I read Autobiography of a Face out of order. Originally published in 1993, I read Lucy Grealy's memoir only after reading her friend Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. I read Autobiography of a Face knowing that in the end, Lucy's face, and not Lucy triumphed, and I read Autobiography of a Face knowing that Lucy Grealy was dead.
~&~ About the Book ~&~
Autobiography of a Face begins with Lucy as a teenager, flashes back to her childhood, and then continues the story when she is an adult. In this way, Grealy makes the childhood cancer that ravaged her face incidental to the whole story: that of living with a face that others stare at, and her quest to finally have a "normal" face so that she could finally reach her goal of beginning her life.
Grealy's book recounts the pain of looking different, in school, at jobs, and around other children. As the book progresses, you can see the damage to her psyche being done as she went through her formative years, the age when children are most vulnerable, being teased. You see the development of her desire to hide, and to pretend that what people think doesn't bother her.
She does devote some time to her bout with cancer as a child, but couches it in terms of how it made her different, special, and relates it later to showing hospitals as a safe place, a place where her face didn't set her apart, where she was truly herself.
Grealy's belief that her face was the essence of her, that it developed her sense of truth and beauty (where the title of Patchett's book came from) are prevalent throughout the book. She conveys how central this was to her life in a way that can't be trivialized; when you are done reading, you realize that even the death of her father wasn't as central a point to the book as learning to live with her ever-changing face.
~&~ The Writing ~&~
I originally purchased Autobiography of a Face because I wanted the "complete" story after reading Truth and Beauty. Instead, I was blown away with the power of Grealy's writing. An afterword by Patchett talks a bit about Lucy Grealy's life after Autobiography was released, but having read the books out of order, I already knew that Grealy's issues with her face were more than just cosmetic; she had trouble eating. She wasn't even able to wear a denture to replace the teeth that she lost as a result of her cancer.
Patchett says in the Afterword that if Grealy had elaborated even more on her life that people would be crushed with the pain of it, and I think that she is right. But in sifting through all the pain of her life and centering on her face and how it shaped her entire life, she does discover truth, and beauty, and leaves her readers aching not only for her, but for the talent lost in her death.
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