In Flannery O’Connor’s short stories “Good Country People” and “The Lame Shall Enter First,” as the parents look to fix their children, we turn a critical eye at them.
Mrs. Hopewell is a mother who hopes very well; it’s what she does best. She stuffs cliches down everyone’s throats, including her daughter Joy, whose leg was blown off in a hunting accident. And she’s insistent that a pleasant attitude will mask her daughter’s ugly looks. But Joy’s body betrays her mother’s sugary sayings. It’s probable that Joy was never ugly but grew into her mother’s nightmare to ensure she knows what it means to be made uncomfortable. Joy wasn’t going to give her mother the satisfaction of being the cream in the black coffee Mrs. Hopewell was serving. In what she calls her “highest creative act,” Joy changed her name to Hulga, turning shame into something useful. Hulga, the sound of a stain, is stuck between the disappointed stares of her mother and the freak show ogling of the thief. When Mrs. Hopewell meets the thief in disguise, she folds him neatly into one of her favorite maxims–he’s one of those “good country people.” The problem with cliches is that they miss the nuances. This is the first time Mrs. Hopewell meets true ugliness, and it dodges her gaze. It’s this failure that ultimately allows the thief to steal the last bead of hope Joy had left in her being.
Sheppard is a father who thinks he’s the good shepherd. He plays Jesus, trying to fill his own emptiness by saving a reformatory boy with polio, Rufus. On this mission, Sheppard neglects the grief of his own son. Rufus is a thief and leaves his victim homes in disarray, full of shattered plates and glass. But he has an IQ of 140, and Sheppard thinks he’s the man to turn this disabled boy’s life around. He has a new shoe fashioned to better fit the club foot. Sheppard believes with this shoe, Rufus will no longer act out to compensate for his foot. When the boy tries on the shoe, he’s able to stand “upright.” But he sours Sheppard’s beam when he rejects the gift. He’ll be damned if he lets this selfish fool think he’s fixed him. It was never really about Rufus but has always been about Sheppard. He fails this boy because he never really tries to understand him. Sheppard saw a boy with polio and decided who he was and what his story ought to be. Ultimately in an effort to save this child, Sheppard ends up killing his own.
In these two stories, caretakers see disability with anxiety. They overfeed their children with spoonfuls of how they ought to be. And as a consequence, they swaddle them in shame and rob them of their own humanity.