Beautiful Stranger: A Memoir of an Obsession with Perfection

Beautiful Stranger: A Memoir of an Obsession with Perfection

by Hope Donahue

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Hope Donahue seemed to have it all: beauty, wealth, social status. She was an only childwho grew up with the best private schools, debutante balls, and a home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles's old-money enclave. But beneath the family's façade of “keeping up appearances,” Hope hid a host of ugly truths, including a mother increasingly jealous of her


Hope Donahue seemed to have it all: beauty, wealth, social status. She was an only childwho grew up with the best private schools, debutante balls, and a home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles's old-money enclave. But beneath the family's façade of “keeping up appearances,” Hope hid a host of ugly truths, including a mother increasingly jealous of her daughter's good looks, an uncle's sexual advances, and a father who cowed to the demands of his wife and coolly reserved parents. Hope became addicted to a quest for physical perfection in place of her self-esteem—and by the age of twenty-seven she had undergone seven plastic surgeries. In riveting, unflinching prose, Hope recounts her downward spiral that alienated her family and friends, and led her to theft, bankruptcy, and a sadistic relationship before she began her recovery.

A powerful response to a culture obsessed with extreme makeovers and risky procedures that promise flawlessness, Beautiful Stranger is a timely, cautionary tale. Her story will inspire the countless women and men like her who struggle every day in a culture that feeds us dangerous images of unattainable perfection.

Beautiful Stranger is a dark, scary, and important story of how broad social trends shape the suffering of individuals—how, in the author's case, the beauty addiction of a whole culture is mapped onto a dysfunctional family and an obsessive compulsive disorder. Donahue perfectly captures the predatory style of a certain kind of surgeon—at once seductively flattering and solicitous and yet always on the prowl for access into the faces and bodiess of the vulnerable.” —Virginia L. Blum author of Flesh Wounds

Author Biography: Hope Donahue grew up in Los Angeles, California, and holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train's short story competition, and her short fiction has also appeared in Other Voices.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.96(w) x 8.42(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt

Here is what you need to know.

My name is Hope. I am thirty-six years old. I grew up in a tiny enclave of Los Angeles called Hancock Park, an area as renowned for its stately mansions and old-money families as for the La Brea tar pits, which regularly expel relics of bone and tooth from the animals long ago trapped there, lured by a mirage of water.

I am an only child. My father is a bank chairman, my grandfather a doctor of international acclaim. My mother stayed home in our beautiful house to raise me, as mothers did then. I am intelligent, witty, well traveled. I went to the best private schools. I never had to apply for a college scholarship or save for a new car. These things were given to me. I was a debutante. I am five-feet-eight-inches tall, with a model's build, blonde hair, and green eyes. People say I am beautiful.

These are just a few details of my life, but perhaps they are enough to trigger something. Do not be sick with envy at this awe-inspiring list of good fortune. Maybe you've known me, or someone like me. Maybe I was the girl you wanted not to like, because she had so much. The girl whose sunny cheerfulness seemed, you thought, superficial.

Do you remember me now, the girl who had it all?


Dr. S-'s receptionist moves with an aloof, feline grace down the hall. I follow in her wake of Opium, feeling clumsy and inferior, chiding myself at how little it takes to make me feel ungainly and imperfect. At the examining room door she turns to gesture me inside, and I find it hard not to stare at her breasts, which are so high and full they appear to swagger beneath the thin fabric of her top. I want to ask her whether Dr. S. is responsible for them. But it is inappropriate to stare at another woman's breasts, even in the office of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon renowned for the breasts he creates, so instead I look at the diamond-studded upside-down horseshoe pendant dangling on a chain around her neck. Doesn't she know that wearing the horseshoe this way means that all the good luck is running out?

Alone in the small room, I slip the paper smock over my clothes and struggle to fit my long hair into the paper cap. With the door closed, the silence of the room is so complete and engulfing, I can hear the blood pounding in my ears. The rustle of the paper smock is a roar. The white walls seem to be closing in on me. I want desperately to poke my head out the door, gulp a few breaths of fresh air to divert the flood of panic threatening to overtake me, but I fear looking impatient. Instead I shift uncomfortably on the narrow exam table, feeling the spread of wetness beneath my arms.

Outside the door, a familiar deep male voice rumbles incoherently. My heart gives a lurch of anticipation. Everything changes, now, at the prospect of having Dr. S. so close. Am I his next patient? If not, how much longer will he be? Five minutes? Fifteen? The clock above the door has a mechanical arm that scoots in jerks around its perimeter. Trying to take deep, even breaths, I watch its motion.

Everything in this room is white. I can't help thinking that this feels like a movie in which the recently deceased heroine waits eagerly to meet God, to be judged by Him. Like any good zealot, I expect to be reborn. And then, miraculously, the door clicks open and he enters the room, a tall, good-looking man of about forty-five, as handsome a deity as any Hollywood casting director could have dreamed up, wearing green surgical scrubs which are somewhat rumpled and specked ever so slightly with traces of rusty blood.

"Hope! My dear, good morning. How are you today?"

"Fine," I say, which now that he's here is less of a lie.

Dr. S. approaches me, standing so close I can smell the piney cologne rising off his warm skin. His brows knit together as he studies the bump on my lower lip, a flaw which I know is jarringly obvious in spite of my careful application of matte, flesh-toned lipstick. Silly, I think now, to have applied lipstick; it will be wiped away before Dr. S. can begin his work.

"We're going to fix this today." He presses the bump and I wince, not only because it hurts, but because I need to see the tender regret in his eyes at having caused me pain. "Sorry. I've got to check a post-op patient, and then we'll begin. It will only be a few more minutes."

When the door closes behind him, I feel I'll jump out of my skin. For the first time, the reality of the procedure hits me: It will hurt, what he's going to do; it's sure to; how could it not hurt? As if the painful bump and my pounding fear are not punishment enough, the familiar blaming refrain descends upon me like a hammer: This is all your fault. You brought this on yourself. It is your punishment, for wanting something so frivolous, so silly and wasteful. You vain, selfish fool.

When the door clicks open again, my heart gives a bleat of joy. But it is only the nurse, come to lead me to the operating room.


She is efficient, perhaps irritated, standing there in her green scrubs. Her plastic name tag, slightly askew, says jeanne. I follow her down the hallway wishing, childishly and impractically, that she would be kind, perhaps hold my hand. I need some maternal kindness to calm the whoosh of fear in me.

"Hope." Dr. S. steps through the door of his surgical suite, blocking my view of the brightly lit room. "Before we begin, there's something I want to show you. Come in."

To my surprise, there is a woman on the operating table. She is dark-haired, doe-eyed, perhaps forty. Her body is draped in a white blanket. She blinks at me and smiles sleepily.

"Hello," I offer, not knowing what else to say.

"This is Alix," Dr. S. says. On either side of the white paper sheet beneath her head are a half-dozen or so nickel-sized reddish blotches, where blood from an unseen wound has dripped and been absorbed, then dried.

"Alix just had what I like to call a 'lunchtime lift.' Have you heard of it?"


"It's revolutionary," he says. "State-of-the-art. It gives the effect of a brow lift without any of the downtime." There's a surge of bravado in Dr. S's voice, the voice of a showman, a salesman? I have no interest in a brow lift, so I do not know how to react.

Dr. S. approaches the woman on the table, pressing one of her manicured hands in his own. "Come closer, Hope," he scolds gently. "Don't be so shy."

"Sorry." I chuckle nervously. The hushed, private atmosphere of the operating room feels like entering a church, or a stranger's bedroom. And I feel a tinge of annoyance, too: This is supposed to be my surgery, my moment. But at Dr. S's bidding, I come and stand beside Alix. She turns toward Dr. S., to whom she gives a languorous look; a look which suggests, in effect with the damp hair at her temples, that she has just awoken not from surgery but from a short sleep after having made love. Dr. S. gently lifts the hair above her right temple, revealing a startling line of black stitches against the white skin of her scalp. She winces, and he quickly smoothes her hair back into place, then strokes the dewy skin of her forehead, once, with the back of his fingers. She smiles up at him, and the look of trust and intimacy they exchange makes my throat ache with longing.

"Just look at her," Dr. S. says to me, his eyes still fixed on Alix. "Isn't she lovely? She looks twenty-five years old."

My smile, automatic, hides my confusion. I myself am only twenty-three years old.

"You could benefit from this too, Hope." Dr. S. replaces Alix's hand on her blue-smocked chest, then turns the full wattage of his gaze on me. His body radiates a warmth in the cool, sterile operating room. "You're very girl-next-door, and this would give you an exotic, sort of foreign look. Here, let me show you."

Exotic. Foreign. He may not have sold me on the prospect of a brow lift, but these are promises that entice. How can I resist a delicious, illicit offer to become someone I am not? Does Dr. S. see inside me, does he know that if I could, I would shed my face and body, my very self, on his table as nimbly as a snake sheds its skin and leaves it there, outgrown and discarded, in favor of becoming a beautiful stranger?

Copyright © 2004 by Hope Donohue.

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