit for being successful, we view dependence as a
tragedy for which individuals are ultimately responsible.
Reynolds pursues a theological application of disability studies and makes
a strong argument that vulnerability is the key to relational wholeness. He argues
that disabled persons live with an embodied vulnerability that often forces a
denial of the community-destroying ideal of self-sufficient autonomy. Many
disabled persons live vulnerably, because they would be unable to survive within
our society without help. Some sort of community, then, must fill the gap and the
myth of self-sufficiency is exposed. Reynolds argues that true love and even
wholeness as a human being are made possible only when we are able to make a
move similar to what disabled persons are forced to do and learn to embrace:
laying aside our pretensions about perfection and opening up our weaknesses to
one another. Weakness and dependence from this view point become key to
relational wholeness. Thus, when the definition of disability is extracted from the
medical model and understood socially, it is redefined, losing its negative
connotations and gaining positive implications.
The Limits Model
Such a redefinition is taken up by Deborah Creamer in her book Disability
and Christian Theology, where she offers a new model that goes beyond the
medical or social models. She suggests a limits model. As we have noted, the
social model of disability provides a tremendous, and much needed, corrective to
the medical model. However, the social model holds its own dangers, as scholars
are increasingly recognizing. In the introduction to his book Dsability Theory,
Tobin Siebers explains how disability gets used both positively and negatively in
our culture. He then writes, "On one level, it is easy to believe that disability is
only negative if one has insufficient schooling in disability studies, wheras on
another level from a disability perspective, it is difficult to see disability as
anything but positive. Increasingly, theorists of disability are arguing, as I will
here, more nuanced and complicated positions."44 When limitations are denied,
or viewed only positively, this does not reflect the lived experience of many
persons with disabilities. Creamer's book is attuned to this new movement that
critiques the social model's sometimes overly antagonistic arguments against the
medical model and overly positive expectations for the social model.
Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. p. 5. Vivian May and Beth
Ferri also acknowledge the necessity of ambiguity in "Fixated on Ability: Questioning Ableist
Metaphors in Feminist Theories of Resistance." Disability and/in Prose. Brenda Jo Brueggemann
and Marian E. Lupo, eds. New York: Routledge, 2008. What they ultimately recommend is a use
of language that reveals complexity and opportunities. "This is the kind of nuance that we would
like to find emphasized more often in rhetorical uses of disability—the both/and simultaneity, the
ironic redeployment, and the playful positioning via language that not only allow us to come to
terms with ambiguities, but to flourish by engaging with multiple structures of difference and
identity simultaneously." p. 123.
After reiterating the social model's problems with the medical model,
Creamer begins to analyze the social (or minority) model as well. She writes,
"When the experience of impairment is deproblematized, there is little room for
people with disabilities to have a negative or even ambivalent relationship to their
impairment. The minority model suggests that all people with disabilities should
accept and even embrace their own disabilities/impairments - after all, the
impairment is not the (or a) problem."45 However, persons with chronic pain, for
example, may have a much more complex understanding of their disability than
the social model allows. A split in understanding can be easily recognized
between persons who are born with a disability and persons who acquire one later
in life. Often those born with disabilities simply accept the disability as part of
who they are, whereas those who acquire disabilities later in life may take a long
time to accept the disability, if they ever accept it at all.
Creamer sums up her critique of both models this way:
The medical model emphasizes body parts, ignoring the identity of the
whole person and dismissing the role of society or culture in the
experience of oppression. The social model emphasizes minority group
status, stressing the similarity of people with disabilities without making a
place for individual differences, and ignoring the sometimes negative
bodily experiences of people with disabilities.... Both models fail to
capture fully what it really means to be a person with a disability.46
Central to Creamer's limits model is the idea that disability is not an
absolute category, like being pregnant, but is a "fluid construction." She explains
that "most of us experience some situations where we feel more or less disabled
than in other situations. Such fluidity reminds us that disability is not just an
Creamer, p. 27.
Creamer, p. 28.
either/or - it is also a 'when,' 'where,' and 'how.'" 47 Instead of defining people
according to two categories, abled or disabled, the limits model places disability
within the category of limits, which is common to all humanity. Once this is
understood, we can then discuss the benefits and challenges of individual
instances of limitation instead of perceiving some people as limited and others as
Placing disability within the limits model helps to remove its negative
connotations, since we are all limited. We understand how limits can be good,
even beautiful. Sports, for example, are based upon limitations. Their purpose,
and their beauty, occurs in relation to the players' limits and the games' limits
such as rules and boundaries. All of life works this way. From this perspective,
one question that arises is why we have so demonized some limits, such as a
person not being able to walk, and accepted others, such as persons not being able
to fly or a person being unable to shoot a basketball well. Creamer writes,
"Where the medical model begins with evaluation or assessment of limitations,
the limits model begins with the notion of limits as a common, indeed quite
unsurprising, aspects of being human. Unlike the minority model, the limits
model avoids categorization and instead encourages us to acknowledge a web of
related experiences."
Whereas the medical model understands limits negatively
and the social model either ignores them or understands them only positively, the
limits model offers us the possibility of understanding limits both positively and
Creamer, p. 31.
Creamer, p. 31.
In recognizing the temporality and limitation of all abilities, the limits
model breaks down the constructed forms of normal-as-limitless and embraces
limitation as normal. It does this by rejecting "unrealistic ideals or illusions of
perfection, recognizing that such images lead to unproductive and dangerous
Rather than disability being something to overcome in search of
perfection, it "is actually more normal than any other state of embodiedness."
This realization of limitation-as-normal repudiates media portrayals of perfect-asnormal that saturate our society and demonize forms of embodiment that it
considers abnormal.
Creamer suggests, "The recognition of limits opens us to new
understandings of creativity, community and interdependence."51 Reynolds also
argues for the benefit of interdependence and claims disability embodies the
vulnerability necessary for true love. We will return to the theological sides of
their arguments later. What I want to point out here is that both arguments push
the boundaries of disability studies. Both recognize the larger issues at stake and
disability's role in bringing these issues into the light. Creamer writes, "When we
dismiss disability as being an exceptional and othering experience, we deny the
normality of limits in all of our lives, pretend that we do not experience increasing
limits as we age, and even refuse to acknowledge the future limit of death. In
these denials, we live a lie, a lie that harms other people (those on whom we
project and reject these limits), the environment (when we pretend that it also has
Creamer, p. 111.
Creamer, p. 32.
Creamer, p. 119-120.
no limits), and even our selves."
For Creamer, ableism is a worldview,
negatively affecting how we perceive everything.
Creamer does well to get at the heart of the problem, and disability is
perhaps more precisely suited to unmask its evils than any other area of study, but
without a similar attack on the larger issues, disability studies will ultimately do
little to change society's attitudes toward the disabled. Accepting limits is not just
a way to think more properly about ability/disability; nor is it a prism through
which we may perceive our world anew. Rather, there are foundational social
philosophies upon which ableism is grounded, and the disability rights movement
and disability studies can be a useful starting point for challenging these
philosophies. However, disability studies has so far done little to question these
philosophical undercurrents of Western society. Accepting limits, as Creamer
suggests, requires the deconstruction of our ideals of self-sufficient autonomy.
Despite the appropriately lauded political gains disability-rights has made
possible, without a questioning of these fundamental ideals as the ultimate goals
for human development, disability will never free itself from the social stigma of
negative understandings of weakness and inability.
A Theological Critique
The World Council of Churches' 2003 statement by the Ecumenical
Disabilities Advocate Network begins by noting the walls we put up in society to
lock people in or to lock people out. They write,
In days gone by people with disabilities were actually kept behind walls,
inside institutions. Now we are all a part of mainstream society. It is
estimated that some 600 million people are persons with disabilities. Yet
Creamer, p. 119.
people, especially persons with disabilities, still find themselves isolated.
Now there are walls of shame; walls of prejudice; walls of hatred; walls of
competition; walls of fear; walls of ignorance; walls of theological
prejudice and cultural misunderstanding.53
Hans Reinders likewise takes this sense of isolation as a starting point in his book
Receiving the Gift of Friendship. He notes,
Many persons with disabilities still feel rejected. Despite the positive
responses that have greeted them in the sphere of politics and law, similar
responses in society at large are much harder to come by. One concept
that indicates the truth of this claim . . . [is that] disabled people are rarely
chosen as friends, except by other disabled people. This is especially true
of.. . people with intellectual disabilities. Friendship is a very rare
experience in their lives.54
Throughout his book, Reinders consistently applauds the disability rights
movement for its political gains, but he also consistently critiques it for not
recognizing the philosophical foundations of ableism. Taking a different route
than the disability rights movement, he suggests that what is more essential to
being human than even political freedom to choose one's own path in life is
personal intimacy, or friendship. In focusing on political gains, the disabilityrights movement has largely left this arena undisturbed, and cultural barriers and
prejudices have remained. Reinders argues, "there is only so much that rights and
justice claims can do."55 He is, of course, not blaming the disability-rights
movement for society's prejudice. However, he does argue that the movement,
and disability studies as it has followed in the movement's path, has participated
in the very prejudices they fight against, because they take part in the same
cultural language and philosophical stances that give birth to ableism. Disability" A Church of All and For All." International Review of Missions. 93.370/371 (2004) p. 505.
Hans Reinders, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological
Anthropology, and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008.p. 4.
Reinders, p. 5.
rights and studies' participation in these stances becomes clear as one takes note
of the movement from the perspective of the developmentally disabled.
Instead of attacking just the way society has viewed the disabled, instead
of just attacking ableism as disability studies has done, Reinders attacks the
underlying philosophical positions common in all Western culture that have
allowed ableism's dominance. Or, put differently, ableism is a microcosm of an
entire philosophical perspective in the West, and where disability studies has
pointed out the detrimental affects of ableism on the disabled, we should see the
same detrimental affects on all of society. It is Western culture's perception of
what it means to be human that is at stake.
Reinders' strategy for dismantling ableism, therefore, is the rather radical
move of deconstructing the philosophical traditions that claim purposive agency
as integral to the meaning of being human. As Creamer uses a disability
perspective to unmask culture's ableisms, Reinders uses the same disability
perspective to unmask culture's misconstructed definition of what is a human. He
notes that "our moral culture in many ways presents families with disabled
members with an uphill battle. The culture is replete with images of selfdetermining bodies and minds, reflecting the deeply rooted cultural belief that the
point of our lives is what we are capable of doing."56 Reinders agrees with the
disability rights movement in its critique of images of self-determining bodies, but
he believes this critique does not go far enough. The disability rights movement
has argued for equality based upon the idea that disabled persons, when given
access, are just as capable at social tasks as the able-bodied. Where Reinders
Reinders, p. 8.
parts from disability studies' literature is in arguing that this claim is not true. It
has been true for some, but it has not been true for others who are not as able to
accomplish the tasks our society deems necessary, namely those who are
developmentally disabled.
The result has been a hierarchy of disability within disability studies in
which those with developmental disabilities find themselves at the bottom, and
those with profound developmental disabilities hardly exist. In saying they hardly
exist, I mean both metaphorically and physically. Physically they are in constant
danger of not existing due to issues of eugenics and prenatal testing.57
Metaphorically, they do not exist in the hierarchy because their situation rarely
gets addressed within disability studies, which is primarily presenced by
academics and others who are highly mentally abled. In many ways, mental
ability has been taken for granted within the field, and the field's focus has thus
been on physicality, embodiment, and accessibility. It has rarely taken up the
issues of the developmentally disabled. For Reinders, this hierarchy within the
field denotes the field's inability to tackle the larger issues that are at stake,
namely the assumption of purposeful agency as the criteria for meaning in life.
Reinders writes of two premises that he has in his book:
For more on this, see Jay Webber's essay in First Things in which he takes note of recent socalled "wrongful life" and "wrongful birth" lawsuits brought against doctors. He writes, "From
the doctor's perspective, why risk a lawsuit over a child who might be born with a defect? In a
close case, better to suggest an abortion and reduce one's potential liability.
Further, an increased emphasis on genetic screening places an increased social pressure to abort on
parents of the disabled unborn. If they do not abort, the parents risk being blamed by neighbors for
subjecting their child to a malady that was so "avoidable." For proof of such pressure, see the
recent and rapid decline in the birth rate of Down's Syndrome children during the last decade. As
the human genome continues to be mapped and the reality of human cloning sinks in, these
lawsuits represent a less visible, but still very real, eugenic influence on society." "Better Off
Dead?" First Things. May 2002. p. 10-12. Also available online at:
http ://www.pregnantpause. org/court/wro nlife.htm
The first is that the hierarchy of disability reflects the hierarchy of moral
values in our culture. People move upward on the ladder of cultural
attraction because of what they are capable of achieving. The second
premise is that this hierarchy of moral values reflects a basic assumption
about our human nature, namely, that selfhood and purposive agency are
crucial to what makes our lives human in the first place.
A primary goal of the disability-rights movement has been to secure rights for the
disabled so that they may pursue their own life path. The achievements of this
goal cannot be underestimated or diminished, but the achievements have not
accomplished a great deal for the developmentally disabled.
What the disability-rights movement has failed to realize is that the "moral
values of self-determination and choice they bring to the table in defense of equal
citizenship for disabled people are exactly the same values that give other citizens
the right not to be interested. Rights create the bonds of citizenship; unfortunately,
they do not forge the moral bonds of friendship."59 Including disabled people in
our lives is more and greater than including them in our institutions. When the
assumption that capability is what is important to being human is left
unquestioned, persons with developmental disabilities are perceived as adding
little to the meaning of life, and their friendship is rarely sought. For any
anthropology, theology or sociology that places relationality high in its list of
significant human traits, this perspective is obviously disastrous for the
developmentally disabled. Furthermore, if we understand what it means to be
human as being connected to capability, we inevitably view the profoundly
developmentally disabled as less than human, and social attitudes toward the
physically disabled will largely remain the same (as will the idolization of sports
Reinders, p. 27.
Reinders, p. 44.
stars). Disability studies has worked tirelessly to divert images and perceptions of
the disabled away from weakness. It has rightly sought to convert these
perceptions into a positive light. However, as long as the definition of what it
means to be human is tied to capability, disability-rights and disability studies will
never be able to escape the social stigma of weakness.
We will later return to the theological significance of Reinders' argument
as it pertains to friendship and humanity's relationship with God. For now,
however, I will focus on the ways Creamer and Reinders critique society, for I
believe they are quite similar to the critique Flannery O'Connor offers. I will,
therefore, not simply be applying disability studies to O'Connor, for while a few
arguments have been made along these lines, these arguments are necessarily
restricted both by O'Connor's lack of disability terminology and the inadequacies
Reinders has noted still reside within disability studies. Instead I will begin by
noting O'Connor's similarities with Creamer's limits model and Reinders' social
critiques. I will then be able to note how O'Connor viewed her own disability and
how she represents disability in her stories. This larger perspective, larger than a
strictly disability studies perspective, allows for fertile dialogue between
O'Connor studies, the concerns of disability and a theology of weakness.
The Face of Mary Flannery: Disability's Affect
"To call yourself a Georgia writer is certainly to declare a limitation, but one
which, like all limitations, is a gateway to reality." 60 - Mary Flannery
Gateways to Reality
Mary Flannery O'Connor, her full given name, was grotesque, ravaged by
disease and full of limitations. For most people in societies affected by the
Enlightenment, limitations and disease are things to be avoided and overcome, but
certainly not gateways to reality. We are taught from very early ages that
whatever we can imagine or dream, we can accomplish. We are in fact told that
our dreams are the gateways to our realities. In particular, the American Dream
imagines the pursuit of happiness by an autonomous individual, self-sufficient
and unfettered to limits. O'Connor's claim that limitations are the gateway to
reality renounces these Enlightened ways of thinking. In this chapter, I will
explore the significance of O'Connor's view of limitation, how this view is
connected to her disability and writing and how this view is the basis of her
challenge to modernity.
Mary Flannery would have agreed with both of the major drives of
Deborah Creamer's limits model. O'Connor's life and stories regularly broke
down the social constructs of what is "normal" and embraced limitation as normal.
Uninterested in following social conventions, and thus rarely ever mistaken for
being "normal," O'Connor was instead known for her appreciation of abnormality.
Even at the early age of five she had already become famous for an oddity. A
M&M, p. 54.
Pathe news agency had come to her home in Savannah to video a story about how
she had taught one of her chickens to walk backwards.61 She claimed this event
"marked me for life."62 In "The King of the Birds," one of O'Connor's most
autobiographical writings, she tells how she began to collect chickens as a child:
"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."63 She later became entranced by the
oddity, splendor and mystery of peacocks. At the time she wrote "The King of
the Birds" she had over 40 of them.
This eccentricity was not confined to her birds or even the farm they all
lived on together; it was plain to most who came into contact with her. Brad
Gooch records her love of "Coca-Cola's laced with black coffee" and how a
worker at a local restaurant noted O'Connor was the only person she had ever
known that put "sharp cheese on her oatmeal."64 These are, of course, small
things, but biographical accounts of her overflow with similar idiosyncrasies, as
do her letters. Her being a "normal" southern belle, as many in her family and her
town hoped, was not simply unthinkable for her but was downright fought against.
She reveled in turning social conventions on their head, such as when she
followed the assignment for Margaret Abercrombie's Home Economics class to
This is a point Brad Gooch makes a great deal about in his recent biography of O'Connor. He
centers his prologue on this story, naming the prologue "Walking Backward," pgs. 3-9. Flannery:
A Live of Flannery O 'Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
quoted in Gooch, p. 3.
M&M, p. 4.
Gooch, p. 242 and 224, respectively.
sew an outfit. All the other girls sowed nice dresses. Gooch writes, "As a fellow
student has reported, 'On the appointed day Flannery arrived with her pet
duckling, and a whole outfit of underwear and clothes, beautifully sewn to fit the
Again, one of the major points of disability studies is an attempt to change
the social perception that deviation from the norm is shocking and/or morally
deviant. In Creamer's terminology, the social ideal of a "perfect" person is an
ideal from which everyone necessarily falls short and an ideal toward which we
should not be striving. This is not something O'Connor would have needed to be
told. As I will note concerning her stories in the following chapter, she not only
embraces abnormality, or the grotesque as it is often named in literary terms, she
uses it and society's shock at it to reveal the truth of the human condition.
In addition to reveling in breaking down social constructs of what is
normal/abnormal, O'Connor had a perspective on limitation similar to Creamer's.
As a single, Catholic woman in the South, O'Connor faced many social
limitations. Christina Biber-Lake writes about being inspired by how O'Connor
dealt with these limitations, noting, "O'Connor lived in a time and culture in
which female intellectuals were much more maligned and misunderstood."
O'Connor's most profound struggle, however, was the physical struggle lupus
brought her way. Bieber-Lake is "even more amazed by her cheerful faithfulness,
her complete lack of maudlin sentimentality, and most of all, her commitment to
Gooch, p. 77-78.
her vocation, in spite of her failing body. This is a woman who knew about
O'Connor's writings, particularly from the last five years of her life,
reveal she not only lived with limitation but thought a lot about limitation. Just as
Creamer argues that limitation is the most common of all human traits, so
O'Connor writes, "I believe that the basic experience of everyone is the
experience of human limitation."67 It is often when the characters in her stories
ignore this truth that they begin to be overtaken by evil. Yet she did not view
limitations, as modern culture views them, as simply challenges she must find
ways to get around or to overcome. For both O'Connor and Creamer limitation is
not a mere lack of perfection, encouraging alternate routes to perfection. Rather,
limitation has positive aspects of its own. O'Connor notes, "Fiction is the most
impure and the most modest and the most human of the arts. It is closest to man in
his sin and his suffering and his hope... . We are limited human beings, and the
novel is a product of our best limitations."68 Again, this thought is countercultural. We are accustomed to thinking of the production of great art as the
result of that which is best about us, an overcoming of limitation, a reaching
toward limitlessness. For O'Connor art may well be what is best about us, but
this occurs in and through limitation, not despite it.
O'Connor relates the significance of limitation and art to the incarnation God as a limited human being. Giving advice to young writers, she references
Christina Bieber-Lake. "Vocation through Limitation: Flannery O'Connor's Life of Faith."
The Cresset. Easter 2008. Available online at Easter Lake.pdf. Accessed 12/10/2009.
M&Mp. 131.
M&M,p. 193.
fiction as being "so very much an incarnational art," and then claims, "The fact is
that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about
everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself
dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for
you."69 Putting off for now the theological implications and import of calling
fiction an "incarnational art," the irony of the incarnation not being a grand
enough job for the young writers should not be lost. The incarnation reference
serves to create an analogy between the lofty goals of art and the lofty goals of
God's redemption of the world. Yet both goals are achieved through the humble
and "dusty" means of enfleshing a very limited humanity, not by escaping such
limitation or pulling humanity out of its limitations. This perspective on
limitation pervades O'Connor's work because she prophetically challenged a
culture that believed, and still believes, in the opposite of limitation.
Embracing limitation was part of O'Connor's assault on the arrogant
philosophies of modernity that assume attainable perfection. In an essay entitled
"The Teaching of Literature," she writes that a "sense of loss is natural to us, and
it is only in these centuries when we are afflicted with the doctrine of the
perfectibility of human nature by its own efforts that the vision of the freak in
fiction is so disturbing."70 For O'Connor, limitation and "loss" are normal or
"natural;" and it is the modern doctrine of perfectibility that is freakishly removed
from reality. Therefore, O'Connor considered the freaks, with which her fiction
is well-littered, to represent the normal state of us all, which, though more bluntly
M&M, p. 68.
M&M,p. 133.
put, is the argument Creamer has made that limitation, not unlimited perfection, is
our normal state. As I have noted in discussing disability studies, it is our social
philosophies of the "perfect" body as normal, which dominates media in
particular, that are wrong. O'Connor understood this well, and understood it
better and better as over the years she came to terms with the physical
diminishments lupus brought her.
Physical Diminishments
O'Connor's references to limitation are difficult to find within the body of
literature that is O'Connor studies. Little has been written about her view of
limitation or its affect on her writing. Nearly as little has been written about her
disability, which I will argue is intimately connected to her view of limitation.
Yet her view of limitation is very important to her work. Her "passive
diminishments" were "gateways to reality" and became the raw materials for
fashioning her death in Christ.71
O'Connor's understanding of limitation was no mere philosophical
exercise. She experienced limitation in very personal ways, both because of her
lupus and as a writer. Concerning her vocation, she claims, "It has been my
experience that in the process of making a novel, the serious novelist faces, in the
most extreme way, his own limitations."72 This is true in relation to a poverty of
For more on the ethical affect of living with a disability, see Jackie Leach Scully's "Drawing
Lines, Crossing Lines: Ethics and the Challenge of Disabled Embodiment" in which she argues,
"the lived experience of a specific embodiment affects the structures of imagination and
interpretation that people use in moral perception and evaluation." Feminist Theology 11.3 (2003):
M&M,p. 183.
words the writer may experience, but O'Connor meant something more as well.
She is referring to making such limitations real, incarnating them in fiction.
Making them real makes our creatureliness real - faces it, allows the reader to see
it, and helps the reader accept it. When the reader comes to terms with limitations,
she finds they are not something to be denounced, but are the reality of our true
state of being as humans. Whatever facing "in the most extreme way" her own
limitations meant for O'Connor, part of what it meant was facing her physical
limitations. Because of lupus' drain on her energies, she had to structure her days
very precisely in order to maximize her creative output. She was not able, for
example, to take the morning off to go into town for shopping and then write in
the afternoon, because she would be too worn out by that time to concentrate and
be creative. It was lupus that caused her greatest physical diminishments and that
perhaps became her greatest gateway to reality.
Diagnosed at the age of twenty-five, O'Connor lived nearly the totality of
her writing career with the grave limitations lupus brought her. Wendy Thomas
explains the disease that killed O'Connor's father when she was fifteen and killed
her at the age of thirty-nine: "Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic
inflammatory disease of the immune system. . . . It produces an excess of
antibodies that instead of fighting sickness actually attack the kidneys, heart,
lungs, blood vessels, and joints. Recurring symptoms include extreme fatigue,
weight loss, joint pain swelling, hair loss, sensitivity to light, and a loss of
"The only thing I wrestle with is the language and a certain poverty of means in handling it, but
this is merely what you have to do to write at all" M&M, p. 40.
appetite."74 O'Connor experienced all of these symptoms and many others, yet
there is very little evidence in her letters or in reports from friends concerning the
pain she suffered. When she does mention her health, she wittily disguises or
makes light of the disease's affect on her. In a letter to Caroline Gordon Tate in
1957, seven years after her diagnosis, she writes, "I have lately been getting dizzy
because I am taking a new medicine and have got an overdose of it. So I figure
I'll do my staggering around at home. It takes some time for the dose to get
regulated. Every time something new is invented, I get in on the ground floor with
it."75 Another example comes from a letter written in 1964 in which she writes a
friend about her current stay in the hospital. "I am still here—into the third week. I
had a transfusion Sareday & another Sunday.... I don't know if I'm making
progress or if there's any to be made. Let's hope they are learning something
anyhow"76 [spelling in O'Connor's letters is often tongue in cheek]. Thomas notes,
"With all this joking, one might miss the sense of suffering that she must have felt
during these years. Her sentences are almost entirely devoid of the pain and
violence of disease she must have endured."77 She lived with lupus for fourteen
years. It regularly put her on crutches and into hospitals for months at a time. It
deprived her of strength and energy, particularly in the afternoons. Thomas goes
on to note that apart from the above list of side-effects, O'Connor also mentions
the lupus causing "popping jaws (HB 397), porous bones (HB 397), sun
intolerance (MM 322), kidney failure (MM 584), anemia (HB 564), and many
Wendy Thomas. "More Instructive than a Long Trip to Europe: The Effects of Lupus on
Flannery O'Connor's Short Stories." MA Thesis. The University of New Brunswick, 1997. p. 1.
Mystery and Manners, p. 257.
Ibid., p. 582.
Thomas, p. 12.
flus and colds; but she seemed to be most affected by her lack of energy,
something from which she got little relief."78
From one perspective, certainly the one O'Connor preferred, her disability
had nothing to do with her writing. In one letter, she wrote characteristically,
"My lupus has no business in literary considerations."
In another letter she
wrote, "The disease is of no consequence to my writing since for that I use my
head and not my feet."
Even apart from these claims, the dearth of O'Connor
scholarship interested in her disability gives one the impression that her disease
had little, if any, affect on her fiction. Jennifer Profitt notes, "One must ask why,
with the intense scholarly interest in Flannery O'Connor's work, there has been so
little written, and with such hesitancy, about her illness as influence on her
writing." All other aspects of her life - her Southern heritage and surroundings,
her relationship with her mother, her gender and education - have all been
scrutinized and mined for relevance to the meaning of her work. Yet, her
disability with its constant physical, mental and locale affect on her has been
Thomas, p. 3. Profitt notes, "ATCH is effective in reducing the inflammation associated with
lupus. However, given high doses over the long term (as O'Connor's was), ATCH produces a host
of undesirable physical side effects: atrophy, Cushing syndrome, thrombocytopenia (splotched
skin), anemia, bone deterioration, tumors, and insomnia - all of which O'Connor suffered." p. 77.
Also, "In the 1950s steroids were used to treat most symptoms of lupus. She mentions these side
effects in a letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Sept. 20, 1951, that 'I am down to two moderate
shots [of ATCH] a day from four large ones' and that 'the large doses of ATCH send you off in a
rocket and are scarcely less disagreeable than the disease' {Habit of Being 26). From 1960 on, the
frustration of dealing with lupus and its consequences grew in her life; its presence becomes more
prominent in her letters. Connor writes to Cecil Dawkins, in a letter dated March 3, 1959, about
the effects of lupus and sunlight. "The sun is greatly restricting my activities right now and will
continue to do so, I'm afraid. The doctor says I can't go out of the house without stockings, gloves,
long sleeves and large hat. (Sunlight influences lupus and causes joint symptoms). The spectacle
of me in this get-up all summer is depressing to my imagination. We are having green glass put in
the car.' {Habit of Being 322)." Jennifer Profitt. "Lupus and Corticosteroid Imagery in the Works
of Flannery O'Connor." Flannery O'Connor Bulletin Vol. 26-27, 2000, p. 75-91.
HB, p. 380.
Quoted in Thomas, p. 14
largely ignored. Profitt suggests, "This absence of research into O'Connor's
illness as source reflects a generalized, societal avoidance and discomfort with the
intimacies of disability."81 It is perhaps our ignorance of and fear of disability that
has created this silence. Listening to O'Connor through disability studies,
however, can break this silence.
Profitt's assessment is correct. There has been very little written about
O'Connor's disability. More significant to my purpose, though, is the societal
unease with disability that this reflects; for I believe the reason society is
uncomfortable with disability has a great deal to do with the meaning of
O'Connor's work.82 Disability reminds us of our limitations, which
Enlightenment-influenced minds would either rather pretend do not exist or view
as nothing more than obstacles to accomplishment. Modern ears find
O'Connor's embrace of limitation confusing and her favorable references to
limitation an affront to modern progress. Herein lies the heart of O'Connor's
critique of culture. She understands that we cannot save ourselves, and she
declares to us that we must realize this before we can be open to a saving force
outside ourselves. For O'Connor, incarnations of limitation, whether they be real
Profitt, p. 75.
Similarly, see The Handbook of Disability Studies' explanation of Leslie Fiedler's seminal work
Pity and Fear: Myths and Images of the Disabled in Literature Old and New, "Fiedler's (1981)
argument rests on a complication of the idea of unsatisfactory imagery by framing the question of
literary representation within a psychoanalytical framework. The ambivalence sensed by readers
in literary presentations of disabled characters is akin to a vicarious experience of culture's
uncertainty about their disabled populations." The fact of critics' silence concerning O'Connor's
disability proves this point all the more. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder. "Representation and
Its Discontents: The Uneasey Home of Disability in Literature and Film." The Handbook of
Disability Studies. Gary Albrecht, Katherine Seelman and Michael Bury, eds. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Sage Publications, 2001. P. 209.
such as lupus and the gas chambers of World War II, or fictional, such as those in
her stories, open spaces for salvation.
Disability's Affect on O'Connor's Worldview and Writing
Counter to the general lack of acknowledgement of O'Connor's disability,
a few have begun to argue that lupus did have a great affect on her writing, some
viewing the affect negatively and some positively. If nothing else, the lupus
certainly changed her circumstances and surroundings, and as a regional writer
this was significant to her work. I will argue that her disability affected her
writing in at least three ways: it caused her to move back to the South where she
embraced being a Southern writer; it caused her to concentrate on her writing
since it took all her strength away for doing anything else; and, most importantly,
it caused her to embody one of the most central elements of her faith - Christ's
suffering. Admittedly, the first two are circumstantial. It is possible that she may
have been nearly as regional in her writing if she had remained in Connecticut
with the Fitzgeralds, where she was when the lupus called her back to Georgia.
Also, she was known for her disciplined writing even before she was exiled to the
Southern countryside. Nevertheless, the limitations of place (the South and a
rural farm) and physicality (lack of strength and mobility) that lupus placed on her
at least aided in her development in these areas. The force of my argument,
though will be that O'Connor's disability aided her in developing a keen sense of
how limitations and even suffering must be accepted and embraced as
participation in God's redemption of the world.
Before I begin, let me be clear about what I am not arguing. I am not
claiming that in the overall scheme of things O'Connor's lupus ended up making
her a better writer and that this fact somehow justifies the pain with which she
lived. The lupus did not make her a better writer, or turn her into a saint, or give
her any special insights. This is the kind of sentimentality she wished to avoid
when claiming the lupus had no affect on her writing. It certainly did, however,
change her life, most profoundly in cutting it short. What made her a better writer
and gave her great insight was not the lupus itself but how she responded to the
lupus. It is her acceptance, not of the disease per se, but of life as a given, as a
gift, that makes all things, including "passive diminishments," meaningful to her
calling and thereby good.
Due to her illness, O'Connor was forced to move in with her mother and
thus to return to the South. Her style was already Southern gothic when she lived
in Iowa and in New York at Yaddo and with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald in
Connecticut, but there is no questioning that her move back to Andalusia, her
family's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia helped her become one of the greatest
regional writers the United States has known. Before the move could have a
positive affect on her writing, though, she had to accept the change. Jean Cash
points out, "Since O'Connor—alienated by both her individuality and genius—
had never been particularly comfortable in Milledgeville, she, on her return, had
to make compromises and adjustments that would enable her to continue to
develop and use her unique talents. She had to accept the limitations imposed on
her by lupus erythematosus, restrictions that partly influenced her writing
schedule and certainly controlled her travel away from Milledgeville."83
O'Connor admits to the move's affect on her. Six years after her return,
she wrote a friend who was complaining about returning to the South: "So it may
be the South! You get no condolences from me. This is a Return I have faced and
when I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned the way it is necessary to be
resigned to death, and largely because I thought it would be the end of any
creation, any writing, any WORK from me. And as I told you by the fence, it was
only the beginning."
In another letter she admits a similar thought,
It is perhaps good and necessary to get away from it [the South] physically
for a while, but this is by no means to escape it. I stayed away from the
time I was 20 until I was 25 with the notion that the life of my writing
depended on my staying away. I would certainly have persisted in that
delusion had I not got very ill and had to come home. The best of my
writing has been done here."85
Though slowly at first, she began to accept her return and realized it as a gift to
her. She too had thought she must break free form the limitations of her
childhood in order to fly free as an artist and a person, but the lupus helped her
understand that it was those very limitations, as well as the additional physical
limitations the lupus brought, that helped her and her writing break through to
reality. One further example of her coming to completely accept her "Return"
comes after her one trip abroad. During the trip, she was plagued by a severe cold
that lasted most of the seventeen day journey. Her return to the comforts of
home was welcomed. Shortly after returning to Andalusia, she wrote in a letter,
Jean Cash. Flannery O'Connor: A Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002. p. 134.
HB,p. 224.
HB, p. 230.
"We went to Europe and I lived through it but my capacity for staying at home
has now been perfected & is going to last me the rest of my life."86
The farm, her family, the townspeople, the nearby asylum, all this and
more became inspiration for her stories. A trip to Andalusia brings her stories to
life: Shiftlet walking up the long dirt driveway to the farm in "The Life You Save
May Be Your Own;" the young girl moving from one bedroom to another upstairs
to watch the boys coming to the farm in "A Circle in the Fire;" descriptions of the
help's living quarters and of the tree lines in the distance in any of her stories.
Biographies of O'Connor provide example after example of how O'Connor drew
from her surroundings, whether nearby railroad tracks, stories in the local paper or
her family members, to create her stories. O'Connor studied the detail of
landscapes and people alike, and it was her intense scrutiny of Andalusia and
Milledgeville that birthed and provided the setting for many of her stories.
Another way the lupus affected her writing was that it caused her to focus
on writing and nothing else. Part of this is due to the rural location of the farm,
but it is also due to the weariness and immobility the disease created. In one letter
she wrote, "I myself am afflicted with time, as I do not work out [of the house] on
account of an energy-depriving ailment and my work in, being creative, can go on
only a few hours a day. I live on a farm and don't see many people."87 After two
years of living on the farm, she wrote to her mentor at the Iowa Writer's
Workshop: "I am making out fine in spite of any conflicting stories . . . . I have
enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I
HB, p. 285.
HB,p. 91.
can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What you have to measure out,
you come to observe closer, or so I tell myself."
A few years later in another
letter, she writes, "I have had some bone trouble and for the last two years have
been walking on crutches; I expect to be on them for two or three years more or
longer—but when you can't be too active physically, there is nothing left to do but
write so I may have a blessing in disguise."
This perspective, in which she
makes the most of her circumstances, accepting the life given her, runs from the
beginning of her exile right to the end of her life. In 1964 when she was restricted
to a hospital bed and not even allowed visitors, she wrote: "I'm pleased I can't
have company because it means what energy I've got I can use for my own bidnis,
getting this book out. I've got to get it out before I get worse & should I get better
I'll have other & new stuff to work on."90 Unfortunately, she did not have a
chance to work on anything else.
Along with concentrating on her art, the isolation and exhaustion allowed
for our greatest insight into her personality: her letters. "I never mind writing
anybody. In fact it is about my only way of visiting with people as I don't get
around much and people seldom come to see us in the country."91 Her hundreds
of letters have been invaluable to O'Connor scholarship, and they continue to be
especially as new letters are discovered and released. Jill Baumgaertner notes
"The O'Connors did not install a telephone at their farm until late in Flannery's
life, so to communicate with her friends she had to write to them." Along with
HB, p. 57.
# 5 , p. 234.
HB,p. 590.
HB,p. 139.
maintaining friendships, her letters discuss everything from the terms of her
contracts to what magazines and books she was reading. She responded to young
authors who wrote her looking for encouragement, and she asked for advice from
friends on the stories she was working on at the time. Concerning the publishing
of The Habit of Being, the published collection of her letters, Baumgaertner
argues the book amounts to a diary and "bring into clearer focus the human being
behind the art. The collection was an invaluable contribution to scholarship, and
has, since its publication, offered readers information that is indispensable in
understanding the author."92 Had she lived somewhere else and had easier access
to friends and colleagues, O'Connor scholarship would not have the same wealth
of insight provided by her letters. Again, I am not arguing that the ends justify the
means, that we should view her lupus positively because she wrote better stories
and more letters due to living at Andalusia and having little energy for travel.
Rather, I am pointing out ways in which the lupus affected her life and how her
acceptance of and response to these changes allowed her to become one of the
greatest authors and personalities in American history.
Most significantly, though, is a third way lupus affected O'Connor's
writing: it caused her to live the reality of pain and suffering. As noted, it is easy
to miss this in O'Connor's life, even in her letters. Wendy Thomas writes, "For
the most part, she refers little to the suffering her deteriorating condition must
have inevitably caused. In many instances she appears light-hearted about it."
Reading between the lines, though, the difficulty of lupus becomes clear. She
Baumgaertner, Jill. '"The meaning is in you' : Flannery O'Connor in Her Letters." Christian
Century. 104 no 39. 1987, p 1172-1176. p. 1172.
Thomas, p. 11.
often refers to new medicines and their side effects, though she lets on little to the
suffering they caused. She also lies in the hospital for weeks and months at a time.
She has to turn down speaking engagements and invites to visit friends, and as
noted she was only able to write for a few hours each day. O'Connor, however,
was somehow resigned to this. She wrote in a letter, "As far as I'm concerned, as
long as I can get at that typewriter, I have enough. They expect me to improve or
so they say. I expect anything that happens."94 This is one of her strongest
statements of acceptance, and one can only wonder if her understanding of
"anything" included her death a few months later.
At least part of the reason there are dead bodies in O'Connor's fiction is
that her father died of lupus when she was fifteen years old, and she was given the
same death sentence just at the beginning of her fifteen year professional writing
career. In light of her watching her father die of the disease and her own stream
of passive diminishments, O'Connor's resignation to and acceptance of lupus is
remarkable. This resignation, however, is not a resignation to a sad fate. Rather,
it is a resignation to God's will and a prophetic challenge to a cultural insistence
that the fate is sad. Such an insistence, that her fate and the fate of others who are
disabled or diseased are sad, comes from a modern philosophical perspective that
prioritizes the extermination of suffering over an appreciation of mystery.
O'Connor's disagreements with modern philosophies are well-noted, both in her
own body of work and in O'Connor studies. Critics have argued that her
HB, p. 585.
challenge to modernity is the essence of her fiction.
A link has not been
established, however, between her disability and her challenge to modern
philosophies. I hope to show a clear connection between the two in the next
Fighting the Demons of Nihilism
For modern society, imperfection is, of course, a sad and unacceptable fate.
Therefore, persons with disabilities often receive the same sentimental treatment
from society that O'Connor received on a shopping trip from an old lady.
Afterwards she wrote Betty Hester with an account. Her lupus had at that time
restricted her to crutches.
I have decided I must be a pretty pathetic sight with these crutches. I was
in Atlanta the other day in Davison's. An old lady got on the elevator
behind me and as soon as I turned around she fixed me with a moist
gleaming eye and said in a loud voice, "Bless you, darling!'" I felt exactly
like the Misfit and I gave her a weakly lethal look, whereupon greatly
encouraged, she grabbed my arm and whispered (very loud) in my ear.
"Remember what they said to John at the gate darling!" It was not my
floor, but I got off and I suppose the old lady was astounded at how quick
I could get away on crutches. I have a one-legged friend and I asked her
what they said to John at the gate. She said she reckoned they said, "the
lame shall enter first." This may be because the lame will be able to knock
everybody else down with their crutches.
This story is one of the most humerous in her letters, but it is also interesting
because of its agreement with some of the basic concepts of disability studies.
First, O'Connor resists the social stigma of disability, a stigma that totalizes a
person according to a disability. The old lady tears up with presumptions about
"O'Connor's Christian faith and the modern secular spirit—these two ingredients collided to
produce her remarkable fiction." Michael M. Jordan. "Flannery O'Connor's Writing: A Guide for
the Perplexed." MA 47:1, Winter 2005 Accessed online on 7/21/09 at
H B , p . 116-117.
the miserable state of affairs and challenges O'Connor must be living. She
assumes a certain sad state of non-ability that goes beyond the obvious limitation
to walking and includes O'Connor's hearing. She thus "whispered (very loud)" in
O'Connor's ear. This is a regular occurrence for those with visible disabilities.
When the able-bodied, or temporarily able-bodied, see a disability, they often
become socially uncomfortable with the person, not knowing what other parts of
the person do not work "correctly." O'Connor does not participate in these
assumptions and instead exits with haste.
Second, in resisting this stigma O'Connor turns the sign of disability, the
crutches, into helpful aids. She is able to get out of the elevator very quickly,
surprising the old lady, and she imagines the lame having a better ability to
muscle their way through to the front of the line to enter heaven. The disability
thus becomes an agent for change, in this case creative maneuvering, which is
indicative of Creamer and others' suggestion that limitation gives birth to
Most significantly, though, O'Connor does not participate in the
sentimentality the lady offers. Well-intentioned words from an old lady are not
something one normally feels the need to escape, yet O'Connor is so opposed to
them that she exits the elevator by getting off before she arrives at her intended
floor. This need for escape proves telling. The old woman, of course, is not the
danger. Rather, O'Connor is escaping a particular philosophical viewpoint, as
though it were a temptation one must flee.
To understand her actions here, I turn to her essay "The Church and the
Fiction Writer." In discussing how "fiction can transcend its limitations only by
staying within them,"97 O'Connor notes the average Catholic reader's Manichean
preference for sentimentality. I will quote her argument at length:
By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his
conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to
recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the
obscene... but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He
forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in
the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence,
whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by
some natural law to become its opposite. We lost our innocence in the
Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought
about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality
is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a
mock state of innocence.
O'Connor fled the presumption of innocence that resided within the old lady's
"Bless you, darling!" because she knew that such sentimentality skips the
necessary slow participation in Christ's death. She understood that she was indeed
more likely to enter Heaven's gates first by using her crutches as weapons than by
relying on such sentimentality. O'Connor felt this was the problem with
modernity. Like the lady placing O'Connor at heaven's gate without knowing
Mystery and Manners, p. 146.
M&M, p. 148. Denise T. Askin comments helpfully on this point: "The journey toward God,
O'Connor claimed, is often impeded by emotion, particularly when it leads one to skip the process
of redemption "in its concrete reality" in order to arrive at a "mock state of innocence, which
strongly suggests its opposite" (Mystery and Manners 148). "A mind cleared of false emotion and
false sentiment and egocentricity," O'Connor says, "is going to have at least those roadblocks
removed from its path" (Mystery and Manners 84). Her animus against emotion amounted to a
virtual campaign against sentimentality and sappy compassion. She was dogged by readers who
wanted to feel compassion for her cripples and idiots while she wanted "intellectual and moral
judgments ... [to] have ascendancy over feeling" (Mystery and Manners 43). She levels her aim at
pious readers and writers, people "afflicted with sensibility" (Mystery and Manners 84), who
produce and reward "soggy, formless" literature (Mystery and Manners 31). In "The Church and
the Fiction Writer" she goes so far as to link sentimentality in art with obscenity and pornography
(Mystery and Manners 147-48), both guilty of the Manichean tendency to separate nature and
grace." "Anagogical Vision and Comedic Form in Flannery O'Connor: The Reasonable Use of the
Unreasonable." Renascence 57 nol Fall 2004. p. 47-62.
anything about O'Connor, modernity attempts to skip the concrete reality of
suffering and presumes a mock state of innocence, presumes the perfectability of
humanity by its own efforts. The old lady's sentimentality belies her participation
in this modern philosophy, which O'Connor saw as the great evil of her time and
therefore felt she must flee as quickly as possible. As we will see in the next
chapter, it is this slow participation in the concrete reality of suffering that defines
much of the violence in O'Connor's fiction. For her, participation in Christ's
suffering was the only means of Return to our redemption, so in order to counter
the fall, her characters must participate in Christ's death.
Disability studies has also recognized this danger of sentimentality.
Society oscillates between pitying the disabled and fearing them as embodiments
of chaos." Religious views of disability have differed very little. Nancy Eisland
notes that throughout history "disability has never been religiously neutral, but
shot through with theological significance."100 She goes on to explain, "The
persistent thread within the Christian tradition has been . . . that the person with
disabilities is either divinely blessed or dammed: the defiled evildoer or the
spiritual superhero."101 It often shows up as, in O'Connor's words, an
"overemphasis on innocence."
In another essay, Eisland explains how what she calls "folk theodicies"
concerning her disability came across to her when she was growing up in the
church. As a child, Eisland often received the side of these theodicies that
See Leslie Fiedler's. Pity and Fear: Myths and Images of the Disabled in Literature Old and New. New
York: International Center for the Disabled, 1982.
Nancy Eisland. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville:
Abingdon, 1994. p. 69.
Eisland, The Disabled God. p. 70.
overemphasize innocence. She writes that the people's theodicies "are summed
up in the familiar remarks: 'You are special in God's eyes. That's why you were
given this disability'; 'Don't worry about your pain and suffering now, in heaven
you will be made whole'; and 'Thank God, it isn't worse.'" Certainly one of
these folk theodicies was in the old lady's mind when she grabbed O'Connor's
arm and whispered loudly in her ear. Like O'Connor, Eisland concludes her
thoughts with a humorous rejection of such revelations of God's supposed
purposes: "I was told God gave me a disability to develop my character. But at
the age of six or seven, I was convinced that I had enough character to last a
O'Connor considered the cultural pervasiveness of this sentimentality
terribly dangerous, especially its development within the church. Such
sentimentality participates in the larger cultural problem of self-sufficient
autonomy. The comments Eisland and many others have received from wellintentioned church goers assume an unrealistically "perfect" body and mind as
normal. Deviation from this norm calls forth the viewer's sentimentality, which
springs from a philosophical stance that assumes humanity's need to, and ability
to, eradicate suffering. This philosophy leaves no room for the mysterious or the
spiritual, except perhaps as a glorified psychology. O'Connor understood that a
disability does not automatically develop character and allow the "lame" to enter
heaven first. Entering heaven only occurs by the slow participation in Christ's
Eisland, "Barriers and Bridges: Relating the Disability Rights Movement and Religious
Organizations." In Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice, ed.
Nancy Eisland and Don E. Saliers, 200-229. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998.
death, no matter who the person is. This is the vision she attempts to get across in
her fiction - that to avoid suffering may well be to avoid God's work in the world.
As Creamer and others have done, O'Connor traces the problem to the
Enlightenment. Bieber-Lake writes, "O'Connor read a version of intellectual
history in which America's spiritual blindness was definitively linked to the
The Enlightenment triumphed reason and answers over
spirituality and mystery, eventually reducing reality to the presumably malleable
and thus conquerable state of physical material. O'Connor put it this way: "Since
the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more
and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before
the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this
is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances."104 The
modern perspective, believing it can conquer all ills and mysteries, displaces any
need for help. It denies vulnerability, and thus denies the true state of humanity.
The old lady in the elevator was sad for O'Connor that she was not normal.
O'Connor fled the lady's sentiment because she understood its underlying
presumptions that inability is not acceptable because humans should be able to
conquer everything without exception.
Ultimately, this modern philosophy, and particularly the version of it
proliferated in the United States, is Gnostic. Bieber-Lake explains that
Enlightenment thinkers such as the philosophers "Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, and
Hegel, and after them, romantic and modern artists [perpetuated] two essentially
Bieber-Lake,The Incarnational Art ofFlannery O'Connor. Macon, GA: Mercer University
Press, 2005. p. 16.
MM, p. 41.
Gnostic ideas Americans have made their own: (1) that the imagination can be
made pure and free, unfettered by the body and (2) that the self can birth itself in
complete freedom and independence from the authority and determination of
others."105 The first of these Gnostic ideas, that the imagination can be made pure,
has led to the dominance of reason as the center of what it means to be human.
Explaining Descarte's famous dictum cogito ergo sum (I think; therefore, I am),
Bieber-Lake notes, "In Cartesian dualism only the mind that has been purified of
all contamination by the body or the outside world could be trusted to reason its
way to the truth."106 This set up for the Enlightenment and following centuries of
Western thought a dualism between the higher functions of reason and the lower
functions of all things physical. According to the light of the Enlightenment, all
problems can be conquered once their causes are understood and the imagination
is allowed the freedom necessary to formulate a solution. The body is considered
little more than a vessel for the mind. This Gnostic influence is so pervasive that
even disability studies has participated in its version of reality, creating what
Reinders named a hierarchy of disability. Sentimentality participates in the
Gnostic version of reality because it denies the mysteries of the body, specifically
suffering, which it views only as a physical problem that must be solved by
triumphs of mind and soul. O'Connor instead understood suffering as a
mysterious ingredient of life, a life fully given by the Creator.
The second of these Gnostic ideas, that the self can birth itself in complete
freedom and independence from the authority of others, has blossomed into the
Bieber-Lake, p. 16.
Bieber-Lake, p. 17.
ideal of self-sufficient autonomy, both for the person and for humanity as a whole.
O'Connor called her first collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find,
"nine stories about original sin."107 In them, and all of her work, she attempts to
reveal the sin with which all humanity is born and which the Enlightenment has
perfected: believing we are the creators of our own destinies. She consistently
challenges modern philosophy by denying its assumption of the self-sufficiency
of humanity and forcing a realization of original sin that cannot be overcome by
any human efforts.
O'Connor understood that the result of seeing life in this modern, Gnostic
fashion is a divorce of sentiment from its rightful source: Jesus Christ. Because
modernity believes humans can solve their own problems, it denies the possibility
of a mysterious solution that comes from outside of humanity, a solution that is
God's. O'Connor wrote in a letter,
The notion of the perfectibility of man came about at the time of the
Enlightenment in the 18th century.... The Liberal approach is that man
has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his
own efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing,
sanitation, health, etc. and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up.
1 OR
Judgment is out of place because man is not responsible.
O'Connor's fiction is, in essence, a confrontation with this modern, liberal
sensibility. She attempts to reintroduce the possibility of judgment, which
includes the possibility of grace, by first establishing the reality of humanity's fall.
The South's defeat in the Civil War caused it to have a heritage of loss and
vulnerability that O'Connor found helpful. Her southern characters thus
instinctively reject modernity's self-righteousness, for Sherman's march
Flannery O'Connor to Sally Fitzgerald, December 26, 1954. HB, p. 74.
HB, p. 302-303.
incinerated their limitless progress.
She attacks "the Liberal approach" by
making real the opposite of its understanding of reality. She brings to "good
country people" judgment that deems them swine and rains upon the criminal and
insane sacramental grace that releases them from the lies of Modernity, thus
opening the door for salvation. Though the words of the old lady in Davison's
seem harmlessly wrapped in the gentility of concern, they are in fact a veil for the
greatest of all lies: that humans are independent and not dependent beings. Once
unwrapped, her sentimentality thus proves demonic.
The Sharpest Suffering and Christ's Death
"[TJhere are times when the sharpest suffering is not to suffer and the worst
affliction is not to be afflicted. Job's comforters were worse off than he was
though they didn't know it.! 10
- Mary Flannery
When considering O'Connor's clash with modern philosophies, both
Ralph Wood and Christina Bieber-Lake turn to O'Connor's writing about the
disabled Mary Ann. Leading up to the "new perspective" she writes about at the
end of the Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, O'Connor notes our cultural
sentimentality and pity for those who suffer: "In this popular pity, we mark our
gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more,
even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance,
which is to say, faith."111 In modern popular culture, suffering is rejected with
absoluteness. "Other ages," or pre-modern society, accepted suffering as a given.
She writes that the notion of the perfectibility of humanity "is what the South has traditionally
opposed... . The South in other words still believes that man has fallen and that he is only
perfectible by God's grace, not by his own unaided efforts." HB, p. 25.
From a letter O'Connor wrote to Hester on 10/31/1956, quoted in "Sacramental Suffering: The
Friendship of Flannery O'Connor and Elizabeth Hester." Modern Theology 24, no. 3 (2008), p.
M&M,p. 227.
Such acceptance is an act of faith. She continues, "In the absence of this faith
now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from
the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the
source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps
1 19
in the fumes of the gas chambers."
As the Enlightenment began to explain the mysteries of moving stars,
hurting spleens and human development, it divorced the meaning of suffering
from the revelation of Christ and his death. Once separated from the historical
reality of God's suffering in Christ, suffering could no longer hold any meaning
on its own and could only be viewed as evil. The result, as Wood notes, is that
our culture seeks "to cure every evil, whether mental or physical, with an
appropriate therapy. The avoidance of suffering becomes the single criterion,
therefore, for determining the good, and pain becomes the chief measure of
evil."113 In another essay, Wood writes, "The chief temptation of nihilism is to
employ force in order to accomplish alleged good. There being no transcendent
order by which human desires might be reordered to the Good, we must both
devise and enforce our own schemes for human betterment."114 O'Connor
prophetically perceived that this devising of our own schemes ends in forced labor
camps and eventually in the fumes of the gas chamber, because humanity
attempts to create, inevitably by force, its own Utopian societies.
M&M, p. 226-227.
Wood, Flannery O 'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing, 2004. p. 198.
Wood, "Sacramental Suffering." p. 391.
The jump from sentimentality, or tenderness, to the gas chamber seems a
bit much. However, O'Connor's argument is strong. In another congruence with
a major concern of disability studies, the eugenics of prenatal testing, O'Connor
notes that the world influenced by Modernism, which is "everywhere,. . . would
not ask why Mary Ann should die, but why she should be born in the first
place."115 As we will see later in her stories, O'Connor brings this up multiple
times. She perceived the societal trajectory toward the prenatal testing and
abortion of lives presumably filled with suffering. Wood writes concerning Mary
Ann and O'Connor's view of Mary Ann's life,
Because she learned to make her affliction into a sacramental participation
in Christ's own suffering, the child's soul enabled her body to take its true
form in a graciously embraced death. In the absence of such faith, the
suffering inherent in the natural order is no longer the means of
redemption. Nature is, instead, a purposeless realm awaiting human
manipulation. The secular conclusion, therefore, is that Mary Ann's life is
a mistake of nature and should have been aborted, since she made no
contribution to society.116
In order to avoid the pre-supposed suffering a Mary Ann or a Down Syndrome
child would incur, as well as the disruption of the pursuit of happiness for the
parents, prenatal testing is now offered and society regularly makes the choice
that the disabled should not exist. O'Connor, of course, wrote these comments
about Mary Ann well before Roe v. Wade, but she understood the cultural
philosophies that are willing to, and feel they must, take not only death but also
the possibility of life into their own hands in order to avoid suffering. She was,
after all, not far removed from the Utopian vision of the Third Reich that began its
Holocaust with the disabled.
M&M, p. 226.
Wood, "Sacramental Suffering." p. 405-406.
Bieber-Lake also turns to the Mary Ann introduction to explain
O'Connor's self-defense against Modernity, a defense that often turns lethal in her
stories. She focuses on a story of Hawthorne's, called The Birthmark, that
O'Connor discusses. Looking at the picture of Mary Ann the sisters had sent
along with their original request for O'Connor to write her story, O'Connor notes,
1 17
"The child's picture had brought to mind [Hawthorne's] story, The Birthmark"
Bieber-Lake describes the story well: "In Hawthorne's story, Alymer, the
quintessential modern scientist, tries to use his 'art' to rid his wife Georgiana of a
small birthmark on her face, and his obsession with her perfection eventually
leads to her death." 118 Georgiana views her birthmark as a sign of beauty, but
Alymer explains to her, "you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that
this slightest defect, which we hesitate to term a defect or beauty, shocks me, as
being the visible mark of earthly imperfection."119 Shortly after Alymer's science
removes the birthmark, which, significantly, is perceived as a random act of the
"hand of Nature" instead of a part of the gift of life from God, Georgiana dies.
In O'Connor's reading of the story, Georgiana's death is a direct result of
Alymer's confidence in the supremacy of the scientific method, particularly its
ability to overcome imperfection. Bieber-Lake writes, "In the story Alymer is a
modern scientist who, under the influence of pure Cartesian categories, tries to
use science to eliminate anything he considers to be impure and mysterious in
human existence... . The little birthmark wrecks Alymer's worship of the
CW, 823.
Quoted in Bieber-Lake, Incarnational Art. p. 210-211.
CW,p. 823.
perfectibility of humanity, of the scientific mind's ability to escape what it deems
to be messy."120
O'Connor uses The Birthmark to call into question the cultural philosophy
of a society that attempts to eliminate imperfections and suffering. The story also
serves as a negative analogy to the care Mary Ann received at the Our Lady of
Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home. In contrast to the Utopian science that kills
Alymer's wife, Mary Ann was embraced "as is." More importantly than being
protected from social stigma, though, O'Connor says Mary Ann and the Sisters
"fashioned from her unfinished face the material of her death." Such a
preparation for death is the "creative action of the Christian's life. . . It is a
continuous action in which this world's goods are utilized to the fullest, both
positive gifts and what Pere Teilhard de Chardin calls 'passive diminishments.'
i -y i
Mary Ann's diminishment was extreme,"
but her particular Catholic education
(not primarily a mental one) allowed her not only to endure such diminishment,
but to prepare her death in Christ, the most significant action of the Christian life.
This is a far different understanding than the one Eisland witnessed the
church encouraging her to have as a child, and that the church usually still
encourages persons with disabilities to have: to endure until heaven. Suffering in
O'Connor's understanding is not something to be avoided at all costs, something
to hope to bypass. Rather, it is an inevitable part of life, a life that is fully a gift
from the giver of life. To accept suffering is an act of faith that witnesses to this
reality of the givenness of life. Only from this perspective is it possible for God
Bieber-Lake, Incarnational Art. p. 211-212.
M&M, p. 223.
to be the alleviator of suffering. Only from this perspective is it possible for the
cross to have meaning. It is a simple matter to accept what we perceive as good
to be from God. It is an entirely different thing to look into the face of Mary Ann
and see a face "full of promise," a face that is fully given and not half-taken or
half-full of promise. O'Connor came to see her own suffering in this light, as part
of what fills life with promise.
As Wood points out in "Sacramental Suffering: The Friendship of
Flannery O'Connor and Elizabeth Hester," O'Connor attempted to help Hester
understand her suffering in this light as well. Wood concludes, "The longer one
peruses these letters to Betty Hester, both before and after she called herself a
Christian, the more it becomes evident that [for O'Connor] Christian faith has one
requisite above all others—namely, it entails a gift of total self-surrender, an
unstinting willingness to participate in the suffering of Christ for the redemption
of the world."122 This comes across in a letter to Hester that O'Connor sent about
a year before her death in which she addresses Hester's concern about being stuck
with people who do not love or understand her. O'Connor writes, "It all comes
under the larger heading of what individuals have to suffer for the common good,
a mystery, and part of the suffering of Christ."123 It is nearly as counterintuitive
to suggest that such mundanity as being stuck with people that do not understand
you is a participation in Christ's suffering as it is to suggest that sentimentality
leads to the gas chambers.
Wood, "Sacramental Suffering." p. 392-393.
HB, p. 543.
O'Connor does not mean the "common good" as it would be defined and
quantified philosophically as the greatest good for the greatest amount of people.
This definition assumes the good is a matter of less pain and more pleasure.
Rather, O'Connor means the authentic good that is God's and is thus commonly
given to all humanity. In the "Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann" O'Connor
writes concerning Alymer and modernists like him, "Busy cutting down human
imperfection, they are making headway also on the raw material of good."1
good is not the elimination of imperfection and suffering, for such are in fact the
raw materials of a good that is under construction. Without them, the authentic
good cannot be fashioned.
Though it may not seem so at first, O'Connor's argument here is similar to
Reinders argument, discussed in the previous chapter. For Reinders, the authentic
good must include even those with the most profound developmental disabilities.
A good, then, that is based upon capability or eliminating suffering is necessarily
inauthentic and the wrong good. The meaning of life must be tied to more than
human capability. For O'Connor, the authentic good and meaning of life is
redemption. A good that views humans as self-sufficient is therefore inauthentic.
For her as well, life's meaning must be tied to more than human capability.
For both authors, what is needed is a different anthropology. O'Connor
puts the answer in terms of the need to understand original sin and humanity's
inability to save itself over and against the modern presumption of selfsufficiency. Reinders puts the answer in terms of receiving friendship and
humanity's need to define itself according to this gift over and against the
M&M, p. 227.
presumption of self-sufficiency. For both, the primary problem is the divorce of
human need from the activity of God. Humanity has fancied itself sufficient unto
itself. This placing of human capability at the center of meaning-making entails a
lack of dependency on the divine and an inability to recognize, much less
appreciate, the mysterious and necessary role dependence plays in human
formation. Furthermore, a culture that deems itself able to save itself from
suffering is a culture that will necessarily marginalize and even demonize those
who suffer, or those it believes are suffering, and will ultimately find ways to
eliminate them, be it through gas chambers or prenatal testing.
A Disability Studies Perspective for O'Connor Studies
As I have alluded to throughout my argument, but will now make explicit,
I contend that O'Connor gained this worldview primarily through her own
struggle with lupus. Predictably, however, some of the scholarship that has dealt
with O'Connor's disability has only partially understood O'Connor's view. In an
article entitled "Coping with Lupus," Gretchen Dobrott relates O'Connor's
disability to her writing. O'Connor "felt that the physical diminishment brought
on by lupus enhanced her literature, and she apparently accepted this exchange as
a reasonable price to pay for her talent. By perceiving disability and death as
significant elements of her own spiritual development, acceptance became much
easier."125 Certainly O'Connor did view her illness as contributing to her talent,
and certainly she accepted it as part of God's plan, but I do not believe she
accepted it "as a reasonable price to pay." This implies O'Connor viewed God as
Dobrott, Gretchen. "Coping with Lupus: Images of Illness in the Short Stories of Flannery
O'Connor." 6th Global Conference of Making Sense of: Health, Illness and Disease, 2007.
Accessed online at p. 8.
one who barters and gives this-much-suffering for the sake of this-much-talent or
blessing. Dobrott's misconception surfaces in her critique of O'Connor's stories.
She writes,
The sexual undertones of "Good Country People" and the numerous
coincidences between its protagonist and the author encourage one to
seriously consider the possibility that the sordid love scene in the barn and
its resolution were not only devised to initiate a redeeming experience but
to also, perhaps unintentionally, unleash her feelings about her lack of
self-sufficiency, the physical limitations brought on by her illness, the
side-effects of the large doses of cortisone that she was given, and the
social constraints of a small town in rural, fervently Protestant Georgia.126
I comment on Dobrott's argument for two reasons. First, I believe Dobrott
is over-reaching. She gives very little evidence for this statement except showing
that O'Connor was not self-sufficient. More importantly, though, Dobrott's
argument provides an excellent example of how a disability studies perspective
can be helpful in literary criticism and more specifically in O'Connor studies.
Dobrott's critique here assumes O'Connor expected self-sufficiency and
unlimited physicality as a sort of human right, which as we have seen is closer to
the opposite of how O'Connor viewed self-sufficiency. Dobrott begins with the
modern Western assumptions about what it means to be human and what is
important in life - mobility and pristine health allowing for the greatest of selfsufficiency - and presumes O'Connor felt "crippled" in relation to these ideals. A
Dobrott, p. 7. Other scholars have made similar suggestions to that of Dobrott. Andre
Bliekanstan believes that O'Connor's literature is primarily a desperate cry against the cruelties of
life in the face of a deteriorating long-term disease. "The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor." Critical
Essays on Flannery O 'Connor. Ed. by Friedman, Melvin and Beverly Lyon Clark. Boston: G. K.
Hall&Co., 1985.
disability studies perspective on O'Connor, however, drastically changes the
interpretation of this, one of her most famous, stories.127
It is much more likely that the story's tension and grotesque ending serve
as a critique of a social system that requires self-sufficiency and autonomy than it
is that they are a conscious or subconscious emergence of her disgust with her
disability's affect on her life. O'Connor's story critiques the American liberalism
that has taken hold in Joy/Hulga and that is presumed in Dobrott's analysis of
O'Connor. I will return to this in the next chapter, but for a succinct explanation
here, O'Connor writes, "we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that
corresponds to her wooden leg."128 Joy/Hulga has taken on the modern
assumptions concerning self-sufficiency and reason as the primary goals of life,
and the loss of the artificial leg at the end of the story robs her of this wooden part
of her soul. Once relieved of her illusion of self-sufficiency, she is made ready
for the possibility of grace, although portraying such grace was not O'Connor's
unique talent.
Dobrott makes this argument again when commenting on "religious" interpretations: "Those
who interpret her stories from a religious stance would likely support the idea that her disabled, ill,
and mutilated characters are instrumental and serve as one of the primary means of reaching her
didactic aims. Indeed, there is no disputing that O'Connor makes strategic use of the "abnormal",
or "non-normate" body. By accentuating the otherness of her characters, she is employing a
powerful rhetorical device which strengthens her message and aids in the transmission of her
argument. However, along with a smaller group of women scholars, I suggest that the recurrence
of illness- and disability-related images - her shouting to the deaf and drawing startling figures for
the near-blind - could have also been a way of venting her frustration toward her imminent death
and her personal circumstances. For not only did she have to endure the symptoms of lupus, but
she had to depend almost entirely on her mother, as well, while living under physically restrictive
conditions." p. 4. Again we can note Dobrott's misconceived assumption that O'Connor despised
being dependent on her mother. Apart from this, however, Dobrott makes a very good point, and
most religious interpretations, and in fact most non-religious interpretations, do consider her
portrayals of disabled, ill and mutilated characters as instrumental in serving her religious ends.
Dobrott herself concedes this was O'Connor's purpose and that the characters function thusly
within the stories, a point I will address in the next chapter. Where we differ is that she concludes
O'Connor's grotesques reflect her frustration with not being self-sufficient, and I think the weight
of evidence points in a very different direction.
M&M, p. 99.
My argument would not hold water if there were evidence from her letters
or any other writings that suggested O'Connor was frustrated and angry about her
disability's affect on her life. At the very end of her life, she admitted to being
"sick of being sick;"129 however, she never expressed a larger philosophical or
theological angst toward her illness. Even if there were no indication at all about
how she viewed her disability, my argument would be weak. However, when one
considers O'Connor's other writings, it is undeniable that she understood her
disability in a very different fashion from what Dobrott suggests. Her cousin
Katie Semmes once insisted that Flannery and her mother go to Lourdes, so
Flannery could find healing at the pools there. With her typical wit, O'Connor
described the trip to Elizabeth Bishop in a letter in 1958, noting that, "They
passed around a thermos bottle of Lourdes water and everybody had to take a
drink out of the top. I had a nasty cold so I figured I left more germs than I took
away." She then writes of the "medieval hygiene" of the pools and says, "I saw
nothing but peasants and was very conscious of the distinct odor of the crowd.
The supernatural is a fact there but it displaces nothing natural; except maybe
those germs."130 In another letter she confessed, "I prayed there for the novel I
1 -3 I
was working on, not for my bones which I care about less."
The suffering
lupus caused her was not something she actively sought deliverance from, not
even through any mysterious spiritual means that proffered themselves to her.
Rather, the lupus was a diminishment she had fully accepted.
HB, p. 581.
HB, p. 286.
HB, p. 509.
Dobrott's argument assumes O'Connor's feelings toward lupus from an
outside perspective. Though she is well-intentioned, she participates in the same
sentimentality O'Connor endured from the old lady in the elevator. Dobrott
assumes the deviance from normality that is in O'Connor's story reflects
O'Connor's own deviation from the normality of a self-sufficient life. O'Connor
is, of course, deviating from normality, but not as a subconscious unleashing of
"her feelings about her lack of self-sufficiency." Rather, she is critiquing
autonomy. As Claire Kahane puts it,
with a rare gusto that sparkled on the page and gained the reader's complicity, she
punished any characters deluded enough to believe in their autonomy. The idea
that a protagonist could say, as Hazel Motes does, "I'm doing all right by
myself," was a provocation and an anathema. Invariably O'Connor exploded such
an assertion through her wit as well as through her plot. Stripping her characters
bare of any illusion of independence, she shocked them-and her readers-into a
terrifying awareness of their vulnerability and their need.132
Dobrott makes the same mistake reviewers of her first collection of short
stories made. O'Connor wrote, "The stories are hard but they are hard because
there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism... when I see
these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer
always has hold of the wrong horror."133 O'Connor's actual deviance from the
normal is a deviance from what she considered the demonic modern assumption
of self-sufficiency as foundational to being human, an assumption in which
Dobrott's analysis participates. Dobrott is thus implicated along with modernity
in the deviant grotesquerie at the end of "Good Country People."
Claire Kahane "The Re-vision of Rage: Flannery O'Connor and Me" The Massachusetts
Review 46 no3 Fall 2005
p. 439-61.
HB, p. 90.
O'Connor's feelings about her disability are likely much more in line with
Peter Huggins' poem entitled Flannery O'Connor at Lourdes, recently published
in the Anglican Theological Review.
Mother's idea to bring me here.
I could care less about a cure.
I know what God intends for me.
Why should I postpone the inevitable?
It makes no sense: I have accepted
My fate. Why can't Mother?
She will have her way in this
As in everything or at least
She will try. She doesn't understand
That to rid myself of pain
Might lead me astray.
I feel the pull of the world.
The things of this world:
They talk to me all the time.
They want me to listen but I
Have tuned them out. Nature will not
Trap me with its display. I will
Take the waters as Mother bids me.
I will cover my head and arms.
Wear a dress, be decent.
The grotto calls: Our Lady comes.134
Rather than taking out her frustrations concerning the lack of self-sufficiency her
disability caused, she saw her disability "with the blind, prophetical,
unsentimental eye of acceptance." This acceptance, which we will explore further
in the following chapter, is an act of faith that places one's life within the confines
of a world that God, and not humanity, controls.
Huggins, Peter. "Flannery O'Connor at Lourdes." Anglican Theological Review. 90.2 Spring
2008. p. 350.
The Face of Mary Grace: the Grotesque in O'Connor's Fiction
Mary Grace, the college girl that begins Mrs. Turpin's revelation in
"Revelation," is grotesque. Before Mary Grace's name is revealed halfway
through the story, she is referenced as "ugly" nine times in as many pages. She is
also called "a fat girl" and has a face "blue with acne."135 Her face is described as
"seared" and "raw," and her eyes alternate between smoldering and blazing. Her
actions, and inactions, are grotesque as well. She refuses to relinquish her seat in
deference to social hierarchy, and she makes a face at Mrs. Turpin that was "the
ugliest face Mrs. Turpin had ever seen anyone make."
Yet, Mary Grace's
grotesqueries bring the story's revelation, a revelation which is also grotesque.
The reader is not given insight into Mary Grace's process of thinking;
what causes her to heave the book at Mrs. Turpin is left unexplained. Perhaps
Mary Grace has a mental disability or a demon. Or possibly she can no longer
take the weight of social expectations that require her perfection. Or maybe she
loathes her mother's hypocrisy and attacks a stranger in her place. Whichever is
the case, her deviation from social expectations is the gateway to reality for Mrs.
Turpin. The grotesque thud of the book against Mrs. Turpin's forehead and the
ensuing choking and condemnation that she is "a wart hog from hell" opens Mrs.
Turpin to a mystery that contrasts sharply with Mrs. Turpin's seemingly wellgrounded social hierarchies. Mary Grace's grotesque appearance and attitude are
Flannery O'Connor. The Complete Stories ofFlannery O 'Connor (CS). New York: Noonday
Press, 1971. 490.
CS, p. 495.
standard fare in O'Connor's writing and are emblematic of the themes and
characters of O'Connor's fiction, as is the use of the grotesque as the means for
mystery and possible grace.
Mary Flannery had a deep appreciation for mystery, and she believed a
primary function of fiction was to invoke mystery. Her constant struggle as a
writer was to make mystery real to those in the modern world whom she said
were "a generation that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to
1 ^7
eliminate mystery."
She found suffering and violence particularly useful
vehicles for conveying a "sense of mystery," a phrase she used like a mantra in
her essays. Part of their usefulness comes from their universality. Unlike race or
class, suffering remains distant to no one. All experience pain and, like Job, ask
"Why me?" and upon further reflection, "Why anyone?" Fear of suffering and
death pierces us all and unearths our most profound questions about the meaning
of life. Such piercing was all the more severe for the generation surviving WWII
when O'Connor was writing.
O'Connor noted that fiction "leaves us like Job with a renewed sense of
1 ^8
In lieu of his suffering, Job makes chapters worth of reasonable
arguments to defend his innocence and question God's justice. Yet he receives no
explanation. He is instead given a barrage of questions from God - a tutorial in
mystery - and the question of why evil exists only expands. O'Connor invoked
this mystery in "Revelation." In the middle of the story Mrs. Turpin is scowling
at the ceiling, raising her fist and making "a small stabbing motion over her chest
M&M, p. 124.
M&M,p. 184.
as if she was defending her innocence to invisible guests who were like the
comforters of Job, reasonable seeming but wrong."139 Job's "comforters"
primarily told him suffering is a result of sin, a punishment from God. They had
good and "reasonable" support for this argument. God tells the Israelites time and
again in the Pentateuch that if they will only keep God's commandments, all will
go well for them in the new land. However, if they disobey, disease and death
will come to them, and the land will be taken away. Disease-as-punishment was
common sense in Job's time, and so his boils proved his sin. Like Job, though
with much less cause for it, Mrs. Turpin also figures herself righteous. She stands
amongst her pigs, wrestling with the revelation that she is a wart hog from hell.
She wonders why she, a "good" person, is being punished and asks, "How am I a
hog and me both?"140 Her social categories justify her, yet as the story progresses,
the revelation that she is a hog continues to expand inside her, deconstructing her
social categories.
Job demands proof from God of his transgressions and questions God's
motives. Responding with questions, God asks Job who he is that he thinks he
can put God on trial. In the next to last scene of "Revelation," Ruby Turpin, still
standing in the pig parlor, defends her work ethic and her charitableness to the
church and even to the "trash around here," "black and white."
questioning comes to an end with a direct challenge:
A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, "Who do you think you
are?" / The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a
moment with a transparent intensity. The question carried over the pasture
CS, p. 503.
CS, p. 506.
CS, p. 507.
and across the highway and the cotton field and returned to her like an
answer from beyond the wood.
Frustrated and confused, she hurls her question out into God's creation. God's
creation answers her with the same question she asked, the same question Job
asked and the same question God asked Job and now asks Ruby. Her encounter
with suffering, both the physical suffering from early in the story and the mental
anguish of having her social categories crumble in the remainder of the story,
open her to the mystery that all are sinful, even her. It is this opening to mystery
that O'Connor finds essential, and often suffering is what awakens her characters
to this reality.
O'Connor and Job's revelations from living with and struggling with
suffering are not, however, in accord with the pastoral platitudes and expectations
of Job's friends or current popular theology. There is no self-serving lesson to be
gained, no better person for having endured the struggles God brought along. The
suffering is not utilitarian. If this were the case, Job and Mrs. Turpin's
questioning would be justified, for surely God's goodness and power could bring
about change without employing suffering. Instead, no justification for evil is
given, and Job and Mrs. Turpin are opened to the mystery of being vulnerable
humanity, as surely O'Connor's own struggle with disability did for her.
Suffering serves for O'Connor as a gateway to this mysterious reality of our
universal limitedness and inability to save ourselves, a revelation that came more
and more to the fore of O'Connor's fiction the closer she came to death, which is
why it is portrayed so clearly in "Revelation," one of the last stories she wrote.
In this analysis of "Revelation" we have come to the point where
O'Connor's life and personal disability, the academic insights of disability studies
and O'Connor's fictive world need to be brought into direct dialogue. I will first
pose my thesis before fleshing out a conversation between O'Connor's stories and
the subjects of the first two chapters, disability studies and O'Connor's disability.
As both O'Connor's disease and her work matured, she came to a deeper
understanding of the significance of disability, not only for herself, but as a source
of power and meaning within her writing. She came to see disability and the
grotesque, whose complications of association we will address shortly, as not only
useful and powerful literary devices, but something more - the authentic good.
That is, for O'Connor, her portrayals of limitation became gateways to reality.
Before proceeding, it will be helpful to unfold the complexity of this
argument. To be clear, I am not saying that all of O'Connor's representations of
disability are above the criticism some disability scholars have leveled against her.
Sometimes O'Connor does use disability as little more than a metaphor to propel
forward the action and meaning of a story. Disability scholars are right to suggest
this literary technique reinforces the cultural tendencies to totalize persons with
disabilities and assign some other meaning, whether good or bad, to their
condition. But to lump together all O'Connor's uses of the disabled and
grotesque as merely "literary convention" or metaphor, as we will see in the next
section, fails to observe the larger categories of meaning O'Connor employs or
the development of her technical use of the grotesque. O'Connor's use of
disability is not so simplistic as equating disability with the aesthetic category of
the grotesque, something generally understood in literature studies in terms of
metaphor. This chapter will thus proceed cautiously and with a certain dialectic,
as it explores what is the complex relationship between disability and the
grotesque in O'Connor's literature. It will affirm disability studies' critique of the
reductive, aesthetic use of disability-as-metaphor while acknowledging the
necessity and possible benefits of extending such usage in O'Connor's
writings. Despite the fact that many disability scholars take exception with any
metaphorical use of disability, claiming such use necessarily and only objectifies
the disabled person, I will show that O'Connor's employment of disability is
more complicated and even redemptive than it might first appear, partially
because the larger concepts and intentions behind O'Connor's use of disability are
often aligned with the values and aims of disability studies and partially because
O'Connor so thoroughly refutes modernity that she implicates disability studies in
the process. Instead of using the grotesque, including disabilities, only as
metaphor, O'Connor comes to use it to challenge modern social perceptions of
what is good and bad, to embody the necessity of accepting limitations and as an
example of how what we consider grotesque can be a conduit for God's grace in
the world.
The Aesthetic Grotesque
Before noting ways O'Connor's fiction parallels and goes beyond
concerns raised by disability studies, we must examine why disability studies has
critiqued O'Connor. From a disability studies perspective, O'Connor's
employment of the grotesque is problematic. It runs the risk of turning her
characters into mere caricatures. Many of her earliest readers viewed her stories
this way, with Northern literary critics laughing at the bumbling idiots in the
South and O'Connor's Southern family and townspeople afraid of becoming the
objects of ridicule. O'Connor seemingly perpetuated harmful stereotypes of the
South, of race, of conservative Christians and of the physically and mentally
As disability studies has begun to engage literary studies, its primary
concern has been with the way disability is represented in literature. "From
folktales and classical myths to modern and postmodern 'grotesques,' the disabled
body is almost always a freakish spectacle presented by the mediating narrative
voice."142 O'Connor's representations of the disabled have fallen under this
critique. In her seminal work on representations of disability in literature,
Thomson mentions O'Connor's work twice, both times as examples of negative
representations. One of her references to O'Connor comes in her discussion of
how society labels anomaly as dangerous. She writes,
Like the monsters who are their cousins, disabled characters with power
virtually always represent a dangerous force unleashed on the social order,
as attested by Flannery O'Connor's one-armed villain Tom Shiftlet...
Because these characters operate as embodiments of an unnamed,
profound peril, the narrative resolution is almost always to contain that
threat by killing or disempowering the disabled character. The logic that
governs this cultural narrative, then, is that eliminating the anomaly
neutralizes the danger.143
Thomson, p. 10.
Thomson, p. 36. She also references O'Connor on page 12, noting the purposefully and
necessarily negative representation that Joy/Hulga provides: "If Flannery O'Connor's Hulga
Hopewell were pretty, sheerful, and one-legged ins tead of ugly and bitter, "Good Country
People" would fail.
O'Connor, of course, did not have the benefit (or restrictions) of a field of
study dedicated to the social realities of disability. Indeed, the field of literary
studies has only recently become aware of the work of disability studies.
O'Connor's and her critics' discussion of human variation in her fiction, therefore,
has largely used the aesthetic language of the "grotesque," even when discussing
the disabled. This is a term disability studies does not take lightly. Considering
only the aesthetic utility of race or gender, especially in terms of the grotesque,
while ignoring its political realities would be unthinkable in modern literary
criticism. Disability studies argues that it should likewise be unthinkable in
regards to disability. Yet aesthetic readings of disability that do not differentiate
disability from the grotesque abound in O'Connor studies.
Disabled bodies and minds in O'Connor's fiction are viewed as part of her
participation in the school of the Southern grotesque, a group of authors loosely
tied together by their regional writing that embodies "grotesque" characters and
actions. In this school, grotesqueries are physical metaphors for social ills that the
authors are attempting to unmask. The development of criticism concerning this
school of writing has highlighted all forms of abnormality and labeled them
grotesque. Disabled characters have been subsumed under the categorization of
the grotesque and not dealt with as individuals.
Ladislava Khailova notes the surprising amount of disabled persons within
Southern literature, but also the surprising lack of recognition amongst critics of
disabled persons as a distinguishing feature of Southern fiction. She writes,
Thus far, Southern literary scholarship has almost exclusively produced
aesthetic interpretations of characters who are one-armed, one-legged, and
deaf-mute, hunchbacked, insane, and retarded. In other words, disability
in Southern texts has been predominantly interpreted metaphorically, as an
element of the Southern grotesque and the Southern gothic traditions or
merely as a literary symbol of the human condition or character.144
Unsurprisingly, nearly all of O'Connor studies takes these representations-asmetaphors for granted, both because the larger field of literature studies has done
so and because O'Connor herself encouraged this view. Even the title of
O'Connor's essay "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" shows
how deeply influenced she was by this school of writing, a point I will continue
Disability studies, however, strongly critiques the use of disability as a
representation for social ills for two primary reasons. First, such representation
continues to propagate a perceived link between disability and deviance. Johnson
Fan Cheu notes, "As many Disability Studies scholars have pointed out,
representations of disability in our literary and media culture are almost always
negative, tied up in notions of the disabled body as lacking, diseased, sick,
different, inherently 'Other.'"145 Considering only the aesthetic qualities of
disability, and not the socio/political qualities, perpetuates this connection
between disability and all things negative. Disability continues to operate in most
of society's imagination as the negative "other," the embodiment of what one
hopes not to become.
Of course, the grotesque in O'Connor's fiction always works
metaphorically. Again, one need only reference her quote that "you have to make
Ladislava Khailova. "Where the Average White Male Scored in the Imbecile Range ":
Changing Paradigms of Mental Retardation in Twentieth-Century Southern Fiction. Dissertation,
Department of Englsih, University of South Carolina, 2004. p. 2.
Fan Cheu, p. 4.
your vision apparent by shock - to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the
almost blind you draw large and startling figures."146 She puts a similar sentiment
in a letter, stating, "I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I
am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see."147 Since this culture
cannot hear and see its grotesque interior, O'Connor paints the grotesque on her
characters' exterior actions and bodies. Her disabled and grotesque characters
become the distorted shouts and startling figures required to shock her readers that
are "hard of hearing" her message and "almost blind" to her prophetic vision.
Disability therefore often functions in her stories in precisely this negative way, as
a representation of sin and evil. At least that is her early view of the grotesque's
function in her work. It is the part of her work discussed in the last chapter that
challenges modernity's definitions of what is and is not grotesque or good, using
distortion to help people see the distortions of modernity that reside within them.
The second reason disability studies critiques the use of disability as a
representation is that when disability gets reduced to a function in the story, the
person with the disability becomes no more than an embodiment of the loss that
the story attempts to communicate, and the lived reality of the character with
disability gets ignored. This reinforces the totalizing affect disability already has
in our society, an affect that displaces the whole of the person in favor of
fascination with or repulsion from the disability itself. The fullness of being a
human gets ignored, and real people are reduced to one aspect of their lives, an
aspect that is perceived negatively in the cultural imagination.
M&M, p. 34.
HB, p. 79.
Following the lead of race and gender studies, disability studies instead
argues for a socio-political reading of texts in place of an aesthetic reading.
O'Connor scholarship has engaged the politics of race and sex, but since it has
discussed the grotesque in almost exclusively aesthetic language, it has largely
ignored the socio-political realities of disability in her stories, as well as the sociopolitical realities of O'Connor's own disability. For example, Lisa Roney points
out that Patricia Yaeger's book Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern
Women's Writing, 1930-1990, "focuses almost exclusively on the images of
bodies and the grotesque," and argues these images are metaphorical expressions
of racial violence in the South. Yet Yaeger never references O'Connor's own
illness and disability, causing Roney to note that "it seems problematic to discuss
O'Connor's use of 'sawed-off, deregulated bodies' without even mentioning that
the damage O'Connor experienced in her own body was not caused by racist
violence, but by a ravaging illness."
For many critics,, disability in
O'Connor's stories functions only on the level of the aesthetic grotesque as
representation for something else. A few voices, however, have begun to
consider the realities of disability in O'Connor's life and works.149
Disability and Literature Studies
Avoiding such aesthetic-only readings of O'Connor is difficult, in part
because O'Connor was largely unconcerned with the socio-political realities of
her characters. Her primary concern was spiritual. Therefore, as we have seen
Roney. p. 68.
Such consideration is very thoughtfully done by Kathleen Anne Patterson in her dissertation:
"Representations of Disability in Mid Twentieth-Century Southern Fiction: From Metaphor to
Social Construction." Dissertation UCSB, 1998. Also helpful is Wendy Thomas's MA thesis,
previously cited and Johnson Fan Cheu's dissertation, also previously cited.
with Thompson, a disability studies critic can easily point to ways O'Connor
allows and even perpetuates negative stereotypes. For example, Lucynell Carter
is deaf and dumb. Her mother, in an attempt to sell her to a suitor, tells Mr.
Shiftlet, "One who can't talk . . . can't sass you back or use foul language. That's
the kind for you to have. Right there." Shiftlet replies, "That's right. . . She
wouldn't give me any trouble."150 The complexity of who Lucynell is, her talents,
gifts or anything she could offer to the relationship, gets ignored, except of course
for her ability to "sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe,"151 as
her mother says earlier in the story. Shiftlet and Lucynell's mother choose
Lucynell's life for her without consulting her or being concerned in the least with
what she desires. All of these are red flags for disability studies. O'Connor's use
of disability in this story has problematic elements that must be addressed, and the
question of whether or not O'Connor uses disability in some stories purely
aesthetically is a valid question for disability studies to take up.
Our concern, here, though, goes beyond this singular focus and is helped
in doing so by the emerging sub-field of disability studies known as disability and
literature studies. Disability and literature studies is not exclusively concerned
with socio-political realities, for it is also sensitive to the aesthetic qualities of
literature and disability within literature. Disability and literature studies attempts
a helpful corrective both to disability studies' tendency to view only socioeconomic concerns and literature studies' tendency to view only the aesthetic
qualities of disability. Disability and literature studies therefore welcomes
CS, p. 151-152.
CS, p. 149.
disability studies' socio/political focus as well as literature studies' aesthetic
sensitivity to multiple meanings.
Though disability and literature studies follows disability studies in
sharing many concerns with gender and race studies, particularly the need for
socio-political readings, it diverges over the concern of representation. Unlike
race and gender studies, disability and literature studies does not claim a lack of
representation in literature. In their book Narrative Prosthesis, Mitchell and
Snyder argue there is instead an overabundance of disability within literature.
However, as already noted, the problem is that persons with disabilities often get
used as metaphors for some other lack within the story, whether it be a character's
moral makeup or a country's military impotence. The person becomes a mere
embodiment for the useful metaphor that is her disability, and her internal
experiences are left unexplored. Disability and literature studies acknowledges
and encourages this line of critique, agreeing that these representations are
harmful for persons with disabilities.
O'Connor explains her story "Good Country People" along the lines of
metaphorical utility. She notes that Joy/Hulga's wooden leg accumulates
meaning throughout the story, setting up the story's revelation: "She believes in
nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part
of her soul that corresponds to the wooden leg."152 In another essay she writes
that "it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement
that he attains some depth in literature."153 These quotes evidence her
"Writing Short Stories." M&M, p. 99.
"Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction." M&M, p. 45.
understanding of the aesthetic and metaphorical utility of the lame and the freaks
in her stories.
Disability and literature studies complicates the matter, though. Mitchell
and Snyder go on to claim this metaphorical use of disability in literature is
inevitable. They argue disability acts as a prosthetic limb to literature. It is an
appendage that is functional, even necessary, but always un-naturally attached and
uncomfortable. Everything in a story is put there for a reason, and a disability is
no different. The purpose for inserting disability is usually to contrast the
"normal" with what is different, thus demarcating the boundary line between the
self and the "other." In this way the normate actually depends on the abnormal
for its very existence. Authors of fiction are then able to use the distance created
between the normal and the abnormal for emotional affect and implicit meanings.
Disability and literature studies understands the inevitability and even
necessity of using disability as a metaphor. There is little in literature that is not
used metaphorically. The field does not, however, simply excuse all metaphorical
uses of disability that are solely metaphorical without the acknowledgment of real
personhood. But the acknowledgement of the necessity of the aesthetic does
complicate disability studies' singular critique. The work of disability and
literature studies is therefore two-fold. First it acknowledges and critiques the
many uses of disability that, while not fully illegitimate, often reinforce poor
cultural perspectives of disability - both that a disabled person is little more than
the disability and that a disabled person is not normal and needs to be fixed, just
as Hulga's wooden soul obviously needs to be fixed. Along the same lines, it
encourages fictional explorations of the disabled that represent them as whole
people. Secondly, and with great care, disability and literature studies does not
dismiss aesthetic uses of disability out of hand, but first considers the author's
metaphorical meaning. In O'Connor's case, these metaphors are often
challenging the very cultural assumptions that wield power over the disabled.
Continuing the previous example, the disability that makes Lucynell Carter a
"good wife" because she cannot sass Mr. Shiftlet, can be interpreted in a couple of
ways. First O'Connor is providing a negative example of how the disabled should
be treated. In doing so, she both shocks the reader with how this young woman is
treated and holds Lucynell up as the sole positive character in the story. A second
interpretation would suggest the other characters' considering Lucynell a "good
wife" is O'Connor's ironical critique of the cultural mores of a subservient and
genteel wife.
Roney provides an example of a critique sensitive both to metaphorical
meaning as well as socio-political concerns. Writing about Porter, McCullers and
O'Connor at the end of her Introduction, she notes,
Each of them viewed the debates that raged about race, genetics,
superiority, and the public good from a perspective shaped by illness and
disability. In the fiction of each there are signs that they understood the
overlaps between arguments about the status of African Americans and
those about the "unfit." Each of them like their region more widely,
struggled with the implications of hereditarian theories and policies, with
the social challenges raised by the existence of physical imperfection, and
with such imperfections' nagging intimations of human mortality.154
She comments both on how the writers were shaped by their own illnesses and on
the metaphorical "intimations" of imperfection that are universal but held
Roney, p. 69.
particular political significance for these disabled authors living near the end of
the eugenics period in which society's "weak" were blamed for social ills and
then confined or even killed in an attempt to bolster the human gene pool.
I have attempted in this section to untangle or at least expose some of the
complexity of the representation of disability within literature. Such an exercise
must be carefully attentive to the socio-political concerns of disability studies
while not disregarding the power and necessity of metaphor within literature.
O'Connor lived before the time of political correctness and would likely have
been little concerned with it in her fiction anyway. Her characters regularly
espouse harmful views of disability, and she consistently uses disability as a
metaphor for original sin, paying little attention to the lived reality of the disabled.
From a strict disability studies perspective, there is much to critique and dismiss.
However, when one takes seriously the power and purpose of metaphor,
O'Connor must be reconsidered, particularly in light of her other discussions
about limitation and acceptance. In the following sections I will explore her
fiction from the perspective of disability and literature studies, investigating her
use of disability both in the social/political realm as well as its metaphorical uses.
I begin by showing O'Connor's proclivity for exposing and challenging social
constructions of what is good and bad. Her reversal of these constructs, I contend,
includes the reversal of poor social perceptions of the disabled. O'Connor does
not, however, hold up a new construction of the good. Instead, she so decimates
human definitions of the good that even her own understandings are implicated in
the process. She seems to declare that humans are incapable of discerning the
good with certainty. Often what we think is good turns out to be our ruin, and
that which we have deemed evil turns into our salvation. I end the chapter by
exploring what O'Connor considered the only correct response to this life where
good and bad are so indistinguishable: acceptance of life's givenness.
Challenging Social Perceptions in "Revelation" and "The Lame Shall Enter
According to O'Connor scholarship, and to O'Connor herself, the primary
purpose of the grotesque in her fiction is to hold up a mirror to her readers' own
sin and weakness, to break through cultural facades of strength and lay bare the
human soul's deformities. O'Connor provides a visible metaphor for a nonvisible deficit. She uses disability this way with great precision. Her "grotesque"
characters challenge readers' perceptions of "good" and "bad," exposing the
perceived good, whether it be sympathy, human progress or "good" country
people, as actually well-endowed with original sin. This dominant concern of
O'Connor runs parallel to a dominant concern of disability studies: all people are
differently disabled. Where disability is perceived negatively, it can remind us
that we are all limited and all carry a death sentence. For O'Connor, the
implication of this is more than the physical reality. More important, for her, is
the truth that we also all share a spiritual death sentence.
Many, if not most, of O'Connor's stories deal with social expectations of
normality/abnormality and goodness/evil, and end with the reversal of these
expectations. In another move easily wedded to disability studies, O'Connor's
satirical deconstruction of the socially defined "normal" and "good" is also an
ironic appreciation of difference and abnormality. The "good" she questions in
"A Good Man is Hard to Find", "A Stroke of Good Fortune" and "Good Country
People" is society's misrepresentation of what is good. Opposed to this perceived
good, the authentic good in her stories shows up in what is perceived as grotesque
places. Her story "Revelation" reverses these social expectations perhaps most
Mrs. Turpin's view reveals a great deal about social expectations. From
the very first paragraph of "Revelation," Mrs. Turpin sizes up the occupants of the
doctor's waiting room. The white trash lady's shoes are "exactly what you would
have expected her to have on."155 Later, referencing the "colored farm help," the
narrator notes, "There was nothing you could tell her about people like them that
she didn't know already."156
Mrs. Turpin's social constructs go far beyond simplistic social
expectations of people and include the bigotry of naming the classes of people.
On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she
would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them
- not above, just away from - were the white-trash; then above them were
the home-owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and
Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much
more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her.
She gets confused because some people with good blood have lost their money
and have to rent, while there is one colored man in town that owns two red
Lincolns, a swimming pool and a farm with registered white-faced cattle.
"Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling
and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in
CS, p. 491.
CS, p. 497.
together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven."157 This holocaust
image is a clue for the reader that Mrs. Turpin's social constructs are going to be
The revelation begins when the "fat and ugly" Mary Grace labels Mrs.
Turpin an "old wart hog" from hell. The scene occurs in a doctor's office where
she and Claud have gone to get his leg examined. This room, waiting for a
revelation, is layered with grotesques. Mrs. Trupin is "very large," so much so
that she is "a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and
ridiculous."158 Claud has an ulcer on his leg, "a purple swelling on a plump
marble-white calf." The table is cluttered with "limp-looking magazines" and "a
big green glass ash tray full of cigarette butts and cotton wads with little blood
spots on them."159 And Mary Grace's grotesqueness has already been noted. Her
book is its own monstrosity and becomes the terrible weapon for Mary's grace,
which is the unmasking of Mrs Turpin's social constructions to reveal her as a
wart hog from hell. As the story progresses and the revelation grows in Mrs.
Turpin, she eventually confronts it when she yells at God trying to figure out how
she is herself and a wart hog from hell too.
She then has a vision of a bridge "extending upward from the earth
through a field of living fire." A horde of souls are rumbling toward heaven, and
those closest to heaven on this bridge are the white trash, the coloreds and
"battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs."
CS, p. 491.
CS, p. 488.
CS, p. 489.
This Pentecostal inappropriateness would certainly have come across to
O'Connor's audience as a grotesque vision.
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she
recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a
little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. They were
marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had
always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.
They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered
faces that even their virtues were being burned away.160
All that she has known as "good," God-lovin' country people has not put her in
the front of the line. Instead, the first are last, and the shouting and clapping
freaks and lunatics have leapt into first. O'Connor's deconstruction of Mrs.
Turpin's categorizations of the perceived good is simultaneously an appreciation
of the authentic good found in the freaks and lunatics who shall enter first.
"Revelation" fully reverses all the social expectations Mrs. Turpin had at the
beginning of the story.
These freaks entering heaven first causes one to remember O'Connor's
encounter with the old lady at Davison's, in which she imagines the lame using
their crutches to get to the front of Heaven's line. As previously discussed,
O'Connor's purpose in telling that story is at least partially concerned with
rejecting the social expectation that totalize a person according to a disability.
She exposes and works to disrupt this social expectation in the story "The Lame
Shall Enter First," which she wrote in the year following that shopping trip to
In "The Lame Shall Enter First," a social worker named Sheppard takes in
a delinquent child named Rufus Johnson and showers him with attention in
CS, p. 508.
deference to his own son, whom he views as selfish and dumb. Sheppard works
at a reformatory and when he meets Rufus at their first interview he sees that "a
kind of fanatic intelligence was palpable in his face." He also sees the boy has "a
monstrous club foot," and he very quickly deciphers the boy's problem: "The
case was clear to Sheppard instantly. His mischief was compensation for the
foot."161 As the story progresses, Sheppard infuses the foot with greater and
greater meaning and totalizes the boy according to his foot. Since he believes the
foot is the source of all the boy's problems and the boy seems to just be one big
problem, for Sheppard, the foot is the boy and the boy is the foot, and until the
foot gets fixed, the boy will remain the same.
Sheppard's interaction with Rufus begins with very good intentions. He
takes the trouble-maker into his home, feeds him, clothes him and spares no
expense to acquire the specially fitted shoe that will help Rufus walk without a
limp. Yet all this proves to be no more than the sentimentality O'Connor so
profoundly rejected. The sentimentality crumbles beneath the weight of reality,
and Shephard eventually feels toward the boy the repulsion he feels toward the
foot. "The boy's clubfoot was set within the circle of his vision. The piecedtogether shoe appeared to grin at him with Johnson's own face. He caught hold of
the edge of the sofa cushion and his knuckles turned white. A chill of hatred
shook him. He hated the shoe, hated the foot, hated the boy. His face paled.
Hatred choked him. He was aghast at himself."162
CS, p. 450.
CS, p. 473.
Following the medical model of disability, Sheppard believes if he can get
the boy a new shoe, it will make Rufus normal, and he will stop compensating in
destructive ways. At the story's end, Sheppard tells Rufus, "You're not evil,
you're mortally confused. You don't have to make up for that foot, you don't
have to . . ." But Rufus knows Sheppard cannot fix him. He hurls "himself
forward. 'Listen at him!' he screamed. 'I lie and steal because I'm good at it! My
foot don't have a thing to do with it! The lame shall enter first! The halt'll be
gathered together. When I get ready to be saved, Jesus'll save me, not that lying
stinking atheist, not that. . ."
Rufus will not be defined by his disability. He
will not allow his foot to take the blame for his sin, and he understands that if he
did, there would be no need for Jesus.
Running parallel to the theme of Sheppard totalizing the boy and trying to
fix the clubbed foot is O'Connor's unveiling of the sin within the major characters.
When Rufus removes his shoe, "The unsheathed mass of foot in the dirty sock
made Sheppard feel queasy. He turned his eyes away until the new shoe was on."
Shepard's medicalized vision of the boy causes physical repulsion when he is
confronted with the deformity. O'Connor uses similar language to describe
Sheppard's vision of Rufus' foot and the interior of Sheppard. The new shoe is
described as "a black slick shapeless object, shining hideously."164 As Sheppard
wearies of his unsuccessful struggles to fix the boy, the reader gets a glimpse of
Sheppard's parallel interior. Sheppard gets angry with Rufus and looks into his
eyes, which "were like distorting mirrors in which he saw himself made hideous
CS, p. 480.
CS, p. 470.
and grotesque."
As O'Connor does in many of her stories, the outer
grotesqueries of her characters parallel, and stand as metaphor for, the inner
grotesqueries of her characters and her readers. O'Connor's use of disability in
"The Lame Shall Enter First" is very complex. On one hand, disability studies
would agree with Rufus' not allowing his disability to define him. On the other
hand, O'Connor does use the disability as a metaphor, but not for the boy's sin as
Sheppard and the reader expects. Rather it is Sheppard's medicalized perspective
that views the foot as a monstrosity. O'Connor uses disability as a metaphor to
explicitly condemn the medical perspective of disability. It is Sheppard's
sentimentality and reaction to the clubbed foot that is grotesque and, in
O'Connor's view, ultimately sinful.
The end of the story reveals O'Connor's ultimate concern. Sheppard's
overly ambitious sentimentality toward Rufus causes him to completely disregard
his own son who is in greater need of help. Just as with the advice O'Connor
received from the old lady in the elevator, Sheppard's sentimentality is misplaced
and misleading. In the story's closing scene, Sheppard finds his son has
committed suicide in the attic - "hung in the jungle of shadows, just below the
beam from which he had launched his flight into space."166 Shepard, as the
embodiment of modernity, completely misses his son's spiritual crisis, and in so
doing kills his child. It is ultimately this spiritual crisis that O'Connor intends to
critique. Sheppard is unable to perceive his son's crisis because his philosophy
has denied the possibility of a spiritual crisis. The Enlightenment vision focuses
CS, p. 474.
CS, p. 482.
on seeing and changing the physical. Just as Sheppard is unable to perceive his
son's crisis, so modernity has ignored its own spiritual crisis. O'Connor rarely
offered the answer to this crisis, because she filled the role of a John the Baptist,
announcing judgment and calling people to accept the fact of their sin. She
prepared the way.
The Role of Acceptance
The groundwork has now been laid for the primary emphasis of this
chapter. I have distinguished instances of O'Connor's stories agreeing and
disagreeing with disability studies. What I will emphasize in the remainder of this
chapter and the next is where O'Connor goes beyond disability studies and
critiques the larger modern perspective that disability studies both critically
assesses and to which it falls victim. As noted, the basic problem she has with
modernity is its belief in the perfectability of humanity by its own efforts. This
belief continually misconceives the authentic good. In contrast to the modern
attempt to define and create its own good, O'Connor believed the authentic good
must be received, and accepting it begins with accepting the need for a good that
is outside the self and outside of humanity's efforts.
At the end of the first chapter, I noted the emergence within disability
studies, and particularly within the subfield of theology and disability studies, of a
critique of the disability movement's own Enlightenment-influenced failures of
imagination. For example, following the Enlightenment thread of cogito ergo
sum, which defines human ontology in terms of reason, the disability movement
has at times fought for equality by claiming physical challenges do not make
persons with disabilities any less smart or creative. Though unintentional, these
arguments have created a hierarchy of disability in which persons with
developmental disabilities are less human or at least less equal. Instead of arguing
that what is common to humanity is reliant on reason, the new emergence within
disability studies argues our commonality is properly found in our limitation,
vulnerability and relationships. Rather than the first step in this process being an
acknowledgement of every person's equality as defined by ability to accomplish,
the first step is an acknowledgement of our shared inabilities. This is an argument
O'Connor's work endorses fully.
As noted, critiques pointing out O'Connor's metaphorical use of disability
that ignores social and political realities is not a misrepresentation of her fiction.
They only highlight her admitted purpose of using the grotesque-as-metaphor.
Nevertheless, she meant for her grotesques to always also function within reality,
even in her early stories such as "Good Country People." Joy/Hulga's wooden
leg works on a metaphorical level to represent the corresponding "wooden part of
her soul," but O'Connor insists on more. She writes, "If you want to say that the
wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a
wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place on the literal
level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface."167
Whether or not her symbols also worked on the literal level is essential to
her purpose. In writing her style of fiction, a style attempting to open the reader
to mystery, she had to be careful not to reduce her fiction to mere metaphors for
spirituality. As she expressed to her friend Betty Hester, her primary question in
M&M, p. 99.
writing was "is it believable?" This insistence on the "literal level" and
believability of the story keeps her grotesques from being mere metaphors. In
O'Connor's understanding, presenting fiction only as symbol backfires, because
the artist becomes Manichaen, placing the spiritual at odds with the physical.168
The way to avoid Manichaeism is to make the fiction not just generally real to
ultimate truths, but particularly real to the details of life's experience. Continuing
her letter to Hester, she writes, "I don't believe that in all this [writing] you can be
so cavalier about particulars. When the particulars are wrong, the general is
usually wrong too. If you are too cavalier about the particulars you will find
yourself a Manichean without knowing how it happened."169
Part of her understanding of the meaning of Manichaean comes from her
reading of the scholarly Jesuit William F. Lynch. George Kilcourse has explored
O'Connor's work in light of Lynch's distinction between the Manichean and the
Christological imaginations - the Manichean imagination's separation of matter
from spirit and the Christological imagination's "patient movement through the
'human mysteries.'"170 Kilcourse writes,
As Lynch outlines in the second installment of his essay, "Theology and
Imagination," there is a Manichaean temptation for the imagination "to
win its freedom by seeking quick infinities through the rapid and clever
Concerning Manicheanism being heretical in O'Connor's view, Thomas Haddox writes about a
conversation, in letters, O'Connor had concerning dramatizing a heresy in "Parker's Back." He
writes, "O'Connor then clarified what Gordon had meant in a follow-up letter of 25 July: "No
Caroline didn't mean the tattoos were the heresy. Sarah Ruth was the heretic-the notion that you
can worship in pure spirit" (p. 594). These passages provide the kernel of all "sacramental"
readings of the story, holding up Parker's delight in the flesh-including the tattoos-against Sarah
Ruth's Manichean equation of God with spirit." . '"Something Haphazard and Botched':
Flannery O'Connor's Critique of the Visual in 'Parker's Back." Mississippi Quarterly 57.3 (2004):
p. 408.
HB, p. 173.
George Kilcourse. Flannery O'Connor's Religious Imagination. New York: Paulist Press,
2001. p. 115.
manipulation of the finite" instead of passing through "all the rigors,
densities, limitations, and decisions of the actual." Here are the makings
of an ascetic identity that O'Connor will employ in creating her
To avoid a Manichean split between spirit and matter, O'Connor focused on
making people's manners true to experience. This is also a result of her
incarnational theology.172 The "general" truths come to us only through the
particularities of the everyday. In other words, she believed mystery comes
through manners.
Writing about "A Good Man is Hard to Find," O'Connor noted,
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as
a story.... This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both
totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both
in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world
and eternity.173
Whether or not she succeeds in making her characters' gestures both true to
reality and open to mystery cannot be critiqued, only witnessed, and there are a
host of willing critics on either side. But in either case, it is certain that for
O'Connor, mystery is wedded to manners, and if the manners are not true to
reality, the mystery cannot come across. And in her understanding, in order for
manners to be true to reality, the writer (and reader) must accept "all the rigors,
densities, limitations, and decisions of the actual." Therefore, encounters with
mystery can only occur after the acceptance of the actual, including limitations.
Acceptance, then, is key in O'Connor's portrayal of her characters as well as her
reader's judgments of her stories.
Kilcourse, p. 116.
This is the thesis of Bieber-Lake'sbookF/annery O'Connor's Incarnational Art.
M&M,p. 111.
Acceptance is also key in another sense, for as we have noted O'Connor
believed one's limitations and creatureliness must be accepted before redemption
can become a possibility. Only a few months before her death she wrote in a
letter, "The writer has to make corruption believable before he can make the grace
meaningful."174 And she purposed to make her grotesquely drawn characters real
in a way that allowed her readers to see themselves in the characters. Any
skipping over the "densities" of reality would forfeit the possibility of opening her
readers to mystery.
In The Comedy of Redemption, Ralph Wood writes that "in our time at
least, an anguishing self-knowledge is the prime requisite for recognizing the
Gospel of God. Nothing less than this glad grace is what most of [O'Connor's]
protagonists find."175 True self-knowledge is indeed anguishing. O'Connor
wrote in "The Fiction Writer and His Country" that "to know oneself is, above all,
to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other
1 lf\
way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility."
Its first product
is humility because true self-knowledge must begin with acceptance of original
sin, that we are all born corrupt. O'Connor not only understood her own stories
as dealing with original sin, describing her first collection as "nine stories about
original sin" before the tenth story was added, but she also understood all drama
in these terms. She wrote in "Novelist and Believer," "The serious writer has
always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an
CW, p. 1182.
Ralph Wood. The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four
American Novelists. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988. p. 81.
M&M, p. 35.
otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of
original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not."177
Because of original sin's primacy and modernity's inability to perceive it,
O'Connor's own brand of particularity most often portrays the generality of
original sin. Her particular portrayals of the grotesque stand as metaphors for the
general portrayal of sin. Making original sin believable is likely the most
consistent theme in her fiction. She helps readers perceive the reality of
limitations and accept vulnerability, which then allows possible openness to the
mysterious ways of God's work in the world. Acceptance, however, is primary.
Before revelation can come, before God can act, before evil can be transformed,
the need must be realized. Again, for the Enlightenment-influenced, this means
looking beyond being taught that the world is conquerable and instead accepting
vulnerabilities, abnormalities and our inability to save ourselves from everything.
Recognizing O'Connor's emphasis on sin in her stories is not difficult and
has been well-expounded. Concerning O'Connor's statement that she must make
corruption believable before grace can be meaningful, Kilcourse writes, "There is
no better compass to orient us to her fiction."178 Original sin is the indictment
with which the Grandmother comes to terms and the Misfit cannot accept in "A
Good Man Is Hard to Find." It is the wooden part of Joy/Hulga's soul in "Good
Country People." It cuts through all the social constructions of the good in "The
Displaced Person" to allow/cause the death of the DP. And it is only when her
M&M,p. 167.
Kilcourse, p. 28.
characters can accept themselves as limited, vulnerable and sinful that there arises
in a story even the possibility of grace.
Roney provides an example of a disability and literature studies critic that
gets this correct. In sharp contrast to the way we noted in the last chapter that
Dobrott read O'Connor's use of disability in "Good Country People" as a perhaps
unconscious unleashing of her feelings about her lack of self-sufficiency, Roney
instead provides a sensitive critique of O'Connor's use of disability to portray sin,
a use that includes more than an aesthetic/metaphorical reading. She writes,
Her family's and her small-town southern culture's habits of "politeness"
meant that the primary avenue for direct exploration of the implications of
these ideas and the conflicting strains of Catholicism was through her
fiction, and there the disabled bodies explode from the page in a violent
attack on the idea that they might be any less or more deserving than the
able-bodied in God's view. Since everyone is guilty of sin, she seems to
say, sin cannot be some final cause of illness and pain; rather it is only one
version of the fallen state of humankind in general.179
Dobrott wrongly employs Hulga's disability as a metaphor for O'Connor's
frustration with her own lack of self-sufficiency. This is problematic in its
misjudgment of O'Connor's relationship with her disability. Roney's perspective,
on the other hand, acknowledges the metaphorical value of Hulga's missing leg
and uses that value, as I believe O'Connor did, to critique the modern obsession
with self-sufficiency. Dobrott's reading ignores a disability studies perspective,
while Roney's is sensitive both to a perspective that raises the sociopoltical
concerns of disability and understands the aesthetic value disability carries in
Acceptance in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost"
Roney, p. 15.
We have noted instances of how O'Connor portrays acceptance negatively,
where characters are forced through violence or other extreme circumstances to
acknowledge limitation. In the next section we will see another example of
negative acceptance in "The Enduring Chill." In this section, though, we will see
how O'Connor also portrays acceptance positively, which she does best in "A
Temple of the Holy Ghost." The story begins with people's lack of acceptance of
the hermaphrodite, but centers on the hermaphrodite's acceptance of his/her own
life. The story's hermaphrodite is totalized, socially, by his/her abnormality, and
he/she is able to survive economically only as a freak show at town fairs. When
the fair comes to the setting of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," the local preachers
and police so fear the hermaphrodite's inability to be categorized that they shut
down the fair and run it out of town.
The story's protagonist, an unnamed twelve year old girl, is told about the
hermaphrodite by her cousins who saw the hermaphrodite's act the day before the
tents come down. They relate the hermaphrodite's stage act, and how he/she
spoke to the people saying, "God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may
strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain't
disputing His way." The hermaphrodite accepts his/her lot and is in his/her own
words "making the best of it."180
Upon hearing this from her cousins, the main character goes to bed trying
to figure out how the hermaphrodite could be both male and female without
having two heads. She sleepily begins to imagine the scene and soon lapses into a
dream. In her dream/vision, she re-imagines the scene as a church revival, and
CS, p. 245.
the hermaphrodite's acceptance of his/her condition comes even more to the fore.
The hermaphrodite repeats that "God made me thisaway and I don't dispute hit,"
and the people reply with amens. He/she then exclaims, "God done this to me
and I praise Him." Amens again follow. He/she tells the people they are temples
of the Holy Ghost and God's spirit has a dwelling in them, which they of course
agree with, repeating their amens. Finally, he/she warns them not to desecrate the
temple and reminds them that if they laugh God may strike them "thisaway."
He/she ends by claiming, "I am a temple of the Holy Ghost" to which they all
agree with a final "Amen."181
The next morning the girl attends mass. Realizing she is in the presence
of God, she has a change of heart about her rudeness to everyone, especially her
mother. She asks God to help her stop sassing. The freak-show dream then
recaptures her thoughts and thus becomes incorporated into the most significant
of sacraments. "Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest
raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she
was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it. The freak was saying 'I
don't dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.'"
O'Connor makes a
connection between the hermaphrodite's acceptance of life-as-is and Christ's
acceptance of the call to be the sacrificial Lamb of God. The girl has obviously
been altered by her dream encounter with the hermaphrodite. The
hermaphrodite's acceptance of his/her condition is bound up with the girl's
CS, p. 246.
CS, p. 248.
acceptance of her mother, herself, the raised "monstrance" with the host and with
Christ's acceptance of being broken.
The story ends with the girl riding home from Mass, looking out the
window. She is "lost in thought." O'Connor's last line paints the meaning of the
Eucharist upon the landscape, showing how the girl's experience has changed her
view of the world. "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched
in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road
hanging over the trees."183 Thomas writes concerning the story's ending,
For the girl, [the hermaphrodite] has effected a redemption of sorts, a
realization and acceptance of human flaw, disabilities and weaknesses.
However, the townspeople's rejection of the hermaphrodite indicates
embarrassment and a denial of the imperfection of humans . . . The
ugliness of the hermaphrodite offends the community, but that very
ugliness becomes a source of grace, in that this person accepts its adverse
physical condition and draws the girl closer to an acceptance of the
physically undesirable.184
It is through the physical "deformity" and social exclusion of the hermaphrodite
that the girl comes to understand the meaning of Christ's passion. She is thus
opened to the deeper mysteries of life because of the hermaphrodite's acceptance
of life-as-given. That is, the hermaphrodite's acceptance of his/her condition
becomes the gateway to reality for the little girl.
This realization is set in sharp contrast to the girl's cousins, who Thomas
notes "are too involved in trying to look appealing to contemplate anything
spiritual. They have perfect and young bodies; disease and deformity are not a
concern."185 Buying into the cultural construct that their young bodies make them
CS, p. 248.
Thomas, p. 41.
Thomas, p. 39.
"perfect," these girls are unable to accept their state as fallen creatures or to
recognize any need for redemption and salvation. They are unable to understand
how they are temples of the Holy Ghost, and instead view their temple status as a
mere joke, mockingly naming themselves temple one and temple two.
As I have noted, O'Connor's reviewers did not always understand what
she was attempting to get across in her stories. "I am tired of reading reviews that
call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic," she writes. "The stories are hard but they
are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian
realism . . . when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always
i o/;
amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror."
The real
horror in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is the lack of purity exposed by the
community's rejection of the hermaphrodite and the judgmental attitudes of the
cousins. The horror is not the hermaphrodite. Indeed, the hermaphrodite is the
story's one pure character. This is again an example of how O'Connor turns
social expectations upside down and portrays grace in what society deems
O'Connor later wrote in a letter that what the girl in the story learns is
purity, which is surely an odd thing to learn from an hermaphrodite in a freak
show, at least until one understands what O'Connor means by purity. She goes on
in the letter to define purity as "an acceptance of what God wills for us, an
acceptance of our individual circumstances."187 This definition sounds like
pastoral platitudes meant to encourage one who has recently befallen a tragedy.
HB, p. 90.
HB, p. 124.
Parents who birth disabled children are told that it is all part of God's greater
purpose, and if they can just keep that in mind, God will be their strength. People
who are diagnosed with cancer are told God has a reason for allowing their
disease. What is different in O'Connor's belief about accepting our
circumstances, though, is that she is not sentimentally encouraging those
overwhelmed by a tragedy. Rather, she is defining purity.
Society thinks of purity as innocence and/or an absence of defects. That is,
purity is the ideal form and the greater the defects one has the further one moves
away from purity. One problem with this definition is that the ideal is always
culturally defined. For cultures that are children of the Enlightenment, the ideal,
or pure form, means autonomy and efficiency. Any antonym of these, such as
vulnerability, smacks of impurity and evil. Innocence and vulnerability, however,
have nothing to do with purity, nor can purity be measured in relation to any
physical standards of perfection and defection. O'Connor's definition of purity as
the hermaphrodite's acceptance of the given circumstances of his/her life makes
purity an attitude of the heart toward life, an attitude that accepts life as given,
including all its densities and limitations. For her, the circumstance of the given
is not where evil resides. Rather, what is authentically bad is a person's poor
response to the circumstance. All formulas for what makes a person "normal" or
pure either physically or mentally are deconstructed by O'Connor's definition of
purity. Instead, the pure heart O'Connor defines begins to find God at work in
circumstances that society views as grotesque, undesirable, inefficient and/or
At this point an objection could be raised to O'Connor and my
interpretation of her, an objection that regards acceptance of the given state of
things unacceptable. Such acceptance inevitably overlooks social and political
agendas that oppress the marginalized. This critique of O'Connor is likely
justified to some degree. O'Connor was little concerned with the political
ramifications of her thought. Her portrayals of blacks or subservient women have
raised questions as to exactly where O'Connor stood on social issues, what her
political thoughts were. Would she, for example, encourage blacks in the 1950's
South to simply accept their circumstances? Without delving into her politics, I
would like to point out ways in which O'Connor's view of purity has a strong
correlation to aspects of disability studies. In viewing disability as part of the
givenness of life, she agrees with disability studies' acceptance of disability as
part of one's identity, just as this is the necessary starting point for queer studies.
O'Connor defines the good, in this case purity, outside of one's abilities and
outside the social constructions of perfection. That is, her argument implies that
perfection cannot be measured in relation to a constructed ideal body. Since the
medical view perceives disability as a flaw to be fixed, it necessarily disallows
any full acceptance of disability-as-identity and instead continuously holds up an
ideally "perfect" or "pure" body as one's true identity away from which any
"flawed" body must be measured.
O'Connor's theological critique of modernity runs along this same track.
Just as the medical model has idealized an unattainable and unrealistic, flawless
body, so modernity has idealized an identity of complete self-sufficient autonomy.
In contrast to both, O'Connor points out humanity's great distance from
perfection and our desperate need for salvation, and she insists we must accept
this as the fact of our identity. We are all differently disabled.
Disregarding the cultural ideal and instead accepting the commonality of
disability-as-given allows a true foundation from which to critique social
inequities. One cannot, from this perspective, participate in any cultural
sentimentality that pities the disabled or attempts to "better" their lot through a
false charity. Rather, it necessitates true compassion that, beginning with the
realization of all nature's subjection to vanity, participates in the suffering Christ
Acceptance in "The Enduring Chill"
O'Connor portrays the results of a lack of acceptance in "The Enduring
Chill." The story's first page paints a picture that is surely based on O'Connor's
life. Because of an illness, Asbury has been forced to return home to live with his
mother. He returns from New York on a train and finds his mother waiting for
him in his rural hometown. Not only do these circumstances mirror O'Connor's
own, Asbury's sickness is also very similar. Asbury "was puffy and pale and his
hair had receded tragically for a boy of twenty-five."188 O'Connor was twentyfive when she was diagnosed with lupus and returned to live with her mother, and
her meds caused puffiness, hair loss, and intolerance for the sun. Asbury has also
been experiencing "a gradual slackening of his energy and vague inconsistent
aches and headaches," as was the case for O'Connor. Asbury is an artist, a calling
neither his family nor O'Connor's embraced or fully understood. In as much as
CS, p. 357.
their families accept their talents, they are both encouraged to write "good"
Southern fiction, like another Gone With the Wind.189
Unlike O'Connor, though, Asbury does not learn purity; he does not
accept his changed circumstances. Though resistant at first ("when I faced it I
was roped and tied and resigned the way it is necessary to be resigned to death"),
O'Connor's attitude toward her return to the South eventually displayed purity.
She accepted the disease and its consequences for her. Asbury, on the other hand,
so rejects his life change that he even refuses the help of the local physician Dr.
Block, continuously claiming that what is wrong with him is way beyond Dr.
Block. He also rejects the "collapsing country junction" that is his hometown,
talk about the cattle, help opening his suitcase, breakfast, all of his mother's
continuous advice, her good intentions and good wishes for him, his writing and
ultimately his "useless life."
The only thing he embraces is his illness, at least the imagined affect his
death will have upon his mother. Before leaving New York, he wrote a letter to
her that filled two notebooks explaining her role in making his life a failure, and
he relished the idea that "because of the letter, she might experience a painful
realization and this would be the only thing of value he had to leave her."190
However, despite accepting his illness, and having "become entirely accustomed
to the thought of death," his frustration with having to return home left him
unaccustomed "to the thought of death here."191 In New York, amongst his
intellectual friends such as Goetz, death is meaningless and thereby acceptable.
CS, p. 370.
CS, p. 364.
CS, p. 358.
Here, however, the culture and his family so press meaning upon him that his
death can only be useful if it teaches someone about life's meaninglessness.
Furthermore, it is not his true illness and death he has accepted. Rather, he has
accepted a sentimentalized version of the two that does not exist. He has accepted
the illness unto death that will teach his mother a lesson, not the continual illness
that he has brought upon himself by regularly drinking the unpastuerized milk and
from which he needs to learn a lesson.
Asbury demands, as a dying request, to see a Jesuit priest, for he once ran
across one and found him well-educated. He thinks if he can get such a priest to
visit he can have some intellectual conversation to escape the talk about cows and
their reproduction. When the priest finally arrives, he primarily asks Asbury
whether or not he says prayers. The only other question he asks before trying to
start the catechism is "Do you have trouble with purity?" This seems, from the
normal understanding of what purity is, a rather odd question to be included in the
very few that the priest asks before he is kicked out. However, when considered
from O'Connor's definition of purity, the question is essential to Asbury's
spiritual condition. The priest's question about purity is whether or not Asbury
has accepted his circumstances, and the answer is the same as the one Asbury
gives to the question of whether he knows his catechism, "Certainly not."
Disregarding Asbury's negative response, the priest begins the catechism anyway,
"Who made you?" Asbury replies, "Different people believe different things
about that." Asbury's most basic problem is one of purity because he has not
accepted the conditions of his life, from his mother's identity to his exile in a rural
town to the essential knowledge of being one who has been created. Without
acceptance, he is unprepared for grace.
Without grace to fill his void, the end of the story finds Asbury feeling "as
if he were a shell that had to be filled with something but he did not know
what."192 Convinced that death is approaching quickly, he realizes his god, Art,
and his philosophies have left him empty, and he is tormented "thinking of his
useless life."193 Instructed by modernity that the good of life is measured by
accomplishment, Asbury's uselessness has left him a mere shell of a human being.
Of course, the last pages of the story reveal that Asbury is not dying at all,
but only has undulant fever, which he obtained by drinking unpasteurized milk in
an effort to bond with the "negroes" who worked on his mother's dairy farm. The
forced realization of the truth of his illness affects him. In the story's final scene,
after finding out the truth, Asbury lies in bed feeling sicker than ever and looks
into the mirror and finds his eyes seem paler. "They looked shocked clean as if
they had been prepared for some awful vision about to come down on him." It is
only once he has been forced to accept the truth of his circumstances that he is
made pure enough for the change that is to come upon him. Asbury turns his
head and stares at the water stain of a fierce bird on his ceiling. The bird suddenly
appears to be in motion, descending upon him like the Holy Ghost. The narrator
notes, "The old life in him was exhausted. He awaited the coming of new." As
the bird begins moving, "Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as
CS, p. 378.
CS, p. 377.
if by a whirlwind from his eyes."
The story then ends with the Holy Ghost's
implacable descent upon the boy.
Asbury's illness acts negatively as his means of grace. It creates such
weakness and vulnerability in him that he is forced to reckon with ultimate
questions about who he is as a human being, questions about who created him and
what purpose he has in life. His lack of acceptance of anything in the story, even
his own writings, reveals just how impure the boy is. However, the truth that his
illness is only undulant fever reveals his self-righteous behavior toward the
"negroes" and his family. Once his vision is thereby "shocked clean" and the
"last film of illusion" has been torn from his eyes, he is prepared for the warm
(and enduring) chill that the Holy Ghost's descent causes. Asbury's illness thus
becomes a gateway to reality for him as it eventually leads him to accept the
reality of his vulnerability.
O'Connor does not, however, portray the illness as salvific or evil or use it
as a mere tool to bring about God's purposes. Rather, the illness is the story's
given, its atmosphere. Asbury's response to the illness, his movement from not
accepting to accepting any of his life to even minimally accepting the truth and
reality purifies of his illness begins to purify his heart and ready him for the Holy
Ghost's descent. This is what makes the story move, both in its own action and
the reader's response to the story. Before the reality of the illness deconstructs
him, Asbury accepts the illness on false pretense. "Asbury Fox was prone to the
dramatic and was convinced that his suffering was the price to pay for his artistic
CS, p. 382.
inclinations, just as other great artists had suffered for their art."
He accepts his
illness as a gift from his god, Art, and he perceives it as a trade off for talent,
much as Dobrott argued O'Connor perceived her illness. He also sentimentalizes
his seemingly impending death as the one thing that can cause his mother to see
his (and her) life clearly.
For O'Connor, however, sentimentality is useless. Asbury's
sentimentality reveals a lack of acceptance of his illnesses' true reality and thus
reveals his lack of purity. The priest's question of whether the boy struggles with
purity is therefore telling for the boy and the reader, as is the priest's subsequent
statement, "We all do but you must pray to the Holy Ghost for it."197
Steven Watkins, Teilhard De Chardin's View of Diminishment and the Late Stories of
Flannery O'Connor Dissertation. The University of Texas at Arlington, 2005. p. 87.
Wood writes about this, "Asbury's body will not be purified by the nonfatal illness he is so
disappointed to have contracted, thus being deprived of the death that would mark "his greatest
triumph" over his smothering mother. Instead, his enduring chills and fevers will require him to
live in lasting dependence upon her. But there is at least a chance that he will find the purity of
heart that beholds God himself. For at the end of the story, Asbury enters the purgatorial life that
has the power to cleanse all his unrighteousness, whether racial or filial, as the Holy Ghost
descends upon him—not as a dove carrying the olive branch or peace but as a fierce bird bearing
the icicle of judgment." Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, p. 116.
CS, p. 375.
The Face of Mary, Christ's Mother: The Grotesque as Womb for God
"I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder." - O'Connor
Mary the mother of Jesus was grotesque. We are not accustomed to
thinking of Mary as grotesque. We think of her primarily at Christmas as the pure
virgin servant found worthy enough to bear the Christ child. But what is our
vision of her purity - sexual, moral, beautiful, loving or all of these? Asking this
question problematizes our cultural definitions of perfection. Certainly this
unwed mother did not fit into her culture's definition of perfection; pure was
likely one of the last words the townspeople of Nazareth would have used to
describe her. But our constructs of perfection and purity are challenged as well.
Can we, for example, envision Mary as disabled, with only one arm or one eye or
with a mental disability that caused her to see "visions?" Was she near-sighted?
What illnesses did she suffer in her life? There is no historical evidence
concerning her appearance, her health or her mental stability, yet somehow these
seem significant to us. We project our constructions of perfection upon her. As
with our images of Jesus, our representations of Mary have historically been the
ideal version of who we want to be. Such a picturesque, idealized and unrealistic
version of Christ's birth emerges every Christmas in countless nativity sets.
The one qualification the biblical record does present for this peasant girl
is her willingness to be the womb that knit God and humanity into one person.
The purity the biblical record attests is O'Connor's definition of purity, accepting
Quoted in Gooch, p. 228.
the extraordinary circumstances given her. In this faithful act of being a womb
she became our greatest example of God's activity in the world. In her, we learn
that Immanuel, "God with us," does not arrive in places of prestige and influence.
God's kingdom does not obliterate human limitation with limitless ability.
Instead, human limitation and God are weaved together, and God's presence in
the world mysteriously involves God taking limitation into God's self.
I have begun each chapter with the phrase "Mary is grotesque" in hopes of
disrupting our cultural definitions of what is grotesque and beginning to lay a
foundation for a theology of weakness. O'Connor has been helpful in this
because she exposes our falsely constructed "goods" and reveals the authentic
good in what is socially labeled grotesque and evil. In contrast to our usual
definitions of purity as the absence of flaw or limitation, which is also part of our
definition of the good, O'Connor makes the theological assertion that the rumored
face of Mary Ann and the mean, blue-acned face of Mary Grace is the face of
Mary, Christ's mother, and the true face of us all in our limited, yet divinely
infused, humanity. These limitations operate both as results of the fall and as loci
for God's activity in the world, and God chooses these limited Marys as agents of
revelation. Mary the mother of Christ, whom Wordsworth called "Our tainted
nature's solitary boast,"199 signifies God's work in us, in that our common, human
limitation is the womb for Immanuel, God with us - God's grace inside,
connected with, grafted into a grotesque and limited humanity.
Understanding limitation as the womb for God is not, however, just a
paradigm shift in philosophical understanding. What Mary reveals is not a mere
199 '"p^g virgin." Thanks to J. Morriss for suggesting this phrase.
metaphorical birthing of revelation at the end of trial and struggle, the telos or end
result with which Christians tend to encourage one another in times of crisis.
Rather, Mary embodies a literal birthing of the ultimate revelation through
screams of pain and the shedding of her own blood. Her skin and muscles
stretched and torn as the child emerged, still connected to her as life-source until
the cord was cut and their mingled blood splattered, and the child was separate,
distinct, crying and needy. This child, so common in his vulnerability, never rose
above and overcame that vulnerability. He never attempted to grasp the power to
revenge those who sought to kill him. Rather, he "learned obedience" and was
"made perfect" not in the philosophical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount,
but "from what he suffered."200 It was only through his acceptance of the
physically horrible limitations given to him, including the limitation of the cross
that he was made perfect.
We all participate in this grotesquely limited, near-death experience of the
beginning of life, and we all remain thusly limited, on the brink of death, no
matter how much our cultural imperatives insist on limitless possibility. Modern
western thought has wrongly enshrined Mary's story as that of a poor, unwed girl
overcoming all the odds and accomplishing the greatest of feats. Her story is
rather that of a mother who had sleepless nights, one who agonized over her son
being lost, who sacrificed to raise him only to watch him suffer the most
humiliating and painful death possible. Yet, it is this grotesque weakness, even
this ultimate limitation of his death that realizes God. Again, I do not mean
Hebrews 5:8-9 (NIV) reads, "Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he
suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him."
realized as an aesthetic process of the mmd - not metaphorically, but physically
made real.
It is this reality that O'Connor intimates in her fiction. It is this God-inlimitation that yanks her readers away from their sentimentality toward the
mentally handicapped Bishop in The Violent Bear It Away and the socially
abandoned Henry Ashfield in "The River" and draws them into the mystery of the
real death that is the first half of their baptisms. Their deaths, seemingly
misguided and easily avoidable, are entirely grotesque. However, their
grotesqueness does not forfeit their ability to be the authentic good, the dying to
self so necessary to resurrection. "What people don't realize," O'Connor wrote,
"is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of
course it is the cross."201
My first chapter explained what a disability studies perspective is. The
second chapter applied this perspective to O'Connor's life and thought. The third
chapter explored the affect a disability studies perspective has on O'Connor's
fiction. Though a theological perspective has been implicitly present in all three
chapters, this chapter and my conclusion will make that theological perspective
explicit. I assert that we find a theology of weakness at work in O'Connor, one
influenced by her own disability and one that has profound implications both
within her own work and as a prophetic voice speaking to readers fifty years later.
This chapter will consider O'Connor's theology of weakness towards faith and
mystery using her stories of baptism as examples. My conclusion will then
consider the crossroads of theology and disability studies and what theology has
HB, p. 354
to offer to the conversation, exploring biblical weakness and hinting at some
constructive possibilities for a theology of weakness.
O'Connor's Theology of Weakness Towards Faith and Mystery
I noted in the second and third chapters how O'Connor's perspective both
agrees with and deepens our understanding of disability studies' purpose. In the
story from her own life of her encounter in an elevator at Davison's and in her
story "The Lame Shall Enter First," I observed O'Connor's opposition to the
totalization and sentimentality modern culture shows toward the disabled. Yet,
O'Connor's concern is not limited to society's disrespectful or ignorant reaction
to disability. She goes beyond disability studies' attempt to point out that the real
disability is how society treats the disabled. As discussed in chapters two and
three, she also perceives a deeper spiritual danger that is the force behind
sentimentality. Whereas disability studies sees sentimentality toward the disabled
as a patronization that ignores the full reality of the person, O'Connor sees such
sentimentality as a symptom of a diseased modernity that considers itself capable
of perfection. As I also noted, this is the very critique a theology of disability, as
Creamer and Reinders showed, has brought to disability studies. Though
modernity's view of the disabled is certainly problematic, it is only a symptom.
The real problem is more profound. The real problem is the Enlightenment's
view of humanity.
O'Connor understood the dangers of idolizing an ideal human form or
definition of being human, and this is the heart of her accusation against modern
philosophies. What is particularly helpful in critiquing and furthering disability
studies is that she recognized the correlation between modern culture's striving
for an ideal perfection and its sentimentality for those not measuring up to that
ideal, a sentimentality she saw as connected to Nazi gas chambers and the
abortion of disabled fetuses. Rather than attacking people's negative attitudes
toward the disabled (or, it can be argued, toward racism), she attacks the heart of
the problem. To only point out the wrong of the negative attitudes makes the
disabled the continuous victim, and society's bigotry is transformed into mere pity
and sentimentality. This is the point Reinders makes in his book. Changing the
laws to enable the disabled is excellent and necessary, but it does not address the
most basic human need - to be known and have a friend.
O'Connor recognized a false compassion in the old lady's attitude toward
her in the elevator at Davison's. The woman's sentimentality revealed her
repulsion toward O'Connor's disability. Far from being concerned about who
O'Connor was or even what her disability was and how it affected her, the lady
was shocked at the sight of O'Connor and pitied her for not being "normal." The
"normal" she expects is based on the modern, scientific knowledge of how bodies
"should" function. O'Connor understood, however, that being human is not
defined by one's bodily conformation to society's definition of "normal."
There is a great line in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" that gets
to the heart of this dichotomy between modern, scientific ways of knowing and
truly being known. When Mr. Shiftlet first arrives on the farm, he makes small
talk with Mrs. Crater. After noting the sunset and the broken down car, he says,
Lady .. . lemme tell you something. There's one of these doctors in
Atlanta that's taken a knife and cut the human heart - the human heart. . .
out of a man's chest and held it in his hand . . . and studied it like it was a
day-old chicken, and lady . . . he don't know no more about it than you or
The line is spoken by the one-armed Mr. Shiftlet who, tired of being judged by
society as less than human, comes to the farm ready to prove he is as capable as
anyone. Coming from him, it is an indictment of the medical perspective of
disability that categorizes persons as able-bodied and normal or disabled and
abnormal. Later in the same conversation, he "jerks his short arm up as if he
could point with it to her house and yard and pump," and tells Mrs. Crater, "there
ain't a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn't fix for you, one-arm jackleg
or not. I'm a man. I g o t . . . amoral intelligence!"203
As is the case with many of O'Connor's characters, those who come
across as grotesque and/or disabled often articulate the most profound truths. I do
not mean to equate Mr. Shiftlet's short arm with grotesqueness, though it does
function as such for the reader of the story (which is in itself an indictment of the
reader's participation in the medical model's perception of humans). I also mean
he is grotesque in that the end of the story portrays his grotesque morality, despite
his claim to moral intelligence. His claim, however, is not fully lost. O'Connor's
characters most often practice their moral intelligence in diagnosing society's
problem, not necessarily in finding or practicing a solution. O'Connor prefers to
convince through negation, revealing the falsity of prevailing wisdoms. Thus the
doctor in this story does not really know about the human heart, despite holding it
in his hand. Or again, as shown in last chapter's discussion of "The Lame Shall
CS, p. 147.
CS, p. 149.
Enter First," Rufus refuses Shepard's liberal assumptions about what has made
him a juvenile delinquent.
After being on the farm a couple days, Mr. Shiftlet makes his diagnosis of
society's problem. When Lucynell's mother is surprised Mr. Shiftlet has taught
Lucynell a word, he explains society to Mrs. Crater. "Mr. Shiftlet said that the
trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble.
He said he never would have been able to teach Lucynell to say a word if he
hadn't cared and stopped long enough."204 From a disability perspective, this is a
rich statement. One could suggest Mr. Shiftlet knows what it is like for no one to
care and stop to help, and that it is because of this knowledge that he has the
ability to help Lucynell. Also, the phraseology of "took any trouble," though
colloquial, is interesting, suggesting people can take other's burdens upon
themselves. According to Shiftlet, Lucynell's inability to speak is a social
problem, not an individual's personal tragedy. Her muteness has as much to do
with how society treate her as it does with what abilities she was born with or
without. This is in line with a disability studies perspective and the taking trouble
phrase aligns with Reinder's argument for making relationality, as opposed to
rationality, primary to what it means to be human. I am not defending Mr.
Shiftlet, for like the Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" who understands the
issue at stake but cannot accept the solution for himself, Mr. Shiftlet is able to
diagnose the base problem of society, yet he abandons Lucynell near the story's
CS, p. 150.
If the base and most important aspect of being human was understood to
be relationality, perhaps we would more often stop and "take trouble" upon
ourselves, changing and being changed by those society currently marginalizes
and excludes. According to Reinders, our understanding of what it means to be
human - to be American, Western, Enlightened - excludes and marginalizes the
disabled. Including them through legislation, though important, misses the
ultimate point, for it ignores the most significant aspect of being human, which is
not freedom to become an individual, but being known in relationship. If we are
unable to include the disabled in friendship, to stop and take the time and the
"trouble," our inclusive laws offer only a partial solution, especially for the more
severely disabled.
O'Connor's problem with the old lady's compassion in the elevator at
Davison's is that the old lady made assumptions about her based upon a false
understanding of the significance of being human. O'Connor did not think the
purpose of life was not to live a "perfect" and suffering-free existence. The lady's
desire for this betrays her sentimentality. If the lady knew true compassion she
would not pity O'Connor's suffering, but aligns herself with it. O'Connor wrote,
"There is a better sense in which it [compassion] can be used but seldom is - the
sense of being in travail with and for creation in its subjection to vanity. This is a
sense which implies a recognition of sin; there is a suffering-with, but one which
blunts no edges and makes no excuses."
One would be remiss to read this statement from O'Connor and not
consider her own travailing with and for creation's subjection to vanity. Certainly
M&M, p. 165-166.
the lupus that killed her father, crippled her and had signed her death sentence
embodied such vanity, yet she understood all this as a suffering-with creation, a
participation in Christ's suffering, the ultimate subjection to vanity. Rather than
perceiving disability, or any other limitation, as abnormal or pitiable, she saw
limitation as participation in the life and death of Christ, "Who, being in very
nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but
made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human
likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and
became obedient to death - even death on a cross!"
The true compassion that
"suffers with" is mysteriously part of God's redemption of the world.207 When
O'Connor writes of accepting one's circumstances, she does not mean a mental
change of perspective. She means a physical subjection to God's ordering of the
world, no matter how full of vanity it is. Such acceptance is a mysterious act of
Baptizing Modernity
As noted, O'Connor very intentionally attempted to deconstruct the
Enlightenment's Utopian visions of the world's future. Instead of seeing
modernity as the great liberator, empowerer and conquerer she consistently
attacked its vision of the perfectability of humanity. She boldly asserted the
connection she saw between modernity's hope in itself and the Holocaust's gas
chambers. She wrote that "if you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of
Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV).
See in particular Jurgen Moltmann's chapter section entitled "The healing power of Jesus lies
in his ability to suffer" in "Liberate Yourselves by Accepting One Another" in Human Disability
and the Service of God. Nancy Eisland and Don Saliers, eds. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.
the Church, it's the gas you breathe. If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or
to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stmkingest logical positivist
you ever saw right now."208 Because of her affinity for reason, she was able to
expose modernity from the inside. Her peculiar gift was to reveal this cosmic
struggle between nihilism and divine mystery within the everyday lives of her
simple characters. Unveiling the supposed "good" of country people, she reveals
all the "isms" of modernity - racism, sexism, ableism - and shows how all these
are rooted in the basic philosophy of the Enlightenment that attempts to attain an
ideal form of humanity.
While many of her stories are content to reveal this deception, some of her
stories disclose what she believed was the answer to the Enlightenment's version
of original sin. Her fictional explorations of the sacrament of baptism set this
modern incarnation of original sin in the sharpest contrast with the all-demanding
requirements of the gospel's answer to human transgression. The first step, of
course, is the first half of the baptism, the going down into death. Any realization
of the resurrection in her story "The River" or her second novel The Violent Bear
It Away, any hint at the rising out of the water with new life that baptism
embodies, is secondary. O'Connor's primary concern is drowning modernity, the
indispensable and violent death of self (and self-sufficiency) necessary before
participation in Christ's resurrection.
"The River"
In both stories, her embodiment of this dying to self occurs in the
baptismal drowning of an innocent child. In "The River," Harry Ashfield lives in
HB, p. 97.
an apartment in the city that is bohemian in its modernity. The reader's only
introduction to his parents centers on their having friends over for parties that last
well into the night. Though only four or five years old, Harry has learned the
essential element of modern philosophy: self-sufficiency. He wakes each
weekend morning to a home predictable in its lack of assistance to him. He does
not wake early, but the apartment is "still dark" with drawn shades, and he knows
not to disturb his parents. He instead scrounges two crackers spread with anchovy
paste left on the coffee table from the night before. He then finds some raisin
bread heels and some chocolate milk in the kitchen and inspects the contents of
the fridge where only shriveled vegetables, brown oranges and a few ingredients
for cocktail appetizers are found. He figures his parents "would be out cold until
one o'clock and that they would all have to go to a restaurant for lunch."209 Until
then, he returns to the living room and entertains himself by dumping out
overflowing ashtrays and carefully smearing the contents into the rug, an apt
metaphor for the very modern family in which he abides: the Ashfields.
Lying on the floor, he begins to think about the day before when his sitter
took him to hear a preacher down at the river. The preacher had told him, "If I
Baptize y o u , . . . you'll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You'll be washed
in the river of suffering, son, and you'll go by the deep river of life." Harry had
thought at the time, "I won't go back to the apartment then, I'll go under the
The preacher baptized Harry and told the boy he counted now and that
he did not even count before. Now lying in his apartment in the resulting
CS, p. 168.
wasteland of his parents' modern lifestyle, Harry understands the preacher's
words that he did not count, and he longs for a connection to something beyond
what his parents have offered him. "Very slowly, his expression changed as if he
were gradually seeing appear what he didn't know he'd been looking for. Then
all of a sudden he knew what he wanted to do." 21 ' He sneaks out of the apartment
and returns to the river. He intends "not to fool with preachers any more but to
Baptize himself and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of
Christ in the river."
In the story's ending scene, he has disappeared under the
river's ripples.
In Ralph Wood's "The Scandalous Baptism of Harry Ashfield," he
helpfully relates the story of teaching "The River" to undergraduate students who
perceived the river preacher and Harry's baby sitter as the true malefactors of the
story. The students argued the "fundamentalist preacher and fellow believer had
practiced the ultimate deceit upon little Harry: they have made him believe that
his life's significance lies beyond life. Thus they have engendered the child's
O 1 -3
needless, indeed meaningless death."
This is, of course, precisely the scandal
O'Connor meant to provoke. Her audience must choose whether the preacher's
words about eternal life are a trick or the truth. Woods notes how the choice is
between two ways of being, which are reflected in the two worlds O'Connor
presents, that of the Ashfields and that of the sitter's. Her portrayal of the onedimensional and desolate apartment that embodies modern philosophies is set in
CS, p. 172.
CS, p. 173.
Ralph Wood. "The Scandalous Baptism of Harry Ashfield: Flannery O'Connor's 'The River.'"
Inside the Church of Flannery O'Connor: Sacrament, Sacramental, and the Sacred in Her Fiction.
Mercer UP, Macon, GA, 2007, p. 189.
sharp contrast to the complex and lively life of his sitter who regularly attends
healing services and baptisms down by the river. The home in the city, full of art
and parties, is mechanical and dead, while the other home, at the edge of town
with only two rooms and multiple children, overflows with being and mystery.
Harry's escape from one life and literal diving into the other is pure in its
intention. In his home, the ash field of modernity, nothing seems to count, much
less him. On the outskirts of the city, though, is a home and a river flowing with
mystic significance.
Woods' students have rightly been disturbed by the story. Harry's death is
terribly grotesque. There is no reasonable argument that allows the reader to
bypass the grotesqueness of humanity's shared fate. It is impossible to
sentimentally appreciate his escape from a neglectful home environment or even
to affirm his acceptance of religion. He dies in his search for truth. The question
with which the reader must wrestle is whether or not he found truth and whether
or not that truth is worth dying for. The ending of "The River" leaves its readers
bobbing along beside Harry beneath the surface of the river. In as much as the
reader pities and has become attached to Harry, the reader feels the suffocation
the boy finally embraces. The reader is thus confronted with the question of
whether Harry was in a better place when he was lifted by modern philosophies
and technologies high above the earth in his New York apartment or when he is
submerged beneath the river of baptism unable to breathe. If there is something
real and true about this baptism, which O'Connor makes every effort to suggest,
then a small child's eternal life has been redeemed. As significantly, though, all
modernity has been implicated as that from which the child needed redemption.
The only response to modernity's self-sufficiency, O'Connor suggests, is death.
Woods' students had hold of something truly grotesque, but they, of course, got
hold of the wrong grotesque by prioritizing physical life over spiritual life and
condemning physical death rather than spiritual death.
"The River" is another example of O'Connor's work that focuses on the
recognition of original sin, specifically its appearance in modern life encased in
Enlightenment idealism. In the story, baptism works as a metaphor for the need
to put to death our modern ways of being in the world. As this metaphor, baptism
represents the larger canon of her work. In most of her stories, the characters
suffer the (often violent) "drowning" of their original sin. Julian's heart is ripped
apart as he realizes he is implicated in his mother's death in "Everything That
Rises Must Converge." Likewise, the end of "The Displaced Person" finds its
characters encircling the DP with their implications in his death. In "The Lame
Shall Enter First," Sheppard's investment in Rufus and modern psychology is
drowned by his son's suicidal "launch into space" in the attic. In all three of these
stories, as with "The River," readers are left in the final scene to figure their own
implication in these deaths. Mrs. Turpin likewise has her original sin challenged
and eventually drowned by the revelation that is violently forced upon her in the
doctor's office and then grows inside her the rest of the story. The list could go
As I noted before, this is the aspect of her work encapsulated by her
statement that "Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it
in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we
do not argue." This is the part of her work that shouts to the nearly deaf and
draws large and startling figures for the almost blind. The changed perspective
O'Connor discusses in her "Introduction" to The Memoir of Mary Ann comes
across in her later work. It will be helpful to remember her words regarding this
perspective before proceeding. She writes, "but good is another matter. Few
have stared at that long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that
in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive
worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a
smoothing-down that will soften their real look."
This perspective is also in her work from the beginning, though often only
hinted at. In "The River," for example, the reader readily recognizes and even
identifies with the emptiness of the evil that is the Ashfields' apartment. Harry's
baptism by the preacher could have served as an apt metaphor for the possible
imbuing of eternal life. She could have sentimentalized the story (surely making
Woods' students very happy in the process) by having young Harry return to his
apartment with a new joy, a light shining in the darkness of modernity. Instead,
she has Harry return to the river by himself and drown himself in "the River of
life." In so doing, she challenges the reader to look long enough at the good of
baptism and realize that its face too is grotesque. The baptism-as-metaphor that
Christianity generally expresses is really a "smoothing-down that will soften" the
real look of the authentic good. Scriptural baptism is willingness to enter
martyrdom; it is an unequivocal placing of the spiritual life above the physical, an
inversion Woods' students, and many of O'Connor's readers, continually find
The Violent Bear It Away
In her mature work, O'Connor goes beyond only hinting at this grotesque
good and does more to develop a grotesque expression of the authentic good. The
tattoo on "Parker's Back" is a good example of this change,214 but I will here
focus on O'Connor's other story whose climactic scene is the drowning by
baptism of an innocent child: her novel The Violent Bear It Away. In this novel
we find some recognizable characters. Tarwater is running from his calling to be
a prophet, and his journey takes many of the same turns Hazel Motes took in
O'Connor's first novel. Bishop's father, Rayber, is another Sheppard, the
penultimate modern man complete with degrees and psychological insights. And
Bishop is the innocent child who is overwhelmed by the story's action, as is the
case with Lucynell Carter and Harry Ashfield.
The novel begins with young Tarwater digging a grave for his great uncle
Mason Tarwater. Mason kidnapped young Tarwater away from his uncle Rayber
shortly after Tarwater's parents died. He raised the child in the backwoods
teaching him "Figures, Reading, Writing, and History beginning with Adam
expelled from the Garden and going on down through the presidents to Herbert
Hoover and on in speculation toward the Second Coming and the Day of
Judgment."215 Mason also instructed him in the ways of prophecy and the terrible
See Bieber-Lake's last chapter "Mary Ann's Face and Parker's Back: The Grotesque Body
Under Construction" for an analysis along these lines.
Flannery O'Connor. The Violent Bear It Away. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955. p.
suffering and obedience necessary for being God's prophet. As the old man
neared death, he made sure Tarwater knew to do two things after his demise: the
boy must bury his body "deep enough so the dogs wouldn't be able to dig him
up," and he must baptize his idiot cousin Bishop. Once the old man dies,
Tarwater obediently begins to dig a grave. Soon, however, he gets a taste of the
freedom every child experiences when first separated from parental authority.
"Now I can do anything I want to . . . I could kill off those chickens if I wanted
to." Wood calls this "accents of nihilistic autarky"
and notes how Tarwater
soon begins entertaining a demonic voice in his head that leads him further and
further in rebellion away from Mason and concern for anyone other than himself.
In portraying this, Woods suggests, "O'Connor reveals modern notions of
autonomy have satanic implications."
Tarwater's movement from acceptance
of his given life through the freedom of autonomy in creating his own self to the
killing of the socially insignificant Bishop is a reiteration of O'Connor's prophetic
warning that modernity's insistence on autonomy leads to the creation of gas
Tarwater initially rejects the voice of this demonic friend but rapidly
succumbs to its reasonableness and is soon violently rejecting his calling. The
"freedom" he found in not having to obey Mason when he was tired of digging
the grave shortly transforms into a necessarily absolute rejection of authority.218
Wood. Flannery O 'Connor and the Christ Haunted South., p. 186.
Ibid., p. 188.
Wood notes the theological history of the initial freedom sin offers as opposed to the seemingly
restrictive obedience God demands. Yet God's demand is actually the freedom to choose, whereas
sin and rebellion restrict choice more and more as they are pursued. He offers the analogy of
taking illegal drugs that at first seem to open entirely new and wonderful ways of experiencing
reality, yet quickly become abusive in their demands upon ravishing of the person.
He finds he must do the opposite of what Mason told him, so he attempts to burn
Mason's body and then sets out to live with and learn from the very embodiment
of all that Mason stood against as a prophet - Tarwater's uncle Rayber. Finally, to
rid himself of any possibility of ever fulfilling his prophetic duty of baptism, he
purposes to kill his cousin Bishop.
The prophet's caller, however, thwarts his will (or the will of the evil one
speaking to Tarwater). After setting the house ablaze in order to incinerate Mason,
Tarwater makes his way to the city to find his uncle Rayber and learn how to be
"normal." He finds, however, he is unable to learn anything from his uncle.
When he does drown his cousin Bishop, he finds himself pronouncing the words
of baptism over him, thereby bestowing the sacrament unto eternal salvation in
his murderous act. Finally, when he returns to the house he burnt, he finds
someone drug Mason's body out before the blaze and gave it a proper Christian
burial in the grave he had begun to dig.
Tarwater is never able to get Mason's words of prophetic calling out of his
head. "The prophet is coming with the Lord's message. 'Go warn the children of
God,' saith the Lord, 'of the terrible speed of justice.' Who will be left? Who
will be left when the Lord's mercy strikes?"219 In O'Connor's vision, God's
refusing to be silenced or turned aside by rejection is God's mercy, even when it
must strike violently in order to be made known. This is the paradox of God's
grace. This is O'Connor's own lupus. This is Mary Ann, with the cancerous
tumor on her face. This is the children with Down Syndrome whose birth
O'Connor predicted our society would find a way to disallow. O'Connor
The Violent, p. 60.
understood that rather than "evil" being "a problem to be solved," as modernism
has decreed, it is "a mystery to be endured."
Human nature wants to join in the
fight, to identify evil and join God in battle against it. The problem, O'Connor
shows again and again, is we consistently misidentify evil. We think pleasure or
accomplishment or some sentimental caring for others will make us good and
pure of heart, and we equate suffering, or what we deem suffering, as the greatest
evil. As Mason sums it up in a rage of prophecy and one of O'Connor's greatest
lines, "Ignore the Lord Jesus as long as you can! Spit out the bread of life and
sicken on honey!"
Rayber embodies modernity's misguided search to avoid suffering, and
the end result is that he says concerning his own son Bishop, "In a hundred years
people may have learned enough to put them to sleep when they're born."
has taken less than a hundred years, and prenatal testing in which "suffering" is
predicted and subsequently terminated is now a very common practice When we
misidentify evil, we end up fighting against what is God's mercy to us, and we
participate in crucifying Christ rather than participating in his suffering.
In this novel, O'Connor reveals this mercy-as-grotesque more clearly than
in any of her other writings.223 She links God's beauty, love and awe - Otto's
M&M, p. 209.
The Violent, p. 60.
Ibid., p. 168.
Bieber-Lake writes, "The Violent Bear It Away signals, more than any other work, O'Connor's
shift in sensibility with regard to the possibilities of the grotesque. Most of the grotesques in her
early career signify lack, the absence of something good in characters, the perverse result of the
fall. These grotesques can only challenge by repulsion, even when we find that what we are
repulsed by is ourselves. But Bishop and the later grotesques signify the presence of Being in
being, the divinely created core of humanity that can be seen in spite of our fallen nature.
O'Connor called such grotesquerie "the face of good under construction." These grotesques
"numinous" - with the "idiot prophet" Mason and most profoundly with the "idiot
child" Bishop. To see this connection plainly, the reader is invited to view Mason
and Bishop through the eyes of the unredeemed Rayber, whose thoroughgoing
modernism finds no use for either. It is particularly in Rayber's son Bishop that
the grotesque and the holy become one. Rayber is satisfied to explain Mason's
radical religiosity by employing psychological analysis, as when he wrote an
article about his uncle noting, "His fixation of being called by the Lord had its
origin in insecurity. He needed the assurance of a call, and so he called
himself."224 Rayber cannot, however, explain Bishop's idiocy.
Rayber had also been kidnapped and trained by Mason when he was
young, but only for four days. Rayber completely rejected Mason's teachings and
went as far as possible in the opposite direction, embracing modernism. Rather
than being a prophet, he became a school psychologist, an anti-prophet calling
himself to the mission of spreading the gospel of self-reliance. He proclaims a
"natural" salvation "through your own efforts. Your intelligence."225 Again
parroting modernism, he declares, "If there's any way to be born again, it's a way
that you accomplish yourself, an understanding about yourself that you reach after
a long time, perhaps a long effort. It's nothing you get from above by spilling a
little water and a few words."226 Having a developmentally disabled child calls
all this into question. His philosophical stance demands that the child, who is
mysteriously attract us even as they repel us; they bid us to ask questions, and they suggest beauty
of another order entirely." Incarnational Art. p. 142.
The Violent, p. 19.
The Violent, p. 195.
The Violent, p. 194.
unable to accomplish for himself, is useless, and yet love for the child continues
to well up within him, unreasonable and purposeless love.
Bishop is most often referred to in the novel as the "idiot child," lacking as
he does the intelligence necessary for Rayber's form of salvation. The reader
meets Bishop on Tarwater's first trip to the city. Mason and Tarwater arrive at
Rayber and Bishop's apartment where Mason intends to baptize Bishop. When
the door opens, "A small pink-faced boy stood in it with his mouth hung in a silly
smile. . . He was gnawing on a brown apple core." Bishop makes "an
unintelligible noise" and shuts the door. Mason tells Tarwater, "He don't have
good sense."227 The scene's action then shifts to a confrontation between Mason
and Rayber. When Rayber comes to the door, Mason exclaims "The Lord Jesus
Christ sent me to baptize that boy! . . . Stand aside. I mean to do it!" He also
claims, "That boy cries out for his baptism," and "Precious in the sight of the
Lord even an idiot!" Rayber, however, refuses and tells Mason to get off his
property, "If you don't I'll have you put back in the asylum where you belong."
The confrontation escalates until both are shouting, and Rayber says, "You get
away from here! . . . Ask the Lord why He made him an idiot in the first place,
uncle. Tell him I want to know why!"
Since Rayber's philosophy centers on self-sufficiency, he sees no point in
the child's existence, for the child cannot even care for himself, much less add
anything productive to society. In contrast to Mason's view of Bishop as precious
in God's sight and his affirmation of the boy's on participation in salvation, "That
Ibid., p. 32.
Ibid., p. 33-34.
boy cries out for his baptism," Rayber responds, "You could slosh water on him
for the rest of his life and he'd still be an idiot. Five years old for all eternity,
useless forever. . . he'll never be baptized -just as a matter of principle, nothing
else. As a gesture of human dignity, he'll never be baptized."229 As Khailova
succinctly puts it, "The Violent shows that egocentric modernity which resists
yielding to God finds Bishop's difference repulsive and emblematic of
Ever since his own baptism in the woods at the hands of Mason, Rayber
has turned to modern philosophy and psychology to explain away his uncle's
insanity, even having his uncle committed to the asylum at one time. He views
Mason and Bishop through the same lens of modernity, and they both fall short of
what he understands it means to be a modern man. As Kilcourse writes, "In
Rayber's world, both Mason and Bishop are 'freaks,' the one a freak of nature,
the other a freak of religious superstition."231 O'Connor links Bishop and Mason
together in the novel by using the word idiot and by consistently referring to what
does and does not make "sense." Rayber fends off Mason's idiocy and his idiot
religion and refers to Bishop as an idiot. For Rayber, idiot is the opposite of
rational, and the goal and purpose of humanity is to rationally understand
everything so it can be made better.
This is also the struggle for Tarwater. The voice in his head tries to
convince him that his great uncle was just crazy and that if he follows after Mason,
he will also be crazy. Early on the voice tells Tarwater, "The trouble with you, I
Ibid., p. 34.
Khailova, p. 148.
Kilcourse, p. 236.
see, he concluded, is that you ain't got but just enough sense to believe every
word he told you."232 As a counter to everything needing to be sensible, Mason
says the trouble with Rayber is "He don't know it's anything he can't know . . .
That's his trouble."233
The plot of the novel centers on whether or not Rayber and Tarwater will
give into the idiocy of religion and love or stand against it, protecting themselves
from it with all the machinery of modern reason. Tarwater attempts to flee to his
uncle and learn how to be a modern man and escape his prophetic upbringing at
the hands of Mason. As Ted Spivey explains, Tarwater is an everyman. "Divided
between the tar of death and the water of life, Tarwater seeks at once to throw off
the life power within himself in order to enjoy his own desires and pleasures and
at the same time finds that he cannot free himself of an inherited awareness of the
springs of divine existence."
Ultimately, Tarwater finds Rayber's vision to be
exactly what Mason had told him: Rayber can only think and is unable to do.
Rayber's struggle is similar. Spivey explains, "As a Cartesian and a son of the
eighteenth-century Enlightenment, he is at war within himself- split between his
unrepressable love and his desire to conform his life and other lives to a system of
knowledge that has no explanation or place for love."
This split within himself is forced to the surface in his relationship with
his son. In spite of all the psychological explanation he is able to give for
The Violent, p. 42. One of the voices attempts to convince Tarwater that Mason is crazy on p.
44, telling him "he was crazy! He was crazy! That's the long and short of it, he was crazy!"
Ibid., p. 56.
Ted Spivey. Flannery O 'Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon, GA:
Mercer University Press, 1997. p. 138.
Spivey, p. 138.
Mason's religious idiocy, the narrator notes Rayber "had not conquered the
problem of Bishop. He had only learned to live with it and had learned too that he
could not live without it."
As much as Rayber desires to view Bishop as a
problem to be solved, an x needing an answer, Bishop remains an unsolvable
problem. Rayber cannot escape a "horrifying love" for the child that, if he is not
careful to hold in check, becomes "so outrageous that he would be left shocked
and depressed for days, and trembling for his sanity."237 This love for Bishop is
Rayber's inescapable entry point into a love of and for all creation, a love that
begins with Bishop but infuses the whole world. The novel's narrator explains
this tension within Rayber:
His normal way of looking on Bishop was as an x signifying the general
hideousness of fate. He did not believe that he himself was formed in the
image and likeness of God but that Bishop was he had no doubt. The little
boy was part of a simple equation that required no further solution, except
at the moments when with little or no warning he would feel himself
overwhelmed by the horrifying love. Anything he looked at too long
could bring it on. Bishop did not have to be around. It could be a stick or
a stone, the line of a shadow, the absurd old man's walk of a starling
crossing the sidewalk. If, without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would
feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him - powerful
enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise. It was
completely irrational and abnormal.
We see here again Rayber's understanding that normal things correspond to
rationality and anything irrational is abnormal. The end result of modern
philosophy has so isolated him that he finds the feeling of love abnormal because
it is irrational. Rayber knows that Bishop is made in God's image, and he sees
that this makes both Bishop and God abnormal, unclassifiable and thus useless.
The Violent Bear It Away., p. 112.
Ibid., p. 113.
The quoted paragraph's reference to the imago Dei is placed in
juxtaposition on one side to Rayber's mathematical view of Bishop and on the
other side to Rayber's uncontrollable love for Bishop. Critics have
understandably interpreted the image of God reference in quite different
directions. Bieber-Lake argues that Bishop is "the locus of the sacred" in the
novel and that he "represents the divine mystery." She therefore takes the
statement of Bishop being in the image of God at face value and finds it puzzling
that other critics have viewed Bishop negatively, notably "Baumgaertner's
argument that Bishop is a manifestation of the metaphor of the dead word."238
Bieber-Lake prioritizes the imago Defs juxtaposition to Rayber's love, noting
Bishop as the source of a love that flows from God into all of creation. The
problem with Bieber-Lake's analysis is that it ignores the statement that precedes
the image of God reference, the statement that says Rayber views Bishop as "an x
signifying the general hideousness of fate."
Ralph Wood takes up the opposite interpretation. Since Rayber views
Bishop as signifying the hideousness of fate, Wood understands the image of God
reference as Rayber's sarcastic view of God. "This brain-stunted child proves,
according to Rayber's reasoning, that the universe is an unsponsored and
undirected flux, the product of absurd chance. If there is a God, Rayber
concludes, he is a ham-fisted creator formed in Bishop's imbecilic image."239
Wood's analysis fits well with a good majority of Bishop's philosophy. However,
Biber-Lake, p. 147 and 147n.
Wood, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ Haunted South, p, 195.
it does not do justice, as Bieber-Lake's analysis does, to the imago Dei's
juxtapostion to Rayber's "horrifying love" for Bishop.
With a theology of disability/weakness in mind, both analyses are correct.
Whereas much of O'Connor's early work included only the grotesque-asmetaphor for original sin, in The Violent Bears It Away O'Connor uses the
grotesque to point in both directions at once. As often as not, she seems to say,
the grotesque is the authentic good, and it is our inability to perceive it as good
that signifies how truly we are overcome by original sin. She quite purposefully
sandwhiched the imago Dei reference between the modern "God is dead"
perspective that corresponds to Rayber's "normal way of looking on Bishop as an
x" and the orthodox Christian perspective that humans are made in the image of a
God whose love is "powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot
praise." In doing so, she incorporated both. For the unredeemed, cynical, modern
man that Rayber is, Bishop's developmental disability serves as proof of God's
non-existence, or a developmentally disabled existence, perhaps. Thus Wood's
interpretation of the imago Dei reference as sarcasm is correct. And yet, the love
that results from relationship with Bishop, a love untethered to any modern notion
of purpose or productivity, spreads over even the most anti-religious person.
Thus Bieber-Lake's emphasis on Bishop as the locus of the sacred is also correct.
In the paragraph following the one quoted above, O'Connor explores
further the purposelessness of the unavoidable love Rayber has for Bishop, a
purposelessness that defies Enlightenment thinking.
He was not afraid of love in general. He knew the value of it and how it
could be used. He had seen it transform in cases where nothing else had
worked, such as with his poor sister. None of this had the least bearing on
his situation. The love that would overcome him was of a different order
entirely. It was not the kind that could be used for the child's
improvement or his own. It was love without reason, love for something
futureless, love that appeared to exist only to be itself, imperious and all
demanding, the kind that would cause him to make a fool of himself in an
instant. And it only began with Bishop. It began with Bishop and then
like an avalanche covered everything his reason hated.
There is, perhaps, no fuller expression of the good in O'Connor's work than what
she embodies in Bishop and in Rayber's relationship with him. This love is not
the opposite of reason, but neither is it always congruent with reason, and it is
certainly more powerful than reason. It hounds a person, overwhelming him or
her, and it is only a person's most adamant refusals of this love that are able to
hold it at bay, and that only at the cost of being "shocked and depressed for days,
and trembling for his sanity." To a society based on reason, this love is grotesque,
shocking, even depressing. It is, however, the authentic good. It is the love that
places a savior on the cross.
Bishop's mental disability prohibits the purposeful love Rayber is willing
to accept. Again, this is the same argument Reinders has made in critique first of
modern notions of ability, but also of disability studies' participation in these
notions. Disability studies has too often based its argument for the inclusion of
disabled persons on the idea that these persons are useful for society. While this
is not an illegitimate argument, neither is it a good one. What is useful for society
constantly changes, and in many definitions of social advancement, severe
disabilities are left on the margins to say the least. Society's understanding of
what it means to be a human, a citizen, has difficulty including people like Bishop.
What The Violent Bear It Away instead suggests is a love that has its origin in
God and infuses creation on the grounds of being, not purpose. This love inhabits
all people and even all of creation with its purposeless significance, a significance
Bishop is better able to reveal precisely because of his disability.
The connection O'Connor makes between the idiocy of religion and the
developmentally disabled is profound for a theology of disability. From Rayber's
perspective, both religion and the developmentally disabled are unreasonable and
useless. From O'Connor's perspective, however, reasonability or usefulness
cannot be a definition of being. We were not created to accomplish, but to be and
to be in relationship. Ted Spivey argues that in writing The Violent Bear it Away,
O'Connor was concerned with the isolation created by modern philosophy. He
writes concerning the old prophet Mason,
The humor of his life is revealed in the occasional absurdity of this
attempting to lie out beliefs that nearly everyone in the modern world
regards as largely meaningless. Yet the novel makes it quite clear that
through the mystery of his belief and his receiving of grace, Mason
Tarwater in fact escapes the condition of the haunted mind which goes
mad because of isolation and obsession. Tarwater is able to love, and
through love his life, absurd though it sometimes is, becomes fruitful for
others. His 'violent' and forceful seizure of the Kingdom of God makes
possible fructification in the lives of others.240
Love in action, O'Connor is saying, always trumps the actless good intentions that
fill Rayber and modernity.
Khailova points out that O'Connor's writing about the developmentally
disabled serves a similar purpose. She argues that O'Connor portrays disability in
her fiction from a pre-modern viewpoint that refuses the medical perspective of
disability as a problem to be fixed.
Spivey. p. 131.
In such a revival of pre-scientific modes of viewing disability, the mental
states of Bishop Rayber (The Violent Bear It Away) and Lucynell Crater
("The Life You Save May Be Your Own") are presented as a consequence
of human corruption, but also mainly as its conceptual opposite: a
protection from the disbelief and superfluous self-assertion of a typical
modern secularist.
Mason thus regularly references Bishop's idiocy as his protection from disbelief.
According to Mason, God preserved Bishop from Rayber's modern reason "in the
only possible way: the child was dim-witted."241 Bishop is saved from the
Enlightenment's over-emphasis on reason by not having reason. Khailova
continues, "In their self-effacement, they perform the function of God's corrective
agents sent to reform all the proud excessive individualists."242 That is, they
demand community and engender a horrifying love, horrifying because of its
mysterious origin unaffiliated with anything reasonable. Bishop, then, is not only
protected from Rayber's modernity, as Mason suggests, he is also the key for
Rayber to escape modernity's empty promises. He is the call for relationship.
The Violent Bear It Away, p, 9
Khailova, p. 143.
Flannery O'Connor Reconsidered
The "mud in man" is nothing to be ashamed of. It can produce ... the face of
God.... To recall this, to recall this incredible relation between mud and God, is, in
its own distant, adumbrating way, the function of comedy. - William Lynch243
At the Crossroads of Theology and Disability Studies
We have found in O'Connor's fiction a critique of modernity that is
similar to that found in disability studies but goes beyond disability studies in
critiquing the very foundations of modernity, a philosophy disability studies finds
itself unable to fully escape. The way of escape, O'Connor's work suggests, is
through the "idiocy," disability, and suffering that is Christianity. The disabling
of God that is the incarnation of Christ is a "suffering with" that mysteriously
makes humans whole. This wholeness is not based on ability or normality and it
defies all attempts to make humans whole by any other means. The perfectability
of humanity cannot be attained through scientific enabling, but comes only on the
Via Dolorosa: the way of suffering. This conclusion will begin to unpack how
this theological perspective relates to disability studies.
In as much as disability studies challenges standard perceptions of what it
means to be normal and challenges the normate's primacy in social currency, it
has been extremely helpful in identifying the problem of prejudice against the
disabled. It shouts at our society from the margins, condemning our ignoring of
persons with disability, an ignoring most severely realized in the prenatal testing
William Lynch. Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination., New York:
Sheed and Ward, 1960. p. 109.
for and abortion of fetuses with possible disabilities such as Down Syndrome.244
Not only does this disallow the existence of persons with Down Syndrome, it
sends the message to persons with Down Syndrome and other disabilities that
they are unwanted and the world would have been better off if they had not been
born. It also tells those who spend their lives in relationship with people that have
Down Syndrome that their lives have been wasted. As we can see in this example,
the arguments of disability rights are extremely important, even primary, for if
persons with Down Syndrome are not allowed to exist, there can be no striving
for friendship with them. However, we must not be satisfied with rights for the
disabled. Disallowing the right to exist it is only marginally better than providing
that right and then shoving the disabled into isolation at the margins of society.
My first chapter showed how when the definition of disability is extracted
from the medical model and placed within a social model, disability loses its
negativity and is opened to the possibility of positive interpretations. A theology
of disability/weakness goes a step further to assert that when the definition of
weakness and limitation is extracted from the modern worldview, it can also lose
its negative connotations and acquires positive possibilities. A combination of the
perspective disability studies provides along with the even more thorough
deconstruction of modern ideals that O'Connor provides makes space for the
acceptance of a general weakness, common to all and necessary for revelation.
"Society believes that it is a grave burden to raise a child with Down syndrome and that it is
both medically appropriate and morally correct to take measures to ensure the child is not born." Sept 22, 2008. Accessed on November 2, 2009.
Chapter two showed how disability studies' critique has unveiled modern
society's definition of "normal" in terms of a lack of limits. Disability's
embodiment of limitation must therefore either bow to this definition and find
itself lacking, as the medical model has insisted for a long time, or challenge it, as
the disability movement has done in the last few decades. Disability studies'
challenge has far-reaching implications - from the politics of providing access to
public buildings to the cultural aesthetics of the human body. The 1990
Americans with Disabilities Act is a landmark result for the political challenge,
and the disability movement's continued efforts to raise awareness since the ADA
have been just as significant. These victories have altered the way people and
businesses think about the disabled, from providing rights to jobs to supplying
preferred parking. Unfortunately, however, our cultural imagination concerning
the disabled remains stifled. Our visions of beauty, perfection, efficiency and
success continue to trade in the currency of limitlessness.
The dance troupe GIMP brings this aesthetic challenge of disability to
center stage. In their productions, disabled dancers are paired with able-bodied
dancers, not so the able-bodied can assist the disabled, but so the unique beauty
and talents of each can be explored. The director of the GIMP project, Heidi
Latsky, explains,
People go to dance events to see what they cannot do themselves. Dancers
are often seen as limitless. Disabled persons are often seen as basically
unable. Bringing these two groups together in GIMP questions normal
ideas of dance, performance, and body image. GIMP's special mix of arms
and legs offers an uncommon beauty. It examines the ways we are often
identified or defined by our bodies.245
Director's notes from the GIMP Project's website: - TheGIMP Project.html. Accessed 10/27/09.
GIMP makes the bold assertion that beauty is not defined by proximity to an ideal,
but can be uncommon and abnormal. It also questions the emphasis our culture
puts on a certain type of body it considers "normal," judging people according to
what the eye perceives. This, in short, is the work of disability studies. It
searches the humanities to unearth and critique the ways our cultural imagination
has defined us by our bodies' likeness to a constructed ideal perfection, and it
reveals and promotes uncommon beauty wherever it is found. The goal is to
change social/relational perceptions of persons with disabilities.
Another example from GIMP is helpful:
GIMP is about beauty, not the photo-shopped, airbrushed kind, but a
harsher more unexpected one that comes from the ultimate sexiness of
risk-taking and utter commitment. . . . In GIMP, both audience and
performers are aware of being watched. That provocative exchange in
which our gaze is being reflected both ways leads to a shift, a questioning,
and a deep sense that the frame/lens through which we view the world has
somewhat changed.246
Acquiring access for disabled persons is important, but this changed frame/lens is
equally significant, because it has the ability to transform bigotry into
appreciation and thereby transform lives destroyed by bigotry into lives
appreciated as friends. The medical (and modern) lens measures disability in its
distance from "normal" ability, seeking to remove obstacles to normality.
Disability studies' changed lens allows disabled persons not only a space to be
(political reality) but the possibility of being known (social reality). The new lens
allows persons with disability to be beautiful, not in relation to an abstract and
ideal normal, but ontologically beautiful. It also allows disabled persons to be
Director's notes from the GIMP Project's website: GIMP Proiect.html. Accessed 10/27/09.
known as unable, not in relation to an abstract "normal" ability, but in relation to
self and in relation to the fact of universal limitation. The significance of
disability studies lies in its capacity to probe and critique our assumptions about
what is normal and to purposefully include within our cultural makeup the
insights, creativity and strengths disabled persons contribute.
However, as O'Connor has shown, even with her pre-disability language,
this disability studies perspective is too narrowly focused. The disability
perspective so challenges our cultural ideals of beauty and sufficiency that it
begins to crack our very understandings of what it means to be human This
brings us to a crossroads for disability studies and theology, where each can learn
from the other. Where a disability perspective has been applied to theology, it has
consistently yielded profound insights. One must, however, be careful in using
disability this way, for as Thomas Reynolds notes, "Employing disability for mere
theological gain is to be vigilantly guarded against."247 This is particularly true
when an author is lacking, as I am, the profound significance of speaking from
personal disability. There is within the task of applying disability studies to
theology the very real dangers of holding up persons with disabilities as mere
examples of, or metaphors for, the fruit of the spirit called "long suffering," or
suggesting that the church needs to be open to disabled persons so as to fulfill its
call to care for "the least of these," or worse placing disabled persons on a
pedestal as God's children who can teach us a secret wisdom.
These dangers are carefully avoided by some recent books written at this
crossroads. I discussed in the first chapter the way that due to the perspective of
Reynolds, p. 40.
disability Reynolds emphasizes relationship in Vulnerable Communion and
Creamer emphasizes limitation in Theology and Disability Studies. A disability
perspective likewise changed Eisland's very perspective of God, as she writes in
The Disabled God, particularly in relation to the risen Christ as forever
stigmatized. A disability perspective is crucial as well to Weiss-Block's
understanding of hospitality in Copious Hosting. The amount and range of affect
seems nearly endless at this embryonic stage of theology and disability studies'
cross-fertilization. Taking a disability perspective as a starting point Amos
Yong's Theology and Down Syndrome re-imagines an entire systematic theology
from a disability perspective. His task is so rich he is able to start with the
traditional beginning point of who God is and follows his way through every
major area of theology to the traditional ending point of eschatology, all along the
way critiquing and strengthening theology by perceiving it from a place of
The fact that disability studies affects theology in a myriad of ways is also
true of the inverse, ways in which theology can affect disability studies. For
many of these same authors, their theology helped them move beyond the
disability rights' focus on changing the perception of disabled people from
disabled to normal and instead changing the perception of normal to that of being
disabled. In other words, the more the field of theology and disability studies
develops, the more scholars begin to not only question and try to correct the way
society perceives persons with disability, but they begin to see all of society
within the perspective of disability. Rather than getting disability out of the box
of abnormality, they aim to get all of society into it. All humans live with
limitation as essential to being. As this realization emerges, a whole host of
submerged biblical and historical support rushes to the foreground with the
potential to both invigorate the field of theology and to support and further open
the field of disability studies.
Once developed, this theological framework will provide a space for
disability studies to move beyond its current borders. The academe has to this
point focused almost exclusively on society's perceptions of the disabled. The
primary place it has looked beyond this agenda has involved a critique of the
social construct of the normal in order for "normal" to include more variation.
This slightly broadens the cultural perspective, but as we saw with Reynolds in
chapter one, even this critique is quite narrow, mostly dependent on the
reasonability of the minds of those with physical disabilities to process
information as efficiently as the minds of the able-bodied. Thus the real challenge
to change the understanding of "normal" is minimized by switching the focus
from physical to mental attributes, which ultimately leaves the boundaries of
modern ideals of limitless normality in tact. On the other hand, theologians have
discovered a rich heritage within the Christian tradition that sometimes predates,
sometimes postdates and sometimes simply stands in judgment of Enlightenment
ways of thinking that prioritize reason and the pursuit of limitlessness in all forms
as the primary purpose of humanity. In doing so, a theology of disability calls for
a new anthropology.
To that end, I would like to briefly note how Amos Yong reimagines the
doctrines of creation, theodicy and imago Dei from the perspective of disability,
simultaneously expanding both theology and disability studies. First, Yong's
doctrine of creation notes an emphasis on variation and difference. As a disability
perspective seeks to appreciate human variation, so the immense variation of
creation is recognized as essential to God's purposes. God did not create one
ideal animal and one ideal plant.
Rather, the beauty of creation comes alive
precisely in its immense variation. Yong writes, "a theology of the body that
emphasizes plurality and difference would see the Holy Spirit (the ruach of God)
not as the power to rescue and repair according to some presupposed 'original
state' or ideal form, but as the energy for 'unleashing multiple forms of corporeal
flourishing.'"249 Barbara Patterson argues along similar lines in her essay
"Redeemed Bodies: Fullness of Life." She writes, "Particularly and inclusively,
we participate in the re-imagining of all creation through our bodies' ambiguities,
differences, limits, and joys."
Here disability studies and theology work in
unison to strengthen each other. The embodiment of difference that disability
necessitates encourages an anthropology of variation while the theological
statement that seeing God's image requires many lenses incorporates embodied
differences into the image of God.
Secondly, Yong points out that there is no strong explanation of theodicy
in scripture and certainly no linkage of disability with sin. What is clear from the
Just as we do not have one ideal gospel record of Christ.
Yong, 181-82.
Human Disability and the Service of God. Nancy Eisland and Don Saliers, eds. Nashville:
Abingdon, 1998. p. 140.
creation story, however, is that sin manifests itself as violence against self,
neighbor and nature. "This means we are less concerned with explaining how the
primeval sin of ha adam resulted in disabilities than we are in explaining how
disabilities are social manifestations of or occasions for human acts of violence
and injustice (of discrimination, exclusion, and oppression)."251 Dawn DeVries
makes the same argument in a chapter entitled "Creation, Handicappism, and the
Community of Differing Abilities." She questions doctrines of creation that
assume a perfect original state, arguing perfection can only be found in the future,
not the distant past. "The pressing moral issue is not to locate the blame for sin
but to participate in God's act of taming chaos, destroying evil, and reconciling
the world to Godself. The new order that comes into existence through
reconciliation is a community of interdependent persons, all of whom are
differently abled." 52 Along these lines, the truth of original sin is we are all
caught up in and perpetuate this violence. This perspective on creation buttresses
a disability perspective that denies the link between disability and sin and locates
the evil that is disability within social systems rather than individuals' bodies.
The resulting anthropology no longer centers around a supposedly "perfect," prefall human, toward which we are all striving to return, but instead centers on the
relationality of the human with God and with other humans.
Finally, Yong works out this relational insight in his understanding of the
imago Dei, critiquing traditional views of what it means to bear God's image.
Yong, p. 165.
Dawn DeVries. "Creation, Handicappism, and the Community of Differing Abilities."
Reconstructing Christian Theology. Rebecca Chopp and Mark L. Taylor, eds. Minneapolis:
Augsburg, 1994. p. 139-40.
The traditional substantive view purports that we bear God's likeness in some
aspect of being that we possess. That is, humans differ from animals because we
are able to reason or create. Yong notes, however, as Reynolds also does on this
point, that this definition of being human perceives persons with profound
developmental disabilities whose ability to reason is compromised as lesser
humans or not humans at all.
Likewise, the functional view of the imago Dei,
claiming we are like God in practicing dominion over creation, excludes those
with compromised agency. If we are to take disabled people in all forms as fully
human, these cannot be the primary meanings of being made in the image of God.
A critique of substantive and functional definitions of imago Dei, though, is not
only significant for persons with profound developmental disabilities. To take
reason or agency as the foundation of what it means to be human or made in the
image of God is to create a sliding scale in which those with greater powers of
reason are more human or more like God than are others, a scale that certainly
affects us all.
Yong instead promotes a relational view of the imago Dei, which
understands our likeness to God in our ability to have relationship with others,
just as the Trinity is relational within itself. Being like God in our dependence
upon relationship is a concept a disabled perspective can fully embrace and, in
many cases, can lead the way in helping our overly self-sufficient culture learn
what it means to be dependent. Prioritizing relationship as the essence of what it
means to be human is an example of where a theology of disability can be a great
This theological understanding can find itself easily comfortable with prenatal testing for down
syndrome, considering down syndrome babies less than human and not worth bringing into the
resource for disability studies, critiquing disability studies' own tendency to
succumb to modern definitions of humanity that are based in Enlightenment
rationality and hyper-individualism, and encouraging the strength of relationship
and community that has proven so significant and effective for persons with
disabilities and those close to them.
A Theology of Disability
In examining Reynolds' book Vulnerable Communion in the first chapter
of this dissertation, I noted how disability can force a person to be vulnerable in a
way that is counter to our cultural mandates toward autonomy and self-sufficiency,
and I hinted at Reynold's argument that this vulnerability is a positive key to
relational wholeness. Reynold's argument is an example of how when the
definition of disability is extracted from the medical model's purposed goal of
self-sufficiency, it is redefined, losing its negative connotations and acquiring
positive possibilities. Likewise, when the definition of weakness is extracted
from the modern model, it loses its negative connotations and acquires positive
Reynold's critique of self-sufficiency and embrace of limitation leads
quite easily into the theological potential of a disability studies perspective. I do
not mean potential in the sense of an untested theory; rather, the potential is the
possibility of restructuring societal and theological norms. The Church has
participated in the larger society's tendency to consider persons with disabilities
as persons with tragedies of limitation that need to be fixed before such persons
have full communal currency. One could argue that the medical model has
received its most complete Utopian visioning in the hands of theologians and
pastors who have wedded this socially constructed perspective with scriptural
promises of eschatological perfection and too often of a similar perfection here
and now, as is the case with the health and wealth gospel and its many derivatives.
The resulting view of most church goers is a belief that those with disabilities are
un-whole individuals.
Helen Betenbaugh writes about how this perspective affected her own
disabled journey to becoming a priest. Note that acceptance is central to her view
and has healing properties.
I sometimes ponder the incredible fact that I stayed in the church, that I
struggled and struggled against its "truths" as I did. Segregated by lack of
access, we are told by architecture and environment that we are unwanted,
inferior. We are told that we have an obligation to be cured by the prayers
of the church rather than healed by people's acceptance of us as we are.
Ableism is a pathology, just like ageism, just like racism. We demonize
those bodily states that we fear.254
Having taken on the socially constructed ideals of perfection, Christianity has
long understood healing and cure as a doing away with limitation or disease.
Christianity's view of disability, at least the lay perspective, has therefore
coincided with the medical model's mandate to exterminate suffering.
Betenbaugh's long struggle to follow her calling into the priesthood was
not hindered by her own disability as much as by the social factors, architecture
and attitudes, that told her she was unwanted and inferior. These social
determinates came to her most forcefully in letters of rejection from the bishops to
Betenbaugh, Helen. "Disability: A Lived Theology." Theology Today 57.2 (2000): 208. For
another perspective, see Samuel Kabue's "Disability and the Healing Mission of the Church"
where he examines the nature in which many of the healing narratives in the gospels, include and
even prioritize, the acceptance of the individual back into the community. International Review of
Missions. 95.576-577 (2006): 112-116.
whom she applied to the priesthood, letters in which she and her wheelchair were
labeled "unemployable."255 Just as disability studies has to challenge the medical
definition of normalcy, the first step for a theology of disability is to challenge the
theological assumptions based on many of the same social ideals. This can be no
simple task. As Nancy Eisland puts it in The Disabled God, "Justice for people
with disabilities requires that the theological and ritual foundations of the church
be shaken."256
Anyone living in the United States today breathes in this ideal of a
"perfect, self-sufficient body," whether or not that person is able-bodied. Disable
persons thus often internalize the cult of normalcy and use it to measure self
worth. Betenbaugh writes about when she first felt called to be a priest, "[I]t
seemed perverse to me. The priest is an icon of Christ—of wholeness, of all that
is good and right and 'perfect.' Certainly there was no place for such visible
brokenness, such visible 'failure' as mine, in the priesthood of the church." As she
painfully struggled with the dissonance between her body and the "perfect" body
ideal of Christ, she slowly came to realize a new perspective. "I came to see that
the symbol I would present would be that of an Easter life, an Easter faith, being
lived in a Good Friday body. To me, then and now, that is a positive sign, an
authentic sign, a holy sign. I am bold enough to say that it more clearly reflects
the truth of most people's lives than a 'perfect' body does."257 Betenbaugh is right
to suggest we all live closer to a Good Friday body than a 'perfect body,' and she
is also right to note that this is a bold statement. Her acceptance of her disability
Betenbaugh, p. 209.
Eisland, p. 111.
Betenbaugh, p. 208.
flatly contradicts our nation's mythologies and ideals that center on self-sufficient
autonomy. Her self-identification with a Good Friday body names ableism as the
actual disability, a pathology like ageism or racism.
I suggest this realization of our Good Friday bodies is one of the most
significant insights disability offers theology. I am not, however, saying persons
with disabilities are physical examples to us that help the able-bodied remember
we are all broken on the inside. Rather, I am suggesting that persons with
disabilities live with an embodied vulnerability that is essential to being human.
In his book Vulnerable Communion, Thomas Reynolds writes, "This is not a
moral lesson that people with disabilities teach non-disabled persons; it is rather
an opening to the humanity of disabled and non-disabled persons alike."258 When
disability gets used as a mere theological example, disability and vulnerability
become a means to a "strong" end. What I want to suggest is something quite
different - vulnerability as the goal. As Reynolds succinctly and beautifully puts
it, "Vulnerability and dependence is normal."
Theology needs disability in a similar way to how the church needs fasting.
As fasting is an embodied reminder that we are more dependent upon God than
even food, disability is an embodied reminder of our vulnerability in and
dependence upon community. And as anyone that has practiced the discipline of
fasting knows, fasting goes beyond a mere reminder. It is a living into the true
reality of our condition as dependent human beings.
The Image of Christ
Reynolds, p. 107.
Reynolds, p. 129.
"If Christ is the true image of God, then radical questions have to be asked about
the nature of the God who is imaged. At the heart of Christian theology is a
critique of success, power and perfection, and an honouring of weakness,
brokenness and vulnerability."260
Applying a disability perspective to theology changes our very perceptions
of God. Stanley Hauerwas writes, "God's face is the face of the retarded; God's
body is the body of the retarded; God's being is that of the retarded. For the God
we Christians must learn to worship is not a God of self-sufficient power, a God
who in self-possession needs no one; rather ours is a God who needs a people,
who needs a Son. The Absoluteness of being or power is not a work of the God
we have come to know through the cross."261 The problem is theology has made
God out of the clay of our personal and national ideals. Burton Cooper suggests
we tend to think of God's attributes as unlimited extensions of our best attributes.
We imagine God's power is like ours, except without limitation. "Thus, human
'ableness' provides us with the image to think about God's power." Viewing God
as disabled can help break this tendency. A disabled "image of God jars us out of
our tendency to conceive God as 'unlimitedly' able. It reminds us to think of
God's power christologi-cally—God's being with us, suffering with us, broken for
Christ-as-disabled, and thus God-as-disabled, is the starting point for any
theology of disability, for dependency and vulnerability cannot be better
understood anywhere than in the image of Christ. Scripture is clear that God is
more powerful than human beings, yet it is not through our understandings of
"A Church of All and For All." p. 512.
Stanley Hauerwas. Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally
Handicapped, and the Church. Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1986. p. 178.
Burton Cooper. "The Disabled God." Theology Today 49.2, 1992. p. 180.
power that the Word becomes flesh. Rather, it is the power of limitation, humility,
vulnerability - a baby is born, fragile and dependent. Likewise, at the end of
Christ's mission, the plan for salvation is not one that participates in the
principalities and powers of this age, whether political or social. Cooper writes,
"Jesus on the cross is God disabled, made weak and vulnerable to worldly powers
because of the perfection of divine love. He goes on to write that this image of
the disabled God, "reminds us that, from a christological perspective, God's
perfection, God's goodness, God's identity are so far from transcending the
suffering of the world that they participate deeply and unavoidably in that very
Quite counter to cultural understandings of perfection, divine perfection is
revealed in the unlimited vulnerability of the incarnation and the cross. The
perfection Jesus commands in the beatitudes (Mt. 5:48), to be perfect as your
heavenly Father is perfect, is a perfection born of this vulnerability and
dependency, not of self-sufficient legalism or absolute power. Even after
resurrection, Christ's body is not conformed to what we would recognize as
"perfect." He instead appears before the disciples in a disabled body, and his
disability actually functions as the confirmation of his Messianic identity as he
invites Thomas to put his hand IN his side (Jn 20:27). This is no mere scar for the
sake of remembering. It is a body forever impaled by the corruptible materials of
nails and a spear. This is not just suffering for the sake of future "perfection." It
is instead a vision of the true reality that incorporates what we have deemed
despicable and inferior into our only means of salvation.
Cooper, p. 176.
This image of the disabled Christ and God helps us realize one of the
greatest theological potentials of a disability perspective -the significance of
relating. Eisland writes, "To posit a Jesus Christ who needs care and mutuality as
essential to human-divine survival does not symbolize either humanity or divinity
as powerless. Instead it debunks the myth of individualism and hierarchical
orders, in which transcendence means breaking free of encumberances and
needing nobody and [instead] constitutes the divine as somebody in relation to
other bodies."264 God was broken for the sake of relationship with broken
humanity. Brokenness, however, is not a matter of power or the lack thereof.
Also, power cannot be in anyway equated with perfection, as human culture
consistently asserts. In God's redemption, the very opposites are true. Christ's
perfection comes through his obedience and submission, submission that included
the complete brokenness of the cross.
Reynolds writes that disability serves theology as "a profound symbol of
human brokenness." When we push away those we consider abnormal and
deficient "we shun what is perhaps most human about us - the need to belong and
to be recognized as of value. We all at the core are vulnerable and receive our
existence from one another . . . Learning to embrace ourselves and others as we
are, in our specific weaknesses, releases us from narcissistic self-enclosure and
empowers us to risk the openness of genuine relationship."265 These genuine
Eisland, p. 103. Just before this quote, she notes, "The disabled God is God for whom
interdependence is not a possibility to be willed from a position of power, but a necessary
condition for life."
Reynolds, p. 117-118.
relationships make us whole persons, a wholeness achieved not despite
vulnerability and disability but through them. As communion with God is
dependent upon the broken body of Christ, so communion with one another is
dependent upon realization of and participation in our universal human
brokenness. O'Connor's characters who most fervently deny this brokenness,
such as Asbury, Rayber, Hulga/Joy and Sheppard, are the characters whose
relationships are least whole and healthy.
As a case study, let us consider a group of communities around the world
that has done more than theorize about these truths, they have been living them
for decades. The first L'Arche community began in 1964, in France, when Jean
Vanier decided to share his life with three developmentally disabled. There are
now over 135 L'Arche communities in 36 countries. In these homes, people with
and without intellectual disabilities live together in community with the purpose
of realizing the unique gifts of each individual. John Swinton managed a research
project in the UK that explored the spiritual lives of persons with developmental
disabilities and their caregivers. One of the primary groups the project studied
was L'Arche communities. He reflected on the project in an article entitled "The
Body of Christ has Down Syndrome."
The first thing Swinton notes is that as the research team spent time with
carers and support workers, they were struck by "the way in which people's lives
and worldviews have been radically transformed through their encounters with
people who have profound developmental disabilities. [Their] lives are changed,
their priorities are reshaped and their vision of God and humanness are altered at
their very core." Following Frances Young, he names this "a process of
trans-valuation within which personal encounter with people with profound
developmental disabilities initiates a movement towards a radically new system of
That new system of valuing prioritizes learning to love and to be loved,
and it embraces vulnerability as the locus of a life that realizes, or makes real,
relationships of love. In contrast to the medical model that seeks to fix the
"problems" of developmental disabilities or to manage the problems found
unfixable or to provide the prenatal testing that would make these "problems"
disappear all together, this transvaluation results in a deep valuing of those with
developmental disabilities. In contrast as well to a liberatory theology whose goal
is to fix the situation of the poor, Swinton argues,
God is with the poor, not in triumphalistic revolution, but in the weakness
and vulnerability that is experienced in the everyday tasks of living
together in community . . . [T]he experiences of people with profound
developmental disabilities remind us of dimensions of God which have
been hidden by our culture's preference for such things as power, strength
and intellectual prowess.267
Cultural ideals and theologies that focus on the triumph of individuals
have created a fear of limitation and suffering. Those with visible deficiencies
have become stigmatized by culture as deviants, because they embody our fears
of failure and death. However, "The communal life of L'Arche and its daily
John Swinton, originally published in The Journal of Pastoral Theology (2004), p. 67. The
paper can also be found online at He uses Frances
Young's term transvaluation from an unpublished paper presented at a conference for theologians
held at 'La Ferme' in the community of L'Arche in Trosly-Breuil, France in December of 2002.
Swinton, p. 71.
encounters with the weak, the poor and the voiceless, and its ability to see God in
the midst of these encounters, moves us away from idolization and the flight from
suffering, and forces us to consider the possibility that the nature, character and
actions of God may be radically different from our socially constructed norms."268
Rather than liberation being an extraction from circumstances that are painful and
broken, at L'Arche, "liberation comes when people begin to let go of their
individuality and to recognize the strength that comes from gentleness, mutuality,
weakness and brokenness. In this way, those who accompany people in L'Arche
find themselves, who they are, what they are, why they are, in the mutuality of
life with others."269 The assistants "begin to reconstruct who they are as personsin-relation both with God and with other human beings."270
At L'Arche, we find a lived experience of a theology of disability that
takes seriously the limitations of the incarnation and the disabilities of the cross.
We find a community that embodies the mystery Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians
that "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the
weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this
world and the despised things" (1 Cor. 1:27-28). In fact, God chose the cross,
which Paul names in a single verse as "foolishness" to this world and yet "the
power of God" (1 Cor. 1:20). At L'Arche we find that the things our societal
standards have labeled as weak, foolish and disposable actually hold within them
the true power of living and loving. Those who are willing to be vulnerable, to be
Swinton, p. 72.
Swinton, p. 73.
Swinton, p. 75.
needed as well as to need, experience the freedom of non-autonomy and
A Hint Toward a Constructive Theology
I would like to hint at one way the relationality we find normative in a
disability perspective has the potential to re-construct other aspects of theology as
well. Particularly in evangelical circles, where I have spent my life, salvation has
been understood in vertical terms between the individual and God and has often
been reduced to the proclaiming of a formulaic prayer of confession, repentance
and acceptance. In this rational and autonomy-based view of salvation, the
eternal destiny of persons with profound developmental disabilities is categorized
under innocence, along with infants and perhaps animals. The societal view of
disabled people as un-whole is perpetuated, and they are not welcomed into the
body of Christ as participating members with spiritual gifts to offer. A disability
perspective that prioritizes relationality, however, suggests that persons with
mental disabilities can be saved through relationship with their caregivers. Also,
just as significantly, care givers can be saved through their relationships with
those who have mental disabilities. In this horizontal understanding of salvation,
those whom societal norms have so often rejected from participation in religious
activities are drawn into the salvific work of the body of Christ. Their spiritual
gifts are employed and appreciated. This vision of salvation, which is dependent
upon the vulnerability required for true relationship, is much closer to the biblical
witness of salvation coming through Christ's vulnerability than is the generally
accepted views of salvation that rely upon autonomous rationality.
The World Council of Church's 2003 statement on disability argues
similarly to some of the arguments I have been making, but with a different
emphasis. They interpret the imago Dei through soteriology instead of
anthropology, arguing that it is only in Christ that we glimpse the true meaning of
being made in God's image. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 12, in Christ we are
all one body and the lesser parts are just as important and the parts that are
shameful are particularly honored. They too, however, center their argument on
the relationality that comes through the Body of Christ. They write,
We would therefore argue that: (1) Christian theology needs to interpret
the imago Dei from a Christological and soteriological (the saving work of
Christ for the world) standpoint, which takes us beyond the usual
creationist and anthropological perspectives. (2) Christian theology needs
to embrace a non-elitist, inclusive understanding of the body of Christ as
the paradigm for understanding the imago Dei. (3) Without the full
incorporation of persons who can contribute from the experience of
disability, the church falls short of the glory of God, and cannot claim to
be in the image of God.
Without the insight of those who have experience of disability, some of
the most profound and distinctive elements of Christian theology are
easily corrupted or lost.271
If the perfection of God's love is in vulnerable communion with humanity
that takes into God's self limitation in the incarnation and disability in the cross,
this has enormous implications for how we view who we are. Relationships,
rather than autonomy, become the goal. In place of using autonomy as the base
definition of selfhood, a more authentic definition is provided by Jennie Weiss
Block, "the extent to which we are known and loved by others and the extent to
which we are able to love, is the extent to which we exist."
The need for love
"A Church of All and For All." p. 512.
Jennie Weiss Block, Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities.
London: Continuum, 2002. p. 260.
and the possibility for love arises from places of limitation and vulnerability. This
is Christ's body broken for us. .
I have in this conclusion moved away from my primary thesis and placed
a disability perspective into direct dialogue with theology in order to hint at
possibilities for a constructive theology of disability. My purpose in doing so has
not been to disregard my focus on O'Connor. Rather, I have attempted to
demonstrate the far-reaching potential of a disability perspective, apotential I
believe lies within the bounds of O'Connor's own critique of modernity and
embrace of suffering. Beginning with the first chapter, The Face of Mary Ann, I
demonstrated the shape and look of a disability perspective, its contrast to the
medical model and thus its inherent, though often unstated, rebellion against
certain aspects of modernity, particularly modernity's enslavement to the ideal of
the "normal." In the second chapter, The Face of Mary Flannery, I noted how
many of O'Connor's purposes run parallel to that of disability studies and how
she employed some of the concepts that disability studies later developed,
including a concern about prenatal testing and abortion of disabled fetuses.
O'Connor even used some of the language disability studies would later employ.
Particularly significant to her thought was an emphasis on "limitation," both as a
consequence of the Fall and as a physical site for God's ongoing activity in the
world. Her criticism of the nihilism Enlightenment thinking had created centered
on the cultural denial of, and attempt to surpass, its limits. She perceived that a
rejection of limits and consequent overvaluing of self sufficiency went hand in
hand with marginalizing God. A culture that needs no assistance needs no help
from outside itself. It therefore does not need a savior, does not need a cross, and
consequently has no use for little girls like Mary Ann or "idiots" like Bishop or
even people like Flannery, since these disabled persons embody a denial of the
ideal form modernity proclaims is normal. The majority of O'Connor's work,
then, attempts to expose our common sin that is unconquerable by human effort.
In chapter three, The Face of Mary Grace, I showed how O'Connor
employed a disability perspective in her fiction. While using the grotesque to
critique the hideousness of modernity, as when Sheppard's idealism mirrors
Rufus' "hideous" clubbed foot, she more and more came to realize, and make real
in her fiction, the paradox of the authentic good's dwelling in the socially
grotesque. Mostly leaving depictions of the resurrection for others to express,
O'Connor mastered the art of art-as-incarnation, depicting God's revelation
created of dust and susceptible to its nails and spears. In a culture that mistakes
dependence, the unreasonable, and suffering as the greatest evils, O'Connor
suggests the proper response to the crosses we all bear is acceptance, for it is in
these limitations that Christ is born, dies and is raised again.
The final chapter, The Face of Mary, Christ's Mother, looked beyond the
vision of the disabled that disability studies provides and considered the
significance of a disability perspective for theological inquiry. Pertaining to
O'Connor's fiction, I have noted how acceptance of limitation opens O'Connor's
readers to the mystery of being where salvation is antithetical to modern ideals of
the perfectability of humanity and instead draws us into dependence upon God
and others. The unpurposed love Bishop embodies is in line with a disability
perspective but moves well beyond the current limits of disability studies to assert
a theological claim about what it means to be human. Because of his disability
the reader is able to discern the priority relational love has over any purposeful
accomplishments. If we are to take Bishop's humanity seriously, as disability
studies has encouraged us to do, the imago Dei is then better understood in terms
of relationality than in terms of responsibility or even creativity.
The sacrament of baptism, in which all human constructions of the good
are drowned before resurrected life is made possible, served as an encapsulation
of O'Connor's critique of modernity, and more generally human nature's original
sin. The deaths of the innocent child Harry Ashfield and the developmentally
disabled Bishop in these baptisms creates the greatest distance possible between
purposing the avoidance of suffering toward which modernity aspires, particularly
for the innocent, and the mystery of God's activity in the world in the midst of
seemingly grotesque and unnecessary suffering and even death.
These theological suggestions run parallel to and can be birthed out of a
disability perspective, and I propose were birthed out of O'Connor's own
disability, display enormous potential for a constructive theology, redefining
many theologies that were formed in the womb of modernity. Though this
theology goes beyond the concerns of disability studies, it by no means leaves
disability behind. More than aiming to rid the church and society of
discrimination against the disabled, such a theology would require actual
friendship, theologically, socially and personally with all forms of disability, as a
realization of the relational definition of the imago Dei. Such a theology can
work to create structures of church and society that not only make space for the
disabled or appreciate them from a distance, as sentimental modern theologies
have done, but also that invites the disabled to join in the ministry of the church
and, more importantly, allows the church to join in the ministries of disabled
persons. And this is the challenge O'Connor has for her readers. Can we stare at
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Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Disability in
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Watkins, Steven. "Teilhard De Chardin's View of Diminishment and the Late
Stories of Flannery O'Connor." Dissertation. The University of Texas at
Arlington, 2005.
Webber, Jay. "Better Off Dead?" First Things. May 2002. p. 10-12. Also
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Timothy J. Basselin
Tim was born to Jay and Mary Basselin and raised in Birmingham,
AL. In 1998, he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at Evangel
College in Springfield, MO with majors in English and Bible. In June
2002, he received a Master of Arts degree in Theology from Fuller
Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. Tim currently lives in
Homewood, IL with his wife Robin and three young children - Risa,
Karis and Quinn.
In a letter late in her life, Flannery O'Connor wrote that any serious critic of her
work would have to read everything she had written, "even and particularly
the Mary Ann piece." In this "Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann " she
describes how a disabled child she never met caused her to gain a "new
perspective" on her vocation of writing about the grotesque. From a disability
studies perspective, this is quite intriguing and quite problematic. The association
of a disabled person with the "grotesque" raises great difficulties, such as the
issue of representations of disability in literature, which have consistently
employed disability as a metaphor for lack. The statement is also intriguing,
however, in how disability helped her and may help us understand the power and
meaning behind one of America's greatest short story writers.
In fact, O'Connor herself experienced the disabling affects of lupus throughout
her writing career, and too little research has been done on how her disability
affected her worldview and writing. Using disability studies to help understand
O'Connor's unique perspective, this dissertation inquires into how she understood
the grotesque, and disability, as embodiments of and metaphors for the original
sin all humanity bears and yet also as the authentic good with which God attempts
to redeem all humanity. The dissertation begins with a short introduction to
disability studies, followed by a consideration of the similarities between
O'Connor's philosophy and that of disability studies, in particular her
appreciation of limits. It then considers a few examples of how this perspective
gets fleshed out in her fiction and ends with an examination of the theological
implications of a disability studies perspective.
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