Abstract

This article examines Flannery O'Connor's depiction of mental disability in The Violent Bear It Away. O'Connor's work presents a particularly rich and complex intellectual space for examining stereotypes connecting mental disability with religious faith. Religious difference and disabled difference are presented as symbolically inseparable in The Violent Bear It Away, a conflation that may encourage negative stereotypes regarding both faith and madness. In the larger scope of the novel, O'Connor uses Tarwater's ambiguous status as both a mad man and a man of faith to question modern psychology and the mental healthcare system: just as readers are implicitly asked to "diagnose" her mad characters (but are set up to fail by the novel's deliberate indeterminacy), the psychologist character Rayber also struggles (and fails) to diagnose the other characters around him. In the end, however, O'Connor's critique of the mental healthcare system may be undermined by her use of mental disability as a symbol to convey religious mystery.


"Listen boy…even the mercy of the Lord burns."
–Old Tarwater, The Violent Bear It Away

Flannery O'Connor's work presents a particularly rich and complex intellectual space for examining stereotypes connecting mental disability with religious faith. In particular, her novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), acknowledged by many O'Connor critics to be her masterwork, has a primary focus on the religious beliefs and experiences of various characters who could be identified as mentally disabled. Disability in O'Connor's work is often viewed as symbolizing the moral failing (or, less often, the moral virtue) of her disabled characters. For example, Nicole Markotic reads Hulga's disability in "Good Country People" as "symboliz[ing] an undesirable aspect of her 'inner' character." 1 Rosemarie Garland Thompson describes Hulga's disability as a symbol of her flawed personality and sees it as central to the story's comic denouement: "If Flannery O'Connor's Hulga Hopewell were pretty, cheerful, and one-legged instead of ugly and bitter, 'Good Country People' would fail." 2 Laura Behling offers the exact opposite interpretation: "I suggest that the non-disabled humanity in these texts is, in fact, corrupt, selfish, and unforgiving, and that this view arises because of characters such as Hulga and Rufus. The disabled are, in fact, necessary in order to expose imperfection and inhumanity." 3 Many of these readings rely strongly on binary constructions (disabled versus able-bodied, sinful versus holy, villain versus hero). 4 Yet the symbolic intersections between mental disorder and religious belief in The Violent Bear It Away offer a deeply ambiguous depiction of both disability and faith that complicates such simplistic binaries.

In The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor's interweaving of faith and madness portrays both religious faith and mental disability as indeterminate and mysterious states of being. Fundamentally, then, her novel assumes a neurotypical and secular reader (after all, the experience of mental disability is not mysterious for those of us with mental disabilities; religious faith is not strange to those of us who have religious faith). 5 All too often, when authors seek to represent an aspect of the human experience that is difficult to understand, they employ mental disability as a metaphor to represent that-which-cannot-be-explained. Indeed, depicting mental disability as mysterious is itself a common disability stereotype, one which covertly claims that only the neurotypical is understandable. 6 However, if O'Connor's narrative voice assumes our complicity in the systems that ostracize, label, and disempower Young Tarwater (and perhaps we are all subtly complicit in the social systems that oppress difference), the profound ambiguity at the heart of her work also reminds readers that all attempts to label the protagonist must fail. Tarwater is paradoxically presented as simultaneously neurotypical and mad, both hero and villain, both man of faith and unbeliever. Ultimately, religious difference and disabled difference are presented as symbolically inseparable in The Violent Bear It Away, a conflation that may encourage negative stereotypes regarding both faith and madness. In the larger scope of the novel, O'Connor uses Tarwater's ambiguous status as both a mad man and a man of faith to question modern psychology and the mental healthcare system: just as readers are implicitly asked to "diagnose" her mad characters (but are set up to fail by the novel's deliberate indeterminacy), the psychologist character Rayber also struggles (and fails) to diagnose the other characters around him. In the end, however, O'Connor's critique of the mental healthcare system may ultimately be undermined by her use of mental disability as a symbol to convey religious mystery.

In addressing O'Connor's novel, I define "mental disability" very broadly in order to include a variety of cognitive differences. 7 Disability studies scholars have long acknowledged that "disability" is itself a term incorporating great diversity: as Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky note, the term "disability" includes "people with a variety of conditions, despite considerable differences in etiology, [who] confront a common set of stigmatizing social values and debilitating socially constructed hazards." 8 In particular, the naming of mental disability is a deeply contentious issue, and the terms we choose to use effect the way that people with mental disabilities may be perceived. 9 As Margaret Price argues, "the problem of naming has always preoccupied DS [disability studies] scholars, but acquires a particular urgency when considered in the context of disabilities of the mind, for often the very terms used to name persons with mental disabilities have explicitly foreclosed our status as persons." 10 In this article, I have chosen to use the terms "mental disability," "mental disorder," "mad," "schizophrenia," and "schizophrenic" interchangeably in describing Tarwater's mental difference. I am using "mad" in the sense of the term's reclamation by the mad pride movement, although when O'Connor uses it, she no doubt has other meanings in mind. In fact, O'Connor's use of terminology in the novel is deliberately unclear: she uses the terms "madness," "faith" and "violence" interchangeably—thus suggesting a dangerous (and false) symbolic connection between mental disorder, religious belief, and violent actions.

When O'Connor equates "madness" and "faith," she presents both as indeterminate and extreme states of being that set her religious characters apart from her secular ones. Young Tarwater's fear of his family heritage is two-fold: he fears that Old Tarwater was "mad" and that the history of mental disorder in the family predicts that he will be "mad" like his Great-Uncle, but he also fears the religious zeal of Old Tarwater and believes that the Christian heritage of the family may be passed on to him as well. Often, these two familial legacies (mental disability and faith) are equated in Young Tarwater's mind: "The boy sensed that this was the heart of his Great-Uncle's madness, this hunger [for Jesus], and what he was secretly afraid of was that it might be passed down, might be hidden in the blood, and might strike some day in him and then he would be torn by hunger like the old man…"(343). 11 In this passage, faith is clearly equated with madness—they are the two overlapping destinies that young Tarwater fears are biologically inheritable ("hidden in the blood") (343). As he flees his destiny as a prophet, Tarwater sees his younger self (a self who believes in God) as mad: "Beyond the glare, he was aware of another figure, a gaunt stranger, the ghost who had been born in the wreck and who had fancied himself destined at that moment to the torture of prophecy. It was apparent to the boy that this person…was mad" (465). In fact, the pathologizing of faith is a common theme in the novel, particularly in Rayber's diatribes against baptism. He can only think about the act of baptism in psychological (and pathological) terms: "Who said anything about baptizing anybody?…Is that one of your fixations?" (420). In Rayber's mind, baptism is a compulsion rather than a sacred rite. He refers to Tarwater's urge to baptize Bishop as though it were an illness: "One of Rayber's immediate goals was to make him understand that his urge to baptize the child was a kind of sickness" (424). Rayber is also determined to "cure" Young Tarwater of his faith: "He would be with them until he had either accomplished what he came for, or until he was cured…'I will cure him,' he said grimly. I will cure him or know the reason why'" (422). Faith, like illness, is regarded as a form of social otherness that must be cured in order to be eliminated. Indeed, Tarwater's very vision of God is one of disability: Young Tarwater does not wish to follow in "the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus" (389). In Tarwater's mind, Jesus is himself a mad figure, a man who is "bleeding stinking mad"—the image of Christ is here embodied, injured, insane. 12 In short, one cannot be a Christian in the world of The Violent Bear It Away without some form of madness, and O'Connor presents both states of being (both faith and madness) as indeterminate, unknowable, and mysterious.

O'Connor's representation of faith as a form of mental disability relies on multiple stereotypes about cognitive difference in order to render her vision of faith "extreme" in the eyes of a majority able-bodied, neurotypical audience: her depiction of mental disability and faith reveals both states of being as mysterious and inexplicable. This may, in fact, be part of an attempt on O'Connor's part to defamiliarize her audience from Christianity—thus allowing her to present the mundane world of the average Southern church-goer as something potentially powerful and other-worldly. 13 Overlapping images of madness and faith portray O'Connor's particular vision of Christianity as radical otherness and rely on stereotypes regarding disability to suggest that religious devotion entails suffering. Mental disability in O'Connor's work suggests an imagined extremity of character. 14 The stereotype implied in such an equation is clear: to be mad is not an extreme state of being but is merely the daily lived reality of those with mental disorders. More importantly, O'Connor's vision of both mental disability and religious faith implies that both entail suffering. Throughout the novel, O'Connor presents fire as a symbol of the painful transformation associated with religious belief. For example, Young Tarwater relates that his Great-Uncle "had schooled him in the evils that befall prophets; in those that come from the world, which are trifling, and those that come from the Lord and burn the prophet clean; for he himself had been burned clean and burned clean again. He had learned by fire" (332). One can only assume that to "learn by fire" must cause pain. Even the merciful and loving gestures of O'Connor's God are fearsome. Tarwater is commanded to "GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF HIS MERCY" (479). The child preacher tells of a God whose love is cold and whose will is difficult for humans to bear: "Love cuts like the cold wind and the will of God is plain as the winter. Where is the summer will of God? Where are the green seasons of God's will? Where is the spring and summer of God's will?" (413). In O'Connor's novel, to be a prophet is to know the terrible speed of a mercy that burns, to experience love that cuts with cold. As Frederick Asals puts it, "The Violent Bear It Away reveals the divine to be at least as terrifying as the demonic". 15 Since cultural stereotypes frequently present disability as a tragic burden causing suffering, O'Connor uses images of mental disability to convey the pain of her characters' religious experiences. In short, cultural stereotypes that conceive of disability as a source of suffering allow O'Connor to symbolically present her prophet figures as suffering and tormented.

Furthermore, O'Connor's characterization of her mad prophet figures is strongly based on the false cultural binary that imagines madness as being diametrically opposed to reason: in The Violent Bear It Away, reason is presented as apprehensible, while mental disability is presented as mysterious and unknowable. 16 Because stereotypes suggest that to be mad means that one cannot be rational and religious faith is often perceived as grounded in belief, not reason, O'Connor symbolically conflates the two. Thus, to engage with the divine in The Violent Bear It Away is to be mad—not rational, but living by faith. Of course, reasonable/unreasonable and rational/irrational are not the easy binaries that they have frequently appeared to be in the cultural imagination. Mental disorder does not indicate a lack of reason. Mad people, like neurotypical people, display reason. (In addition, neurotypical people do a great many irrational and unreasonable things.) Indeed, what kinds of behavior are considered "reasonable" is largely a matter of perspective. The dichotomy between logical reasoning and faith is equally false. One need not abandon all reason in order to embrace faith. However, in The Violent Bear It Away, faith is consistently associated with madness and an inability to reason. 17 When Rayber regards Young Tarwater's need to baptize Bishop, he can only explain this obsessive need as a lack of reason: "He realized now the magnitude of the boy's affliction. He knew that there was no way to appeal to him with reason. There was no hope of discussing it sanely with him…" (421). The desire to baptize Bishop, which Rayber so clearly pathologizes, is an "affliction" which lacks all "reason" and cannot be "sane." Again and again, Rayber perceives Young Tarwater as unreasonable. He believes that the boy's "irrational fears and impulses would burst out" thus giving Rayber a chance to "explain them to him" (423). In Western culture, what it means to be reasonable has historically been conflated with what it means to be human. 18 As Price points out, "Aristotle's famous declaration that man is a rational animal gave rise to centuries of insistence that to be named mad was to lose one's personhood." 19 Often, "those without reason" are imagined as "inhuman"—thus those labeled as mad must be more than (or less than) human. In the case of O'Connor's prophets, mad characters are often presented as superhuman—they are imagined as mystical and somehow closer to the divine. 20 Through an apparent abandonment of logic, those who are mad in The Violent Bear It Away are able to apprehend divine will: in O'Connor's moral universe to be mad is to be in touch with the divine—or at least closer to the divine than the mean of fallen humanity.

Not only are O'Connor's mad men of faith presented as lacking in reason, but they are also portrayed as inherently violent: in O'Connor's novel, madness, faith, and violence are all depicted as mysterious and indeterminate in origin. In The Violent Bear It Away, violence, like madness, is presented as opposed to rationality—and therefore aligned with faith. Like Young Tarwater, Rayber fears the family history of mental disorder, and like his nephew, he also conflates mental disability with religious belief. He thinks of his struggle with madness/faith as a division between the violent and the rational: "Rayber felt afflicted with a peculiar chilling clarity of mind in which he saw himself divided in two—a violent and a rational self" (417). 21 Old Tarwater may (or may not be) mad, but he is definitely violent. Violence is often physically visible: mental disability, often, is not. 22 Reading the former as a marker of the latter has become a dangerous stereotype. In the novel, the effects of Old Tarwater's violence are physically visible: he repeatedly kidnaps children (first the young Rayber and later Young Tarwater), and he shoots Rayber when the schoolteacher attempts to reclaim the child the old man has taken. Old (and false) stereotypes equating physical violence and mental disorder are clearly at play, as the young hero's schizophrenia directly contributes to violence. 23 Tarwater kills Bishop because he hears a voice ("the stranger") encouraging him to drown the boy. Thus, the characters' violent actions (kidnapping, murder) are aligned with madness and faith simultaneously. Old Tarwater kidnaps children in his family in order to baptize them: he firmly believes that he is saving them by taking them from their rightful guardians. Tarwater's drowning of Bishop is simultaneously drowning and baptism, an act that both kills and saves. Indeed, O'Connor's vision of God does seem to be one intertwined with violence. One of O'Connor's favorite Bible verses was Matthew 10:34: "Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword." 24 The problems of imagining God as a figure who works through violence are obvious, since the novel seems to reward characters for violent actions: Tarwater's path to becoming a prophet includes murder. 25 The fact that those actions are clearly symbolic does little to mitigate the problem. 26 Even more troubling is the way in which the novel depicts those with mental disorders as inherently violent and frightening to others. 27 Intertwining with this representation of the mad as inherently violent, the novel also make use of stereotypes that portray madness as frightening and otherworldly—and therefore Gothic. Relying on these stereotypes allows O'Connor to use disabled characters to suggest that religious faith is frightening and otherworldly. Ultimately, O'Connor's attempt to defamiliarize her audience from Christianity leads her to employ symbols of violence: these symbolic choices make faith seem frightening.

Although readers are invited to play the psychologist (to attempt to place a medical diagnosis or label on Tarwater's mental state), O'Connor leaves Tarwater's mind—his status as mentally disabled and/or as a man of faith—deeply ambiguous. 28 In fact, the source of the voice that Young Tarwater hears throughout the novel is never clearly identified. It is possible to read the novel as psychologically realistic (and to imagine Tarwater as having schizophrenia) as well as to read the novel as religiously symbolic (in which case, the voice that Tarwater hears may be a demonic influence). 29 Both interpretations are equally possible in the world of the novel. Clearly, these overlapping interpretive possibilities rely on mythologies that attribute supernatural cause to mental disorders: O'Connor's novel conflates mental disorder and supernatural possession, suggesting that disability in general (and mental disability in particular) must have supernatural origins. From the novel's first chapter, Tarwater hears a voice (and occasionally sees a figure) that doubts and questions his belief in God: this voice/figure is first identified as "the stranger" but later as Tarwater's "friend" or "mentor." 30 Many literary critics have identified this "stranger" with the man who rapes Tarwater at the end of the novel (since both have "lavender eyes"). The question of the stranger's reality/embodiment is both disturbing and problematic—although the nightmarish figure originally appears as a character that exists solely in Tarwater's visions, he later appears in the text as an embodied reality—embodied enough, in fact, to commit rape. Literary critics have frequently identified the stranger with the devil, following the lead of O'Connor herself, who claimed that the two figures were symbolically one in The Habit of Being. 31 Thus, Tarwater's schizophrenia (the "voice" that he hears throughout the novel) may be seen as supernatural, fiendish, evil—a force that convinces him to drown an innocent child.

In fact, the voice Tarwater hears is directly opposed to the commands of O'Connor's God, commands that seem to make themselves manifest to Tarwater not through voice but through silence: in the world of the novel, the difference between mental disability and supernatural revelation (if there is one) is completely ambiguous. While the voice of the stranger demands that Tarwater drown Bishop, listening to the silence gives a different command: "his mind had been engaged in the continual struggle with the silence that confronted him, that demanded he baptize the child and begin at once the life the old man had prepared him for" (429). Again, the silence and the voice are opposed in Tarwater's mind: "Each time the temptation came [the temptation to baptize Bishop], he would feel that the silence was about to surround him, and he was going to be lost in it forever. He would have fallen except for the wise voice that sustained him—the stranger who kept him company while he dug his uncle's grave" (429-430). The vilification of Tarwater's schizophrenic characteristics is here quite clear: God is in neurotypical silence, and the devil is in schizophrenia. In fact, Tarwater loathes the silence and uses the Biblical name for the devil (adversary) to refer to it: "'I won't have anything to do with him!' He shouted and the words were clear and positive and defiant like a challenge hurled in the face of his silent adversary" (390). Here the Biblical devil is not Tarwater's adversary—his adversary is O'Connor's God. Although Tarwater spends the entire novel waiting to hear the voice of God, the juxtaposed images of voice and silence culminate in a silent command: "He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF HIS MERCY. The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood" (479). Ironically, the "voice" of God that Tarwater has been waiting for turns out not to be a voice at all. In short, O'Connor's juxtaposition between voice and silence throughout the novel presents Tarwater's schizophrenic traits as potentially demonic in origin.

Finally, to be mad/violent in this novel is stereotypically associated with the role of the prophet—to be mad in The Violent Bear It Away is also to be "holy," set apart, and radically other: again, O'Connor's text invites readers to interpret characters' mental states but may leave them unable to definitely distinguish between disabled and religious difference. In religious terms, her characters' otherness/holiness is seen as a source of potential power. The Greek word "hagios" means "holy," but also "other" or "different." 32 There is no doubt that the Tarwaters are "different" and "other"—a combination of religious difference and mental disability leaves them completely socially isolated (an isolation that the other characters interpret as a sign of prophetic power). Yet social isolation is not a sign of power—it is only that the other characters interpret it to be so. Again, O'Connor highlights the importance of the act of interpretation—the meaning of the characters' social isolation is decidedly ambiguous. As Rayber describes Young Tarwater, "He wore his isolation like a mantle, wrapped it around himself as if it were a garment signifying the elect" (399). Here, Young Tarwater shows his status as a "chosen" man of God through isolation. As the regard of Young Tarwater for his Great-Uncle shows, the prophet-in-training's conception of what it means to be a man of God is riddled with stereotypes about mental disability:

At such times he [Old Tarwater] would wander into the woods and leave Tarwater alone in the clearing, occasionally for days, while he thrashed out his peace with the Lord, and when he returned, bedraggled and hungry, he would look the way the boy thought a prophet ought to look. He would look as if he had been wrestling a wildcat, as if his head were still full of the visions he had seen in its eyes, wheels of light and strange beasts with giant wings of fire and four heads turned to the four points of the universe (334).

Again, the act of interpretation is central—readers are not told what Old Tarwater sees (or if he sees anything). Young Tarwater imagines a Revelation-like vision based on his Great-Uncle's looks alone—and his description of this supposed vision is primarily built on disability stereotypes. Stereotypes of mental disability frequently focus on the supposed isolation of people with mental disorders. In this passage, the prophet, like those with mental disabilities, is imagined as fundamentally alone and lacking in community (Old Tarwater lives in complete isolation for days at a time). Like those with mental disabilities, the prophet is defined by physical distance and separation, by social isolation and marginalization. In O'Connor's novel, the prophet is imagined as wild, completely outside of (and unharnessed by) human civilization ("he would wander into the woods" and returned looking "as if he had been wrestling a wildcat"). As elsewhere in the novel, faith, madness, and violence overlap—the mad prophet's encounter with the divine is one of violence ("he thrashed out his peace with the Lord"). To be "ordinary" (or neurotypical or able-bodied) according to this schema is to be common and profane—less "holy" and further from the divine. Again, the mad man must be more than (and separate from) the rest of humanity. Thus, O'Connor uses stereotypes of mental disability to symbolize the separateness (or holiness) of her prophet figures.

Even the psychologist Rayber lives in a state of mental indeterminacy and unknowability—although Rayber is no prophet, he seems to have inherited the same mental disability that hides in the blood of Young Tarwater: throughout the novel, O'Connor depicts Rayber as struggling to control a potential mental disorder. Rayber sees this mental disability (representing faith) as a threat to individual agency and identity. Like Young Tarwater, he worries that "The affliction was in the family. It lay hidden in the line of blood that touched them, flowing from some ancient source, some desert prophet or pole-sitter, until, its power unabated, it appeared in the old man and him, and, he surmised, in the boy. Those it touched were condemned to fight it constantly or be ruled by it" (402). Mental disorder/faith is here genetic doom—a biological determinism that Rayber must deny, fight, and overcome at all costs. Mental disability, in this equation, is also falsely presented as a force that can (and should) be controlled through discipline or self-control. Rayber believes that

The old man had been ruled by it. He, at the cost of a full life, staved it off. What the boy would do hung in the balance. He had kept it from gaining control over him by what amounted to a rigid ascetic discipline…He was not deceived that this was a whole or a full life, he only knew that this was how his life would have to be lived if it were going to have any dignity at all. He knew that he was the stuff of which fanatics and madmen are made and that he had turned his destiny as if with his bare will (402).

Rayber is destined for madness/faith but has exerted self-control to keep himself "sane." He manages both "conditions" through self-denial. In the world of disability stereotypes, self-control is the opposite extreme of imagined violence. Those with mental disabilities are feared as fundamentally out of control, and this contributes to stereotypes in which people with mental disabilities are imagined to be violent. Indeed, O'Connor presents Rayber as choosing between faith/madness and a quietly desperate Nihilism: "He kept himself upright on a very narrow line between madness and emptiness, and when the time came for him to lose his balance, he intended to lurch toward emptiness and fall on the side of his choice. He recognized that in silent ways he lived a heroic life" (402). The stereotypical role of the "heroic overcomer," the disabled figure who overcomes his or her disability through sheer determination, comes into play, as Rayber imagines himself as a hero for managing his "condition."

Indeed, Rayber's habit of pathologizing religious faith contributes to the novel's ambiguous depiction of disability and faith as symbolically interchangeable. Again and again, Rayber pathologizes faith and imagines madness as something that can be eliminated or cured through self-control. Such false perceptions of what it means to have a mental disability may create expectations that those with disabilities can (or should) "cure" themselves. As Rayber accuses Old Tarwater: "'You infected me with your idiot hopes, your foolish violence. I'm not always myself, I'm not always myself…' but he stopped. He wouldn't admit what the old man knew. 'There's nothing wrong with me,' he said, 'I've straightened the tangle you made. Straightened it by pure will power. I've made myself straight'" (377). For Rayber, faith is a disease: Tarwater's Christian witness has "infected" him. Again, mental disorder, faith, and violence overlap, as violence is one of the forces with which Rayber fears that he has been infected. All three are a threat (disability, faith, violence), at least according to Rayber, to individual identity: "I'm not always myself." Although Rayber sees faith as a threat to his identity and freedom, the narrative voice of the novel presents this perspective as firmly ironic. Rayber's life, the rejection of a full life and his true character as a mad man/prophet, is anything but heroic. It is a life of unnecessary denial of truth and identity, the rejection of faith in favor of emptiness. Later, the Biblical parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9) becomes a metaphor not only for faith but also perhaps for the family history of schizophrenia. Young Tarwater is accusatory: "'It's you the seed fell in…It ain't a thing you can do about it. It fell on bad ground but it fell in deep. With me,' he said proudly, 'it fell on rock and the wind carried it away'" (449). Young Tarwater is definitely in denial about his faith and perhaps in denial about his disability. Rayber disagrees: "It fell on us both alike. The difference is that I know it's in me and I keep it under control. I weed it out…" (449). The seed of the biblical parable comes to represent both schizophrenia and faith: it represents potential identities Rayber has rejected. Ultimately, Rayber's struggle for control both suggests false stereotypes regarding mental disability (the mental disability is presented as separate from the person, a thing in need of cure or management) while also suggesting that faith is a frightening force that may usurp individual will.

Although O'Connor's use of mental disability is frequently symbolic and stereotypical, her work also offers a critique of modern psychology and of the power dynamics of the mental healthcare system. Just as the novel critiques psychology on a literal level, it also sets readers up to fail in their attempts to psychologize the symbolic, indeterminate, and ambiguous mental states of O'Connor's characters. The Violent Bear It Away is a text very much alive to the stigma and power of discrediting labels and ableist language. Both Rayber and "the stranger" try to use the label "crazy" to discredit the Christian testimony of Old Tarwater. If the voice of the stranger represents the devil in O'Connor's work, then the devil himself believes in psychological labels—or at least, he believes in their potential power to silence the people so labeled. The stranger/devil bases his arguments against Old Tarwater on the false binary that divides the "mad" from the "true:" "You see he was crazy all along," the stranger argues (353). His premise is that if Old Tarwater is mad, then all of the religious beliefs he imparted to Young Tarwater must be false. Of course, one can be mad and still tell the truth: the stranger/devil's logic is obviously flawed. O'Connor presents Old Tarwater as both potentially mad and truthful—or at least far more truthful than the seemingly "sane" Rayber. Again, the stranger/devil uses ableist language to discredit Old Tarwater (and perhaps to attack the meaning-making systems that underlie Christianity at large):

Anybody that's going to be a prophet has got to have somebody to prophesy to. Unless you're just going to prophesy to yourself he amended—or go baptize that dim-witted child, he added in a tone of high sarcasm…you know he was a crazy man even when he wasn't in the asylum, even those last years. Or if he wasn't actually crazy, he was the same thing in a different way: he didn't have but one thing on his mind. He was a one-notion man. Jesus this and Jesus that. (354).

The stranger's attack here is two-fold: first, the commands of Old Tarwater are invalid because he instructed Young Tarwater to baptize a child with an intellectual disability. In the devil's logic, Bishop's intellectual disability reduces the value of the child's life, and therefore the importance of his baptism. 33 Furthermore, the mocking idea that Tarwater is going to prophesy to himself suggests that his words will not reach an understanding audience (this may be a reference to Bishop's intellectual disability, as the other characters assume him to be an audience lacking in understanding, or a potential reference to Tarwater's schizophrenia, as he is imagined to speak without achieving real communication with other people). 34 Single-mindedness is here read as a sign of potential mental disorder: the stranger/devil insists that Old Tarwater's "one-notion" obsessiveness is the source of his madness. 35 Like the words of the stranger, Rayber's attacks on Old Tarwater's credibility also include the use of ableist labels. His points vary from complaints about Young Tarwater's upbringing (insisting, for example, that Old Tarwater has made his nephew "irrational, backwoods, and ignorant" and prevented him from "having a normal life") to threats of incarceration ("If you don't, I'll have you put back in the asylum where you belong") to blatant attack, "You're crazy, you're crazy, you're a liar, you have a head full of crap. You belong in a nut house!" (393; 394; 350; 445). The assertion of madness ("you're crazy") is followed immediately by an assertion that the mad do not speak the truth ("you're a liar"). Although Old Tarwater's ethos is damaged by these labels, such accusations do not necessarily make Old Tarwater's Christian faith false. Clearly, both the stranger/devil and Rayber use discrediting and ableist labels in an attempt to silence the Tarwaters.

In addition, O'Connor's characterization of Rayber brutally parodies psychologists: his failed attempts to understand the Tarwaters are mirrored in the reader's failed attempt to label the indeterminate mental state of O'Connor's deeply ambiguous characters. O'Connor presents Rayber as potentially abusive toward his clients as well as in denial of any spiritual possibilities in the universe. The novel openly ridicules Rayber's reliance on psychological evaluations and diagnostic paperwork as a means of ascertaining truth. Old Tarwater interprets Rayber's need to record information and create paperwork in order to make sense of the world as an unhealthy approach to life. He also argues that Rayber contributes to the imprisonment and limitation of the very people he claims to be helping:

"That's where he wanted me," the old man said, "and he thought once he had me in that schoolteacher magazine, I would be as good as in his head." The schoolteacher's house had had little in it but books and papers. The old man had not known when he went there to live that every living thing that passed through the nephew's eyes into his head was turned by his brain into a book or a paper or a chart. The school teacher… had asked numerous questions, the answers to which he had sometimes scratched down on a pad…(341)

Although it is not overtly stated in the novel, O'Connor hints that Rayber is a professor of psychology (he both teaches and publishes research in scholarly journals). Old Tarwater resents the psychologist's impulse to make him an object of study; more importantly, he completely repudiates the belief that the only legitimate knowledge is quantifiable—objectively observable and recordable. From Old Tarwater's perspective, Rayber is obsessed with documentation (the "schoolteacher magazine," a house full of "books and papers," answers "scratched down on a pad"). For Rayber, to analyze and record is the only means of knowing and interacting with the world: "every living thing that passed through the nephew's eyes into his head was turned by his brain into a book or a paper or a chart" (341). As the living mystery of creation is rendered sterile and dead (recorded flatly in charts and graphs), Rayber believes that he gains control over the information he transcribes. What can be written down and recorded can be understood and manipulated (and perhaps cured). Again, the search for a cure to Tarwater's faith pathologizes religious belief: Rayber "felt that he had hastened his [Young Tarwater's] urge to leave by confronting him with the test. He had intended giving him the standard ones, intelligence and aptitude, and then going on to some he had perfected himself dealing with emotional factors. He had thought that in this way he could ferret to the center of the emotional infection" (399). Rayber's intent to understand faith through IQ tests and psychological evaluations is clearly misplaced. His belief that Young Tarwater's faith is an "emotional infection" is equally disturbing. As Rayber tells Young Tarwater, "What we understand, we can control" (450). Since one of the psychologist's goals is to understand other people, such statements take on a potentially sinister slant.

Indeed, to be understood by the psychologist Rayber seems to imply that one will be under his control and will belong to him: this critique of psychological labeling is paralleled by the novel's presentation of ambiguous and symbolic characters who are fundamentally impossible to label. The Tarwaters see Rayber as dangerous and imagine people as being imprisoned inside of the psychologist's mind, stripped of their freedom and original identity. As Old Tarwater tells his great-nephew, "I saved you to be free, your own self!…not a piece of information inside his head! If you were living with him, you'd be information right now, you'd be inside his head…" (339). From Old Tarwater's point of view, Rayber's study of other people is abusive and controlling. Furthermore, Rayber's search for knowledge allows for no encounter with mystery and therefore for no possibility of the supernatural or the divine. Science presents mystery as a problem in need of a solution (similarly, medical discourse often presents impairment as a problem in need of a solution). Faith dictates that mysteries are to be apprehended as mysteries. 36 Of the two, faith may often be more ready to accommodate unknowability and indeterminacy. Yet the pathologizing discourse of O'Connor's characters renders manifestations of faith as medical problems: mystery, for Rayber, is always a problem waiting for a solution. As Old Tarwater explains,

He don't know it's anything he can't know…That's his trouble. He thinks if it's something he can't know then somebody smarter than him can tell him about it and he can know it just the same. And if you were to go there, the first thing he would do would be to test your head and tell you what you were thinking and howcome you were thinking it and what you ought to be thinking instead. And before long you wouldn't belong to your self no more, you would belong to him. (366)

As a psychologist, Rayber has authority over the naming and diagnosing of mental disorders—and control over the people who are so diagnosed. This inspires Old Tarwater's fears that those who are diagnosed "would belong to" Rayber and that their original identity before the diagnosis would be gone ("you wouldn't belong to your self no more"). In addition, Old Tarwater sees someone who believes that all information is knowable as one who rejects the divine: Rayber believes that all knowledge can be obtained by humans—if not by himself, then by "somebody smarter than him." Indeed, Rayber's attempt to apply psychological principles to God sends Old Tarwater into a rage: "Yours not to question the mind of the Lord God Almighty. Yours not to grind the Lord into your head and spit out a number" (351). In Old Tarwater's mind, God cannot be rendered with chart and graph, and it would be blasphemy to try. In short, Rayber's obsession with recording and measuring is a parody of modern psychology.

Indeed, O'Connor goes so far as to present psychology as a kind of false gospel. The implied warning on the dangers of reading the novel psychologically seem clear—the "diagnosis" of the various characters must ultimately remain indeterminate. As Rayber explains the false gospel of psychology to Tarwater, "You need help. You need to be saved right here and now from the old man and everything he stands for. And I'm the one who can save you" (438). The word "saved" suggests spiritual salvation: clearly, Rayber believes that he is a in a position to offer salvation. Although the term "old man" probably refers to Old Tarwater, it also suggests an engagement with the Christian conception of being "born again" (Young Tarwater needs to put aside the "old" man and become the "new" man of 2 Corinthians 5:17). O'Connor presents the belief in modern psychology as a form of fanatical religion juxtaposed with her characters' backwoods faith: "With his hat turned down all around he [Rayber] looked like a fanatical country preacher" (438). As a kind of anti-Christ, the psychologist Rayber promises a scientific salvation. 37 Rayber's "mind turned to the problem of Tarwater as if his own and not only the boy's salvation depended on his solving it" (445). Tarwater—his faith, his mental disorder—is a problem that must be solved—and one that can only be solved, Rayber believes, by a psychologist like himself. Although her critique may be somewhat undermined by her use of mental disability as a symbol to convey religious mystery, O'Connor also explores the possible limits (and potential abuses) of modern psychology in the novel.

In the end, Tarwater is a profoundly ambiguous character. The novel's provocative ambiguity is one of its strengths, as O'Connor's text invites and sustains readings that blur societal labels: in fact, the potential flexibility of Tarwater's "diagnostic" label allows O'Connor to critique modern psychology. But this very ambiguity it is also one of the novel's dangers. Religious difference, disabled difference, and physical violence become inseparable in O'Connor's text, thus fostering negative stereotypes regarding both faith and madness. Certainly, O'Connor's presentation of mental disability in The Violent Bear It Away is not about easy binaries (disabled versus able-bodied, sinful versus holy, villain versus hero): in fact, it represents a radical collapsing of the imagined boundaries between such categories. Thus, the ending of the novel is a resolution but it is not a revelation. We are left to regard The Violent Bear It Away as a work of (religious?) mystery. 38

Endnotes

  1. Nicole Markotic. "Re-/Presenting Disability and Illness: Foucault and Two 20th Century Fictions." Disability Studies Quarterly 23.2 (2003).
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  2. Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997, 12.
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  3. Laura L. Behling. "The Necessity of Disability in 'Good Country People' and 'The Lame Shall Enter First.'" Flannery O'Connor Review 4 (2006): 89.
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  4. It has been argued that O'Connor denigrates disability in her work. For example, see Sara Hosey, "Resisting the S(crip)t: Disability Studies Perspectives in the Undergraduate Classroom" Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice 6.1 (2013): 23-44. It has been argued that O'Connor celebrates disability in her work. For example, see Jeffrey Folks, "'The Enduring Chill': Physical Disability in Flannery O'Connor's Everything that Rises Must Converge." University of Dayton Review 22.2 (1993-1994): 81-88 and Alison Arant, "'A Moral Intelligence': Mental Disability and Eugenic Resistance in Welty's 'Lily Daw and the Three Ladies' and O'Connor's 'The Life You Save May be Your Own" Southern Literary Journal 44.2 (2012): 69-87, https://doi.org/10.1353/slj.2012.0003. These, too, are false binaries—O'Connor's work presents a much messier 'working out' of these attitudes. For example, in The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor apparently views mental disability as simultaneously dangerous and potentially useful.
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  5. I'm not arguing that first-hand experience eliminates all elements of the unknown and fulfills all knowledge (in either case). I am merely pointing out that O'Connor's use of mystery as an overarching theme relies on readers not identifying with her deeply eccentric (and very unlikable) characters.
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  6. For discussions of mental disability as "mysterious" see the introductions to Sonya Freeman Loftis, Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015 and Stewart Murray, Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.
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  7. For more on defining disability, see Ellen Samuels’ excellent discussion in Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race. New York, New York University Press, 2014
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  8. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, eds. The New Disability History: American Perspectives, New York: New York University Press, 2001, 12.
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  9. For a fuller discussion of the issues and limitations of naming in discussions of mental disability, see Margaret Price, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mpub.1612837. Kindle ebook, chapter 1.
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  10. Ibid.
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  11. All quotations from O'Connor's works are taken from Flannery O'Connor, O'Connor: Collected Works. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Library of America, 1988 and will be noted parenthetically in the text.
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  12. For a more involved reading of the crucified Christ as a "disabled God" see Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
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  13. This ploy is almost Brechtian—and certainly alienating. For a more in-depth discussion of Brecht's alienation effect and techniques of defamiliarization see Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1964).
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  14. On O'Connor's "imagination of extremity" see Frederick Asals, "Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1982.
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  15. Asals, 192.
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  16. On the false binary between reason and madness see Licia Carlson, The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2010, 2.
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  17. On the long-standing association between mental disability and religious beliefs see Henri-Jacques Stiker, A History of Disability, Trans. Willian Sayers, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, chapters 2 and 3; Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States, Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. Kindle ebook, pg 68; and Gerald N. Grob, The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America's Mentally Ill, New York: The Free Press, 1994, 8-10.
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  18. Price, Kindle ebook, chapter 1.
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  19. Ibid.
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  20. Associations between prophecy and madness are ancient, dating back to classical sources such as Plato's Phaedrus. For more recent examples of madness being associated with the supernatural see Nielsen, 68 and Grob, 8-10.
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  21. Desmond also notes the equation of faith and madness in this passage: "her narrator describe[s] Rayber's inner conflict between what he sees (according to the narrator) as his "rational" (i.e. His secular intelligence) self and his 'violent,' 'mad' (ie. Subconscious, believing) self" and goes on to argue that "nowhere in her stories do we find some synthesis or balance between reason and revelation" (137-138). See John F. Desmond, "By Force of Will: Flannery O'Connor, the Broken Synthesis, and the Problem with Rayber," Flannery O'Connor Review 6 (2008): 135-146.
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  22. Many disability scholars have pointed out that "invisible disability" is a cultural myth. For more discussion of this issue, see Price, chapter 1. However, O'Connor does seem to regard mental disability (and faith) as an invisible force that resides within the individual rather than being socially constructed.
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  23. For a more detailed discussion of the stereotype that associates mental disabilities with violent behavior, see Price, chapter 4.
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  24. This is one of the verses most frequently cited by O'Connor in her writings. See Jordan Cofer, The Gospel According to Flannery O'Connor: Examining the Role of the Bible in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction, New York: Bloombsbury Academic, 2014, 98-99.
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  25. As May notes, "it is patent that Flannery O'Connor understood violence as a mark of the enthusiast" (85). See John May, "The Violent Bear It Away: The Meaning of the Title." Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 2 (1973): 83-86. Parrish agrees: "I read her fiction to betray the uneas[y] truth that violence is an expression of the sacred" (32). See Tim Parrish, "The Killer Wears the Halo: Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor, and the American Religion" in Sacred Violence: A Reader's Companion to Cormac McCarthy. El Paso, TX: Texas Western University Press, 1995.
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  26. For a discussion of O'Connor's use of symbolism, see Ronald L. Grimes "Anagogy and Ritualization: Baptism in Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away" Religion and Literature (1989) 21.1 9-26.
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  27. The danger of such stigma is obvious: those who are feared are more likely to be discriminated against, marginalized, and abused.
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  28. Grimes also addresses this ambiguity: "The story precipitates a thorny question: by what criteria do we recognize an anagogical gesture and differentiate it from a symptom? Many readers, I suspect, are tempted to follow Rayber uncritically in regarding the urge to baptize as a compulsion" (14)
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  29. Some read the novel symbolically (see Grimes), while others read it psychologically (for example, see Parrish).
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  30. Clearly, the changing names throughout the novel indicate that Tarwater comes to trust this character/voice more and more.
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  31. As O'Connor explains, "I certainly do mean Tarwater's friend to be the devil" (qtd in Desmond 136). Parrish views the stranger as demonic, explaining that Tarwater "is accompanied by a dark double, named 'friend' who is most certainly the devil" (30). Asals agrees, "He is of course the manifestation of the boy's dark rebellious self that springs forth the moment the old man's influence is removed, but he is also transparently the devil, and as such, one of the triumphs of the novel, a worthy modern heir to the comic tempters of folklore and medieval drama" (169).
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  32. "Hagios" http://biblehub.com/greek/40.htm December 6 2015.
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  33. The very fact that this is the devil's logic seems to argue that O'Connor values Bishop's life.
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  34. The problem, as is often the case with the "mad rhetor," is fundamentally one of audience expectations (see Price, chapter 1).
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  35. For more on reading "obsession" as a marker of "madness" see Sonya Freeman Loftis and Lisa Ulevich, "Obsession/Rationality/Agency: Autistic Shakespeare" in Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body. Ed. Sujata Iyengar. New York: Routledge, 2014. 58-75.
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  36. In Catholicism, it is accepted that some aspects of the divine are inherently mysterious.
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  37. Asals also sees Rayber as a symbolic "antichrist" (181).
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  38. Labeling Young Tarwater as mentally disabled and/or as man of faith would not answer all of the questions the novel poses (and it might raise some new ones). However, such labels would help solve some of the novel's central interpretative problems.
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