Autobiography of a Face

Overview

"I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."

At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel...

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Overview

"I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."

At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.

This memoir is a ruthlessly honest self-examination of the loss of physical beauty and one young woman's triumph over unspeakable pain. "It was the pain . . . from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."--Lucy Grealy.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
Grealy has turned her misfortune into a book that is engaging and engrossing, a story of grace as well as cruelty.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Diagnosed at age nine with Ewing's sarcoma, a cancer that severely disfigured her face, Grealy lost half her jaw, recovered after two and half years of chemotherapy and radiation, then underwent plastic surgery over the next 20 years to reconstruct her jaw. This harrowing, lyrical autobiographical memoir, which grew out of an award-winning article published in Harper's in 1993, is a striking meditation on the distorting effects of our culture's preoccupation with physical beauty. Extremely self-conscious and shy, Grealy endured insults and ostracism as a teenager in Spring Valley, N.Y. At Sarah Lawrence College in the mid-1980s, she discovered poetry as a vehicle for her pent-up emotions. During graduate school at the University of Iowa, she had a series of unsatisfying sexual affairs, hoping to prove she was lovable. No longer eligible for medical coverage, she moved to London to take advantage of Britain's socialized medicine, and underwent a 13-hour operation in Scotland. Grealy now lives in New York City. Her discovery that true beauty lies within makes this a wise and healing book. (Sept.)
Library Journal
When Grealy was nine years old, a toothache led to a visit to the dentist, several misdiagnoses, and eventually surgery that removed most of the right side of her jaw. What she had was Ewing Sarcoma, a deadly form of cancer. In this expansion of her award-winning Harper's essay, "Mirrorings," Grealy sensitively recounts the chemotherapy she endured and the more than 30 operations she underwent in an effort to reconstruct her jaw. For Grealy, the tragedy of her situation was not the cancer but the pain of feeling ugly. As a child, she suffered the cruel taunts of classmates and insensitive stares of adults (Halloween was a great liberator with its concealing masks); as a young woman, fearing that no one would love her, she pinned her hopes on the surgeries that would magically fix her disfigured face and her life. Grealy writes with a poet's lyric grace, but her account of her endless quest for beauty at times becomes repetitious; the most moving part of her memoir comes in her depiction of chemotherapy's agonies and the unintentional cruelty of parents telling their suffering child not to cry. For all collections.-Wilda Williams, ``Library Journal''
Booknews
The author, a poet, writes intimately and lucidly of her experiences growing up with a facial disfigurement, for which she underwent more than 30 reconstructive procedures. No scholarly trappings. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Donna Seaman
Grealy's is a book you want to hand to people saying only, "Read it." Why? Because she has triumphed over something we all fear, the disfigurement of her face. And she writes about her experience with dignity, precision, and wisdom. At age nine, Grealy developed Ewing's sarcoma, a virulent form of cancer with only a five percent survival rate. Stoic, bright, imaginative, and resourceful, Grealy endured almost three years of chemotherapy and, ultimately, nearly 30 operations, many of which were attempts to reconstruct the missing half of her jaw. She not only suffered pain, confinement, fear, and loneliness; she also endured the humiliation of looking strange and alarming and of being perceived as ugly and therefore subjected to the laserlike cruelty of children and the cloddish embarrassment of adults. Given her predicament, those consequences were inevitable. What wasn't inevitable was the strength of Grealy's sense of self and the incredible richness of her inner life. As she describes her heroic efforts to transform her misfortune into a source of revelations about the beauty and mystery of life, we are humbled by her valor and the resiliency of her imagination. It's no surprise Grealy is a tremendously powerful writer: she saved her own life by telling herself stories to live by. Now she'll change our lives by sharing them.
From Barnes & Noble
After a childhood illness & surgery left her jaw disfigured, it took the author 20 years of living with a distorted self-image & more than 30 reconstructive procedures before coming to terms with her appearance. A poignant, powerful, & ultimately liberating memoir.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780613124720
  • Publisher: San Val, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/28/1995
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 8.12 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Lucy Grealy, an award-winning poet, was born in Ireland in 1963. She lived in the UK and in Germany but spent most of her life in New York, where she grew up, and where she died in 2002. She also published a collection of essays, As Seen on TV: Provocations.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Luck


KER-POW!


I was knocked into the present, the unmistakable now, by Joni Friedman's head as it collided with the right side of my jaw. Up until that moment my body had been running around within the confines of a circle of fourth-grade children gathered for a game of dodge ball, but my mind had been elsewhere. For the most part I was an abysmal athlete, and I was deeply embarrassed whenever I failed to jump bravely and deftly into a whirring jumprope, ever threatening to sting if I miscrossed its invisible boundaries, like some science-fiction force field. Or worse, when I was the weak link yet again in the school relay race. How could one doubt that the order in which one was picked for the softball team was anything but concurrent with the order in which Life would be handing out favors?

Not that I considered myself a weak or easily frightened person; in more casual games I excelled, especially at wrestling (I could beat every boy but one on my street), playing war (a known sneak, I was always called upon to be the scout), and in taking dares (I would do just about anything, no matter how ludicrous or dangerous, though I drew the line at eating invertebrates and amphibians). I was accorded a certain amount of respect in my neighborhood, not only because I once jumped out of a secondstory window, but also because I would kiss an old and particularly smelly neighborhood dog on the lips whenever asked. I was a tomboy par excellence.

But when games turned official under the auspices of the Fleetwood Elementary Phys-Ed Department, everything changed. The minutea whistle appeared and boundaries were called, I transformed into a spaz. It all seemed so unfair: I knew in my heart I had great potential, star potential even, but my knowing didn't translate into hitting the ball that was coming my way. I resigned myself early on, even though I knew I could outread, outspell, and outtest the strongest kid in the classroom. And when I was picked practically last for crazy kickball or crab relays, I defeatedly assumed a certain lackadaisical attitude, which partially accounts for my inattention on the day my jaw collided with Joni Friedman's head.

Maybe I was wondering whether Colleen's superiority at dodge ball would be compromised by her all-consuming crush on David Cassidy, or maybe some other social dilemma of prepubescence ruled that days game. I do know that the ball I was going for was mine. I hadn't even bothered to call it, it was so obvious, and though it was also obvious that Joni was going to try to steal it away from me, I stood my ground. The whistle to stop playing began to blow just as the ball came toward us, toward me. I leaned forward and Joni lunged sideways, and suddenly all thoughts about Colleen's social status or Joni's ethics were suddenly and sharply knocked out of me.

I felt the force of our collision in every one of my atoms as I sat, calm and lucid though slightly dazed, on the asphalt. Everyone was running to get on line. I assume Joni asked me how I was, but all I remember is sitting there among the blurred and running legs, rubbing the right side of my jaw, fascinated by how much pain I was in and by how strangely peaceful I felt. It wasn't the sensation of things happening in slow motion, which I had experienced during other minor accidents; it was as if time had mysteriously but logically shifted onto another plane. I felt as if I could speculate and theorize about a thousand different beautiful truths all in the time it would take my lips to form a single word. In retrospect, I think it's possible I had a concussion.

My jaw throbbed. Rubbing it with my hand seemed to have no good or bad effect: the pain was deep and untouchable. Because the pain was genuinely unanticipated, there was no residue of anxiety to alter my experience of it. Anxiety and anticipation, I was to learn, are the essential ingredients in suffering from pain, as opposed to feeling pain pure and simple. This alien ache was probably my first and last experience of unadulterated pain, which perplexed me more than it hurt me.

"Are you all right, dear?"

Interrupted in my twilight, I looked up to see Mrs. Minkin, who was on playground duty that afternoon. She fell into the category of "scary" adults, and from there into the subcategory of adults "with cooties." In her plaid wool skirts and thick makeup, luridly ugly to schoolchildren's eyes, Mrs. Minkin was not someone to whom I was willing to admit distress.

"I'm fine, thank you."

And I was fine: as quickly as it had happened, the sharp ache in my jaw receded and my sense of self transported itself back to the playground. I quickly stood up and brushed myself off The looming issue now was how far back in line I would have to stand because of this bothersome delay. By the time I was back in the classroom I had forgotten the incident entirely.

I was reminded of it again that evening as I sat on the living room rug earnestly trying to whip up a book report I had been putting off for two weeks. Now, to my grave dismay, the report was due the very next day. Gradually I became aware of possible salvation: I had a toothache. This wasn't as welcome a reason for staying home from school as a cold or a fever because it would entail a visit to the dentist. Had it been only a minor toothache I'd probably have preferred to suffer the wrath of my teacher rather than my mother's inevitable agitation, but now that I had noticed the ache it seemed to be worsening steadily.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
1 Luck 14
2 Petting Zoo 29
3 The Tao of Laugh-In 53
4 Fear Itself 69
5 Life on Earth 88
6 Door Number Two 103
7 Masks 118
8 Truth and Beauty 140
9 World of Unknowing 160
10 The Habits of Self-Conciousness 176
11 Cool 191
12 Mirrors 205
Acknowledgments 225
Afterword 227
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

"So many memoirs make you feel that you've been sealed up inside a wall with a monomaniac. A really good one, like Autobiography of a Face, makes you learn. You are not just seeing the writer; you are not trying to see yourself. You are seeing the world in a different way."
--New York Times

In her moving memoir, Autobiography of a Face, award-winning poet Lucy Grealy describes her life as a cancer victim who, at nine years old, has part of her jaw removed. From then on, she endures operation after operation in order to reconstruct her disfigured face, and suffers cruel taunts from classmates and uneasy stares from their parents.

As a child, Lucy finds refuge in the hospital where her face is considered an illness just like any other patient. It is here where she gets her first kiss from Derek, her partner in crime on Ward 10. Her life at the hospital is, ironically, where she feels the best about herself.

Although she maintains a few friends who she had before the surgery, and lives among her four siblings, Lucy is alone. She is torn between wanting to be loved for who she is and wishing desperately and secretly to have a perfect face.

Her search for truth and beauty continues throughout her life -- at college where she finds true friendships and the power of poetry, at graduate school where she discovers her long-awaited sexuality, and later in Britain where she takes advantage of their health system to begin another series of operations. Throughout it all, Grealy tells her story, the story of her face andher heart, with stunning strength and remarkable wit.

On December 18, 2002, Lucy Grealy died at the age of 39. She leaves behind this courageous picture of her life so that the rest of us might learn something about ours:

I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn't so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things. Society is no help. It tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else, only to leave our original faces behind to turn into ghosts that will inevitably resent and haunt us... [I]t suddenly occurred to me that it is no mistake when sometimes in films and literature the dead know they are dead only after being offered that most irrefutable proof: they can no longer see themselves in the mirror.

Discussion Questions

  1. Autobiography of a Face has been widely adopted in high school and college curriculums. Do you think that this book would be appropriate for younger audiences -- such as junior high, or sixth graders -- to help them understand the feelings of sick and handicapped kids and to teach them the importance of a kind word?

  2. As a child, Lucy lives in three worlds: the hospital, her home, and the outside world. How do the people in each of these environments treat her? How does Lucy respond to them?

  3. "We were taken to another floor with a playroom that boasted a large, ornate dollhouse, a real collector's item probably donated by some well-meaning person. You could only look at it from behind a glass partition, but it was too nice to be played with anyway. Sometimes you'd see a child standing there, staring, but for the most part the giant miniature house, despite its prominent position near the door, was ignored" (page 40). Do you think Lucy tells her readers about the dollhouse to describe her own loneliness? Or do you think Lucy craves a picture perfect place in which to hide and be left alone?

  4. The author remembers the first time she grasped the severity of her disease: "Someone dated an event as something that had happened 'before Lucy had cancer.' Shocked, I looked up. 'I had cancer?'" (page 43). Do you remember a time in your life where you were surprised to find out something about yourself that everyone else already knew?

  5. "Being different was my cross to bear, but being aware of it was my compensation. When I was younger, before I'd gotten sick, I'd wanted to be special, to be different. Did this then make me the creator of my own situation?" (page 101). Do you think Lucy, like many children do, blames herself for her sickness and, as a result, her disfigurement? Does she believe that she deserves her fate?

  6. Young Lucy is tormented by other kids, mostly male: "'That is the ugliest girl I have ever seen.' I knew in my heart that their comments had nothing to do with me, that it was all about them appearing tough and cool to their friends" (page 124-125). Were you surprised at her level of maturity and reasoning? Or do you see this is an example of a defense mechanism -- distancing herself from the situation in order to hide the hurt?

  7. In the hospital bathroom, someone scratched "Be Here Now" into the door. This message has a significant meaning to Lucy later on in the book. Discuss.

  8. The struggle between truth and beauty is prevalent throughout Lucy's memoir: "I had put a great deal of effort into accepting that my life would be without love and beauty in order to be comforted by Love and Beauty. Did my eager willingness to grasp the idea of "fixing" my face somehow invalidate all those years of toil?" (page 157-158). How would you answer Lucy's question?

  9. Does Lucy's death change your feelings about this book? How?

About the Author:

Lucy Grealy (1963-2002) was born in Dublin, Ireland. She moved to Spring Valley, New York, with her family when she was four years old. When she was nine, a surgery to remove a tumor also resulted in the removal of part of her jaw, leaving her disfigured and fated to endless reconstruction operations. She found comfort in her love for horses and, later, in her passion for poetry.

She received a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, and a Masters in Fine Arts in Poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her poetry appeared in a number of magazines, including The Paris Review and The London Times Literary Supplement.

After living abroad for several years (West Berlin, London and Aberdeen) she returned to the states in 1991 to take on a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., and then went on to be a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Living in New York since 1994, Lucy taught at the New School for Social Research's MFA in the Creative Writing Program, and also at Bennington College in Vermont, where she taught in both the graduate and undergraduate programs.

Autobiography of a Face, published in 1994, grew out of an essay that first appeared in Harper's magazine, and which won a National Magazine Award. Her second book, a collection of essays titled As Seen on TV, was published in 2000. She has a chapbook of poems, Everyday Alibis. Lucy Grealy won several prizes for her poetry, among them the Sonora Review Prize, the London TLS poetry prize, and two Academy of American Poets awards.

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