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What changed Flannery O’Connor at 5: Sometimes, there is an answer, only not what you expect

Andrew Sullivan and then Dr. X link to a blog post by Ann Napolitano about Flannery O’Connor and her childhood home in Savannah, where a tour-guide told Napolitano that something happened to Flannery O’Connor between the age of 4 and 6 that made her into an adult:

“A little after this point,” he said, “something happened to change this little girl into the Flannery we recognize. Between the ages of four and six, she started to call her parents Edward and Regina. She began to speak to everyone as if she were an adult. She called her teachers by their first names, and that got her into some trouble at school. Her parents allowed it, though. They were ever after Edward and Regina to her.”

I love this anecdote, because the obvious assumption would be that something sinister had happened to Flannery during that period to alter her, or force her to grow up too quickly. But, as the tour guide assured me, and as I’d learned from my own research, that simply wasn’t the case. Flannery had, on the whole, a happy childhood. She simply did away with the trappings of childhood as soon as possible. She became herself earlier than most of us do. The vision of a fierce five-year Flannery pleases me, but it also rings true. The true Flannery could never be denied, not even by childish impulses.

Reading that speculation, I immediately felt like the student at the back of the class, waving his hand and announcing, “I know, I know!”  But, first, Dr. X meditated a bit on the simplistic speculation from the blog post:

How can anyone rule out some sinister event that had a profound effect on O’Connor? I can imagine many explanations for such a shift in a child’s relations with adults, but even in working with  cooperative, living adults, understanding the early formation of character is exceedingly difficult. I would say that it’s easier to do so when we can identify distinct events that clearly coincide with shifts in behavior and emotional life, but even then we’re easily seduced into unwarranted certainties.

What of the idea that the true Flannery could never be denied? I find that explanation as speculative as the claim that nothing sinister transpired.

Both formulations, the little victim and the little lioness, offer appealing romantic simplicity, but these explanations are narrow, one-sided portraits of character development.

True enough.  But what of the possibility that Flannery O’Connor knew and was quite open about an event that changed her life?  Or perhaps even had written about it?  Well, here’s a quote from an essay she published in 1961:

When I was five, I had an experience that marked me for life.

So, yes, there is a big clue out there, and it immediately came to mind when I read this post.

I’m purposefully delaying the punch line because (unless you already know) it is not what you are expecting, in the least.

At the age of 5, Flannery O’Connor achieved world-wide fame for being in a Pathé newsreel film of her and her backwards-walking chicken. Here’s the full first paragraph of her essay “Living with a Peacock:”

When I was five, I had an experience that marked me for life. Pathé News sent a photographer from New York to Savannah to take a picture of a chicken of mine. This chicken, a buff Cochin Bantam, had the distinction of being able to walk either forward or backward. Her fame has spread through the press and by the time she reached the at­tention of Pathé News, I suppose there was nowhere left for her to go—forward or backward. Shortly after that she died, as now seems fitting.

Here’s Mary O’Connor at 5, before she became Flannery O’Connor, and her chicken from the Pathé newsreel.  Click on it and you can watch the newsreel itself on the British Pathé site.


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