Welcome to the Freak Show // Flannery O’Connor

On the war for normality.


She could hear the freak saying, “God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,” and the people saying, “Amen. Amen.”

            Flannery O’Connor, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (1955)

They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy. 

            Flannery O’Connor, “The Artificial Nigger” (1955)

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.” Flannery O’Connor once said this, and in the pantheon of my favorite writers, no one pegs truth and oddity quite like her.

In terms of oddity, her work is full of some of the strangest people you will meet, the strangest images to be imprinted on your mind’s eye. You will find in her stories a man dressed as a gorilla, a traveling Bible salesman who steals prosthetic limbs, a shrunken head, a man missing an arm, a woman missing a leg, a mute girl, a striptease show in a coffin.

For all the oddness, Flannery’s characters are often coming to terms with something. We catch them in the slant but decisive moments in which they either attempt to mark out their place in the world or just discover that their place in the world has become unsettled. She throws her characters into situations which rub against the usual of their lives. You might call this event an encounter with the Other – when a person comes into contact with another identifiably different from her, and this meeting informs her identity, who she understands herself to be in contrast with this other. These meetings inevitably turn out strange, disjointed, surprising, often tragic – two wills and presumptions failing to meet each other in solidarity.

One example of these encounters in Flannery’s work comes up in her classic story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” A family on a road trip takes a detour into the woods. Their car breaks down, and while they wait for help, another car arrives with three men in it. The grandmother recognizes the driver as a famed killer fittingly called the Misfit. The story ends with the killer and his henchman murdering the family, the grandmother last. But before she is killed, the grandmother tries to talk the Misfit down. She says he must be a good man, who would never shoot a lady, because he appears to come from good stock – stock like hers.

They talk a while. They have a conversation about Jesus, where the Misfit argues that Jesus ruined everything with the resurrection. “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness…” In that moment, the grandmother mumbles a line which seems to undermine the foundation on which she had presumed her life to be built, which made her good: “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead…” That is when the Misfit, taken aback, shoots her three times, dead.

After the killing, the Misfit says – and this is one of my favorite lines in literature – “She would’ve been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” His henchman Bobby Lee then cracks a joke. “Shut up, Bobby Lee,” he says. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Both the grandmother and the Misfit have been changed through this encounter, or, at the very least, they have become uncovered – their presumptions lifted away to show their fears, their truths. The Misfit proves himself not to be a good man in the way the grandmother had thought. He also proves the grandmother not to be good in the way she had thought, up until the end, now looking at her place in life with integrity and sincerity. The Misfit is proven to believe that meanness does not actually bring pleasure, that there is no real pleasure in life at all.

Strange encounters with another kind function deconstructively, tearing apart our ideas about the usual order of the world, and what allows this deconstruction is the fact that we have something constructed in the first place. It is also what makes it painful or revelatory, or both. We have constructed our concepts of self, who we are in this world, and we have also in many instances constructed our concept of the other. We note the difference because we are so sure of what makes us and what, alternatively, makes them. And they are strange, the aberrant ones, because, unless we feel as though we ourselves are already marginal, we feel as though who we are is essential, the essence of the human, the citizen, the decent person, whatever.

The issues today in which this dialectic moves us most poignantly are gender, sexuality, and race. Flannery tackles these also, though she tackles them slant, with foolish and well-meaning characters who do not fully understand what is at work in their thinking. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” involves a topic which is seldom discussed, even less understood, and often willfully ignored: intersexuality.

The main character here is a little Catholic girl, who is reflecting on a Sunday school lesson for girls about what to do if a young man tries to put a move on them. They must say, “Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” In this Christian view, the body is a holy temple, an expression of God’s will for humanity, and must be protected from the sinful corruption of the world. Later on in the story, a freak-show carnival comes to town in which some of the tents are off-limits for children. The curious girl asks two older girls about it, and they, disturbed over what happened in one of the tents, tell her that there was a performer who was both a man and a woman. The freak, as he is called, lifted his dress before each half of the audience divided down the middle between men and women, saying, “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way.” He had both male and female sexual organs.

Today we are discovering that intersexuality – roughly defined as the presence or absence of both sets of sexual organs – is more common than we imagine and something we have to reckon with in our talk of sex and gender identity. However this story, published in 1955, depicts intersexuality as straightforward aberration. Within a worldview which sees the body as a holy temple formed and determined by God, intersexuality appears as a curse. This culture understands sex as normatively binary – there are men and there are women – so anything which does not conform to this binary must be a sign of moral deficiency, a nature which does not accord with the law of God.

What is normative is what is common, what the majority sees when they look at themselves. This is the essence of humanity – sex dualism – and so anything which transgresses the dualism must be something other than rightly human. Therefore, the freak is first relegated to the freak’s tent on the margins of society, and later, the freak show is cast out: “Some of the preachers from town gone out and inspected it and got the police to shut it down.” So long as we are able to subjugate the people who trouble our concepts, pinning their identities to our thoughts of them – or better yet, so long as we are able to avert our eyes from such people – then we get to keep our concepts unchanged.

But what do we do when we find ourselves surrounded by the people we see as freaks? What if we cannot avoid them? The characters in the story “The Artificial Nigger” find themselves in such a predicament. Mr. Head takes his grandson Nelson to the city, Atlanta, on a train. “Mr. Head meant him to see everything there is to see in a city so that he would be content to stay at home for the rest of his life.” Most importantly, he takes his grandson there to see black people. He says, “You ain’t ever seen a nigger… There hasn’t been a nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago and that was before you were born.” To Mr. Head, a rural mid-century Southerner, black people represent the other – that which makes the city strange and dangerous.

The two end up getting lost in the city, finding themselves in a predominantly black neighborhood where they are afraid because they can see no white people. They lose sight of the familiar, of likeness, and feel like strangers in a strange land. Later, Mr. Head and his grandson get into a fight over a stunt Mr. Head pulls to teach his grandson a lesson. They remained estranged during their silent, wandering trip back to the station until they see something which forces them back into solidarity.

He had not walked five hundred yards down the road when he saw, within reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro sitting bent over on a low yellow brick fence that curved around a wide lawn. The Negro was about Nelson’s size and he was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the putty that held him to the wall had cracked. One of his eyes was entirely white and he held a piece of brown watermelon. 

Mr. Head stood looking silently until Nelson stopped at a little distance. Then as the two of them stood there, Mr. Head breathed, “An artificial nigger!”

There they are, in this strange land, attempting to escape from the people who embody all which is exotic and harmful, and then they see this statue, which to them stands for their failure to outrun this other.  They read this image as a monument to their own defeat, as white people, and yet this statue dissolves their estrangement. (Ironically, this figure is actually one of the “lawn jockeys” popular at the time – a minstrel figure obviously crafted by white men from an attitude of bigotry and mockery.)

The two stand in solidarity in opposition to this foe of their identity. Not only that, but in this failure of maintaining their supremacy, Mr. Head realizes a bit more of his existential condition: “Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now.” He does not feel mercy for his racism but only for earlier putting his son in peril. In fact, his racism becomes the channel for his realization of mercy for what he did to his white kin, because the sole source of the danger, as he sees it, were the black people he subjected his grandson to. And racism also provides the channel for Nelson’s forgiveness of Mr. Head. Finally, he says, “Let’s go home before we get ourselves lost again.” They remove themselves from the danger they have located in the other, and allow themselves to leave – to go home – before they are made to reckon with their faulty conception of black people.

There is a whole lot more that can be said about all of this, but I want to end by emphasizing what allow the “freaks” to remain “freaks” in our minds. It is refusing to enter into genuine communication with people who seem unlike us. We allow our categories of identity to get really stark and clear because it gives us comfort – something we can hang our hat on, something we can use to tell ourselves where we’re at, who we are, in a world grown ever more confusing. But the only way to maintain simple categories and simple oppressive attitudes is if we keep the freaks out of our homes, so to speak.

However, once we choose not to avert our eyes but learn to see and to listen, we find all our categories falling away into a rubble which cannot stand in the world. We find out that we is just as faulty a construction as them. We discover a crowd of similarities in human experience across categorical lines, but we also find so many nuanced differences between all individuals, wherever located, that any sense of group identity seems too naïve to hold. All that can be done is to accept the difference, the diversity, and to give up on the politics of our identification if we wish to know and to love people as they really are. I wonder, though, in light of the culture wars currently being waged across the length of my newsfeed, how many of us actually desire such love.

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