AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE
by Lucy Grealy
Reviewed by June Fox of Booklovers
(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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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