Memoir in Review: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Since memoir and personal essay are some of my favorite genres to write and read and contemplate reading and writing, I thought I’d start putting up some reviews of different memoirs, and use that as a way to dig into discussing different aspects of writing. I can almost guarantee there’ll also be some fiction reviews at some point. As I said from my very first post, whether a post on here is about blindness or Breaking Bad or organic chemistry or a book review, I always want the underlying focus to be on storytelling.

citationWinners04_lucyGrealyBefore reading Autobiography of a Face, I’d only read one thing by Lucy Grealy. It was “The Country of Childhood” from her As Seen on TV essay collection, and it was about her experience becoming an American citizen (she was originally from Ireland). I was hungry for more of her work, and then once I found out a little bit about her story, I picked up her memoir. I was definitely looking for a personal connection because though my story is different from Lucy’s, I knew that getting inside the skin of someone else who’d grown up being very physically different was going to make me feel less alone. But I didn’t actually read the book until it was assigned for a class this past April.

Autobiography of a Face tells the story of Lucy’s struggles with her face. She got Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw as a child and spent lots and lots of time in the hospital. It’s a window into another world, the friendships and hierarchies of hospital patients. There is even a chapter where she and a hospital friend sort of con a hospital volunteer into taking them to see the animal lab and get somewhat traumatized by seeing the vivisected and caged animals.

Lucy details the excruciating pain of chemotherapy while also conveying her childhood ignorance about the seriousness of what was going on. For most of the early stages (maybe even years) of her disease and treatment, she has an almost blase attitude toward it all, takes things in stride, doesn’t really understand the significance of what’s going on even though adults try to hint at it. She has to have a major surgery to remove the cancer in her jaw, and then spends years and years, operation after operation, trying to reconstruct her face.

Cover of "Autobiography of a Face"

Lucy is very cerebral and she comes up with all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid her situation. She philosophizes about it. She focuses on things like trying not to cry at chemotherapy. I felt there was something very stoic about her approach, almost trying to sublimate her pain, physical and social and emotional, think herself out of it. It really left no room for protest, for falling into self-pity, and as a reader, I was not having those kinds of responses. I wanted to scream and wail for these things not to happen to her. I felt bad for her, but not exactly in a pity way, more empathy. She talks about getting made fun of relentlessly when she’s finally well enough to go back to school, which I could relate to. And she wrote about how boys used her to mock another boy, Jerry, by calling her his girlfriend, meant as the ultimate insult to Jerry. And again, I could relate, and this may be the first time I’ve read a memoirist write about this in particular, about being used as a target for torment of someone else by insinuating that the target kid Jerry would date her. For me, because it’s something I’ve experienced and it’s a little more specific than just getting teased, this just nailed this part of the narrative as so believable and real and well-rendered.

In response to the torment, Lucy is again cerebral, repeating to herself that these boys making fun of her are stupid, that what they say doesn’t matter, focusing on her inner life, her philosophizing, the nature of truth and inner beauty, instead of letting in the words the boys call her, namely “ugly.”

One thing that Grealy does really well is capture how this shifts slowly as she gets older. She starts out sort of oblivious to what’s going on, and then is able to escape into reason and cerebral pondering when she’s a bit older and has more awareness of what’s going on and the pain she’s in, her difference. And then as she gets older, this shifts and she becomes more conscious of and more bothered by her face, her circumstances. She starts to pursue surgery after reconstructive surgery, detailing how she felt if she could just “fix her face,” then her life would start. She spends a lot of time preoccupied with these thoughts, which reads true. Eventually, after countless surgeries that remove bone and skin from other parts of her body in hopes of reconstructing her jaw, she decides to stop looking in mirrors for awhile, to start her own life instead of waiting. She did an excellent job of developing these shifts in perspective over time without summarizing it or spelling it out overmuch. It felt very genuine.

And there’s no doubt that Lucy Grealy is a skillful, intellectual, brilliant, artistic writer.

When my class discussed this book, I was a little surprised that other students said they “didn’t get it.” I am still not sure what they mean by that. A woman going through an ordeal like this and overcoming it seems standard material for a memoir. It isn’t the easiest material, that’s for sure. It maybe doesn’t have the happiest ending either–there isn’t a magical reconstructive surgery that makes everything all fixed (and I think that’s part of the point). And it is difficult, uncomfortable, to put yourself in Lucy’s shoes while reading, to imagine having something like that happen, something so random and outside of a person’s control as childhood cancer, and then to imagine that there isn’t any real fix. It’s not easy. But it is real, and for me, that’s the point of memoir. That’s why I like to read it, to dig into the raw truth of someone’s life. It almost always has something to offer.

There are memoir things that she does particularly well. One is that she fesses up to her own stuff, which always makes me trust an author or a character. Especially in the early days of her cancer struggles, she writes a lot about loving and craving the attention from doctors and other people in the hospital. It conveys the kid perspective, and illustrates something not super flattering about herself, this constant need for attention and specialness. Grealy also makes sure her story isn’t an unending sad story without interruption and highlights some of the things that brought her relief and joy, namely horses and animals and later, writing and college friendships and lovers.

I want to go back to the stoicism. It’s an interesting artistic choice. I think in some ways it helps things but in other ways it may hurt her. The stoicism, the refraining, for a long while into the book, to feel sorry for herself, to rail against her situation, and to write instead about the ways she tried to be cerebral and philosophical leaves the reader to feel all the railing, the pity or self-pity on her behalf, to have all the emotions that’s she thinking herself out of. And that’s challenging on the reader. As I said above, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s also sort of nice, she doesn’t dictate a reader’s emotions, a lot is really left for the reader to experience. I tend to really appreciate this approach in writing. Don’t tell me what to feel, make me feel it myself–and on that count, I think she succeeded.

I also think this choice works against her in some ways. It casts a bit of doubt. Kids, no matter how smart, are self-involved and teenagers feel self-pity when they are different. They feel enraged when life seems unfair. There’s grief when they’re not like everyone, when they’re constantly socially tortured, and Grealy doesn’t really put these emotions on the page. I get that the stoicism and being in her mind all the time was her way of dealing, and I think it was done well, but I think some parts would have felt more true with a little more of these messy emotions. The books reads a little bit untrue without more of it. Not majorly so, just a slight shade off from totally true.

In the afterward, Ann Patchett writes that she and Lucy used to joke that near the end of Lucy’s life she’d write the real autobiography of her face, “complete with all the sadness and pain and blame she’d sidestepped in the first edition.” This confirmed that all of that was there, underneath all of Lucy’s wonderfully complex reasoning and her intellect. She said that she had chosen things so that the reader wouldn’t be crushed under the weight of it all.

But personally speaking, I think a little of the crushing could’ve done the book some good. I think it would have felt more real, and given the reader more of a tether as to what to feel. One person in my class said that she thought the book was full of self-pity, which surprised me because Grealy doesn’t really address that feeling; she writes about her thoughts, she states things outright, stays in the intellectual (which is itself wonderful) and doesn’t get too emotional. But then I thought, maybe this is what happens without that tether. It becomes very easy to project your feelings while reading it onto her. And maybe the absence of certain emotions makes them bigger in invisibility. A little more intimacy with the reader, a little more fessing up to those feelings of sadness and pain and blame and self-pity that none of us are proud of, might’ve actually made those feelings less overwhelming. It could have grounded things and given the book another dimension. And it could have been, in some way, truer. I’m sad that Lucy never wrote that book, because I think there would have been a lot worth reading in there, and it would have provided a more real way for the reader to walk around in her skin and her life for awhile.

There is a strong sense of distance in the book, partly because of the things I discussed above. It seems deliberate. I think she wanted to recreate the feeling of being in her head a lot, being isolated, and again that’s something I can relate to a lot from growing up being really physically different and getting picked on all the time. So I think she had a definite artistic vision for what she wanted to create. It’s not hard to sense that there is a lot she’s not saying. She alludes to problems at home before she gets cancer, but never says what they were. An article I read has quotes from her mother and twin sister that also allude to some big family struggles and problems. Of course, the point of the book was her struggles relating to cancer and her face, gut it’s hard when an author hints at something but doesn’t go any further.

I wanted to discuss the distance because it’s an important thing to consider when writing memoir (or anything). Different books are written at different levels of closeness and intimacy, and there are a lot of choices an author has to make to create that consistent level, or varying the distance over the arc of a story. And there’s no one right distance. It’s different for each story and depends on what you’re trying to create and accomplish through words. Do you want to write something excruciatingly intimate? Do you want to be more removed? Is there a certain feeling you want to evoke somehow and what degree of closeness fits what it is you want to evoke? I think the main point is to be deliberate about it, to consciously choose.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It was a compelling story and extremely well-written. Though I would’ve liked a little more in certain places, and a little more closeness overall, the overall story had so many things that rang very true. I also kind of like that there wasn’t a great fix at the end (I mean that in terms of story and writing; it was sad for Lucy) because if there had been, it would’ve been a completely different story. And yet, even without a fix, there is triumph. Grealy does an excellent job of portraying how her thoughts and feelings about her cancer and her face evolved slowly over time, which can be really hard to do without force-feeding it.

Lucy was an artist, and she was beautiful.

And there will be more Lucy to come, because Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty is one of the other books up for review, which is Lucy seen through a friend’s eyes.

~Emilia J



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