Searching for Home in the South with Carson McCullers
Quietly, I clung to what I knew: how to be an outsider in the South.
The Member of the Wedding
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Illumination and Night Glare
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
It was dark by the time I got to my Airbnb, a guesthouse converted into a studio apartment a few blocks from Columbus High. I snuggled into the couch with wet hair and a bottle of wine while I flipped through Shapland’s book. I thought about the chasm between truth and narrative, the ways we amend the past to make the present more tolerable. I thought of how easily I adopted Georgia as “home” once I left the South, despite feeling unwanted and displaced the entire time I lived there. I thought of Shapland sitting on the porch of the Smith-McCullers House in 2016, Trump signs dotting the lawns to the left and right of her in quiet condemnation of a queer woman telling queer love stories about a writer some people wanted so badly to keep straight.
My appointment at Carson’s home was the next morning. After groggy toast and instant coffee, I drove over to the small blue house on Stark Avenue. On the front porch Reeves, her husband, had once asked her if she was a lesbian.
“Carson answered with a swift denial, wished aloud that she wasn’t one, then expressed plain uncertainty,” Shapland wrote. Then Reeves proposed. Then they married shortly after.
I knocked and almost expected Carson to answer, but when the heavy blue door opened with a gust of air conditioning, it was a volunteer who greeted me with a shy smile. I told her I was a writer from New York but that I had graduated from Columbus High. She thanked me for coming back and started her tour. She showed me Carson’s legendary silk kimono and told the story of the time Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe came to dinner at the Nyack house and ate at that exact marble table with the giant crack down the middle.
“Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them,” Carson wrote in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The Carson I thought I knew—the one beloved by Columbus not despite her quirks, but because of them—didn’t exist. But still, I’d clung to that version of her because I believed she’d carved a path for me to follow: If I could get away from here and make something of myself, I might be welcomed back one day too. Now that I knew how different the truth was from the story I’d believed, I wasn’t sure if that was possible anymore.
The tour took twenty minutes, and then I was back in my rental car with an empty weekend ahead of me. I decided to try my luck getting onto Fort Benning. My family had lived there three times, but I had lost my privileges to access military bases when I turned twenty-one, so I pulled into the main gate and hoped I could sweet-talk the soldier checking IDs. I rolled down my window.
Now that I knew how different the truth was from the story I’d believed, I wasn’t sure if that was possible anymore.
“ID please,” he said. I couldn’t see his eyes through his sunglasses, but I hoped I could access some pathos. I handed my driver’s license over.
“Ooh, New York! You’ve come a long way!” He had a southern accent.
“I live in New York now,” I said laughing. “But I’m actually from here!”
“You are not,” he said, teasing me. His voice was light, but I hardened at the challenge.
“I am! I went to E. A. White and I graduated from Columbus High!” My voice got higher as I said this; I realized that I didn’t have any way to prove what I was saying.
He waved me through.
“Have a wonderful day, ma’am.”
I thanked him and drove toward my old neighborhood, the location inspiration for Carson’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, which scandalized Fort Benning when it was published with its depictions of sexual voyeurism, infidelity, and homosexuality. It’s a work dedicated to Annemarie Schwarzenbach, another supposed lover of Carson’s. When I reread it though, I was most struck by Carson’s description of the officers’ quarters, which was a perfect re-creation of the house I’d lived in with my family: “an eight-room two-story building of stucco” with a study that was “a small room planned originally as a sun porch and leading from the dining-room,” and a lawn that “adjoined the forest of the reservation.” Carson knew the layouts of the officers’ quarters intimately because she had taken piano lessons with Mary Tucker, an Army wife (who is also considered one of Carson’s first platonic obsessions or lesbian crushes, depending on which history you read).
I drove toward my elementary school, E. A. White. I’d only gone to pre-K there, but it was special to me because it was the only school both my sister and I had ever attended.
But when I got there, the building was gone. I parked and got out. The land where the school had been was empty and bald and filled in with hay. I stood in the hot sun and remembered a time my mother had taken me to the playground when I was small. How I climbed the exposed roots of the trees that still stood over the yellow emptiness. How I wandered into the tall grass and cut my finger on a blade and the blood that gushed from the cut felt like the greatest tragedy I’d ever experienced, and how my mother soothed it with a Band-Aid and by blowing on it. Even this was gone.
That night, I ate pizza on a brick wall downtown and tried to journal. A band was performing rock covers and families had brought lawn chairs out to watch. A red-faced woman with box-blonde hair and a MAGA hat passed me and I felt that I could have been anywhere. I stopped wondering if I’d recognize anyone. I knew I wouldn’t. The next morning I booked a hotel room in Atlanta and left town a day early. There was nothing left to see here.
In a 1951 television interview with Jack Mangan, Carson said her motivation for writing had always been to seek fellowship: “I always think about it more in terms of human beings . . . and the basic theme is you need to belong . . . to belong to something, to feel oneself a part of life.”
After my trip to Columbus, I stopped telling people I was from Georgia. It didn’t feel true anymore. I reinstituted the rigamarole of reciting all the places I’d lived, or I settled with wherever I’d lived most recently. In Connecticut, I was from New York. In New York, I was from DC. In DC, I had graduated from Georgia but I wasn’t from Georgia—it’s complicated, you see, my dad is in the Army and I have moved a lot. And then a laugh, and then a shrug, and then we move on.
Recently I drove to New Jersey from Connecticut to visit my college friends (the ones from Georgia) for the weekend. My map app routed me through Nyack. The place holds a mystical aura for me as Carson’s eventual haven, the place where she might have found some peace, some rest, at the end of her life. It was early summer, and I crossed the Tappan Zee bridge under the blue sky. The road twisted and I slowed my car, imagining Carson here, wondering how close I was to her home. I also had to slow for another reason: Hoards of cyclists had overtaken the street and were climbing the rolling hills in packs of fifteen, twenty, fifty. The spindly metal structures seemed so delicate, so fallible, but when moving together, the collective resembled its own organism. They moved like a school of fish; the individuals could be picked out, but they were lost in the mass of shiny scales, the flick of a fin disappearing into the collective.
In professional cycling, there are two groups: the peloton and the breakaway. The peloton comprises most of the cyclists in a race. They ride in a mass together, with a handful of riders jockeying for the front.
But the breakaway is what I find most interesting; they’re the leaders of the pack who have literally broken away from the peloton, charging ahead faster than everyone else. And in the breakaway, the leaders take turns riding at the front, bearing the force of the oncoming wind for the rest of the riders. This is true even in competition. Before the finish line is in sight, the cyclists rotate who rides in the front of the pack—not to share the spotlight of being first, but to share the burden of it. The force of the oncoming wind is like a solid wall that requires extra strength to break through, and they take turns doing the work. They also take turns drafting off each other, riding in a cone of ease behind their competitors, their fellow riders.
As I crept alongside them in my car, I watched the cyclists take turns breaking the wind for their fellow riders in fraternal generosity. I thought of the cone of shelter Carson had created for me, how her life created a shape for me to follow from Columbus to New York and beyond. How I’d tried to grasp at communion with her through superficial means of claiming a southern identity I didn’t actually want or need.
Carson died in 1967, so there’s no way for me to take my turn at the front of the pack and share the burden with her. But maybe taking my turn looks like creating that shelter for others: bearing the brunt of loneliness in the name of honesty, in the name of taking up space where it might be uncomfortable or inconvenient because that space you take creates room for the rest of them—of us.
After a few miles, the road cleared up. I accelerated, alone.