‘Flannery’ is a new doc­u­mentary that details the life of famed author, Flannery O’Connor

Few phrases stick like “a good man is hard to find.” 

Those words were probably uttered a thousand times before southern-gothic author Flannery O’Connor was born to Regina Cline and Edward Francis O’Connor in Savannah, Georgia in 1925 and wrote a short story by the same title 28 years later. They’ve probably been uttered at least a thousand times since. But were they ever drolled as Flannery drolled them?

“Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia,” a new doc­u­mentary by Eliz­abeth Coffman and Mark Bosco S.J. and funded by the National Endowment for the Human­ities, tells the story of one of the South’s most leg­endary and least under­stood authors and her most popular short stories.

Released in October 2019 and screened on campus last Friday, the film wrestles with O’Connor and her para­doxes. “How can people go to church and commit murder?” the trailer asks. But more impor­tantly, how did this southern, female author, who spent much of her life at home and died at 39 of lupus, learn to tell such grotesque stories of death and damnation, of blood and sal­vation, that have become staples in high-school lit­er­ature classes across America? 

To tell O’Connor’s story, Coffman and Bosco weave together his­toric pho­tographs, footage from one of the writer’s only TV inter­views, and inter­views with some of the most influ­ential people in O’Connor’s life — including Sally Fitzgerald, a close friend; Brad Gooch, her biog­rapher; and Erik Langkjær, the only man who is recorded as having kissed her (“I’ve thought of it as a kiss of death,” he said of the moment). The doc­u­mentary makers also incor­porate original ani­ma­tions by Kathleen Judge to bring Flannery’s stories to life on screen. The effect is a doc­u­mentary as col­orful as O’Connor’s leg­endary peacock flock. 

As an adult, Flannery remem­bered her younger self as a “pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.” The film por­trays this sharp sense of humor, from O’Connor’s high-school days as a satirical car­toonist to her oft-mis­un­der­stood written work later in life. 

Other para­doxes are pre­sented. How did one of the best American writers of the 20th century have prac­ti­cally every man­u­script rejected (that is, until she met her pub­lisher Robert Giroux)? O’Connor was a graduate of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and one of the best writers in her classes, much to the chagrin of her male col­leagues. But until Giroux came along, editors wanted O’Connor to be nicer, to tell sweeter stories — in other words, to be more ladylike. O’Connor — either from knowledge of her own skill or sheer bull-headed stub­bornness — would take back her man­u­script and move along.

“I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it,” O’Connor once wrote in a letter to a friend.

Besides her wit, central to O’Connor’s identity was her Catholic faith. The doc­u­mentary por­trays, though perhaps mis­un­der­stands, the effects of this. 

O’Connor’s stories often confuse the first-time reader by their subject matter (mur­derers, racists, heretics), which hardly seems reli­gious. Catholicism does not equate with a the­ology of decency, for O’Connor. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” written 1954 and pub­lished in 1955, is one example the film­makers use to demon­strate this. The short story deals with a pre­co­cious young Catholic girl who becomes obsessed with a her­maph­rodite at the fair. During mass, the girl’s mind is occupied with the “freak,” rather than Christ, and until the con­se­cration, she is thinking “ugly thoughts.” 

Another of Flannery’s stories, “The Arti­ficial Nigger,” has caused her to be banned from certain high schools for using the n‑word, despite being one of the more pro racial equality writers of her time. The story examines Southern racism from the per­spective of a white man and his grandson, vis­iting the city for the first time and, in the case of the grandson, seeing a black person for the first time. 

Perhaps this edgy quality is just another paradox of Flannery, a girl who con­tin­ually sur­prised her critics (espe­cially her mother, who’s two primary dreams — that Flannery would marry and write about nicer things — were per­pet­ually stymied). But Flannery’s sin­gleness wasn’t what made her sin­gular, though perhaps it’s the detail on which her observers have fixated the most. Like Hulga, her female lead in “Good Country People,” O’Connor defies expec­ta­tions and is inten­tionally counter-cul­tural. But unlike Hulga, O’Connor never seems to be trying to prove herself. She just wants her wooden leg back. She just wants to write.

On closer inspection, O’Connor’s work is pre­cisely what Christian writing must be. 

O’Connor writes about strangers and out­casts and sinners, not simply because she herself was an outcast, as the film­makers suggest, but because Chris­tianity means living and breaking bread with pre­cisely these “freaks.” Her work is pungent because it delib­er­ately dis­re­gards the demands of decency. O’Connor’s stories portray a way of life that is as mis­un­der­stood as it is drenched in blood; it is life-and-death salvific. 

O’Connor writes about death because it points to life. It’s shocking and it’s radical — but then again, so is grace.