Sunday, August 14, 2011

Autobiography of a Face (memoir)

It's funny . . . I picked up a paperback edition of this book a couple of years ago and, like so many books I buy (buying books is a vice with me), it sat on my to-be-read shelf for a long time, untouched, while I made my way through dozens of other books. Eventually I did a book purging, as I occasionally do, attempting to honestly assess the likelihood of my ever actually reading each book sitting on my to-be-read shelf. This one was given away with a stack of other books, never having been opened by me.

Then my book club chose Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett for this month's discussion, and my interest in Autobiography of a Face was rekindled. Now I wanted to know more about this Lucy Grealy, the friend Ann Patchett wrote about, and the book that made Lucy famous. Fortunately, I didn't have to re-buy the book; a friend had a copy and graciously sent it to me. I started it yesterday morning and finished it right at dinnertime today. Yes, it was that absorbing; I couldn't put it down.

"I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."

Diagnosed at age 9 with a rare form of cancer, Lucy went through a long, hellish ordeal of radiation and chemo, as well as an operation to remove the cancerous tumor from her face, which also necessitated removing a large portion of her lower jaw, leaving her disfigured. What followed were years and years of failed reconstructive surgeries and a self-loathing, both for being what she perceived as ugly, and for allowing herself to be so weak as to care that she was ugly.

What I found so engrossing was how deeply introspective she seemed to be at all times. Whether she actually was so clear of thought as a child experiencing the things she later writes about, or whether the insights only came to her later as she wrote of her experiences, it's hard to know, but in any case, her book is extremely reflective and insightful. A lot of it resonated with me, also, in the sense that she expresses very movingly how the aftermath of cancer can sometimes be more difficult, more painful, than cancer and cancer treatment themselves, and just how tied one's physical and/or aesthetic condition is to one's sense of worth.

When I read Truth & Beauty, I did not like the person Ann Patchett wrote about as her friend, Lucy Grealy. I feel like I have a much better understanding of Lucy now, and finally the compassion - and even admiration - I was unable to find for her when I was reading T & B. I really think that Ann Patchett's book should not be read without also reading Autobiography of a Face.

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