Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP, reviews a new documentary about an author who poured grace into every aspect of her stories.
Anytime anyone mentions fiction writers of the 20th century, one cannot help but to immediately bring to mind a feisty Southern woman whose faith informed everything she did and wrote. Perhaps now more than ever, Flannery O’Connor is considered one of the greatest Catholic writers of history and this documentary film by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, SJ brings her to life in a way that is refreshing and intimate.
Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, Flannery early on showed cartooning and literary talent. She lived a simple life but had the great opportunity to study at the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop where, in 1946 her first story was published. She later spent time at an artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York where she met other famous writers such as Truman Capote, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Eudora Welty with whom she corresponded with through the years.
The film interviews writers, actors, comedians and literary experts to reflect on O’Connor’s contribution to culture, specifically a literary culture that is informed by her deep faith and sardonic humor. Tommy Lee Jones says in the film that he’s read everything she ever wrote and comments, “She’s far more American than she is Irish, and far more Southern than she is American.” She is known to write about freaks, prophets, misfits, and saints. Flannery says of herself, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
Her loving parents doted upon her, a shy and pensive child, though rather contemplative from an early age. Flannery learned her Catholic faith and lived it in the everyday experience. Though she saw how it was not always visible in religious folks, as she poignantly noted in her storied characters, “she just saw the mystery of the craziness.” In her mind, “the profane meets the sacred.” She was not afraid to note the darkness present in the human soul. For her, sin lives within the human being but redemption is always attainable through the mystery of the cross of Christ.
Throughout the film’s offering of a chronological story of O’Connor’s life are interspersed her cleverly concocted reflections that hit at the core of what it means to be human. Though she lived a simple and quiet life after university in Milledgeville, Georgia with her mother, suffering from an onslaught of lupus, the autoimmune disease that took her father at a young age, she never considered that she did not have the opportunities to broaden her horizons in order to be more creative. With a witty deliberation she writes, “Anybody who’s survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Yet the pain she lived through would remain with her for ten years. Hilton Als of New Yorker Magazine reflects that after she became sick she became, in a sense, a prisoner of her body, but he says, “Her writing freed her from the corporeal.” The theme of darkness that she incorporates in her fiction is perhaps reflective of the brokenness and deformity she experienced in her body. Yet, she was not only concerned with the body but also the soul of every character. Being a daily Massgoer, she pours grace into every aspect of her stories.
Her soul-struggle led her to God. She writes, “I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God.” Her publisher, Robert Giroux, accepted every manuscript of hers. After her first novel Wise Blood, Flannery rose in the consciousness of Americans so that by the time A Good Man is Hard to Find came along she received new recognition for her “mastery of the vernacular.” For her, writing was her life’s blood and for which she continued to fight her disease. She says, “I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
The film Flannery offers so much insight into this amazing writer whose ability to capture the religious imagination is unmatched. It is a beautifully crafted film that highlights the gift that she is to humanity and to the literary field and an example of one who lived with a keen sense of the sacred always hovering in her consciousness amid the absurdities of reality—a Catholic imagination lived, loved, and communicated for all the world to ponder.
This film is available for virtual screening. The Pauline Center for Media Studies is hosting a special virtual screening from July 18th-August 18th, 2020. Go to Flannery.Video/PaulineCenter to purchase your ticket for this beautiful film.
For other times and places, visit FlanneryFilm.com.
Copyright 2020 Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP
Images (top to bottom): Emory University Archive; FlanneryFilm.com; Joe McTyre (AP); all courtesy of the filmmakers. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP is a Daughter of St Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, CA. She is a Media Literacy Education Specialist, theologian, international speaker, film reviewer, and blogger for BeMediaMindful.org. Her book A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics is a theology of popular culture published by Wipf & Stock Publishing.