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Autobiography of a Face - Lucy Grealy At an early age, Lucy Grealy was found to have a rare form of cancer. It would define the rest of her life. A third of her jawbone was removed to try to stem the spread of this cancer. She endured two and a half years of chemotherapy and many subsequent years of radiation treatments. In addition, she had literally dozens of surgeries attempting to restore her face. Each time her body would eventually absorb transplanted material and sag back in on itself. Consider the garden-variety cruelty of middle-schoolers. Then add to it a severe facial disfigurement. The taunting and insults were constant. High school offered minimal relief. One benefit to Grealy of her many hospitalizations was that she got to skip so much school-time, so much taunting-time.

Autobiography of a Face is Grealy’s memoir of her experience, inner and outer. She offers a blow-by-blow recounting of her medical trials, accompanied by the emotional turmoil that inevitably resulted. How does one cope with a world that defines beauty as value when one is clearly damaged? Eventually, Grealy decided that she would become deep. If she could not succeed at being beautiful, facially, she would become as smart as she could. In an interview she said that beauty is a label. What people want is to be seen as graceful, to be accepted, to be loved, to be appreciated. Beauty is a label that people lay across things that we want. The same applies to wealth, which, per se, is meaningless, but stands in for other things, desirability, power, freedom.

This is a book about identity. Are you your face? Do you see yourself through the eyes of the world or through your own? Can you accept who you are, disfigurements and all? Grealy found success in the world as a writer, but carried the pain of her appearance and the world’s cruelty to her about it with her for the rest of her days. She expresses appreciation for the fact that while she has had barriers to contend with, in many ways she was blessed, with a roof over her head, plenty to eat, clothing to wear, and sees how many people, people with perfectly normal faces, lack those basics.

The book is memorable and moving, offering an inside look at the girl, then woman, behind the face, sometimes behind the mask. There is a bit of distance here between the author and her emotions, but with such an intense, long-lasting trauma, a bit of distance may have been the only way that Grealy could have written her tale. It may not rank with great memoirs, but is an interesting, thoughtful and engaging one.

PS - I learned, after reading Autobiography, that Grealy, who had become a successful poet and writer, had suffered an addiction to heroine following her last reconstructive surgery and died of an overdose at age 39.

Grealy became friends with Ann Patchett at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Patchett wrote about their friendship in Truth and Beauty: A Friendship.

- July 2010