That’s what friends are for: Letters between Flannery O’Connor and Betty Hester

This ran several years ago in Atlanta magazine.

Despite a title like “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” Flannery O’Connor did not write “chick lit,” unless you count her detailed observations on those cherished peacocks.

Not many female readers (or male ones) breeze through her books at the beach and think: “I wish I had a fun-loving girlfriend like her!” This is the acid-tongued, Southern Gothic curmudgeon who summed up her obsessions with virtue, suffering, and freaks in one famous sentence: “‘She would of (sic) been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ ”

Who wouldn’t be afraid to sip Chardonnay and go shoe-shopping with Flannery O’Connor? However, as her painstakingly typed, Milledgeville-postmarked letters reveal, she could be the best kind of friend – a compassionate confidante who honored her pal’s secret, which no doubt would have scandalized most of the “good country people” at the time.

This month, Emory University unveils a collection of about 270 letters that O’Connor wrote to her longtime friend Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, an intense, reclusive Atlanta woman who supported herself as a file clerk but lived and breathed philosophy — the more esoteric, the better. The two women bantered Big Ideas on heavy morality, usually “Romish” in tone, as O’Connor described her militant, blood-soaked Catholicism, and in search of the “Absolute.” They are leavened, though, by folksy, catty gossip; avian updates; and whimsical, out-of-the-blue pronouncements. “I feel lumpish,” she sighs at one point, and that seems a perfect adjective for a certain state of mind. She must have made her pensive correspondent, who suffered “up and down times of elation and depression,” laugh out loud with her dispatches from Andalusia, the family farm in Milledgeville, which, to any native Georgian, connotes the state’s storied mental institution: “I promise a trip to the asylum and the reformatory…can you wait?” It pains modern fans to be reminded, of course, that the author occasionally and offhandedly dropped the ugly racial epithet. Still, gathered together, these intimate writings make for some of the most revelatory, “Christ-haunted” epistles since the New Testament.

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Flannery O’Connor

If you can look past the point-counterpoint on Wittgenstein and other high-minded dialogue, there is also fun girl-talk, like a pillow-fight among valedictorians in a very, very smart sorority house. O’Connor bristles when Hester calls her a “fascist,” and in turn accuses her of being a “Romantic.” Visualize them smirking, sighing, and rolling their eyes behind their hornrims. “You will probably find me tricked out in the personality of the GA Farm Girl or Good-Earth-Loving Author or something equally horrendous,” O’Connor writes about a newspaper profile. Then, later, referring to the photo: “There must have been something better than that one of me looking gimlet-eyed across the hog waller with the shack in the background.”

Some of these letters are published in partial, expurgated form in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, who then donated this archive to Emory in 1987 on the condition that it remain sealed for 20 years. Hester’s name was a fiercely kept secret, even among that most indiscreet of demographics – Southern literati. In The Habit of Being, her contributions – passionate, cerebral treatises on everything from modernism to virginity — are signed simply “A,” for anonymous. The identity of the mysterious “A” finally was revealed, tragically, in 1998, when Hester shot herself in the head, surrounded by 4,000 books and several cats, in her small, musty Peachtree Street apartment. She was 76.

She left behind some unpublished stories and novels, along with her voluminous correspondence. Hester and her famous friend had written to each other almost every week for nine years, until 1964, when O’Connor, 39, died of lupus. (Ironically, in adolescence, both women lost parents to the forces that later would kill them – Hester’s mother committed suicide, and O’Connor’s father also succumbed to lupus.) These boxes stuffed with yellowed sheaves of O’Connor’s discursive observations remained unpublished and under lock and key — until now.

What, exactly, transpired between these unusual pen-pals, who seem to have reveled in some kind of sweet, mutual girl-crush, even if it was sublimely Platonic?

Curator Stephen Enniss hears this question often enough.

“Betty was a lesbian, and at one point in the correspondence, she appears to allude to her sexuality,” says Enniss, who is director of Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library. “At least, that is what you can infer from a close reading of Flannery’s response to Betty’s letter. I’m just guessing here…? It certainly doesn’t sound as if she’s talking about the weather.” He shrugs, pauses, and smiles sympathetically. “I assume it was at least partly because Betty was gay that she did not want the letters scrutinized at the time.”

Signs of Hester’s brave, anguished “coming out” can be detected in an oblique letter dated Halloween of 1956. The normally acerbic O’Connor, whose default mode admittedly was, in her words, “you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you,” crafted a response that is breathtaking in its tenderness:

“…I can’t write you fast enough and tell you that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in my opinion of you, which is the same as it was, and that is: based solidly on complete respect. … I have a tendency myself to dismiss other people’s torments out of hand, but this one, being yours, will have to be partly mine too. …You were right to tell me but I am glad you didn’t tell me until I knew you well. … But you wonder whether it makes any difference to me if you drop out of my existence. Yes it makes a difference. It would be impossible for me to let you. You have done me nothing but good… but the fact is, above and beyond this, that I have a spiritual relationship to you; I am your sponsor, self-appointed from the time you first wrote me and appointed by your afterwards, which means that I have a right to stay where I have been put.”

But, she adds with a sly hipness, don’t tell my mother why you “got out of the air force” because she “lives in a world Jane Austen would be comfortable in.” She closes with: “I can see now 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. Yours, Flannery.”

betty hester

Betty Hester

An eyebrow-raising passage in one letter alludes to a Milledgeville visit by Hester during which the guest bed clearly had not been slept in, notes Lynne Huffer, an Emory professor of women’s studies who specializes in feminist and queer theory.

“What are we to conclude from this? And why does it matter so much?” Huffer asks. “One of the great things about queer studies today is that it goes beyond sexuality as a question of acts—did they ‘do it’?—to other, more interesting questions. There are other aspects of a person’s life, including sensibility, emotional affinities, taste, and forms of relation, that are equally—even more—important to what we might call someone’s sexuality. I certainly wouldn’t call O’Connor a lesbian, but she has a sensibility that comes through in her letters and fiction that you might call ‘queer,’ although you have to be careful since that word can easily become so capacious that we can use it to apply to just about anyone.”

So was she or wasn’t she?

Grad students long have venerated O’Connor, with her querulously “queer” vibe – somehow ecstatic, doctrinaire, and subversive all at the same time — as a deep-fried Sappho. “Surely she was a lesbian, I told myself,” novelist Dorothy Allison mused, “and took comfort from her stubborn misfit’s life, the fact that she lived with her mama and never married. I did not need her to sleep with a woman to prove her important to me, though I would have been grateful to think of her with a great love comforting her as lupus robbed her of all she might have done.”

In fact, O’Connor’s work figured prominently in a conference titled “Queering the South” a few years ago at Emory.

“This does not ‘out’ Flannery O’Connor,” says Enniss, shifting in his tweed. “There has been a lot of reckless speculation over the years, but it’s pretty clear from these letters that Flannery’s interest in Betty was a spiritual interest. Betty became a Catholic at one point and then lapsed, and Flannery was concerned with bringing her back into the fold.”

Of course, some overactive imaginations might be tempted to read between the lines of O’Connor’s response to her friend and intuit the age-old rebuff of “I just want to be friends.” However, that interpretation also would cheapen the mystery – that vaunted, defining, and consuming force in O’Connor’s life, work, and legacy.

“Henry James said the young woman of the future would know nothing of mystery and manners,” the author grouses in one of the letters. “He had no business to limit it to sex.”

Now that the less-numinous, less-mannered future she envisioned is here, bumper stickers for sale in the gift shop at Andalusia announce, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Flannery O’Connor Said It Best.”

Fortunately, she found true friendship with at least one good woman.