The reason why Flannery O’Connor and other Southern writers often wrote about “freaks,” she said, was because “we are still able to recognize one.” Writing about murderers, racists, traveling Bible-selling hypocrites, O’Connor was a master of her art, the strange genre she called grotesque. It was her way of telling the truth through lies and good through evil.
Such writing was possible, she said, because for the most part, Southern writers still held “some conception of the whole man,” a faint notion of the imago Dei, the idea that God still bore his stamp upon us, his preternatural grace still present like a shadow cut across our souls. It’s what makes our pathetic evil visible at all, this countervailing figure.
It’s why she wrote about freaks so well, because she knew the original form.
Today’s “freaks” are harder to recognize. Blind, unable or unwilling, we just don’t see them. Nondescript mass murders, abusers, the deranged: I am struck by how we don’t see them, or won’t see them, until after the fact. Until they break out a 32nd floor window or walk down the aisle of a little country church and start shooting.
Blind like this, this danse macbre continues, and will continue unabated. Hence the maddening script, the lines we all now know by heart. Lines we’re forced to rehearse every time, because we know nothing else to say.
Hence our politicians, from the president down, remain bought and stupid, their slogans predictably recycled. Gun reform will do nothing, they say. It’s all about mental health, they say; and besides, who can do anything about that? Really, it’s the immigrants you should watch out for, they say, the brown ones especially, wherever they’re from.
Regurgitating non sequiturs: That’s where we are, all of us, along with the mindless left and the mindless right, faithfully reciting this absurdist script like something out of Samuel Beckett, stopping only for the commercials.
We no longer recognize our freaks, because we refuse to look. Like an abused spouse who just won’t see him for what he is, or a drunk who just won’t own up, or that pathetic friend who keeps blaming others for the failures of his life, we seem particularly unwilling to look at what might literally be killing us. We are unwilling to talk about our freaks.
Maybe because we’d have to look at ourselves. Doing so, we’d have to think about how uncomfortably close we are to the horrible people who committed these crimes. We might have to see how like us they were, how the world we live in made both them and us. We’d have to think about the society we’ve made, which has made such men.
This shallow advertised happiness, which is really just purchased emptiness, leaves so many unfulfilled; this incessantly screened bitterness has made disagreements inhuman and hateful; this nonsensical puerile rage has made enemies absolute and compromise taboo. It’s a world that has made so many of us angry and some even violent. For me, the chilling thought is that from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Sutherland Springs, all of it makes sense. All of it is simply the dividends of this rancorous world. A world for which we are all responsible, every last one us.
Which is why I think we repeatedly tell ourselves the same lies. It’s why after every mass shooting, more and more emotionless, we simply fall in line to play our same tired parts.
Because we no longer recognize our freaks. Because we no longer recognize ourselves.
By Joshua J. Whitfield
Joshua J. Whitfield is pastoral administrator for the St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)