The woman pictured on the dust jacket for O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, published five years later, looks solemn, all eagerness gone. Dressed in a black suit jacket, she glares into the camera, mouth closed, lips slightly crooked. Her short hair gathers thin and lifeless at her neck; she's visibly balding, puffy and moon faced, evidence of prolonged exposure to steroids. The year before the book's release, she'd been diagnosed with lupus, the disease that had killed her father.
In a letter to her friend Sally Fitzgerald, O'Connor said the picture made her "look like a refugee from deep thought." I imagine her chuckling as she wrote this, using her offbeat humor as defense against an increasingly painful reality. In her letters, she spoke of her crutches as an additional set of metal legs, of giving her characters shots of cortisone to enliven them when she felt they needed it. She used words as a sanctuary from sickness, a place, she would later write, where she had "never been anywhere but."
When I look at the picture on the Wise Blood jacket, I wonder why she used it. Surely she could have sent a photograph taken before her illness darkened her, something not nearly as grim. I like to think she did it because she wanted readers to see her as she was, in spite of the turn her life had taken. And I'm sure she did--even former editor Robert Giroux cited the photograph in his introduction to her collected stories as evidence of O'Connor's lack of "vanity." But I also think she did it out of anger. As a great admirer of her work, I know that she was spiritually grounded, that she did all she could to write against the disease's debilitating effects. Still, it couldn't have been easy to give up her nascent life in the literary community of the east coast, to watch her body fall apart, to be told that she would suffer the same fate as the father she lost when she was fifteen years old. Perhaps the hardened gaze that looks out from the back cover was meant to witness her unhappiness as she struggled to move forward, developing the unshakable faith that would become one of the hallmarks of her writing.
IN OCTOBER OF 2006, I went camping in central Ohio with some friends from college, on a geology' lab expedition. We gathered around a fire pit one night in the bowl of a deep valley, wrapped against the autumn chill. Sitting on a wet log, pulling away the crisp shell of a marshmallow with my teeth, I felt the back of my thighs began to tingle, then itch, then burn. Later, I discovered that the burning skin was covered with scarlet, amoeba-shaped hives. I rubbed the affected area with hydrocortisone cream and hoped it would go away. It didn't.
In the weeks that followed, I woke up every morning covered in thick, raised welts. I felt them as soon as I became conscious--uncomfortable tickles, like leeches clinging to my skin. Although they horrified me, I also remember how smooth they were, like shiny red satin. They were almost pleasant to touch; running my fingers over them, I sometimes forgot they were symptoms of illness, until new ones appeared where I'd brushed my bare skin.
Over the next three months, I saw six doctors, who prescribed various combinations of steroids and antihistamines; though they knew what it was, none of them could cure it. A clinician in Ada, Ohio, where I attended college as a creative writing student, named the disease early on: dermatographic urticaria. The vowels and syllables slurred around my lips in irregular shapes, sounding and feeling as ugly as the welts themselves.
Dermatographic urticaria is an autoimmune disorder caused by weakened membranes of mast cells in the skin. When scratched, bumped or lightly brushed, the cells release histamines, causing the skin to swell into painful, shapeless hives. The disease is a miscommunication, a case of mistaken identity. The hives are an allergic reaction to external elements that scratch the skin--the body interpreting innocuous objects like fingernails and clothing as foreign invaders. Swelling often accompanies the disease, especially in the sensitive tissues of the face, hands and feet. The name means "skin writing," as the rash is literally embossed on the skin's surface by anything that touches it.
Often, those who suffer from this condition never find out the cause. I still haven't. I have theories--perhaps it was something I came into contact with on the geology trip, or mold and spores inside the walls of my slum apartment house, or the stress of graduating from college, applying for master's programs. Still, the cause doesn't matter. Knowing what made me sick won't change the fact that it happened, because the disease changes your perception, distorts your vision. Simple things are suddenly threatening--splotches of moss on a sloping hillside, the irregular edges of map contours, raised patches of repaved asphalt against worn blacktop. You're conditioned to panic. It doesn't matter that the shapes are in nature, not your body. The sight of them still triggers fear.
IN 1951, WHEN Flannery O'Connor said goodbye to Sally Fitzgerald's husband in Connecticut to travel home for Christmas, she was smiling. He would later write that she seemed slightly fatigued, but otherwise much herself; she was pleased with the progress she'd made on her novel and waved out the window of the train, wearing a beret that flopped to one side. Recently, O'Connor had noticed that her arms were stiff and joked that she might be working too hard, but a doctor had sternly advised her to see someone in Georgia about it.
The visit came sooner than she expected. By the time she arrived in her hometown of Milledgeville, her uncle, who met her at the station, observed that the smile was gone. "She looked like a shriveled old woman," he wrote. A few days later, O'Connor's mother called the Fitzgeralds, informing them that O'Connor had been rushed to the hospital after being diagnosed with lupus over the phone.
Although her mother and friends knew about her illness immediately, the information was kept from O'Connor herself until as late as the summer of 1952, perhaps to spare her the emotional anguish of the news. Her response was quite different from what her family might have expected; she wrote to the Fitzgeralds that "I now know that it is lupus and am very glad to so know." It was the same pragmatism she would exhibit over the next several months, as she took stock of her situation. Above all else, she was concerned with her writing, and dedicated herself to finishing her novel even as she underwent blood transfusions and developed arthritic symptoms that worsened with time. She wrote for three hours each morning without interruption, every day, and gave only occasional terse updates on her condition in letters to friends. The rest of these letters are comprised of lengthy discourses on her writing process, negotiations for the book's publication and a constant looking forward to what was in store for her work.
As a student of writing, I, too, try to work on my stories every day. Sometimes it comes slowly, and I have to fight off distractions before I'm able to focus; sometimes it comes so naturally that I write for hours without realizing time has passed. But when I try to imagine writing on my worst day, in the worst stage of my own illness, I find it impossible to picture myself crawling off the couch toward my computer, chilled and fatigued. Then, when I think of reading O'Connor's stories, how I've walked away from each one feeling like something has changed for me, I find myself even more amazed by her ability to create life even in the face of death.
THREE DAYS BEFORE Thanksgiving the fall I got sick, I sat in the office of an internal medicine specialist in Akron, the latest addition to the line of doctors I'd visited. The hives crawled down my arms and chest, my face and neck were patchy and red. It had been over a month since they first appeared, and I was frustrated and frightened. Across the wall of the small examining room, I saw a poster depicting cartoon renditions of germs--brown, amorphous shapes with maniacal eyes. "Be sure to wash your hands!" the poster declared in threatening red script. The rest of the wall was a boring beige, making the cartoon impossible to avoid. It gave me little to think about except for illness, until the doctor finally came in.
I recounted the chronology of my symptoms to him, a tale I recited robotically. As I talked, he leaned in toward my face, touched the space next to my nose with gloved fingers, and frowned. He told me I had a malar rash--more commonly known as "butterfly rash"--a red patch around the bridge of the nose and the cheeks, in the shape of the insect's wings, and spoke with a delicacy that made me nervous. I'd have to have some blood work done, he said; the malar rash is a cardinal symptom of lupus.
He made an appointment for me to come back for tests the next day. I spent the afternoon lying on the couch at my parents' house, packed in layers of clothes and blankets, the chills having returned. My feet were so swollen that my socks didn't fit, and I elevated them on an old beanbag chair as I watched TV reruns with diminishing attention to the plots, numbed by an inability to accept what I'd heard. That night, I didn't sleep. Instead, I cried into the corner of the couch, my knees tucked against my chest. When my father came downstairs and found me, he told me I needed to cut it out. "At least wait and see how the test comes out before you go to the dark side," he suggested with a note of humor. At any other time, I might have appreciated it. Instead, I told him to leave me alone and rolled back into my pillow.
The next morning, a nurse with an unsmiling face and cold hands took several vials of my blood. I watched it slide up the needle from my skin, and wondered what defect was inside, right before my eyes, but too small to perceive. "We'll call you in a few days," she said, and shooed me out the door. I drove home haunted by the long wait ahead of me, tiny splotches beginning to form where the needles had pricked me.
When I found out my test for lupus was negative, I was relieved at First. There would be no lifelong doses of medication, no muscle degeneration or chronic fatigue. I was normal. But even more than relieved, I was exhausted. For the past several days, I'd done nothing but worry, dwelling on the terrifying potential verdict, and the more I thought about it, the more probable it seemed to become. I wish I could have been like Flannery O'Connor while I waited for that phone call. I wish I could have written something instead of paralyzing myself, giving myself lupus in my mind before the diagnosis was even confirmed.
FROM THE TIME she finished high school in 1942, Flannery O'Connor longed to get out of Milledgeville; she believed staying in the South would suffocate her writing. Like most girls in her graduating class, though, going away to college was seen as a frivolous endeavor--with Georgia State College for Women just around the corner, young women commonly elected to stay at home to continue their education. O'Connor chose to stay, too, but after graduating in three years, she left for the journalism program at Iowa, then moved on to a writer's colony in New York, then to Connecticut, where she lived with the Fitzgeralds and worked on Wise Blood. Then came her illness, and she found herself grounded. The disease's paralyzing effects forced her to return home, and having tasted the world outside of Georgia, she did so with extreme reluctance.
Although she believed it would stifle her creative impulses, her relatively secluded life on the farm she shared with her mother actually fueled and inspired her writing. It was in the tiny corner room on the first floor of their house, furnished with only a bed, armchair, a wardrobe and a desk, that O'Connor crafted the stories that have come to be recognized as her best. Today, admirers and scholars can visit the farm to see the place where she kept her famous flock of peafowl, the house's wide veranda where she read in the latter days of her illness and her bedroom itself, the final stop on the tour: her typewriter positioned on the desk, the bed meticulously made, a pair of crutches leaning against the wardrobe.
Looking at photographs of the room, I can imagine her sitting against the rose- patterned backing of the desk chair, poised over her typewriter, her thin eyebrows narrowed in concentration, as the late morning sun creeps through the blue and white curtains. "When I faced [my return] I was roped and tied and resigned," she wrote to her friend Betty Hester. "I thought it would be the end of any creation, any writing, any WORK from me [....] It was only the beginning."
WHEN I THINK of having dermatographic urticaria, I ultimately think of the irony inherent in my own condition: I was a young writer afflicted with a disease whose name means "skin writing." My body was mistaking my skin for living parchment, penning the narrative of my environment as I might write on paper. At the time, this made me angry; I thought it was nature's cruel joke, a way of getting my priorities in line, punishing me for my perfectionism. One night, lying awake, I called a friend on the phone. I told him I didn't know what to do--I was freezing and breaking out and sick, and I had to talk to someone. Then I heard him chuckle. "What?" I asked.
"Well," he said, "look on the bright side. You can always play tick-tack-toe on your stomach." He meant to cheer me up. It didn't work.
Looking back, I wish I could have laughed. I even compose smart aleck responses that mean nothing now that the moment has passed ("I'm an aspiring writer, and evidently, my skin is aspiring to write as well."). But at the time, I couldn't appreciate how perfectly it dovetailed with my forthcoming graduation from college, my fear of rejection from graduate school, the shapeless future that awaits anyone who chooses a creative path. I thought that perhaps I was bringing it on myself, that my anxiety had grown into something I had no control over. One night I wrote "THIS BLOWS" across my forearm with my fingernail, then watched the thick red lines puff and raise. I felt a strange satisfaction in lashing out at my immune system and laughed until the pragmatic side of me asked what was so funny about making myself sick.
When I explained my feelings to one of my doctors, I was shocked to hear that I might actually be right about the connection between the symptoms and my anxiety. He said the disease was possibly nothing more than my body selecting a medium appropriate to my circumstances, the way an artist chooses paints, pastels or clay. He wrote down the website of a hypnotherapist and told me to order her tapes for curing skin abnormalities and panic disorder. Normally, I might have been skeptical, but I was too desperate to dismiss the suggestion. Lying in bed, I let my eyes follow the jagged pattern of my bedroom's torn, rose-patterned wallpaper until the tape's silky voice lulled me into a trance. "Move inside your skin, deeper, into the developing cells on your cheeks ... they are red and pulsing, so full of life ... so healthy. ..."
The tapes didn't cure my hives, and I didn't expect them to. But they did prove useful in other ways. As the illness progressed, my cheeks often bulged outward without warning, like a hamster hoarding food, painfully stretching my skin. I'd sometimes feel a twitch inside my lips, then an intense, spreading heat, and a few minutes later, they would swell to twice their normal size. On nights when I looked in the mirror, confronted with my distorted reflection, I would crawl into bed and let the calming voice on the tape wrap around me, like a strand of a childhood memory, my mother stroking my hair.
I wonder sometimes about the constant state of frustration and anger that accompanied my illness--if it all wasn't just a spiral of stress, of emotions building on emotions, until my body simply couldn't take it anymore and tried to speak to me. If it was, hypnosis was my way of talking back, of begging it to stop. But I also wonder if, instead of fighting against it, it might have been easier to smile at the strangeness of my predicament, embracing the kind of irony artists seek to create but rarely discover in such perfect form.
IN THE SPRING of 1958, Flannery O'Connor traveled to Europe with her mother, fulfilling one of her lifelong ambitions. A cousin from Savannah agreed to fund the trip under one condition--that O'Connor bathe in the healing waters of the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. Although she was a devout Catholic, O'Connor was less than enthusiastic about this arrangement. "I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it," she wrote to Betty Hester.
But O'Connor's desire for a trip to Europe overpowered her reservations, and she went to Lourdes. She described the experience not as spiritually enlightening, but shockingly unclean. She waited with dozens of other visitors, where a thermos of the waters was passed from person to person, and became aware of "the distinct odor of the crowd." When she reached the bath itself, she wore the same wet smock as those who preceded her. "The miracle is that the place [doesn't ] bring on epidemics," she wrote to Betty Hester, and later added that, given the conditions, "Nobody, I am sure, prays in those waters." A few months later, O'Connor discovered that the degeneration of her hip bones had begun to reverse and she briefly mused that maybe the pilgrimage had had some effect after all, though not enough to impact the course of her illness.
Years later, six months before her death, she would write that she did, in fact, pray at Lourdes, though not for herself. She prayed for her struggling novel in progress, The Violent Bear it Away, that she would find the story that seemed to evade her.
I WAS RAISED without religious faith, but during the fall I was sick, I began to read the Bible, reaching out for anything that might assuage my fear and frustration. As I read, one particular story captured my attention. In chapter eight of Luke, Jesus heals a woman who has suffered from an "issue of blood" for twelve years, spending all her money on countless doctors who could not help her. Hearing that merely a touch of Jesus's robe would cure her baffling condition, she reaches out to grasp its folds as he passes through the streets of her village, and her symptoms immediately vanish. When Jesus stops and asks who touched him, she declares that she has been healed, though she is overwhelmed and fearful in his presence. Jesus says to her, "Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole."
Throughout late November, when the symptoms were worst, I began a ritualistic reading of this passage every night before I went to sleep. I lay curled up in bed, my face blotchy with a thin layer of hives, the Bible open in the crook of my arm. Sometimes I read it out loud, soft and fast, as though whispering an incantation; sometimes quietly, letting the language make its way into me like a carefully smoothed emollient. I prayed for relief, for the swelling to go down and the lesions to fade for the last time. But the symptoms continued to worsen, and the fatigue brought on by large doses of antihistamines was overwhelming. One night, I asked God why I continued to suffer from this ugly disease that no doctor could cure, and when I did not receive an answer, I began to doubt whether there was a God at all.
It is only now, three years later, that I understand that what I felt was not faith at all. It was desperation, a grappling for understanding, a desire to lay blame. On all those nights I prayed for a miracle, I never once considered that the disease itself was the miracle, that it would be resolved in a way that was every bit as strange as its symptoms.
One day, while buying groceries just before Christmas, my mother ran into an old friend she hadn't seen in several years. Her daughter Jacqueline had been in my Girl Scout troop when we were children, but as we got older, with no camping trips or cookie sales to chaperone, our parents lost track of each other. My mother told her I was sick, and watched as the woman's face fell in recognition as she described my symptoms. Just a year before, the same thing had happened to Jacqueline--after visits to several dermatologists and even a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, she'd found someone who knew how to cure it. She gave my mother the number of a doctor in Twinsburg, just twenty minutes from our house.
When I went to her office, the doctor examined the photographs I'd taken of my swollen face and skin and nodded emphatically. "Yeah," she said, smiling, "we can take care of that." She wrote me a prescription for Allegra and Doxepin, an anti-anxiety drug often used in treating severe dermatological conditions. Within a month, the hives were gone, leaving my skin unblemished. I was stunned at how quickly they left, and continue to be amazed that they have never been back.
In a letter to Betty Hester dated 1956, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, where there's no company, where no one 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." Having been there myself, I've discovered the truth in this statement. But I've learned as well that returning from sickness doesn't lessen the impact of its instructiveness. I wonder sometimes what might have happened if, by some miracle, O'Connor had gotten better. I wonder if it would have transformed her view of the world, or even her writing, if the stories that inspire my own endeavors would still be so affecting. But I think she knew she wasn't meant to survive. She dedicated herself to writing because she didn't have the time to do otherwise. She prayed for her novel at Lourdes because she knew that, although conceived in sickness, it would outlive her.
THE SUMMER AFTER I got better, my mother and I went on vacation to Florida. We were at Disney World on a very hot day, the ninety degree temperatures magnified by the weaving throngs of people. As we passed a caricature artist's booth, I caught sight of a young girl wearing long sleeves and pants. Her face was slippery with sweat, and she leaned against a pole, breathing deeply and wiping the moisture from her cheeks. She twitched a little with discomfort, and then I saw her bend over and lift her pant leg. She scratched her leg vigorously, her eyes closing in relief. As I passed by, I noticed that the exposed skin was covered in familiar scarlet patterns, and I winced.
I wanted to talk to her, to tell her that I knew what she'd been through, how much it hurt, and that I knew how to make it better. But then I thought about how embarrassing it was for me to go out in public when I was sick, and how much worse it would have been were someone to draw attention to my symptoms. In the end, I kept walking, though I still think of her sometimes, and hope she was able to recover as well.
Although I no longer wake to find the imprint of my clothing on my body, I sometimes still dream of dermatographic urticaria, and in these dreams the sensations and symptoms--the burning itchiness and crawling skin--are as vivid as in life. When I wake, I lift up my shirt, tug down my pants and my tension eases when I see that nothing's there, nothing but unwritten skin. The disease strikes mostly young women; most of them run the risk of having a relapse, and this scares me. I don't want to go through it again, even if now I know how to treat it. So I try to think of what is instead of what could be, of the smooth, pale skin I've come to appreciate, how for more than a year, it's remained clear and blank.
In Flannery O'Connor's short story, "The Enduring Chill," a young man, Asbury Fox, returns home to die. Convinced that he is incurably ill, he gives up his life as a New York artist, sells his home and possessions and destroys all of his writing before returning with disdain to his mother's house. In the end, having said his goodbyes and readied himself for death, he learns from the town doctor that he merely has an infection from drinking unpasteurized milk. Asbury lies in bed, numbed by this knowledge, his previous life sacrificed for the illusion of death.
Unlike Asbury, nothing was sacrificed by my illness and recovery, though I often willed myself to prepare for the worst possible outcome in the same way he did. But reading O'Connor's stories and letters still makes me recall the way I approached it, how many times I overwhelmed myself with possibilities instead of having the peace to let events unfold, of learning to live in my own flawed body until the day it was made whole. Still, I fear the disease's return. Perhaps that's why I'm writing this--to make its haunting patterns fade, transformed into words on paper.
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|Title Annotation:||60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue|
|Author:||Frazier, Kori E.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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