By Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
On my wall is a postcard I bought years ago that has made its way twice in Pleasant Hill, twice in Lafayette, once at Mills, once in Fresno, and now here in Vermont. It's a photo of a woman in a dark dress. She’s wearing pearls and she smiles at the camera but isn't entirely comfortable in front of it. She has a no-nonsense short haircut. Metal crutches are under her arms. A peacock struts beside her. When I get tired of being brave, which has happened recently, I try to remember this picture, taken several years before Flannery O’Connor died of lupus. It reminds me that being brave is necessary, no matter what.
I was six when I started learning to write. I had no problems with reading. I loved reading. I read more than anyone else in my class. Yet I could not properly write. The nuns, Sister Carol Louise and Sister Patricia, snapped at me. "Two fingers on the pencil, Jennifer! Not four! Two!" I cannot add or subtract. When I try to color I cannot stay in the lines.
When Flannery was six, Pathé News filmed a trick she learned to do with her chicken: she taught it to walk backwards. Billed as Mary O'Connor, she laughs at the camera as the chicken walks backwards. She would later say this: "When I was six I had a chicken that walked backwards and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax."
As I get older things remain hard for me. Although I get better in math, I cannot compute large sums. In fifth grade, I had anxiety attacks when I was called to solve a math problem on the chalkboard. Many times I heard someone saying, "Oh Jennifer's doing it, that means it will be wrong." Around the same time during art, I forgot to ask for scissors, so I asked for them late. Sister Mary Richard threw them down on the desk then looked at me and yelled, "Can't you do anything right?" When I started crying, she said, "Stop it! You're not in fourth grade anymore, and you're not in first grade anymore! You're not a baby!"
When Flannery was twelve, her father diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that accidentally kills healthy tissue in the body. She watched him get sick and suffer until his death in 1941. Frank O'Connor was survived by his widow Regina and Mary Flannery, his only daughter. They lived on their farm called Andalusia. For years, she was known as Mary Flannery O'Connor. When her first book was published, she went by Flannery O’Connor. Only her mother would call her Mary Flannery the rest of her life.
At school, I am Jenny. I don't like being called Jenny. The only people I am okay calling me Jenny is my family; they call me either Jenny Kate or (because my cousin couldn't say Kate when she was little) Jenny Cake. Jenny Gibbons is a sad girl who cannot do triple division, cannot write cursive legibly, cannot ride a two-wheeler and until she was ten couldn't tie her shoes. When I changed schools, I told my new teacher I preferred to be called Jennifer. Jennifer Gibbons had problems, but she read a lot and loved the color pink, Matthew Broderick, and Guiding Light. I reinvented myself. I was eleven-years-old. It happens again when I am thirty-eight and due to a suggestion by a mentor, I start publishing under my full name: Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons.
At twenty-seven, Flannery had a new novel, Wise Blood, and was living in New York State. She became ill. She found out she had the same disease that killed her father: lupus. She had to give it all up: her plans to live in New York and a way of life that included writing and friends, possibly a lover. She knew she was going to die. She had to go back to Georgia. Back to Andulusia, to Mildgeville, where the locals gossiped and tried to figure out who was who in her stories. She lived with her mother and her peacocks. She was given five years to live.
At age twenty-nine, I was thoroughly depressed. I was fired right before 9/11. I was disinvited from my writing group because they asked someone else to join them. I gained twenty pounds. I worked on a plotless novel that was going nowhere. My life lost its focus. Mom came home with a printout. "I was looking up learning disabilities and I found this info," she said. I read it over. NonVerbal Learning Disorder, NVLD for short. People with NVLD struggle with facial expression and vocal tones. They have problems with verbal directions, spatial awareness, maintaining friendships, and have poor motor skills. They don’t understand sometimes if people are joking or if they are being made fun of. I know I have this disorder. It explains why I never learned how to drive, why I couldn't master algebra, and why I never could stay within the lines while coloring. At age thirty, I went back to community college and started talking about having a learning disability for the first time in class.
Back at Andalusia, Flannery had to be mindful of her health. She wrote in the mornings: short stories, book reviews, letters to her friends Sally Fitzgerald and Caroline Gordon. Afternoons were used for feeding peacocks, rest, and reading. Her mother Regina always told Flannery to be a Southern Lady. Flannery told her mother, "You run the farm, I'll run the writing."
At age thirty-two, I finally transferred to Mills College, majoring in English. We read "Good Country People" but I caught a cold and missed the discussion. I asked a girl in my class Rachel how the discussion went. "Well, it went okay. I just don't know about the story. It feels like O'Connor is making fun of Joy Hulga.”
“Didn’t you get any background on Flannery O'Connor?" I asked.
"She had lupus. She was like Joy Hulga. This story might've been based on real life."
Rachel covered her mouth. "Oh my God! I had no idea! That poor woman!"
I was irritated. How could you not be privy to information about Flannery's disease? How it affected her whole life? How it limited her life?
Years later, I read a biography of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch. I was right: A salesman did come to visit Flannery when his route took him to Milledgeville. He was Swedish. Flannery called him "my feller." He wrote letters to her, but then married another woman. I wondered if he ever read "Good Country People" and shuddered when Manley Porter stole Joy Hulga's plastic leg.
I graduated from Mills. Moved several times, then as clichéd as it sounds, had a mid-life crisis at age forty-two. I couldn’t finish anything, couldn’t concentrate on anything. I looked at the picture of Flannery. I was older than her by three years.
She died in August 1964, seven years after the original death prognosis. Years after her death, a collection of her completed stories won the National Book Award. She is in the literary canon. People come every year to Andalusia to stand on the sun porch where she posed with her crutches and peacocks.
At forty-four, I am back in a dorm. I'm in graduate school, where I am facing challenge after challenge related to having a learning disability. The fact that we have a man who made fun of a person with a disability as president frightens me. I look at Flannery's picture again. How would she have handled it? How did she handle it? I'm betting she never thought she was being brave. I keep trying to advocate for myself, but all I want is to do is read and write and hang out with writers and just be. But if I don't speak out, who will? If I don't stand up for myself, no one else will. And if I don't ask for help, where will I be?
Flannery once said, "Grace changes us and the change is painful."
I feel I'm in a state of grace. It is painful. And yet I feel like Flannery as she stood on her porch with her peacocks. I am taking everything day by day. I am here. I can survive. I can somehow rise, then converge.
Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons has been published in Salon, Ephemeral Artery, and Stereo Embers. She just finished her first year with the Writing and Publishing MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives between Fresno, California and Montpelier, Vermont.