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Volume 2, Issue 1
Spring 2006:

Autobiography of a Face By Lucy Grealy

Review by: Brian T. Maurer

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Spring; 2(1):a11

Houghton Mifflin (1994); 223 pages; ISBN: 0395657806

Although we recognize a person in various ways — by mannerisms, body build, quirks in the gait — by and large we identify each other by face. You might even say that we identify ourselves by our own facial features — for most of us, how we look defines who we are.

If the ancient Greeks defined truth as beauty, modern American society defines beauty as the ultimate truth. Any contemporary fashion magazine testifies to this fact — just peruse the slick glossy airbrushed photos in Glamour, Vogue; even the fashion section of the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

For a child, how she looks also defines who she will become.

Nowhere is this fact more clearly documented than in the pages of Lucy Grealy's heartbreaking book, Autobiography of a Face.

When she is ten years old, Lucy develops exquisite pain in her jaw after colliding with another girl at recess on the school playground. What's initially thought to be an impacted tooth eventually leads to a confirmed diagnosis of Ewing's sarcoma of the mandible.

Lucy endures disfiguring facial surgery and two and a half years of subsequent radiation and weekly chemotherapy. She retches for days after each Friday treatment, somehow managing to begin to feel better just in time for the next go-round.

When she loses her hair, her mother's sympathetic co-workers offer to donate their wigs, but none of them fit. Her mother buys her a sailor's cap, which she defiantly refuses to take off except in the confines of her room at home.

She endures taunts and badgering from other students at school, and finally resorts to eating her lunch alone every day in the guidance counselor's office.

Throughout her ordeal, Lucy's mother tells her to be strong, to not cry, to bear up. No one — not Dr. Wolff, her oncologist; neither the hospital nurses, nor her parents — tells her what to expect from these treatments and subsequent surgeries. Gradually Lucy learns to accept the fact that she is ugly, and therefore totally unlovable.

The only time she experiences the freedom to be whole is Halloween. Behind a mask no one can see her deformed face. She goes trick-or-treating from house to house, chatting with strangers, elated at this new-found freedom to be herself.

Lucy finally finds some degree of acceptance among the students at Sarah Lawrence College, where she attends thanks to a generous scholarship. At one point she even decides to consider going to medical school. Fortunately for our benefit, she becomes a writer instead.

None of the thirty-odd surgeries that Lucy endures over the years ultimately serve to "fix" her face. But throughout this period the reader glimpses the development of Lucy's heart and soul into something beautiful.

At one point she vows to never look at herself in the mirror again:

"As a child I had expected my liberation to come from getting a new face to put on, but now I saw it came from shedding something, shedding my image. . . .[I]n films and literature the dead know they are dead only after being offered that most irrefutable proof: they can no longer see themselves in the mirror".

From masks to mirrors, from utter loneliness to loving her favorite horse, from dressing in fringe clothing to flaunting her figure, Lucy finally realizes that ultimately the face she has been given bears little resemblance to the person she has become — and that in itself is a beautiful lesson for all of us.

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