Friday, July 8, 2011

Living with Lupus

Anyone familiar with Flannery O'Connor's life knows that the author was stricken with the disease lupus erythematosus when she was 25 years old, eventually succumbing fourteen years later. Many visitors to Andalusia ask us about the nature of this disease, how if affected O'Connor, and the medicine she took to combat it. While neither Craig nor I claim to have expertise in this field, we tell folks that lupus is an auto-immune disease that is hereditary (Flannery's father died of lupus at the age of 44, just two years after being diagnosed) and is still, to this day, incurable. One might think of it as being the opposite of HIV, where the body's immune system shuts down altogether. According to, "Lupus ... is a disease of the immune system. Normally, the immune system protects the body from infection. In lupus, however, the immune system inappropriately attacks tissues in various parts of the body. This abnormal activity leads to tissue damage and illness." For O'Connor the damaged tissue was her hip joints which made walking very difficult. As the photo to the right shows, she needed crutches to get around. It was due to the physical limitations imposed by the disease that Flannery and her mother moved to Andalusia in the first place. The family farm made it possible for them to set up housekeeping on the first floor to accommodate Flannery with her physical disabilities. Originally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, O'Connor lived with lupus much longer than anyone expected. She managed to stay alive with daily, high dose injections of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone, derived from the pituitary glands of pigs) and cortisone. Notwithstanding, she lived with quite a bit of pain. Yet one of the most remarkable features of her letters is how little she says about her personal suffering. Indeed, in typical Flannery fashion, she makes self-deprecating quips about her illness and the painful treatments she was undergoing, as in this letter to her friend, Maryat Lee: "I owe my existence and cheerful countenance to the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily in Chicago, Illinois at the Armour packing plant. If pigs wore garments I wouldn't be worthy to kiss the hems of them." (Brad Gooch: Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, p. 193; photo credit: Joe McTyre)
- Mark

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