At last, I’ve read the memoir that everyone was talking about nearly two decades ago. Where was I? Buried in single parenthood, I expect, surviving, in my own way. At that time of my life, I was just staying afloat, supporting my adored teenage son, seeing him through his years between childhood and adulthood, hoping we would both survive and still love each other. We have, and we do. He was my reason for living, for a long time. He is not now, he is his own self, and I am mine, but he is still one of four best things that have happened in my life, and always will be.
Which is a long-winded way of explaining one of the reasons why I’ve only just got round to reading Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. The more immediate reason is that, when I was in Perth as writer in residence in September-October, the friend I was staying with gave me a copy of Anne Patchett’s Truth and Beauty; see my November 4th post, ‘Back at home, still busy’, where I defend Patchett’s right to tell the truth about her life-and-death friendship with Lucy Grealy.
Lucy Grealy was diagnosed at the age of nine with a potentially terminal cancer, Ewing’s Sarcoma, in her lower jaw. She spent the next five years being treated with radiotherapy and chemotherapy, with many long stays in hospital, when she was lonely, in pain, her only satisfaction coming from, as she puts it, ‘playing the martyr’, applying the only formula she knew to gain acceptance and love: being stoic and heroic. This didn’t work when she was not in hospital; half her jaw was missing, and she was tormented and ridiculed by the children at school and at the riding school where she worked. Perversely, deformity became her identity: ‘this singularity of meaning— I was my face, I was ugliness—though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape. The pain of being stared at and ostracised engulfed every other pain in my life’. That was act 1 in the tragedy.
Act 2 was when Lucy began having reconstructive surgery to her jaw, to try and restore her face to something like normal. Operation after operation put her through still more pain, deformity and disability, and each operation failed; her jaw had been subjected to so much invasive treatment that every attempt to reconstruct it with tissue or bone from other parts of her body got reabsorbed, and she would return to the face that was not a face, that was only half-a-face.
Act 3 is not told in this book; for that, you need to read Truth and Beauty, which is Anne Patchett’s love song and elegy for her lost friend. Lucy didn’t make 40. She died of a possibly accidental heroine overdose at the age of 39.
What Lucy doesn’t give us is her wild, poetic self. We get hints of it, but it is revealed in poignant vignettes in Patchett’s book, mostly through quotes from Lucy’s letters to Anne:
”Dearest anvil, dearest deposed president of some new defunct but lovingly remembered country, dearest to me, I can find no suitable words of affection for you, words that will contain the whole of your wonderfulness to me. You will have to make do with being my favorite bagel, my favorite blue awning above some great little cafe where the coffee is strong but milky and had real texture to it.”
What Patchett gives us is the reality of loving and living with, apart from, and finally without, someone whose life is defined by their pain and deformity, but whose spirit triumphs in the very face of pain and despair. What Grealy gives us is the reality of being such a person. The two halves make a whole. A whole of a face that was deformed, but defiantly and vibrantly intense, loving, passionate, desperate, needy, irresponsible, and wildly poetic. I recommend, if you haven’t already, that you read both books; perhaps Grealy first, then Patchett; I did it in reverse, which is my wont. If you’ve already read one or both of them, I’d love to hear what you think.