Lucy Grealy would have led a fairly ordinary suburban childhood in New York
state had she not, at the age of nine, been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw, a rare and rarely survived (the chance of recovery is only five percent) form of cancer. Grealy, who immigrated to America from Ireland at the age of four with her family, died late in 2002 at the age of 39. Autobiography of a Face, her memoir, was first published in 1994 and was reprinted in 2003 with an afterword by her friend, author Ann Patchett.
Grealy grew up to become a published poet and author of other works in addition to this well-crafted memoir. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Iowa’s prestigious MFA program, Grealy’s training as a writer is evident. This book is so eloquently written that the pain and vivid detail of her years spent as a cancer patient become their own work of art. The writing far surpasses that of many popular memoirs published in the last several years; Grealy is not self-absorbed or indulgent, and she never begs the reader to feel sorry for her.
Suffused with both the naiveté of a child and the wisdom of an adult reflecting on past circumstances, Grealy’s account reflects what many of us can remember feeling when we suffered from a minor illness: excitement at getting special treatment from family and friends, secretly thrilled at missing school and always anxious to miss more. Even when one-third of her jaw is removed because of the cancer, she is excited by the special attention she will get and seems fairly unphased by the surgery itself.
Throughout the book Grealy demonstrates how innocent she was of her illness, even while going through more than two and a half years of radiology and chemotherapy and fifteen years of reconstructive surgeries. When her schoolmates begin to tease her unmercifully about her altered appearance, Grealy realizes she is set apart from the rest of the world based on looks alone. It is her appearance, not her illness, that changes her view of herself. Her entire identity becomes her face, and she tells herself over and over, when my face is fixed, I’ll start living.
Most of the book centers on this search for self and happiness. Grealy reaches out to horses initially to replace the deep friendships and love she believes her ugliness prevents her from having. Later, when she is in college, she reaches out in a series of physical affairs, wanting to prove that despite her appearance, she is worthy of love.
This book redefines the standard notions of beauty and happiness that so many people take for granted today, while also pointing out what beauty means for those who aren’t considered traditionally beautiful. Grealy writes:
“When I tried to imagine being beautiful, I could only imagine living without the perpetual fear of being alone, without the great burden of isolation, which is what feeling ugly felt like.” As Grealy learns, truth and beauty are elusive for many, and the freedom she imagines being beautiful will bring her is not to be: “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.”
Comments friend Ann Patchett in the new afterword to the book, “This is a book that understands how none of us ever feel we are pretty enough while it makes us question the very concept of beauty. It touches on our fears that love and approval are things we will always have to struggle to keep. . . . She wanted us to learn not only about the facts but also about their abstraction, to think beyond what we already know.”
Grealy achieved her aim in making readers confront those notions of beauty and love in her memoir. It is unfortunate that her early death has left the world without further insights from her wise voice.