Autobiography of a Face Essay - Critical Essays

Lucy Grealy

Book Review

This elegant, humorous and compassionate memoir constitutes a powerful challenge to a society obsessed with physical perfection. The author, award-winning poet Lucy Grealy, spent five years of childhood being treated for cancer and the next fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It took more than thirty reconstructive procedures before she came to terms with her appearance. Until then, she lived with the torture of rejection and the fear of never being loved. Feeling ugly seemed the great tragedy of her life; the cancer seemed trivial in comparison.

During a spell in a ward full of cosmetic surgery patients, Grealy observes that beauty seems to be about who is best at looking like everyone else. Yet she is aware that she too is a victim of the beauty myth. Each time she undergoes a reconstructive procedure, she believes she will start her life. Finally, she undergoes a successful operation resulting in an acceptable face. Yet she does not feel attractive. Hew new face does not look like her and she had expected that her life was supposed to work once she was beautiful.

It is hard not to be changed by this story of disillusion and self-discovery—not because of its uniqueness, but because of its unexpected universality. Those individuals who postpone happiness until some mythical date in the future will recognize, with Grealy, that the future does not exist. All who feel dissatisfaction with their appearance cannot help but be elevated by the book’s revelation that the self is not locatable in the metamorphoses of the face, that society lies when it says we can be most ourselves by looking like someone else.

Sources for Further Study

Ms. V, November, 1994, p. 74.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 25, 1994, p. 11.

Ploughshares. XX, Fall, 1994, p. 242.

San Francisco Chronicle. December 3, 1994, p. E1.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 17, 1994, p. 31.

The Washington Post. November 29, 1994, p. D2.