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.
Before 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.