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Facing Pain:

Autobiography of a Face
by Lucy Grealy
Perennial (HarperCollins)

At the beginning of the month, I made the promise that Lucy Grealy’s contribution to our book club would be a testament to strength, commitment and courage. Her memoir, “Autobiography of a Face,” definitely delivered. By far, this read was the most emotional, heart-wrenching and powerful account that has yet to cross our paths in the book club. And the reviews encore book worms sent resonated two very strong emotions: admiration and anger.

Born from an award-winning article published in Harper’s in 1993, “Autobiography of a Face” was with certainty a striking demonstration to our culture’s addiction with physical desirability. At times hard to push through, because of the absolute honesty and point-blank tone in dealing with Ewing’s Sarcoma (or facial bone cancer), Grealy’s memoir is truly a beautiful read. It does not, under any circumstance, leave one feeling badly. This is a hard feat to accomplish, especially given the memoir’s nature. “Autobiography of a Face” offers readers a chance to grasp a positive and thankful perspective toward their lives.

“It’s impossible not to recount your own childhood during the journey of reading,” contributor Jessica Staruck says. “Everything we thought to be dramatic or even important suddenly gets an attitude adjustment. What I found extremely interesting is Lucy Grealy’s depictions of overcoming adversity. Not even as a child did she view life with innocence. Then again, when faced with bone cancer, I guess notions of innocence don’t exist. I never felt bad throughout the read and I could tell positively Grealy did not want us, the reader, to feel sorry for her. Rather I felt heated. I was angry with her parents for leaving her to endure cancer treatments on her own and angry that Grealy had to understand the severity of her circumstance nearly solitarily.”

By no means self-absorbed or indulgent, Grealy also touched upon another powerful issue: our culture’s obsession with TV and the film industry’s interpretation of beauty. It’s an issue new contributor Elizabeth T. wishes the media world would take notice of.

“Anne Patchett said in the new afterword, Grealy wanted readers to hopefully rediscover what the term beauty means and to think beyond what we already know beauty is,” Elizabeth writes. “I’d say Grealy, without a doubt, accomplishes this. For a few hours after finishing the read, I thought back to my own adolescence and remembered how I stressed to be viewed as pretty from those that surrounded me. I wanted my hair to be straight and sleek. I wanted shoes other girls were wearing, and hated the cheaper version my parents could afford, and I wanted flawless skin. I thought these things made me beautiful and thanks to today’s programming, other little girls will believe the same. This memoir makes me upset at my younger self and eager to share it with my own daughters.”

As a reader, if I had to make a single, notable gripe, it would be the use of language. Through Grealy’s trials and tribulations, she describes her several surgeries, and more than two years of rigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatments in a very scientific manner. It lends insight into her world of viewing everything as-matter-of-factly, but on the flip side, it also takes away from a reader’s need to feel emotion and live vicariously. Even though her words still resonate powerfully and leave a lasting impact, the absence of raw sentiment saddens me that she never had time to allow herself an emotional outlet. Everyone has their breaking point; I wish Grealy would have shared hers more.

It brings me back to the author’s assessment within her work: “Anxiety and anticipation are the essential ingredients in suffering from pain, as opposed to feeling pain pure and simple.”

Grealy, we suffered for you. Plain and simple.

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