The Will to Fight

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that uniquely affects the individual. The disease tells the body to attack its organs and tissue. The main issue with lupus is its mysterious nature in which it manifests itself. No two patients who have lupus are affected in the same way.[1] The face of lupus patients tends to round out, and hair loss is an effect of the disease. The swelling of joints caused by lupus can affect the legs, feet, jaw, or eyes. Due to its mysterious nature, it was challenging for doctors to distinguish between Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Treating patients was just as tricky. Not until 1975,  could doctors more accurately diagnose the disease and treat it appropriately.[2] Lupus was a disease that tested many people in their lives and was also a disease that afflicted Flannery O’Connor and her family.

In 1941, Flannery O’Connor lost her father, Edward O’Connor, when she was only sixteen. He had been diagnosed with lupus the previous year, and it came as a shock when he passed away exactly one month after he turned forty-five.[3] A decade later, upon returning to Georgia from New York for Christmas, she is immediately taken to the hospital. Her dreadful appearance was the first hint to family members that something was wrong. While at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, her diagnosis is that of lupus; however, at the request of Regina, doctors inform her, she has acute Rheumatoid Arthritis.[4]

It was early 1951 when Regina moved herself and Flannery to Andalusia in Milledgeville, Georgia, a farm property owned by Flannery’s uncle Bernard Cline. The same year, Flannery had a flare-up, causing her skin to become red and inflamed, developing into a wolfish looking rash.[5] Flannery, still under the impression she was living with arthritis, took it upon herself to visit with her dear friends, Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. During this trip, Sally took the opportunity to tell Flannery the truth that she did not have arthritis but was indeed suffering from lupus. Flannery sat in the passenger seat of Sally’s car for a moment in silence. After the initial shock was over, she thanked Sally for telling her. However, she urged Sally not to tell Regina that she had divulged the information.[6] It was that day that Flannery felt the duality of a weight lifted from her shoulders with another added right back on. With the truth at hand, she was both relieved and yet there was a cause to worry.

In 1952, the doctors finally asked Regina if they could tell Flannery about lupus diagnosis, to which she agreed.[7] To treat specific effects of lupus, she was issued a newly approved steroid cortisone shot called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). She often felt weak and tired but was determined to push through the drag of lupus. By 1954, Flannery began to lose her hair, and according to her, and her face resembled a watermelon.[8] In the same year, she had to begin walking with a cane, which made her feel as though she stood out.[9] The disease progressed significantly, although she did not allow it to deter her from working on her writing. By 1956, the cane was substituted permanently, with crutches.

As life went on, so did Flannery’s persistence to live normally and put lupus on the backburner. Towards the end of 1963, a benign fibroid tumor became the cause of weakness she had felt for many months. The doctors assumed simple blood transfusions would help, but soon, removal of the tumor was necessary.[10] After the surgery in 1964, everything appeared to be in working order. Nevertheless, her lupus was slowly beginning to flare up once more. By July, the disease attacked her kidneys, causing them to fail slowly and eventually shut down.[11] Flannery O’Connor passed away from kidney failure, a complication of lupus, on August 3, 1964, at the young age of thirty-nine.

Although lupus is a mysterious and harsh disease, Flannery O’Connor did not let it take over her life. She was a strong individual who was willing to push through pain in order to achieve whatever task she set for herself. During Flannery’s time, lupus was not as well understood as it is today. Therefore it was not as effectively treated. Her willpower and strength to push lupus to the side and do what she wanted is remarkable and noteworthy.

[1] “Lupus Symptoms,” Lupus Foundation of America. 2020.

[2] Robert A. Norman. “The History of Lupus Erythematosus and Discoid Lupus: From Hippocrates to the Present.” Norman, Lupus Open Access 1:1. December 4, 2015.

[3] Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Little, Brown and Co. 2009), 69.

[4] Ibid, 191.

[5] Ibid, 192.

[6] Ibid, 215.

[7] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988), 38.

[8] Ibid, 55.

[9] Ibid, 74.

[10] Ibid, 554-555.

[11] Ibid, 594-595.

Title Image credit: McTyre, Joe. Flannery O’Connor in the Driveway at Andalusia in Georgia, AJC, Associated Press, 1962.

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