AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE by Lucy Grealy

Reviewed by June Fox of Booklovers

Autobiography of a Face (December 9, 2004) Lucy Grealy has written a powerful and thought-provoking memoir in which she tells the tragic story of losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer (Ewing's sarcoma), the ensuing years of chemotherapy and radiation, and then endless reconstructive surgeries. Through her harrowing tale of adversity, she has sifted out truths about beauty, society, and the concept of self.

It is almost unthinkable that a nine year old should have to withstand the physical and psychological tortures that Lucy endured, and which continued for the following eighteen years. Constant pain, failed operations and hope, were inevitably followed by cruel disappointment. On top of this, she was tormented by the teasing of her peers and by her own feelings of failure, self-hatred, and even blame for her parents' financial difficulties.

Lucy's mother was a somewhat shadowy figure who seemed to disappear by the middle of the book. Her exhortations to Lucy not to cry, not to give in to suffering and pain, only added to Lucy's burdens. Yet we felt deeply sad for her mother with five children, a job, and constant money problems. She was a victim of depression even before Lucy's illness, driving into the city five days a week for Lucy's chemotherapy and radiation treatments, watching her child suffer day after day. She would have to write her own book for us to understand her.

The book affected us all greatly and there were many things that made a deep impression on us:

  • Lucy's descriptions of the joy, the "now-ness" she felt on the fourth day following her weekly chemo treatments. With all her suffering, Lucy was awakened to all the glories of living to which we remain oblivious so much of the time.

  • Lucy's wise, mature understanding of her father, who left her alone during her horrible treatments (with a completely callous, rather hateful physician) because of his own inability to deal with his daughter's suffering. Her mother remained with her at these times, but with her presence, imposed her own needs on her daughter, urging Lucy to repress her tears and feelings of agony.

  • The cruelty of children is something we know well, but under these circumstances it was shocking. The boys in the lunchroom, the drunken men in the railroad dining car, the "how'd you get so ugly" felt like knives in the heart.

A change in Lucy's perceptions starts to occur when she realizes that she has fallen victim to society's identification of appearance with selfhood. Until this point, she has accepted that she 'is' her face, that she is too ugly to go to school, doomed by her appearance to a life with no possibility of love, to a life devoted to trying to 'fix' herself, rather than to loving and accepting herself. People staring and name-calling, the emphasis of beauty in advertising, sharing a room with a woman having cosmetic surgery, and even literature filled with physically beautiful women all relentlessly bombard Lucy with the message that beauty is the only key to a woman finding happiness and love.

To survive, Lucy has to realize that she is already whole. Finally, she writes of the necessity of shedding her image in order to liberate herself. Having realized that she is not her face, having shaken off the image of herself as someone waiting to be "fixed" before her life could begin, she also realizes that she will have to work hard to always accept this truth, probably for the rest of her life.

All of us were very impressed with this book, so much so that the next book we are reading is Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto. Ann and Lucy went to Sarah Lawrence together, but it was after college that they became best friends. Truth & Beauty is a portrait of their unwavering friendship that spans twenty years


FROM THE EDITORS: Find reviews contributed by other local book clubs at: www.larchmontgazette.com. We'd love to hear from other Larchmont book clubs and readers; email us at publisher@larchmontgazette.com.


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