Memoirs of Trauma

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Mary Beth Loup (review date Spring 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735

SOURCE: "Facing the World," in Belles Lettres, Spring, 1995, p. 53.

[In the following positive review, Loup relates her reticence as a cancer survivor at reading Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, but finds that "Grealy learns to look in the mirror and accept what she sees: the reader privileged to have shared her mirror can do no less."]

Unlike many readers who anticipated the appearance of Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face after first reading her article "Mirrorings" in Harper's, I read the book first. Knowing only that the memoir deals with the author's facial disfigurement following cancer treatment as a child, I approached it cautiously. With my own cancer treatment so recently behind me, I feared that if Grealy's work were shallow, shoddy, sensational, or in any other way mediocre, it would, at the very least, disappoint by its lack of insight and, at worst, could even debase by banalization the very experience it set out to chronicle.

So, rather than plunge, I waded in thoughtfully. The title Autobiography of a Face can imply a multiplicity of meanings: its documentary tone, which mimics the detached observations of medical reports; the suggestion that a face, as separate from an integrated personality, is somehow able to relate its own story; and perhaps most obviously, the implied universality in the word choice of "a" face as opposed to "my" face.

Fortunately for the reader, not just any face inspired this work, but the face of a poet, Lucy Grealy. In the early 1970s at the age of nine, she submitted to the first of many operations: first to remove a sizable portion of her jaw to prevent the spread of cancer, and later to restore some semblance of normality to her appearance through plastic surgery. In between were radiation treatments and chemotherapy. Grealy's almost lifelong struggle with pain, suffering, and humiliation, on such a staggering scale that it defined and shaped her childhood universe, could well have brought her beyond the brink of psychic annihilation. Consider the traumatic consequences of her overwhelmed mother's impossible demands for bravery:

There was no way to escape the pain. Yet with each successive visit to Dr. Woolf's examining room, my feelings of shame and guilt for failing not to suffer became more unbearable. The physical pain seemed almost easy in comparison. Was this how my body dealt with the onslaught, veering the focus away from itself, insisting that its burden be lessened by having my mind take on more than its fair share? Whatever the process was, it worked—worked in the sense that I became adept at handling my pain, deft at addressing its various complaints and demands for attention.

The miracle is that Grealy combines the unbearable sensitivity of a poet with the relentless observation of a journalist, and having survived these very attributes, which undoubtedly intensified her suffering, uses them to break free of the prison of her own suppressed fears. Her resulting memoir evokes with near total recall and absence of self-pity the world of a child whose happiest memory was of Halloween: "I walked down the streets suddenly bold and free: no one could see my face. I peered through the oval eye slits and did not see one person staring back at me, ready to make fun of my face." In prose that is both lilting and precise, Grealy lets the reader look both into her mask and out at the world from her own "oval eye slits." The view is not all-encompassing: her siblings, even her twin sister, are peripheral figures, and her parents seem...

(This entire section contains 735 words.)

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to exist only in their relation to their daughter. This does not strike me as a weakness, but rather as a necessary narrowing of focus to increase the memoir's sharpness.

So completely did I embrace Grealy's point of view that I felt the stings of cruel taunts (this book should be required reading for all preadolescent boys), and I rejoiced in her eventual epiphany:

And then I experienced a moment of the freedom I'd been practicing for behind my Halloween mask all those years ago. As a child I had expected my liberation to come from getting a new face to put on, but now I saw it came from shedding something, shedding my image.

Lucy Grealy learns to look in the mirror and accept what she sees: the reader privileged to have shared her mirror can do no less.


Sonia Jaffe Robbins (review date March 1995)


Carolyn Polese (review date December 1995)