Lucy Grealy’s “Autobiography of a Face” is the personal autobiographical story of her tragic experiences with Ewing’s sarcoma of the jaw, a rare form of cancer. The book was published in 1994 and reprinted in 2003 with an afterword by her friend, author Ann Patchett. Lucy Grealy had immigrated to America from Ireland at the age of four with her family and was diagnosed with the disease when she just a child of nine. She graduated in Sarah Lawrence College and did her masters at the University of Iowa. She was a published poet and author of many works.
Synopsis: Lucy spends her childhood years as a patient where her face is just considered as an object of medical treatment. Her first kiss from Derek on Ward 10 makes her feel good about herself and her self-image remains good within the walls of the hospital. However, when she starts losing many of her friends she begins to feel lonely and is torn between wanting to be loved for the person she is and secretly wishing to have the perfect face. Her quest for truth and beauty bring her true friendships in college, introduction to the power of poetry, opening to her sexuality and then she begins a series of cosmetic operations.
Grealy’s narration of her tragic story is one that is both bold and witty. Physical Impact: Lucy Grealy describes the story of her own obsessive pursuit of a normal face. As a child, she first realizes that she is somewhat alone in the world when her schoolmates begin to comment negatively on her altered appearance. She realizes that her face is the key to her self-image and her personal identity. She tells herself over and over, when my face is fixed, I’ll start living. The book underlines the fact that many people are stuck with physical criteria in their definition for beauty and take many things for granted.
Further Grealy also points out that the physical impact also has a psychological impact. She declares, “my face, my ‘self”‘ (170). Grealy’s disfigured jaw lives on as a badge of sickness, marking her as abnormal. Grealy’s face denies her the sense of legitimate individuality that a normal face would have provided. Psychosocial Impact: The disfigured face has a direct influence on her mind as well as on her social life. The deepest wounds were self-inflicted, and salted with self-blame, with a conviction “that my ugliness was equal to a great personal failure” (Mojtabai, 1994).
Regarding the social side of her life, Grealy writes: “When I tried to imagine being beautiful, I could only imagine living without the perpetual fear of being alone, without the great burden of isolation, which is what feeling ugly felt like. ” Describing waking up from her fourth operation–the one that removed the tumor from her jaw–and limping across her hospital room, Grealy writes that “the body is a connected thing” (56). This shows how weak and disfigured she felt internally because of her weak body condition and disfigured face. She was also socially isolated by her disfigured face.
Grealy tries to have a bond with the horses to replace the friendships that she had lost through her ugliness. As a college student, she fervently reaches out to have physical affairs to reaffirm her worthiness to receive love. Ultimately she confesses that most of her battle involved getting rid of the image of herself as an ugly person and it was only in her later years that she understood that getting a new face will not help her in this regard. Grealy “blamed my face for everything,” the “tangible element of what was wrong with my life and with me” (127).
Thus we find that her psychosocial life was truly affected by her face. Career/professional choices and behaviors: People who are successful in their careers are often those who have discovered a way of converting their problems into opportunities. Lucy Greasly was driven to a life of introspection and reflection due to her illness and social isolation. She reflects on questions that are deeply moving: “Why had my soul chosen this particular life, I asked myself; what was there to learn from a face as ugly as mine?
At the age of sixteen I decided it was all about desire and love” (180). Her sensitive and introspective nature proved to be huge asset as she launched her career as a poet and writer. Economic issues faced by the individual with cancer and/or their family: Treatment of cancer involves a lot of money. Greasly said that during her treatment phase, there were continual economic difficulties, for which she felt responsible. “Cancer is an obscenely expensive illness,” she notes. “I saw the bills. “
Relevance and usefulness of book to cancer education: Due to the detailed account of her life as a cancer patient, this book provides useful insights to both healthcare professionals and cancer patients. Lucy Grealy undergoes cancer treatment under Dr. Woolf. When she first meets her doctor, she is very scared because of his gruff and rude manner: “The first time he examined me I could only flinch at his roughness as his large fingers pressed hard into my abdomen, pried open my still stiff mouth…. He scared me”. (6) Here, the need for more sensitivity of the doctor is highly stressed.
Moreover, the accounts of her radiological and chemotherapy treatments can provide valuable information to the new cancer patient. Her introspective questions can soothe the turbulent spirit of the suffering cancer patient. Recommendation to others: I feel that this book is very strong on feelings. I liked the introspective way in which Grealy tries to analyze the events of her life. The book also underlines the futility of going for cosmetic surgery just to feel good by looking good. As Grealy rightly points out one can feel good only by dealing with their own self-image and not by external features.
It is a must read for all human beings of all ages as it provides deep insights for people of all ages from all walks of life. The book brings a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a child who is terribly sick. Thus the book is intertwined with both a child’s perspective and the author’s adult perspective as she accounts her past. The book revolves around the quest for self and happiness and discusses the relation between beauty, body and mind and how such relationships are influenced by society and culture. Sources: Grealy, Lucy (1994). Autobiography of a Face.