Depravity with Grace: Flannery O’Connor & the Red Light District

by Haley Littleton April 29, 2014

I’ve been thinking about how Flannery O’Connor would write about the Red Light District. Mainly, I’ve been wondering how the Southern Catholic writer, unafraid of the warts of humanity, might attempt to make sense of such a spectacle. How does one write about the goriest parts of humanity with any sort of grace or impact?

I’ve been volunteering at a hostel in Amsterdam for the past month, and the hostel is just two street signs away from the Red Light District. Technically, one could say that the prostitutes are our neighbors; we share rent in the same connected structure that they do. Walking to work, I alternate between an awkward attempt at a wave or averting my eyes.

One hears the facts consistently. One in four women do not choose to be there: they are lured to the country with the promise of a “dancing career” only to have their passports stolen and their identities revoked. The women slowly dig their way into imaginary debt created by their handlers. The injustices of human trafficking abound. At the same time, it's a complex issue; some women choose to be there and some don't. It's hard to differentiate. It's not a problem easily solved or wished away.

But what really disorients me are the bells: each window is equipped with an emergency bell that alerts the police whenever the woman inside feels threatened by a customer. These bells ring all through the day and night, muted cries of help to an already overwhelmed police force. Sometimes they keep ringing; sometimes they stop suddenly. I never know if help arrived or not.  

And I keep wrestling with this pitted feeling of guilt and helplessness that gnaws at the deepest parts of me: what am I supposed to do? I swing from despairing guilt to resigned helplessness several times a day. I can’t open up the doors and end the demand; I can only write about it and that hardly seems like enough.

If there’s a middle ground, I’m not sure I’ve landed on it quite yet. I want to avoid my attentions, forget that those few streets exist, and continue on my merry way. I like my rosy version of humanity much better. But, when you hear the bells all night, you can’t. I can’t, at least.

I think writers are always searching for a middle ground between awareness of the worst parts of humanity, and a general helplessness to change them. If indifference is not the answer, then I’m not sure how to navigate through humanity and authorship. What’s more, depravity isn’t a word we’re too fond of using; it sounds so definitive. How can I be so sure I know right from wrong?

Dostoevsky enigmatically wrote that “beauty will save the world,” but it seems, on most days, that the charge of art has done little to curtail the ravages of power, prejudice, and overall depravity. Do words serve any purpose in changing the injustices we see in the world? What, after all, can beauty really change? Moreover, how does one write about humanity and its injustices in a gracious way, a way leading to some form of justice or redemption? All these questions wind themselves around the wheels of my bike as I cycle past the windows.  

Perusing through Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being has given me insight into the one writer who seems to navigate the waters of depravity and redemption with any grace or skill. Not afraid of the darker sides of humanity,  A Good Man is Hard to Find is littered with both physical and metaphorical human “twisted knottiness,” as Augustine liked to put it.

Writing to a friend titled “A,” O’Connor quips: Truth doesn’t change by one’s ability to emotionally stomach it. I think that's what I'm afraid of often: presenting the truth in a way that doesn't unsettle or upset. But the picture is the picture, and nothing can get better if you aren't willing to name things as they are.  When trying to understand humanity, O’Connor suggests that the key is to understand the whole picture:

 Fiction is supposed to represent life, and the fiction writer has to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing. The fiction writer doesn’t state, he shows, renders. It’s the nature of fiction and it can’t be helped. If you’re writing about the vulgar, you have to prove they’re vulgar by showing it. --- but this is helped by the writer’s ability to see things as a whole. 

O'Connor didn't revel in human sin and struggle, but she didn't attempt to hide it either. Many of her stories and novels were denounced for being "grotesque" and "vulgar." O'Connor's response? Welcome to humanity. Her ability to see through the depravity into the whole picture allowed the character's in O'Connor's stories, and herself, to still see humanity in the light of grace. 

Later to the same friend, “A”, O'Connor settles on the practice of a Christian writer: It’s only trying to see straight and it’s the least you can set yourself to do, the least you can ask for. You ask God to let you see straight and write straight.

I find this to be a realistic charge. See straight and write straight, not shying away from the unsavory aspects of humanity, the vulgar, but finding the truth within it, and hopefully the grace.

Perhaps, we need to show the gore, to look it plain in the face so that we might reach the grace, and then the glory. When I look at the Red Light District, I see much gore and very little glory; I try to have eyes and words of grace. Maybe by seeing it straight and attempting to write it straight, there will be awareness, justice, and grace. As writers, that's all we can hope for.

Haley Littleton
Haley Littleton


Haley Littleton is a second year Master’s student at the University of Denver in Literary Studies. A former intern for Ruminate Magazine, Haley writes here and there between her studies and exploring. With an interest in environmental criticism, climbing, and love of craft beer, Haley finds it doubtful she will ever be pulled away from Colorado.

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