On March 23, the American public television network PBS aired the premiere of Flannery, a 90-minute documentary movie about the American Catholic novelist, short story writer, and essayist Flannery O’Connor. Flannery was part of the American Masters series of biographical documentaries about important figures in American arts and letters. I enjoy American Masters and have watched several of their documentaries before, many on other figures of O’Connor’s mid-twentieth century like Hedy Lamarr and Lena Horne. Moreover, O’Connor was my favorite writer in my late teens and early twenties and is still one whose work I often come back to and compare to that of other authors. Thus, Flannery was a major event in my household, one that I anticipated eagerly for over a month.
When it finally aired, the documentary did not disappoint. I learned things about O’Connor’s life and work that I had never known before and it inspired me to reread some of my favorites among her short stories, like “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” and “Revelation.” It had a characteristically PBS emphasis on O’Connor’s relationship with various contested demographic categories such as race, sex, and sexual orientation; one thing along those lines that I missed was that I wish somewhat more attention had been paid to her as a disabled writer, one who was perpetually fatigued and could barely walk unassisted due to the lupus that eventually killed her at the age of thirty-nine.
Conversely, a pleasant surprise was the story of O’Connor’s fan-turned-friend Betty Hester coming out to her as a lesbian in 1956. “I can see,” O’Connor wrote to Hester in response, “how very much grace you have really been given and that is all that is necessary for me to know in the matter. What is necessary for you to know is my very real love and admiration for you.” This anecdote was for me, as O’Connor herself might have put it, a breath of fresh air almost to the point of being an avenue of grace, considering my dismay and disillusionment at the ongoing hostility of the institutional Church in the United States towards LGBT people and their political and spiritual needs. (Unfortunately, the support of friends like O’Connor—and, later, Iris Murdoch—was not enough to keep Hester from taking her own life decades later in 1998.)
The documentary also covers other interpersonal relationships of O’Connor’s, such as her closeness with her father and ambivalence towards her mother, her youthful crush on fellow writer Robert Lowell, and her brief, nonphysical romance with college textbook salesman Erik Langkjaer. The documentary suggests—as, apparently, does Langkjaer himself—that the seductive, conniving salesman in “Good Country People” is O’Connor’s attempt at dramatizing her feelings on the end of that relationship. Langkjaer is one of several people who knew O’Connor who was interviewed for the documentary, as are several living cousins and other extended relations.
Flannery includes animated dramatizations of several of O’Connor’s short stories, on which I had mixed feelings. The concept was sound and the narration that accompanied the animation made much of it very effective, but at times the drawings had a “goofy” art style that didn’t seem to me to be quite suited to the tone of O’Connor’s writing. (Interestingly and maybe paradoxically, I found that the art style suited the infamously brutal and violent “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” significantly more than it suited the much lower-stakes “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.”)
As for O’Connor’s Catholicism—which will interest most Where Peter Is readers—the documentary makes it very clear that it was the driving concern of her life and of her fiction. Her stories do discuss other topics, such as race relations (a subject on which she compiled a decidedly mixed record; the documentary isn’t necessarily at its most candid when it discusses this, although it does feature Alice Walker of The Color Purple fame mounting an interesting conditional defense of O’Connor). However, these topics are invariably suborned to her beliefs about grace, original sin, and the relationship between the two. I’ve never heard original sin discussed seriously on network television before, even on PBS; most of those interviewed understood the religious aspect of O’Connor’s life and work very clearly, which came as a relief to me since with O’Connor, as one of the interview subjects says, “you either get it or you don’t.”
I would recommend American Masters: Flannery to any Catholic interested in O’Connor’s life and work, with the caveat that although her faith is a major concern of the movie, it is not its only concern. The criticisms that I have of it are mostly quite minor—even my dislike for the animation style detracted little from my appreciation of the documentary due to the inherent power of the stories themselves. My hope is that Flannery might bring one of America’s greatest Catholic artists to the attention of audiences that may not have been comfortable with her or taken her seriously in the past. Longtime devotees such as myself will find much to appreciate in it as well.