Thursday, November 10, 2011


"As I 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 in Autobiography of a face

I read the most remarkable book, cited above.  Ms. Grealy was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma in her jaw when she was nine years old.  Her jaw was removed from one side of her face.  She underwent 2.5 years of weekly, debilitating chemotherapy and a year or so of concurrent radiation.  She survived.

The obvious and fascinating point of the book is to present what it is like to go through virtually your entire life, the teenage years in particular, with such a dramatically unique face.  She underwent nearly 30 attempted reconstructive surgeries over 18 years.  She developed numerous psychological tricks to cope with these physical and emotional hardships.  In particular, she coached herself that she was ugly.

She decided that she had to tell herself that she was ugly in order to cope with the teases dished out by boys and men (at some point she states that girls and women never taunted her).  The following is my interpretation, but it seems that rather than undergo an internal counter-argument, it was more effective for her to agree with them.  I think I can understand this logic.  If you tell yourself that you know you are ugly, a tease is no longer a tease but rather a pointless declaration of the truth.  I can see it as a survival mechanism at the expense of one's self-esteem.

The hardest part to read about is her disappointment with the reconstructive surgeries.  They all failed because her tissue was so severely irradiated that the transplanted tissue would not "take".  It would simply be re-absorbed over the course of several months, and she would be left with her lack of a jaw line in spite of the lengthy, painful attempt to restore it.  With each reconstruction, her hopes to no longer be "ugly" would rise, and with each failure she would recede farther from society.

In the end she had accepted an end to the surgeries.  The last attempt seemed to have a slightly better cosmetic outcome than all of the previous attempts.  But she couldn't reconcile that the face she saw in the mirror was actually her face.  This is because she had gone her whole life looking the way one looks without half of a jaw, and now that it was at least partially corrected she didn't look like herself.  But apparently she looked more acceptable to society?  So as she tried to reconcile this paradox, she avoided looking at her reflection for over a year.  Avoiding her face helped her accept that she had a face; she was no longer waiting for her face to be constructed.

It's a beautiful book with a universal message:  you are beautiful.  

"Why couldn't they just stop complaining so much, just let go and see how good they actually had it?  Everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen that would allow them to move forward, waiting for some shadowy future moment to begin their lives in earnest." --Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face


  1. I just read an article about Lucy by Ann Patchett - a friend of hers.

    My favorite part?

    “Someday we’ll look back on all of this and we won’t even believe we were here,” she’d whisper. “We’ll say, ‘Do you remember when we used to live in Iowa?’ ”

    I’d smile, warm, already falling back to sleep, telling her: “We’ll say, ‘That happened during the Iowa years.’ ”

    xo -- Beck

  2. NICE, Beck! I love it! It DID happen during the Iowa years.

  3. I always mean to comment on your post when I see you, but forget. I want to read this book - especially since you gave me the book "Truth and Beauty" a few years ago. I thought that was the best book ever .... I love that there is an endless supply of best books ever!

    Happy to be an occasional player in your current Iowa year. Safe travels -