I have been on a bit of a biography binge lately and picked up a copy of "Autobiography of a Face (2003)" by Lucy Grealy, an Irish American writer who has chronicled her decades-long battle with cancer and the search for identity. This is not a story of triumph and courage. Grealy doesn't ask us for our pity or admiration for her survival against very slim odds. Instead, a story unfolds.
Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age 9, Grealy goes through five years of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. As a result of that surgery, much of her lower jaw is removed. After the surgery and therapies, Grealy undergoes over 40 operations to repair the loss of her lower jaw for cosmetic and physical reasons.
Hospital and Recovery
There are many stories of Lucy going to the hospital for extended periods of time and enjoying it. Grealy's parents were ill-equipped, financially and emotionally, to deal with their sick daughter and often seemed to abandon her at the hospital. Lucy revels in the hierarchy of the other children patients who are ranked by seriousness of illness, quantity of surgeries, and the number of scars. Lest one think that Grealy's cancer journey is a piece of cake, there are also plenty of episodes of pain, vomiting, loneliness, and terrible self-consciousness. We are a society that is face-focused. Every magazine, every movie is all about the head shot that shows the face, preferably beautiful and symmetrical.
Grealy's memoir is also an important look into the United States healthcare system in the 20th century. Bone growing, bone grafting, and cosmetic surgeries are still risky and somewhat experimental. For years, Lucy underwent painful surgeries to try to achieve better eating, talking, and as the title of the book implies, a more symmetrical and pleasing face. Many of these surgeries were not successful as grafted bones were reabsorbed by Grealy's body. The surgeries push Lucy and her parents into a downward slope of struggling to pay bills and leading lives of poverty.
Face as Identity
While being a teen and adolescent is inherently filled with confusion, searching, self-consciousness, and embarrassment, imagine going through all of that and having what is perceived as a physical deformity. Cancer, surgeries, poverty, and a stressed family dynamic all work against Lucy Grealy. But Grealy does something powerful in the midst of coping with pain, surgery, alienation, and growing up -- she chooses to read and write in a way that will serve her well for the rest of her life. Unable to control her body, Lucy chooses to focus on her mind and her intellect.
Lucy survives childhood cancer to young adulthood and attends Sarah Lawrence College in New York City. From this rigorous academic setting Grealy emerges a poet, a cult hero, and a gifted writer. Grealy describes the life of her younger years, searching for identity and for a place to belong. And she tells a great story.
But the star of "Autobiography of a Face" is the writing. I found myself reading and re-reading entire paragraphs to enjoy the beautiful flow of language that deftly weaves the story and back story of a brilliant life. Consider this: "The general plot of life is sometimes shaped by the different ways genuine intelligence combines with equally genuine ignorance. I put all my effort into looking at the world as openly, unbiasedly, and honestly as possible, but I could not recognize my own self as a part of this world. I took great pains to infuse a sense of grace and meaning into everything I saw, but I could not apply those values to myself. Personally, I felt meaningless, or, more precisely, I felt I meant nothing to no one."
Sadly, Grealy's life ends in an addiction to pain pills brought about by the endless surgeries, and an overdose of heroin, no doubt to ease the pain she felt acutely. It makes me wonder how often surgeries are performed not for the patient, but for us, for society, so that we can look at others without wincing or gaping at their physical differences. Lucy railed against her face being called deformed, against any heroics attached to her years of chemotherapy and surgeries. In recommending "Autobiography of a Face" I emphasize the original and intimate writing of Lucy Grealy for what it is--unabashedly beautiful. Also, the afterword by Grealy's friend Ann Patchett is moving and unforgettable.
You may inter-library loan "Autobiography of a Face" via the Pioneer Memorial Public Library, or you may order a copy through Amazon. If you do purchase a copy of this book via Amazon, the Library receives four-percent of your purchase price.