Lucy Grealy’s memoir, Autobiography of a Face, is an account of her childhood and young adulthood struggling with surgeries, treatments, and disfigurement from Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer of the jaw. She conveys so well the aloneness of a sick child, at the mercy of hospital staff, and the effect of looking different from other people. Even when she wasn’t confined to a sick ward, she and her mother traveled into New York, day after day, for her chemotherapy or radiation.
“The streets in New York City are their own country. A knowledge of them gives one a sense of power. It makes no difference that for the most part New York is a giant grid, supremely traversable compared with such labyrinths as Paris or London. Its power heaves up from the pavement right in front of your eyes, steam escapes in fits and starts as if the whole place were going to blow any minute, people who have already blown apart lie in its crevasses, and all the while there is a thin promise, a slight wheedling tone, that something important, something drastic, is about to break.”
Grealy became wise in the ways of human weaknesses—cruelty, foibles, and pride. But she is searingly honest as well about herself, about her hubris and her unsympathetic insularity.
“I used to think that 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.”
Grealy’s life spawned a second great memoir, novelist Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with Grealy that began when they were MFA students together and ended when Grealy, after long suffering and struggles with addiction, died of an overdose. I plan to reread Truth and Beauty, a sad, wise, beautifully told story, recently reissued in paperback.