Imagine being a child elated at the prospect of missing school for having a toothache. Then, imagine dealing with the consequences of the discovery that the pain in your jaw is actually caused by cancer. This is the plight that 9-year-old Lucinda Grealy finds herself in. After beating Ewings Sarcoma with excruciating bouts of chemotherapy and radiation that destroys her jaw, she spends the next 15 years of her life attempting to fix the bottom half of her face with over 30 reconstructive surgeries. Her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, describes in exquisite detail, the inner thoughts Grealy experiences while on that journey as a young woman with a significant facial disfigurement.
Grealy, like many young women, attaches her sense of self-worth to her physical appearance and her autobiography explores that conundrum, of latching worthiness to others’ desire for perfection when there is virtually no hope of attaining that ideal. She has a knack for making insightful observations about herself and the world around her that suggests a rare frankness. “I felt pulled in two different directions. I had tasted what it was like to feel loved, to feel whole, and I had liked that taste,” she writes, “But fear kept insisting that I needed someone else’s longing to believe in that love. No matter how philosophical my ideals, I boiled every equation down to these simple terms: was I lovable or was I ugly?” A poet by training (Grealy is a graduate of the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa), she employs no superfluous words in her prose. Images and sharp observations are rendered with care and attention to detail.
Grealy’s writing is at its best in the beginning of the book when describing the workings of daily hospital life. She skillfully relates how as a child from a hectic home with emotionally uninvolved parents, the hospital setting paradoxically provided her the solace and friendships she lacked at home. As a writer reflecting on her childhood hospitalizations, she is expert not only of the prosaic world of hospitals, but expert of herself, particularly regarding her peculiar existence.
As a nonfiction writer, I was inspired by Grealy to explore the quirky thoughts that I tend to think are too wacky or unique for others to understand. Grealy’s writing confirmed what I already knew; that clear prose illuminates all. The memoir is relatively short, less than 250 pages, and it covers Grealy’s childhood after her diagnosis, through her young adulthood. Autobiography of a Face is an affecting story, not only for Grealy’s ability to see herself, but also for the mirror she holds up to society. She relates dozens of instances of merciless teasing from young men without sentimentalism, revealing an oft-related truth about our society’s equation of looks with respect in a powerful way. Her resistance to dwell on her emotions, but rather how the teasing spurred her to pursue surgery after surgery, differentiates it from typical accounts of this nature. I recommend one read this memoir and then check out Ann Pachett’s Truth and Beauty, a memoir about that author’s intimate friendship with Lucy Grealy.
Jewel Edwards is the features editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.