Autobiography of a Face
by Lucy Grealy
There was a time in my life when I refused to wear shorts or anything but long sleeves. I remember one particularly hot summer afternoon as a teenager, I wore a long-sleeved white shirt and jeans as I hung out with my best friend, Mike Gould. I was sweltering, and he was growing just as hot under the collar from my stubbornness to cover up the deep scars I have on my arms from surgery. Point blank, I didn’t think they were beautiful and, like many teenage girls, I so desperately wanted to be.
That same afternoon I wanted to go to the movies, but he refused to move out of his chair until I changed into a tank top. Literally, he acted as though he was glued to the seat. Ultimately, he won. I changed.
As I grew older and our friendship tighter, I realized my scars were damn beautiful. They showed strength, commitment and courage, all without saying a word. In the end, Mike’s perspective on what makes one gorgeous has changed my own ideal. With that I have learned what beauty not only is, but what it can be.
As his birthday approaches and another year passes, I’m not able to visit his final resting place. But I feel it’s important to honor and share the message he left me with encore book worms. And Lucy Grealy’s “Autobiography of a Face” is without question the most perfect way to accomplish such.
Born from an award-winning article published in Harper’s in 1993, “Autobiography of a Face” is said to be a salient testament to our culture’s fixation with physical attractiveness. Grealy emigrated with her family from Ireland to North America at the age of four. At nine, she had part of her jaw removed. Diagnosed with facial bone cancer, or Ewing’s Sarcoma, this heart-wrenching and eye-opening memoir takes readers down Grealy’s personal path, as doctors attemped to reconstruct her disfiguration. The book follows her through the suffering of many classmates’ cruel taunts and uneasy stares from their parents.
Spanning a 20-year period, the story moves from a young girl’s childhood into adulthood without flinching or holding back. Despite the pain and vividly shocking scenes, Grealy’s pain becomes palpabale. It’s an experience readers will have without gaining a self-absorbed or indulgent sense of pity. In fact, Grealy never once asks her readers to feel badly for her.
Unlike other depictions of overcoming adversity, “Autobiography of a Face” seems to focus on being inundated with both the simplicity of youth all while intertwining the insight of an adult. By reflecting on past circumstances, “Autobiography of a Face” aims to recount with poetic language Grealy’s trials and tribulations as she undergoes several surgeries, and more than two years of intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. As Ann Patchett states within the new afterword to the book:
“This is a book that understands how none of us ever feel we are pretty enough while it makes us question the very concept of beauty. It touches on our fears that love and approval are things we will always have to struggle to keep. . . . She wanted us to learn not only about the facts but also about their abstraction, to think beyond what we already know.”
I have no doubt that Grealy successfully confronts notions of beauty to help readers see its true definition with better clarity. My regret with this for our book club: Grealy’s death at the young age of 39 will leave us without the ability to further discuss her stunning perspective upon the world. However, her words will unquestionably still resonate with readers this April, far beyond the book’s last sentence.
I feel it just as I can still feel the liberation of shedding the cotton long-sleeved shirt I suffocated myself in as a girl. Like the photo I have of Mike and I that aforementioned night, “Autobiography of a Face” promises to be a picture-perfect read.
encore book club members can purchase “Autobiography of a Face” with a 15 percent discount at Two Sisters Bookery and Pomegranate Books by mentioning the book club. Questions about the book should be directed to Tiffanie, firstname.lastname@example.org, by April 18th for inclusion in her book review.