I just finished reading Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. I originally got this book because I started out the year reading Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, which is about Ann’s friendship with Lucy. Lucy is a quite a colorful and tragic character in the book and I wanted to know more about her. I was also very curious to see what Lucy looked like because the subject of this book is her face, which was disfigured as a result of childhood cancer.
Her experiences with a disfigured face and the agonies and hardships caused by her cancer are the primary topics of this book. Her cancer treatment, which begins at age 9, is harrowing and heart-breaking. As a result of the treatments, a third of her jaw is removed–giving her a face that results in teasing, alienation and feelings of being unlovable. Two things struck me most about the book. One was how much she must have left out. She literally spent years having new procedures done to reconstruct her jaw and spent endless amounts of time in hospitals. Although you get a glimpse of what some of those operations and hospital stays were like, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to have been that sick for so long.
The second thing is how little information she seemed to have received about her various treatment and the lack of communication amongst her family. She writes several times about her mother’s wish for her not to cry during chemotherapy and subsequent treatments: “If you pretend to be brave then you will be brave.” What a burden to put on a child! She also writes about her father going into the hospital for stomach pains, but then he doesn’t come home for months and virtually no one in the family goes to visit him except Lucy’s mother. He ends up dying there–never returning home. Lucy goes to visit one time and then is ambushed by grief years later. One of the recurring themes of the book is how little her family talked about what was happening in their lives and how they felt–leading to so much unnecessary pain and misunderstandings. This is something I think so many of us can relate to–the things we leave unsaid to those we love the most.
Lucy’s central struggle is to come to terms with her face and her concept of beauty and the question of whether someone with this kind of face can be loved. I think it is a struggle that we can all share–especially women. Physical beauty is so often correlated to being desirable and “lovable.” But how many of us feel truly beautiful? How often have you felt undesirable because of how you looked? I know this is something I always struggle with (although it has gotten better in recent years). I think that once someone truly knows you as a person, they see the beauty within you and you do become beautiful and feel beautiful with them. But what about people you don’t know? When all they are judging you on is how you look on the outside? I often feel so confident and good about myself and then will catch a glimpse of myself in a store window and go “Oh yuck. You look so ugly and dumpy and overweight.” And all my good feelings about myself go down the drain.
Another thing that struck me as being universal about the book was Lucy’s constant belief that with the next operation, her face would be “normal” again and then everything will be better. How often do we do this in life? “Once I make more money, things will be better.” “Once I find someone to love me, things will be better.” “Once I lose the weight, things will be better.” We spend so much time thinking about how much better things will be if only this were true or that were true. And how often do we achieve something and find that things are still not better? At the end of the book–after a particularly long and extensive series of surgeries–Lucy realizes that her face is a normal as it is ever going to get. There will be no more surgeries, no more fixes. The man she is sitting with is only giving her positive reactions. She writes: “And then I experienced a moment of the freedom I’d been practicing for behind my Halloween mask all those years ago. As a child, I had expected my liberation to come from getting a new face to put on, but now I saw it came from shedding something, shedding my image. I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.”
This is a not a fun, happy and breezy book, but it is thought-provoking and interesting. I would definitely recommend reading this book together with Ann Patchett’s book as they complement each other very well. I wish I had read them closer together.