Mary Grace the Neurotic

Mary Grace the Neurotic

“The book struck her directly over her left eye.”

If I had a Top 5 Fiction Sentences list, which I probably should, this would be on it.  Recently I re-read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” a story about people in a doctor’s waiting room (based on O’Connor’s frequent doctor visits during her struggle with lupus).*  Ruby Turpin, the story’s narrator and protagonist, sits in the room with her husband Claud, who is suffering from a leg injury.  They are surrounded by what Mrs. Turpin calls white trash, prompting her to reflect on her own status.  She frequently muses out loud how fortunate she is to be a godly woman with “a little of everything and the God-given sense to use it right.”

Like most of O’Connor’s stories, unlikely figures serve as
instruments of God’s grace.  In “Revelation,” one such figure is the
pimple-faced Mary Grace, a college student who is busy reading a
psychology book called Human Development, the same book that (not
without meaning) she hurls at Mrs. Turpin.  As soon as the scuffle
begins, medical attendants rush into the room to restrain the explosive
Mary Grace and the doctor injects her with a sedative.  Mary Grace
struggles and whispers to Mrs. Turpin, “Go back to the hell you came
from, you old wart hog.”  Then Mary Grace relaxes under the power of
the injection and is carted out of the room.

It seems strange that a neurotic girl could be such a violent
instrument for revelation and redemption. Yet O’Connor gives her one of
the most powerful names in all of her fiction, drawing on Catholic
reverence for Mary, as if the only Grace in the story would only be
born of her. Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death,
can give us some clues to what O’Connor means as he sums up the
scholarship of psychology and psychoanalysis on neurosis. Neurotics
refuse to adopt the popular explanations of the world around them or
their own existence that their culture offers, which do not fit the
reality that neurotics perceive. Becker wants us to see that neurosis
is not a suffering from an illusion, but a suffering from reality (all
the more painful because others are unaware of this reality and cannot
commiserate). Mary Grace the Neurotic cannot stand Mrs. Turpin’s cheap
remarks about life, which promote an illusion that all too conveniently
explains the world and obscures Turpin’s own sinful nature. Mary Grace
sees Mrs. Turpin as one who exchanged the radical truth of God for a

When she gets home from the encounter in the waiting room, Mrs.
Turpin goes outside to take care of the pigs. She looks up and sees a
parade of people walking up to heaven on a bridge of fire. The groups
of white trash, blacks, and neurotics that Turpin hates are ascending
first, losing themselves in the glory of the event, while her own class
of people, the sensible folk, are bringing up the rear as the only
group singing in tune. "She could see by their shocked and altered
faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” Tim told us the
same thing in the form of a question two weeks ago. When was the last
time we had repented of the things we thought we did correctly? When
was the last time I repented for the things that I love, that I feel
the Lord has called me to?

This is what makes us a peculiar people and Christianity a strange
religion. No other religion tells us to repent of our good works (in
many cases that would mean repenting of the very things that got us to
the good town in the afterlife). Paul
says he is the chief of sinners, but this statement surprisingly comes
at the end of his ministry, not the beginning, after he has planted
numerous churches and explained the gospel to thousands of people. How
could Paul say this? He realized the very thing Mrs. Turpin didn’t.
Christ’s work redeems us, but in that same process we realize how
sinful we really are. This is the real Jesus, the Jesus that Mrs.
Turpin doesn’t want to confront. And when we increasingly see our sin,
we see how much Christ sacrificed to save us.

In addition to making us more ordinary,
more normal, like Bill said recently, Christianity also makes us more
real. Christianity is not peculiar because through it we escape to some
hyper-spiritual dimension of life that gives us comfort, but because we
become more real and engaged with the troubling things that surround
us. The world’s brokenness only comes as a shock to those who do not
see themselves as broken. For Christians, it is expected and nothing
more than more of the same. And yet, simultaneously, we can move into
broken situations and apparently dead-end relationships with hope in a
God who sacrificed himself to bring redemption to ourselves and our

Daniel P.