Autobiography of a Face is the brilliant prose debut of award-winning poet Lucy Grealy. Grealy spent five years of her childhood being treated for cancer. The surgery left her face badly disfigured, and she spent the next fifteen years, as she says, being treated for nothing else than looking different from everyone else. It took more than thirty reconstructive procedures before she could come to terms with her appearance. Until that time, she had to live with the daily torture of peer rejection and the growing fear of never being loved. Feeling ugly, she says, seemed the greatest tragedy of her life: The fact that she had cancer seemed minor by comparison.
The book opens several years after the cancer surgery, with an account of an adolescent Grealy helping a local stable with a pony party in an affluent suburb. She is by then adept at avoiding the curious or hostile gaze of other children by hiding her disfigured jaw behind a curtain of long hair. Anyone who has any lingering doubts that children (to be specific, in this case, boys) can be routinely and systematically cruel beyond adult comprehension will be disabused by this book.
Grealy enjoys working with horses because she gains from them an unconditional acceptance that she does not gain from people. She gets a job at a stable and takes comfort in taking care of the basic needs of the horses. In such work, all extraneous grievances are shed. There is a deeply moving episode in which her parents, through considerable sacrifice, buy her a horse. She has a few months of comparative bliss with the horse before he suddenly dies. Oddly, this happens also with a second horse that replaced the first. Although Grealy’s life contains more than its fair share of suffering, she never lapses into self-pity. On the contrary, this is a joyous book, full of humor and lucid insights of the heart and mind that lift readers beyond pain to a realm of compassion and self-knowledge.
The narrative then goes back in time to the chance knock on Grealy’s jaw that led to the doctors’ discovery that she had cancer. (Her own realization came years later; nobody had actually spoken the word to her to describe her condition.) That discovery leads to the surgery that was to cut away part of her jaw and change her self-image forever. Some years pass, however, before she gains enough self-consciousness to realize that to other people she is ugly. This reality dawns on her with a slow shock. From then on, her life is an attempt not to be defined by the sneers and contempt of boys at school and men in the street, the unwonted politeness of girlfriends, and the clumsy pity of adults.
A case in point is when she is daily confronted by the mockery of the boys at high school over lunch. In her response to this torture, Grealy shows a precocious maturity. She is aware, even then, that their comments have nothing to do with her, that they are about enabling the boys to appear cool to their friends. Her guidance counselor arranges for her to eat lunch in his office, and every lunchtime from then onward is spent in merciful isolation.
Other cruelty is less premeditated. She recounts a game where one of the girls at the stable asks each of her companions in turn whether, if a certain boy asked her out, she would go. Grealy waits with trepidation for the girl to ask her; she cannot leave her out without seeming to inflict an obvious insult. When Grealy is asked, someone counters by asking why he would want to go out with her. At this moment, Grealy says, she is sure that she will never have a boyfriend.
In comparison to the psychological pain of events such as this, the physical agonies of cancer treatment seem easy and manageable, almost a vacation. Grealy’s level gaze never wavers from presenting the rigors of chemotherapy in all of their horror. Yet she rapidly learns to manage this physical suffering, knowing that on the third day after the dreaded injection the vomiting will stop and her strength will return. In fact, chemotherapy becomes for her an arena in which she can prove herself worthy of love—she can be brave and not cry, just as her mother expects. In fact, she does not cry until the very last injection, when all the pent-up tears of the preceding two years well up and demand release.
As the world, with its constant reminders of her “abnormality,” becomes ever more threatening, so the hospital becomes ever more comforting—the only place on earth where she does not feel self-conscious. There, her face is her battle scar, her badge of honor. Everyone there is sick, so everyone respects others’ deficiencies. Also, as Grealy remarks with her characteristic insight, operations and treatments become more bearable with time and repetition, whereas taunts grow more painful with each one.
This intensely moving and beautifully written memoir constitutes a powerful challenge to a society obsessed with physical perfection. A memorable example is the occasion where Grealy revels in the liberation of walking the streets dressed in a...
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