Sunday, April 17, 2011

Autobiography of a Face

I just finished "Autobiography of a Face" by Lucy Grealy and found it engrossing, compelling and above all poignant. At the age of 9, Lucy was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a potentially fatal type of cancer that required her to have a third of her jaw removed which left her disfigured. The book relates her suffering through years of chemotherapy, radiation, countless reconstructive surgeries, and just as painful, the thoughtless cruel taunts she endured at the hands of her classmates.

Lucy shares each detail of her experiences with great honesty and wit, from the first time she receives chemotheraphy ("I began to grow warm, a caustic ache began settling into my elbow. For a split second, a split of a split second, the sensation was almost pleasurable, a glowing, fleshy sense of my body recognizing itself as a body, a thing in the world. But immediately it was too much"); to her apprehension at the first day of junior high school, and the attacks which quickly followed ("My initial tactic was to pretend I didn't hear them, but this only seemed to spur them on. In the hallways, where I suffered similar attacks of teasing from random attackers, I simply looked down at the floor and walked more quickly, but in the lunchroom I was a sitting duck.") Each detail moving in its own right, but to me, the most compelling statement in the book is offered as a quote on the back cover, and speaks volumes to how those taunts indelibly shaped her life:

"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."

Each surgery brought with it a new round of disappointments, as the bone grafts which were meant to reconstruct her jaw were constantly reabsorbed by her body. Nonetheless, upon graduating high school, she finds a measure of peace and acceptance when she she enrolls in Sarah Lawrence College. It's there where she finds her true calling, and an outlet for her suffering, in poetry.

I loved this book. It is by no means a feel good, you can beat cancer type of book, but I nonetheless reached the end with a real sense of hope. Unfortunately, I was sad to learn that Lucy Grealy died in 2002, at the young age of 39. I quickly thought, cancer, it must have won the battle after all, but upon doing some online research I was saddened to learn that later on in life Lucy had in fact suffered with bouts of depression and drug abuse, and died of an accidental drug overdose. A truly tragic end to a tragic life.