Essays Autobiography Face

Harper Perennial
236 pages, $14.99


Review by Megan Culhane Galbraith


Just when I needed it, when I’d planned to write about Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, for “Books We Can’t Quit,” the book quits me. I couldn’t find my 1994 edition in my own bookshelves (had I loaned it to someone?), I went to the Saratoga Springs library and it was listed as “lost” in the catalog. I found one copy, a reprint, and the last one on the shelf at a local, independent bookstore. How, I wondered, could I have allowed one of the most important books in my life to vanish?

Was this a metaphor for what Grealy’s book has meant to me? Why has it haunted me since I first read it in 1994?

Autobiography of a Face is an excavation of Grealy’s soul. In it, she dissects the pain endured by multiple surgeries to her face as a result of a Ewing’s Sarcoma discovered when she was just nine years old. Skin grafts, bone grafts, tissue expanders, chemotherapy, and radiation, these are all physically painful, but it was the emotional agony that resonated with me: her throbbing, metaphysical pain.

Autobiography is a memoir about loss on multiple levels, but for me back then, it was simply about girlhood; the insecure, low self-esteem, failer-of-every-Presidential-Physical-Fitness-Test-ever, misfit kind of girlhood I’d experienced too. I’d found a kindred spirit. I’d found myself in Lucy Grealy’s sentences.

When Autobiography of a Face was published in 1994, I was 23 years old and flailing around in my own little post-college world. I don’t remember what drew me to the book, but I’m pretty sure it was simply the intriguing title and the prologue, “Pony Party.”

My 23-year-old self identified hard with Grealy, who to me at the time was just another Irish girl who loved horses, David Cassidy, and who was made to feel a spaz in gym class, or inferior for being different because of the way she looked.

I was relentlessly made fun of in school for my crooked mouth. The boys called me ‘Sidecar,’ elbowed me into lockers, and threw carrot sticks at me on the school bus. Years later, I would come to find out my mouth crookedness was a direct result of a traumatic high forceps delivery in the charity hospital where my birthmother had given birth to me. I had been adopted and was trying to come to grips with what that meant and who I really was. Here was Grealy who seemed to be asking similar questions about her own identity and self-image. I felt like we were soul mates. I imprinted myself all over her. Maybe we were secret sisters, I thought, I was a spaz too!

I now see my connection was so strong because of her ability to form clear, honest, unsentimental, probing sentences. This one, in particular, has stayed with me:

Anxiety and anticipation I was to learn, are the essential ingredients in suffering from pain, as opposed to feeling pain pure and simple.

At the time, I understood this as a truth, but I didn’t know why. Now I see how carefully Grealy was dissecting her own emotions. Now too, I understand how long and hard she may have labored to write that single sentence: To distinguish between “suffering from” and “feeling” pain.

But I felt, and still feel, she was the sister I’d always wanted. I didn’t yet know that my longing was because I hadn’t pinpointed my own feelings about my very different suffering. I was still years away from forming even the questions I needed to ask that would untangle my emotions about having been adopted. I didn’t yet know the language of it. But here was Grealy, showing me the way before I knew how. In hoping she could have been my sister, I now know that I was trying to identify a family for myself, a place to belong. I felt I very much like I belonged in her book.

When Grealy’s book went missing, I felt I’d lost a piece of myself. Sure I bought another copy, but I had wanted to hold in my hands the same book now that I had then. I wanted to see if 23-year-old me had written in the margins and, if so, what I’d thought back then so I could compare it to now.

As a young girl I always felt I was late to the dance, the last one to know something. My mother had to once forcefully tell me, “People don’t always mean what they say, Megan.”

My younger self puzzled over that statement, couldn’t square it. How could people not mean what they said; they’d said it? The saying implied ownership and ownership implied meaning, didn’t it? If I couldn’t believe the things people said, how could I believe anything?

These are epiphanies I shared with Grealy after reading passages like this one: “More than the ugliness I felt, I was suddenly appalled at the notion that I’d been walking around unaware of something that was apparent to everyone else. A profound sense of shame consumed me.”

We were David-Cassidy-loving spazzes. We were kindred spirits and even though she chose to quit this world, or it quit her thanks to heroin, I will never quit this book.

I used to think truth was eternal that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.

One sentence grafted to the next and to the next. Stitch by stitch Grealy led me forward through her life’s pain at every turn and she healed me. Unlike the multiple grafts on the bone of her jaw and the skin of her face, the truth in Grealy’s words will not dissolve, and will not disappear. The beauty about her sentences is that they can live forever.


Megan’s work is in ASSAY, Literary Orphans, Hotel Amerika, Consequence, drafthorse, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for AWP’s WC&C Scholarship judged by Xu Xi, and a Scholar at Bindercon. She is writing a collection of essays titled, The Guild of the Infant Saviour. Connect @megangalbraith, at and at The Dollhouse.

This entry was posted in Reviews and tagged Autobiography of a Face, Books we can't quit, Lucy Grealy, Megan Culhane Galbraith, memoir. Bookmark the permalink.



Research Paper: Compare-Contrast Approach

Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and A.M. Homes The Mistress’s Daughter:

Two Powerful Women on Their Journey through Life

Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face deals with the life of Lucy Grealy, who faced the negative consequences of terminal cancer after the partial removal of her jaw. Like Lucy Grealy, A.M. Homes also faced the negative consequences as she was found by her biological mother, who put her up for adoption after her birth. Both memoirs have similar narrative structures and a lot in common in terms of content; however, they have significant differences as well.

First of all, Lucinda Grealy, whose nickname is Lucy, contracted cancer as a child, had chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, and survived from it. In her memoir, she tells the audience in great detail about the treatment she got, her family and the life she had after her recovery.

The major narrative structure in Lucy’s autobiographical writing is overcoming the monster. Although she had to overcome several monsters such as her illness and the therapy, other people’s behavior, and her lack of self-confidence, the worst monster was her disfigured face, which changed her life completely. Lucy has lived in three worlds: the hospital, her home, and her school. I believe that she felt most comfortable in the hospital due to the fact that she was not considered to be " special" because of her "ugly" face. It was considered to be an illness as other patients are sick, too.

Further, I do not believe that she liked her home because of her parents' behavior. Her mom was emotionless and did not have any sympathy for her fear. For example, Lucy cried at the doctors and her mother scolded her for doing that: "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" (page 78-79). She respected her mom, so she promised not to do that again. The behavior of her father was not better because he ignored her. He did not want to be confronted with her illness. Lucy seemed to be happy about his behavior because she believed that doing the opposite would make it even more difficult for him to deal with the problem: her illness. Either her mother nor her father were supportive of her. Some kids said: "That is the ugliest girl I have ever seen." (Grealy, 124-125) She seemed to be very mature because she showed sympathy with them instead of being angry about their behavior.

On the whole, Lucy Grealy seemed to be very lonely. Therefore, she told the reader about the dollhouse.

"We were taken to another floor with a playroom that boasted a large, ornate dollhouse, a real collector's item probably donated by some well-meaning person. You could only look at it from behind a glass partition, but it was too nice to be played with anyway. […] Sometimes you'd see a child standing there, staring, but for the most part the giant miniature house, despite its prominent position near the door, was ignored." (Grealy, 40)

Nobody was close to her or had the ability to be close to her due to her inability to let anybody be part of her world or the other people's inability to be relaxed next to her and become part of her world. The dollhouse was behind glass and Lucy was behind a wall, which is invisible to the human eye.

She told the reader in great detail that “For the first few weeks […] I threw up, but as tiem passed and I failed, as I saw it, to not vomit too much, I began leaving the vomit in the bowl, even when it smelled awful, and only buzzed when the large vessel was full.” (Grealy, 84) Lucy Grealy did not hide any bit of detail from the reader, even if she might felt uncomfortable in the situation, because she wanted the reader to know that the situation was difficult for her and that she would like to have some kind of support from her family or other people, who are involved in her social life.

Besides the fact that she feels lonely and it is obvious that she is depressed and an outsider of society as she says:”For some inexplicable reason, they thought I was deaf.” (Grealy, 200) Even the positive experiences, she had in her life, did not change the fact that she had already accepted her illness and the consequences of it. She informed the reader of her memoir that “[She] began to welcome the deep, lungy urge to release the sweet-tasting fluid from the deep within me.” (Grealy, 55) and the reader has realized immediately that she would not be able to overcome the monster in her life due to the fact that she is hopeless and did not believe in the idea that beauty is not based on physical appearance. Lucy was weak and not able to live under the social pressure that exists because “Beauty, as defined by society at large, seemed to be only about who was best at looking like everyone else.” (Grealy, 187) In other words, she was not able to develop her own identity because of her disfigured face, so that Lucy Grealy made also use of the narrative structure of the tragic flaw plot.


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