Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Grealy, Lucy – Autobiography of a Face


Nothing sickens the heart like a sick child. This is memoir of one such child and how her lifelong battle with normalcy. Diagnosed at age nine with Ewing’s sarcoma of the jaw and given a five percent change to survive, Lucy Grealy began a long battle with cancer and an even longer battle to reconstruct her face after parts of her jaw were removed.
          Though there are plenty of graphic descriptions of chemotherapy treatments, vomiting, and surgeries, Grealy focuses mostly on identity. At the forefront is her desire to be accepted as a human being. She unhappily is reminded again and again that this is impossible through the taunts of children or the surprise of adults at her asymmetrical, misshapen face. This passage exemplifies her long standing struggle with appearance:
“When I walked down a street or hallway, sometimes men would whistle at me from a distance, call me Baby, yell out and ask me my name…but sometimes they’d catch up with me, or I’d be forced to pass by them. Their comments would stop instantly when they saw my face, their sudden silence potent and damning” (188)
 When reality proves too unforgiving Grealy passionately embraces a world of fantasy and disassociation. She attempts to dissolve her misery through friendships with self-described “outsiders,” through complex fantasy worlds, and through writing. Her most passionate escape is in the world of horses. Their indifference to her appearance is refreshing and freeing. Yet, she stays miserable up until the end. Typically, books about people who face insurmountable odds surmount them, and this book is no exception. However, the end is slapped on and incomplete. A basic investigation of Grealy’s life reveals just how fake the “happy” ending is.
          Grealy’s life was not a journey towards self-acceptance, but hell bent on self-destruction. She attempted suicide throughout her life (which is conveniently left out of the book). She neglects to mention that talking and eating were both incredibly difficult for her. And, perhaps most tellingly, she omits her addiction to drugs which started with prescription OxyContin.  Ann Patchett, author of “Bel Canto” and friend of Grealy, said that she “had a nearly romantic relationship with Death. She had beaten it out so many times that she was convinced she could go and kiss it all she wanted and still come out on the other side." At age 39, Grealy succumbed to a heroin overdose.
 If anything, this book should speak volumes about the genre of memoir. We accept memoir as reality, yet it is closer to fiction than fact. I have no doubt that the anecdotes Grealy relates are real, but the story is shaped completely separately from Grealy’s life due to flagrant omissions. I urge all readers to be careful when approach either reading or writing memoir. Reality is more bendable than anyone can comfortably admit.

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