Lucy Grealy’s ‘Autobiography of a Face’

“Part of the job of being human is to consistently underestimate our effect on other people . . .”—Lucy Grealy

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.


Filed under memoir, NOTED

6 responses to “Lucy Grealy’s ‘Autobiography of a Face’

  1. I’m not sure what turned me off the idea of reading this book—whether it was just a bummed out first semester or Ann’s memoir. Or maybe it’s memoir itself. When you write, I feel like I’m learning something, and that, to me, makes the memoir different in different hands. It takes a lot to get me interested in this genre when it’s not funny, even though I know you’re right that it’s wise, sad, and told beautifully.

  2. I loved this book. She is an amazingly incisive writer, and though this book is very much about her own experience, she performs the magic of all great writers and frequently turns the personal into the universal. Her thoughts on solitude, on the need for approval and on our obsession with our physical selves all extend beyond her own experience. She is wry and wise and wonderful. Truly great memoir writing.

  3. Beth Sears

    I’ve done the opposite. I’ve already read ‘Truth and Beauty’ and now you’ve reminded me that I’d like to read the tale from Grealy’s point of view. She writes beautifully in the two well-chosen excerpts. Thanks for bringing this memoir to my attention.

  4. I bought _Truth and Beauty_ today, inspired to finally get to it after reading these comments. Thanks, all.

  5. Autobiography of a Face is an amazing memoir. I read/studied both of these memoirs in detail in grad school. They are both impressive in their own ways, though I think Truth and Beauty straddles an ethical line. After you read T&B, I recommend reading this piece, by Lucy Grealy’s sister, on her take on Truth and Beauty:
    Also, there’s an interesting interview online with Lucy Grealy about her book here:

  6. Very interesting and useful information, thanks!