The Psychopaths of Flannery O'Connor

“There never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.” –The Misfit

Posted Sep 18, 2020

It is said that Edgar Allen Poe penned the first modern detective story when he wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and he is credited as the father of that genre. In my opinion, a similar honor is due to Flannery O’Connor for her standard-setting authorship of modern Southern Gothic short stories and novels.

O’Connor was born in Savannah but later in life moved to the small college town of Milledgeville, Georgia. I grew up in the adjacent county. Other writers have vividly captured the South of days gone by—Margaret Mitchell, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee, to name a few. But from the first sentence of the first paragraph of an O’Connor story or novel, there is a vague sense of unease: Like that feeling you get when everything in your life is going just fine and you wonder what bad thing is going to happen to mess this up. That’s pure O’Connor. 

She spoke of her stories and novels being set in “the Christ-haunted South.” The odd sense of unbelonging she felt as a Catholic growing up in Jim Crow-era Georgia, teeming with segregationist Baptists, revival tent Pentecostals, and itinerant Bible salesmen, she passes on to us in her characters and scenes.

You know how John Wayne movies give you the feeling that you’re watching John Wayne play himself? In a similar (but good) way, Flannery O’Connor’s literary voice is always front and center in her stories and novels. And what a unique voice it is—a brilliant mind, a fierce tendency to call bull**** on hypocrisy, and a skillful rendering of regional characters and places, all delivered in low country dialect. Underestimate her—or her characters—at your peril. 

These are a few of my favorite Flannery O’Connor psychopaths. 

The Misfit“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: This story involves a family—mother, father, grandmother, two school-age children, and a baby—who are driving from Georgia to Florida on vacation. The grandmother, a manipulative, domineering know-it-all, badgers her son (the father) into taking a detour down a seldom-traveled dirt road in search of an antebellum home. The washed-out road is unsafe. The car slides off an embankment and turns over. Along come The Misfit, an escaped murderer, and two of his compatriots. 

The grandmother desperately engages him in conversation while his cohorts shoot the rest of the family, including the baby. And just as Shakespeare frequently put wisdom and unwelcome truths in the mouths of fools, O’Connor puts those same revelations in the mouths of children or psychopaths. After killing the grandmother, The Misfit says of this willful, selfish old woman: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

There’s a quote about Southerners by James Dickey, author of Deliverance, that I cannot find anymore, but that went something like this: “They might kill you, but they would never be rude to you.” That’s The Misfit. He’s polite and gentlemanly toward her right up until the moment he shoots her. 

Rufus Johnson“The Lame Shall Enter First”: Raised by his religious fanatic grandfather, who has “gone with a remnant to the hills … they’re going to bury some Bibles in a cave” and wait for the end of the world, 14-year-old Rufus is homeless, eating out of garbage cans, and getting into trouble with the law. Rufus is as religion-crazy as his grandfather, but in the opposite direction. He says “Satan has me in his power,” and that’s just fine with Rufus.

Rufus also has a club foot. O’Connor’s characters frequently have a physical deformity, which serves as visual metaphor of an underlying character flaw or toxic personality

Sheppard, a widower, lives with his 10-year-old son, Norton. He has a college education and a white-collar job. Sheppard takes Rufus into his home to reform him and to remind Norton how fortunate he is compared to Rufus. Sheppard admires Rufus’ intelligence and considers Norton dull and selfish. Sheppard doesn’t realize that his attempts to reform Rufus are a means of avoiding his own grief and believes that his “armchair psychology” will draw Rufus out of his sullen, defiant shell. Sheppard also doesn’t realize that Norton’s “selfishness” is simply a 10-year-old’s retreat into himself when overwhelmed by unspeakable grief and little adult comfort and guidance in dealing with it. 

By the end of the story, Norton is a true believer in Rufus’ fundamentalist heaven-and-hell narrative, with horrifying consequences.

Sarah Ham, aka Star Drake“The Comforts of Home”: Before they were called psychopaths, those without conscience, empathy, or remorse were called “moral morons,” even by medical professionals. They recognized that such people do exist and that they are impervious to improvement—but they ascribed the problem to an inability to cognitively process the difference between right from wrong. Psychopaths do understand. It just that moral and ethical considerations are as real to them as fairy dust, and therefore of no importance.

The Onionfield, a movie based on the true story of two policemen abducted during a traffic stop by two ex-cons, presents this exchange between a police interrogator and one of the ex-cons after they kill one of the two policemen:

“Don’t you feel guilty for what you did?”

“I honestly don’t believe there is such a thing. Guilty? That’s just something the judge says when your luck runs out.”

In “The Comforts of Home,” O’Connor labels Sarah Ham, vixen, thief, and con artist as a “moral moron.” Although the term is crude by today’s standards, O’Connor’s aim was to portray a fictionalized female psychopath. And she nailed it.

Sarah, age 19, calls herself “Star Drake.” She’s in jail for passing bad checks. Thomas, a history writer, lives with his mother, a gullible and tender-hearted woman who sees only the good in people. She reads about Sarah in the paper, gets her out of jail, and brings her home to reform her. Thomas, himself a selfish man much attached to the comfort of his electric blanket, his mother’s homecooked meals, and the peace and quiet of a home without the loudmouthed Sarah Ham, vigorously opposes his mother and seeks the sheriff’s help to get the girl put back in jail. Meanwhile, Sarah taunts and flirts with him though his contempt for her is obvious.

Before the situation can be resolved, Thomas discovers that his pistol is missing. He notifies the sheriff, believing that this will get Sarah out of the house and back in jail once and for all. But before the sheriff arrives, he is shocked to discover that Sarah has returned the pistol. He decides to plant it in Sarah’s purse, but she catches him. Impulsively, he fires just as his mother rushes in and gets between the gun and Sarah. Thomas kills his mother, just as the sheriff arrives.

Tom Shiftlet“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

After “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” this is my favorite O’Connor story, and it’s just as compelling as the former. It’s set during the Depression era. Up a country dirt road, Tom Shiftlet comes walking—a one-armed man carrying a toolbox. He wanders up to the home of Lucynell Crater, an old woman, and her mentally challenged daughter, also named Lucynell. The daughter appears to have the intelligence of an infant and cannot even speak. 

Tom and the old woman exchange some chit-chat, during which Tom spies an old, non-working automobile in the garage. Old Lucynell spies his toolbox, but also his handicap. They strike a deal: He can sleep in the car and she will feed him (no pay), if he stays around and fixes up the place. And he does. He is a skilled carpenter even with his disability. He even teaches young Lucynell to say a couple of words. 

The old woman begins making not-so-subtle hints that Lucynell would make him a good wife, and that he would have a permanent home with them. Tom begins making not so subtle hints that he could fix up the car if she would buy the parts. And so they strike another deal.

The car gets fixed. Tom and young Lucynell get married at the courthouse. Old Lucynell gives them a few dollars for a honeymoon, and off they go. A few miles down the road, Tom abandons his bride at a diner and drives off in his car. 

* * *

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” –Flannery O’Connor