Saturday History Lesson: Flannery O’Connor and Betty Hester

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Most people writing to their favorite authors do not, I’d guess, think they will get an answer back, and perhaps Betty Hester didn’t either. She was not a scholar and she was not a writer, herself. She was a 32-year-old clerk at a credit bureau in Atlanta the first time she wrote to Flannery O’Connor, in the middle of July 1955. Hester read a great deal, and she had been taken by A Good Man is Hard to Find. Hester had been surprised to see that The New Yorker hated the collection — “all we have, in the end, is a series of tales about creatures who collide and drown, or survive to float passively in the isolated sea of the author’s compassion, which accepts them without reflecting anything.”

Hester wrote to O’Connor to object. “These are stories about God, aren’t they?”

O’Connor was so thrilled by this letter from a person who “understands my stories” that she immediately wrote back. “The stories are hard,” she told Hester, “but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching towards Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

In the some 300 letters they later exchanged, Hester and O’Connor talked about faith, mostly, and philosophy. Hester was interested in the French mystic philosopher and radical Simone Weil, who had worked in a factory and fought in the Spanish Civil War, and then starved herself to death, perhaps over an obsession with Schopenhauer. O’Connor began reading her too, admitting though that “[t]he life of this remarkable woman still intrigues me while much of what she writes, naturally, is ridiculous to me… I would like to write a comic novel about a woman — and what is more comic and terrible than the intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?”

Sadly O’Connor never got around to it, though in some sense perhaps her letters to Hester could stand in. They are remarkably erudite. When O’Connor’s friend, Sally Fitzgerald, published a selection of letters entitled The Habit of Being, many of her letters to Hester were included. They are some of the most vibrant and engaging in the collection. But Hester was a private person, and told Fitzgerald she didn’t want to be hounded by scholars and journalists. So Fitzgerald disguised Hester as “A.,” for anonymous.

Some found the concealment curious, and suspected that perhaps Fitzgerald was trying to conceal the nature of “A.”’s relationship with O’Connor. No one learned who “A.” really was until after Hester shot herself at Christmastime 1998. According to William Sessions, an O’Connor scholar and mutual friend of both women who found the body, next to it on a side table was a copy of Cheers!, the newsletter of the Flannery O’Connor society, spattered with Hester’s blood.

In the years since, the contours have been filled in. In silhouette, Hester had what looked like a simple, quiet, ordinary life, if an unusually lonely one. She lived with her aunt, and for most of her life she couldn’t drive and took the bus to work. She chain-smoked, and she was fond of cats.

There was, however, more to the story. She was from Rome, Georgia, where her father had abandoned the family and she had watched her mother commit suicide at thirteen. She later attended a small Methodist college where one classmate remembered her as into “deep, dark philosophy,” and disdaining “men and men’s ideas.”

For a time after World War II, Hester served in the Air Force. When her letters were unsealed, and opened to scholars, in 2007, one of them revealed that she had received a dishonorable discharge from the military for sexual indiscretion. That indiscretion, naturally, was with a woman. In that letter Hester offered to cease all contact with O’Connor, worrying that an association with someone so disgraced would tarnish O’Connor’s reputation.

“I can’t write you fast enough,” O’Connor replied, “and tell you that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in my opinion of you.” O’Connor was not herself a lesbian, or at the very least, there’s no conclusive evidence that she was. (She rebuffed the advances of another lesbian correspondent, Maryat Lee, and was known to have had one romance with a man, a college textbook salesman, in the early 1950s.) She told Hester, who was considering converting to Catholicism and asked O’Connor to be her sponsor, that she did not think joining the Church would require any fundamental change in Hester’s nature.

But Hester only lasted a few years before leaving the faith, in 1961. She’d struck up a correspondence with Iris Murdoch, who was rather less an admirer of the Catholic Church than O’Connor. Biographers sense that at this point O’Connor became frustrated with Hester, but they wrote to each other right up to two weeks before O’Connor died.

Many years later, not long before she died, Hester would write to another friend that she thought of O’Connor as “truly strangely innocent.” “As you must sense,” Hester had written to a friend, “I did love her very, very much — and, God knows, do.” That might seem like some confirmation of what Brad Gooch, Flannery’s biographer, called a “crush.” But perhaps we’re all best off remembering that the word love can mean a lot of things.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →