Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: Autobiography of a Face

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Autobiography of a Face

Author: Lucy Grealy

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Date: 1994

ISBN: 0060569662

Length: 236 pages including the posthumous afterword by Ann Patchett

Quote: "My pleasure at the sight of the children didn't last long, however. I knew what was coming. As soon as they got over the thrill of being near the ponies, they'd notice me.Half my jaw was missing."

Lucy Grealy survived a rare form of cancer, in childhood...but only barely. Somehow, between pain, heavy pain medication, and living with a disfigured face, she managed to write two books. We know how she managed the writing part--writing is a great distraction--but I remain awestruck by the fact that both books were not only acclaimed by critics, but also popular with the reading public.

In Autobiography of a Face, she turned her own personal pain into a reflection on how every little girl in the English-speaking world finds herself defined by her placement in life-as-a-beauty-contest. Very few faces have ever looked like Grealy's, but almost all teenaged girls, including supermodels, have been made to want to put on a burqa just to force people to notice other things about them. So, although it's unlikely that we understand half of what Grealy was describing (even if you've had chemotherapy, you probably didn't have it during puberty), we can relate to her main point.

One of Grealy's numerous siblings has objected to Ann Patchett's writing a memoir about having been Grealy's friend, complaining on Wikipedia that publishers have denied the family their natural right to grieve privately. This woman may not like my even writing about Grealy's own book; some people want to suppress the continued publication of their relatives' successful books, because their departed relatives' fame reminds them.

If so, I'm sorry, because I recommend Autobiography of a Face to anyone who is, was, or may at some time live with, a girl. Maybe, just maybe, this extreme example of how people limit their perceptions of girls to what girls, themselves, normally experience as the least interesting thing about them, will continue to accomplish something ordinary memoirs of the great involuntary beauty contest never did, or could. Maybe it will impress us with the need to look at teenaged girls less, and listen to them more.

While living, Lucy Grealy joked about the inevitable descriptions of this book as "heroic" and "triumphant." Pain does not, in fact, make people "strong." Grealy knew pain, throughout her life, even after the cancer was theoretically gone; she died from an overdose of painkillers. She did, nevertheless, overcome the emotional pain of being ugly...

"Ugly? What are you talking about?" someone ought to be saying, looking at the photo on the back cover of the book, which is also on the Wikipedia page about Grealy. This is not an ugly face; it's a scarred face. The hair, eyes, and basic bone structure are quite nice. Yes, but this is the face of the mature cancer survivor. Scars were what lasted after the ravages of chemotherapy were over. The effects of chemotherapy are profoundly ugly, while they last, and much of this book is about the years when Grealy was going through chemotherapy.

The "Irish" temperament (not, of course, limited to Irish people, or given to all Irish people, but embodied in Irish art and culture), which remains cheerful while fully acknowledging all the dismal things in life, is a lucky accident.

Then there's classic repression: "I did [cry], ashamed of myself, unable to meet my mother's eyes as she began telling me not to, to hold it back. The tourniquet went on, and it began all over again, just like the week before, except that this time when I got home I went straight to bed...I felt that my mother was disappointed with me. I hadn't gone straight to bed last time...'You...can't get depressed by it. Don't give in to it. You were not so bad last time, so make sure that what you're feeling isn't just in your head.'"

Then there's the virtue of fortitude...which is what allows people, whether naturally cheerful or not, to survive emotionally even when members of their families fail to recognize that successive rounds of chemotherapy are supposed to feel increasingly horrible.

All memoirs about painful illness provide illustrations of one, and sometimes contrasts among all three, of these distinct things that are sometimes casually lumped together as "toughness" or "courage." I find clearer contrasts in Autobiography of a Face than I've found in any other disease story I've read. Whether this is because Grealy describes each of the three kinds of "courage" more clearly, and less self-consciously, than anyone else does, or because I'm older and more callous and can bear to read this kind of book more attentively than before, I don't know. Readers are invited to share their opinions.

Popular books tend to become very affordable. If you buy this book from me online, I'll have to charge the minimum $5 for the book and $5 for shipping. That would be a nice way to support this web site. However, since Grealy has no use for $1, and other online prices start at $0.01 for the book (plus shipping), you might prefer to buy an old book by a living author from me, and buy this one from the supplier nearest you. If you're in Gate City, Virginia, you can buy the cleaned copy I have for sale for less than $1.