Is Evil a Problem?

On the Sunday after Easter readers of the Washington Post were shocked and saddened by a story on the paper’s front page. It concerned a family who lived in Middletown in the Maryland countryside about 50 miles outside D.C. The 34-year-old father of the family had killed his wife, their three young children and then himself. The bodies had been discovered on Saturday by the wife’s father, who went to the house when repeated phone calls weren’t answered.

This writer read the Post story with especially close interest because it reported that the family belonged to the same parish as do my daughter and son-in-law. The pastor was quoted saying that he had seen the family at Mass on Easter. As it happened, I spent this Easter at my daughter and son-in-law’s and went to Mass with them. I wondered if I had seen the family.

Maybe. I don’t know. My daughter saw the wife, as she did on most Sundays. This was when she went to the church nursery after Mass to collect the two youngest of my three grandsons. The woman was there, collecting her two youngest. The two mothers chit-chatted briefly and inconsequentially as they rounded up their kids and as they had done many times before. I haven’t asked my daughter, but feature that as she went out the door she may well have said to the other woman, “See you next Sunday.”

Of course she would not.

I haven’t asked, either, what the pastor said to parishioners in his homily the day after the bodies were discovered. My thought is that he would have been compelled to address that question which often arises when tragedy strikes, especially close to home: Why does the good God “allow” terrible things to happen?

Sometimes the question takes a different form. It is put in a way I hesitate to write: Why does evil exist? I hesitate because there is nothing known about the father in Middletown that suggests he was evil. He left notes, but at the moment of this writing their content has not been disclosed. Inevitably there is speculation. Was the family in crushing debt? Was the father overcome by the responsibilities of a recent job promotion? Did voices in his head nobody suspected he was hearing tell him to act as he did? Whatever impelled him, the man may not have been evil, but the act was.

I don’t want to turn these lines into a book review, but it happens that in recent weeks I’ve been reading or rereading some of the novels, short stories, letters and other writings of Flannery O’Connor — these in the Library of America volume of her Collected Works. At the same time I’m reading the superb new biography of her, Flannery, by Brad Gooch (Little, Brown).

Readers unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor need to know a few things about her and her writing in order to understand why I speak of the happenstance of my reading her and about her when my subject is the awful event in Middletown, an event that has members of my own family grappling with what is often called the “problem” of evil.

O’Connor is a leading figure in what critics long ago named the Southern Gothic school of literature. William Faulkner, one supposes, is the most renowned member of the school, although the Library of America reports that O’Connor’s Collected Works outsells their edition of his. She grew up in Milledgeville, Georgia, a place she left but to which she returned when she was diagnosed with the disease, lupus, that would take her life at age 39 in 1964. Probably nobody ever called her good-looking, and she apparently loved only one man in her life, a traveling textbook salesman who did not return her feeling and moved on. She knew about sadness, loneliness, suffering, dying (not simply her own; lupus had killed her father when she was a girl) and also humor. You can read some of the funniest scenes in all of American literature in her work.

Besides being Southern Gothic, O’Connor’s work is intensely Catholic. That doesn’t mean she wrote about the Church or priests or miracles or saints, no more than did that other great Southern Catholic novelist of the last half of the 20th century, Walker Percy. She wrote about freaks. It is what made her work Southern Gothic, apart from its earthy sensibility. The line one always reads in anything about O’Connor is her remarking: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

As for her Catholicism, it is manifest for those with eyes to see in the freakish things O’Connor’s freaks do, in the actions they perform. The protagonist of Wise Blood, a young fanatic who is a kind of ultimate Puritan, founds a “Church of Christ without Christ” and does penance for his sins by gouging out one of his eyes. In The Violent Bear It Away, another character accidentally drowns a cousin while trying to baptize him, gets raped, and stumbles off “toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.” In the story “Greenleaf” a woman disdainful of the tenants who farm land she owns gets hers: she is gored to death by their bull. In “Good Country People” a young woman made bitter by the loss of a leg in childhood is seduced by a Bible salesman who takes off with her prosthesis when he abandons her. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” a family is mindlessly slaughtered by an escaped convict.

Why does O’Connor write about such things? Because, as far as she was concerned, there is “nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.” In other words, as freakish, grotesque, mean, cruel, often inexplicable and sometimes horrifying as are the sins and other actions performed by her characters, they are human actions. Evil exists. Men, real living men, do unspeakable things, sometimes for a reason the rest of us cannot fathom. For instance, a man out in Middletown the other day killed his wife and children as they lay sleeping in their beds, then killed himself.

The point? Evil, O’Connor writes, enlightened by her Catholic faith and summing up in a few words a truth theologians and philosophers may not convey as successfully in thick volumes, is not “a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured.”

She also wrote something else. It may be taken as guidance by those of us who so far have endured in an age that abounds in evil, often made more so, we feel, by the mindlessness with which it is committed. “You have to push as hard on the age that pushes against you.”