Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy, is her story about the misfortune of having a third of her jaw removed and the cruel reality that followed. At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of her peers.
Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captured what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two conflicting impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect. This story made me wonder deeply about the ultimate beauty in our world. I first was amazed at the physical pains the author had to go through throughout her childhood and adulthood.
Not only did she have intensive chemotherapy for two and a half years, she had to be the “guinea pig” for the doctors wanting to try different types of skin graft on her jaw. Overall, Grealy beat cancer with only a one-in-twenty chance of survival, and endured more than thirty operations to reconstruct her jaw. Grealy described her first experience with chemotherapy as her body “wanting to turn itself inside out, making wave after wave of attempts to rid itself of this overwhelming and noxious poison. ” This event was a significant turning point for her story as from then on, she slowly realised she wasn’t quite the same anymore.
Looking at the event from a third person’s view, I felt sorry for the young Grealy, who was oblivious to the challenging road of life mapped out in front of her. She was ignorant of the pitying looks people gave her because of her face, and was remarkably positive. Perhaps the fact that her parents never told her she had cancer kept Grealy out of self-hatred: “Someone dated an event as something that had happened ‘before Lucy had cancer. ‘ Shocked, I looked up. ‘I had cancer? ‘. ” Anyhow, these agonies had to continue all her life, making it more remarkable how she was rather calm facing these horrors.
It is only natural for everyone to feel that their own problems are the biggest problems in the world, but Grealy broke out of the self-pity and decided to create her own path uninfluenced by everyone else. The complex relationship between beauty and self-worth in our society shown through Grealy’s experience was inevitably the main theme of the book. While this theme was reflected onto all of her story, I thought her teenage years at school portrayed this best when she had to suffer the harsh reality the most. For all of her high school life, she had to acknowledge the painful truth that she looked different from everyone else.
There would be countless whispers and stares, condescending smiles from boys when they threw insults at her, and pitying looks from teachers when they saw her. She tried to reason with everything, even try to understand those who were insulting her. The quote, “‘That is the ugliest girl I have ever seen. ‘ I knew in my heart that their comments had nothing to do with me, that it was all about them appearing tough and cool to their friends,” demonstrated this the best. Grealy started to form a defense mechanism against these jeers; distancing herself from the situation in order to hide the hurt.
I thought the quote, “I had put a great deal of effort into accepting that my life would be without love and beauty in order to be comforted by Love and Beauty,” was the epitome of her conflict, because this was the excuse she gave when she started hiding herself away: covering her face with scarves and hair, wearing hats to cover her wispy hair due to chemotherapy, and staying in her room most of the times. While it was quite strange to see someone hiding away so desperately as to hide their identity, I could understand her self-disgust by imagining myself in her situation.
I imagine this struggle between truth and beauty prevalent throughout Grealy’s memoir is what made her discover that true beauty lies inside. While I did not particularly like Grealy’s description of her parents, I was rather intrigued by it. They were the ones who decided to move to America from Ireland when Grealy was four, yet it seemed to me that they blamed Grealy for it. I thought this was rather irresponsible of them as parents, blaming their child, not acknowledging their own mistakes.
Nevertheless, Grealy seemed to idolise them, although in completely contrasting ways. She eemed to fear her mother, while she seemed to protect her father. For instance, after Lucy’s second chemotherapy treatment, her mother scolded her: “She went on to explain how disappointed she was that I’d cried even before Dr. Woolf had put the needle into me, that crying was only because of fear, that I shouldn’t be afraid… As I made my way downstairs to my room, I resolved to never cry again. ” Although her mother meant Grealy well, I could not shake off a feeling that her mother took a sovereign approach at home, because the general tone of all the descriptions of her mother was rather impassive and indifferent.
Contrary to the cold reception towards her mother, Grealy seemed to look after her father in a very maternal way. She was very open about sheltering her father from the harsh truth of suffering through the pain. Her father also couldn’t bear to confront her sickness, often leaving her alone during her chemotherapy treatments, and Grealy just accepted it: “I watched his back as he left and felt relief, because his embarrassment and awkwardness caused me as much pain as they did him. There was no blame in those moments, no regrets, no accusations, not even despair. I thought this quote showed that although young, Grealy understood her parents well, and, if not consciously, noticed that her father and her mother needed two distinct approaches about her misfortune. In a way, Grealy was harder on her mother than she was on her father in her story. The unintentional cruelty of parents telling their suffering child not to cry, I think was one of the most unforgettable burdens laid upon Grealy. Overall, Lucy Grealy’s story was very captivating and insightful. While she could have blamed herself for her sickness and, as a result, her disfigurement, she instead turned misfortune and misery into luck and joy.
It was a memorable account of one person’s physical and emotional struggle to conquer childhood cancer, permanent disfigurement, and, ultimately, ‘the deep bottomless grief… called ugliness. ‘ Her story took an unsentimental and honest look at a single feature reflected or distorted in an unforgiving society. Despite its unblinking stare at an excruciatingly painful subject, Grealy turned Autobiography of a Face into a book about image, about the tyranny of the image of a beautiful or even pleasingly average face.