How Lupus Changed Flannery O’Connor’s Writing and Took Her Life

“The mind serves best when it’s anchored in the Word of God. There is no danger then of becoming an intellectual without integrity.”

Article main image

Flannery O’Connor was just 25 years old, and already a promising writer, when she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, the disease that killed her father.

Told she had just five years to live, the young Catholic left New York’s vibrant literary scene and returned to her mother in Georgia. There she defied her physician’s prediction and lived for 14 more years, completing two novels and 32 stories before her death at age 39.

October is marked as Lupus Awareness Month, so it’s worth pondering how the bleak prognosis O’Connor received from her doctors, along with the physical suffering and restrictions it placed on her movements, grounded the literary works of this daughter of the South.

“The discovery that she had lupus made her feel that in important ways she was her father’s daughter. There was a family destiny that she had to work out for herself,” said Paul Elie, the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a work of literary biography that examines the lives and writings of O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day.

Lupus shaped Flannery’s distinctive understanding of Christianity and its answer to the problem of suffering, Elie told me. But he also emphasized that while the medical diagnosis forced Flannery to confront her mortality and adjust to a more restricted life, the advent of anti-lupus drugs gave her reason to hope she would live well past the actual time of her death.

“Of course she feared she would not live a long life, but she did not know she would die before she was 40. That was the result of a complication from surgery she did not anticipate,” he said.

Bridget Kurt, the producer of Uncommon Grace, a new documentary about O’Connor that was broadcast on PBS earlier this year, echoed these points.

“Having lupus affected O'Connor's writing both spiritually and practically,” Kurt told me.

“Physically, the illness caused fatigue, joint pain, itching, hair loss and other health issues that reduced her ability to write to just a few hours per day.”

Kurt told me that O’Connor’s mastery of the short story literary form was no accident.

“The short story was a way for her to focus her energy more efficiently versus writing a novel. She typically wrote for a couple of hours each day and was quite disciplined in her daily routine.” 

When Paul Elie was conducting research on O’Connor at her archives, acquired by the Georgia State College for Women, he was moved by what he learned.

Near the end of her life, O’Connor could write for only one hour each day. She commented on this fact with characteristic tartness: “I can write for one hour a day, and my, my, do I like my one hour. I et it up like it was fillet mignon.”

Said Elie: “If you look at the folders in the archive you can see what she did in an hour, and it was unbelievable. She could write an astonishing paragraph or improve the story in an important way. But that was all she could do.”

During this time, she sent her story, “Parker’s Back,” to one of her most trusted readers, Caroline Gordon. “Gordon said the story wasn’t dramatic enough, but O’Connor knew when to ignore Gordon, and she said, ‘I did well to write it at all,’” Elie recalled.

Faith in God, matched by a resilient character, led the writer to view her predicament with striking humor and grit. In one letter to her friend, Maryat Lee, O’Connor jokes about the unpleasant treatment she endured to mitigate her autoimmune disorder: “I owe my existence and cheerful countenance to the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily in Chicago, Illinois at the Armour packing plant. If pigs wore garments I wouldn't be worthy to kiss the hems of them.”

Her faith and habits of mind allowed O’Connor to concentrate on the essentials, and she mined her personal struggles to great effect in her stories and novels. In a sense, her vulnerable body, utterly dependent on the care of others, served as a prism through which she viewed a complacent world that did not have the daily reminder of life’s awful fragility.

Her stories exposed the shallow pieties of ‘respectable Christians,’ who keep social outliers—the disabled, “white trash,” black people, and immigrants—at arm’s length.

Likewise, she trained her gaze on the world beyond her immediate community, and some of her stories touched on ideas that had spawned the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The Nazis began with a campaign that sentenced the mentally disabled to death, and the ever-widening scope of Hitler’s depredations confirmed man’s attraction to evil and his need for God and his laws.

The lessons of the war were clear to O’Connor. American elites, however, had begun to embrace secular values, and she sought to challenge that trend.

“The mind serves best when it’s anchored in the Word of God,” she wrote in a letter. “There is no danger then of becoming an intellectual without integrity.” 

Indeed, in stories, like “The Displaced Person,” O’Connor “explores how easily human beings can engage in an evil act such as murder by first dehumanizing the stranger, the one who is different, the one who is inconvenient,” said Kurt, in published remarks.

But O’Connor never sugarcoated human suffering, and her fiction revealed how easily it could torment the soul.

In her story, “Good Country People,” a childhood accident leaves an angry young spinster with a wooden leg that is worn as a badge of honor.

Bad luck has left the character, Joy Hulga, resentful and loveless, and a fancy academic pedigree has made her an apostle of nihilism.

Then a traveling salesman stops by her family home to sell a Bible, and Joy Hulga’s academic theories collapse as her heart responds to his presence.

The encounter opens a new path for the character, though the salesman’s identity and intentions are hard to nail down and there is no tidy ending.

“O'Connor's works as she described them are about the action of grace in the lives of characters who aren't always open to God's grace,” Kurt told me.

“God is constantly trying to engage each person in ways that are not always clean and tidy. God's grace often appears in the messiness of life and in the suffering that we endure.”

From the bad luck and messiness of her own life, O’Connor pondered the work of the Holy Spirit, and the false security that led so many people to ignore God’s whispered words of love and mercy.

She knew the pain of Joy Hulga’s isolation and powerlessness, even as she strived to complete stories and novels that would win critical acclaim. But she also received the gift of eternal, faithful love that God offers in many disguises.

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” writes St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5, 1-5. “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day.”