A friend sent me this article after reading my review of Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. I had learned through an internet search that Lucy’s family was unhappy about the publication of Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, but didn’t realize to what extent until reading this. I have Truth & Beauty on hold at my local library, but after reading this I’m not sure I want to read it. I’m one of the 3 people on the planet who intensely disliked her book, Bel Canto, so reading Truth and Beauty was something I wanted to do only as an attempt to know more about Lucy. Thanks, Valerie, for sending this article from the guardian.co.uk to me.
Hijacked by grief
Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy were close friends, both writers. Lucy died suddenly 18 months ago and Ann has since written an article and a book about her friend. What does such an intimate display of a loved one do to her family? Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s sister, describes her sorrow and anger.
* Suellen Grealy
* The Guardian,
* Saturday August 7 2004
* Article history
There was an enormously distasteful story in the press some time ago. A devout elderly Muslim woman had died, and her body, when removed from the morgue for burial, was found covered with slabs of bacon. I was shocked on two levels: that there are people living among us who would do such a thing; and that such people have access to places even those of us who are not religious invest with sacredness. What saddened me most was that her family would never be able to divorce their memories of her from that awful, indescribably insulting image. In trying to make a point, someone had entirely altered the course of their grief.
“Grief” is a powerful little word. Like “love”, it accepts everything. Like “Europe” or “America”, it describes a place where anything might happen. In the land of “grief” people tear out their hair, stay in their beds, starve themselves, put their faith in saints and psychics, give up on love. All is forgiven, on the understanding that eventually they will return.
That Muslim family were hijacked on their journey. Nothing so malicious has touched me, but I think of them often, for my own grief has been forced down an unexpected path.
My little sister Lucy Grealy died in New York on December 18 2002, at the age of 39. She had accidentally taken an overdose of heroin. Her life had been hard, but she had also experienced more joy than many. As a child, she was diagnosed with a cancer in the bone of her jaw. Treating it was physically agonising and hugely disfiguring. As an adult, she wrote about her life, to enormous literary acclaim, in a book called Autobiography Of A Face. Even when she was alive, I found it difficult to read. Her descriptions of my father, who died in 1979, were unbearably true. Finding him on those pages, singing or talking to our dogs, was like dreaming. A phrase about looking out the window above the kitchen sink of our childhood home in Spring Valley, New York, was like chancing upon a yellowing photograph of a place I had once loved. When she wrote about my mother, I felt I was standing outside the door, listening to conversations I had already heard.
There was also irritation, for much of the book was careless. It was the first time I had experienced reading about my family and parts of my own life, and I realised how easy it was for Lucy simply to select her vantage point. I learned, too, how easily readers would accept it as the only true vantage point. But I was happy for Lucy. The book’s success was a first-class ticket to a world she loved, in which doing what she thought she wanted – writing – earned money.
Well before the publication of Autobiography Of A Face, Lucy had become friends with another writer, Ann Patchett. Ann was hugely patient with Lucy, who could be infuriatingly disorganised and irresponsible. She was able, it seemed, to accept Lucy’s constant need of approbation and affection, even when Lucy herself ignored, and even scorned, those needs in others. Ann was a good friend. Lucy’s life became harder, with endless reconstructive surgeries, frustration at her inability to recreate the crystalline beauty of Autobiography, and a loneliness she attributed to being “ugly”. Ann supported her throughout, with company, money, food and love.
Ann was a far better “sister” to Lucy than I could ever have been, but we never met while Lucy was alive. I had moved to London while they were still at college together. There had always been thousands of miles between us, and she was simply one of the many friends Lucy made so easily. When a review copy of Ann’s book, Taft, arrived by courier at my house in London, Lucy, staying with me, didn’t bother to open it. I wasn’t surprised by the way she tossed it dismissively on to a chair, for she rarely showed interest, at least to me, in other people’s achievements. I felt sorry for Ann then, because I knew how much she had done for my sister.
As Lucy’s life became more and more confused, I called Ann in exasperation. I had no idea that heroin had become so huge in my sister’s life. I knew she was unreachably sad. Oddly, while Lucy and I had spent hundreds of hours discussing the failings of our confused childhood, we skated quickly over the thin ice that might expose us to a truth – that Lucy’s illness had affected us all. She often had great – and comforting – insight into my mother’s lifelong depression, but the understanding between us was that my mother brought the worst of it upon herself. We made such a harsh judgment of our mother’s desperation that Lucy might have felt – in front of me, at least – that she had forfeited the right to her own. Ann, unwittingly, colluded. “Lucy’s so much like her mother,” I said over the phone. “Don’t tell her that,” Ann replied.
At the funeral in New York, Ann read a beautiful piece she had written. Afterwards, I was consoled by my new, transatlantic email friendship with Ann. Six weeks later, she wanted an article about Lucy to appear in the New Yorker but in the end settled on New York magazine instead. Ann emailed a document for my signature, a family permission to use Lucy’s letters. I was surprised that it did not mention the New York magazine article, but referred to HarperCollins, her publisher. I wish now that I had sent it to Lucy’s agent in New York. But I was grieving, and innocent of the implications.
That was my mistake.
At about the same time, my sister Sarah – Lucy’s nonidentical twin – and I were trying to sort through Lucy’s papers in Connecticut, where she had stayed towards the end of her life. A family painting had disappeared from her room, along with many other belongings, and Sarah and I were sad about this. Friends of hers, not including Ann, had already been there. Sarah and I sorted through our own feelings at the time, confused as they were, and tried to convince ourselves that friends Lucy had loved were just as “entitled” to have her things as we were. I still believe that, even now. Lucy had loved that painting, however, and I was disturbed that someone would feel more entitled to such a connection with her past. I believed my nephews should have had it.
While I was staying with Sarah, HarperCollins wanted to reissue Autobiography Of A Face with an afterword by Ann. We had read the afterword, and it was beautiful, but Sarah had asked, “Where are we in this story?” We are everywhere, I told her, like the paper it is printed on, though no one knows this but us. HarperCollins seemed very keen to issue it quickly, and we agreed. We thought, how could we not? We were in no state of mind to imagine the implications.
I noticed that the reading Ann gave at Lucy’s funeral and the piece in New York magazine shared similar phrases. The magazine had used a photograph of Lucy on the cover, and for a week Sarah, working in Manhattan, had to walk past a huge wall of these covers by the newsagent in the lobby of her building. She rushed past each day not looking, forcing herself to believe that having her dead twin’s face staring out at her was a good thing, because people had loved her. I felt so sorry for Sarah then.
Then Ann began to write what was to become Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with my sister. At first I believed that this was as it should be. Ann is an artist, how else could she express her grief? This was the defence I used to friends in New York. They had been surprised by some of the personal detail in the New York magazine article; they asked, “But why is she doing this?”
Later, Ann was in England for the Oxford Literary Festival. I heard a Woman’s Hour interview that she did – as winner of the Orange Prize for Bel Canto – with Martha Kearney. They discussed Truth & Beauty, then in progress. Ann appeared to believe that after the success of Bel Canto, critics would judge her less harshly for a work of nonfiction.
Around that time, Publishers Weekly in the US noted Ann’s forthcoming work of nonfiction about Lucy, referring to her as the “heavily disfigured writer who killed herself”. I was alarmed. Had HarperCollins released such a coarse and incorrect press release? But my concerns were brushed aside. Apparently it was a misunderstanding. Then I was alerted to reading guides published for the posthumous reissue of Autobiography Of A Face, with Ann’s afterword. One of the questions for discussion concerned my mother’s parenting skills. I cried almost incessantly with frustration. It was put down to the work of an inexperienced intern.
Three months before Lucy died, my mother’s depression took on the symptoms of dementia. I felt I had lost her. She had not been well for years – a huge source of sadness to me. Despite the efforts of my sister Sarah and I to help her, she was becoming more frail, more sad, more alone. Our conversations became surreal. Each one sent me deeper into despair. I was grieving for her. I tried to come to terms with the fact that she would never, after all, have the capacity for happiness. When Lucy died, I was already suffocating with loss.
On the morning of the funeral, my mother sat in her wheelchair crying, as she often did, terrified by her own constant fears. Sarah and I hugged her, trying, as we have both done all our lives, to protect her from her overwhelming despair. We have never told her that Lucy is dead.
In the spring of 2003, Ann was working, writing and living in what she described to me as “the Lucy factory”. I thought this was offensive, but didn’t say. She mentioned film rights. I was living in frightening and unfamiliar territory. For whom was this suffocating grief I felt? For my mother? For Lucy? The sadness that Lucy’s many other friends wrote about addressed only a tiny fraction of the tragedy my family had experienced. I envied the precision of their grief. How easy to focus on just one chapter of the intertwined lives of my father, dead at 57 from pancreatitis; my eldest brother, a schizophrenic, dead following a car accident in Nevada; my little sister, dead; my mother, subject to the idle scrutiny of book clubs across America, invited by those reading guides to judge her worth as a parent.
I’d had a framed photograph of Lucy for many years, which I loved. The only word I can think of to describe it is honest. I had loved it while she was alive, for the texture of her skin, for the closeness of her teeth, for a quality of nearness that made me feel if I looked at it long enough, she would blink. Now I looked at it and thought, who is this person? A public person, with a “legacy”, with “work”, by which we felt obliged to do the right thing. But what was the right thing? My husband said he could gauge my mood by whether he found the photograph hanging on the wall or hidden behind the chest of drawers in the spare room.
I was incapacitated with confusion. I felt, without being able to express it, that it was somehow indecent to risk laying my family bare for the sake of Ann’s personal expression of grief. I was afraid that with the publication of her book, there might be more inexperienced interns, another set of unsavoury reading guides, another reason for people to ask, “But where was Lucy’s mother?”
I wished that Ann would not publish the book. I admired and had defended her need to write as an artist, but I hoped she would finish it off, for herself, and put it under the bed. I’d have preferred her to work with a smaller publisher, one with less of a publicity machine than HarperCollins. That she’d ask for no publicity. I wanted her to wait until my mother was dead.
She felt it was her right, even her obligation, to write the book, and that it had to be HarperCollins because that was her publisher.
One evening before that conversation, when Ann was in London, we had walked arm in arm after dinner towards Notting Hill Gate. I told her I believed that Lucy, dead and thus completely free of the worldly obstacles of vanity and rivalry, would want us to console each other. I knew that Lucy, stripped down to the essence of sister and daughter, would want us to be happy together. Ann disagreed – she felt that Lucy would still be jealous of our developing friendship. It was almost as if she was excited by the idea.
Ann and I have not been in touch for some time. She offered a sum in exchange for permission to use Lucy’s letters to her in Truth & Beauty. Sarah and my brother Nicholas felt it was fair, a contribution towards the burden of my mother’s care – she was living in sheltered accommodation paid for by Sarah and me. I told them to do what they felt was right.
My sister Lucy was a uniquely gifted writer. Ann, not so gifted, is lucky to be able to hitch her wagon to my sister’s star. I wish Lucy’s work had been left to stand on its own.
There is a memory, one of thousands, that I would like to keep of Lucy. She is walking with my mother and me in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, near where my mother lived for many years. It is a warm and humid early evening, and I am taking photographs of them in a graveyard, trying to be arty. Lucy is wearing shorts, my mother a white linen shirt. One picture is of Lucy’s back and my mother’s face. Another is of my mother’s back and Lucy’s face. The one picture that I can’t focus on quickly enough is when they both turn to look at me, laughing, their foreheads nearly touching.
Why is that memory so elusive? Because it is so precious? Because it is mine alone, one that I don’t have to share with the hundreds of thousands of total strangers who think they understand Lucy through Ann Patchett’s personal vantage point?
Truth & Beauty has enhanced Ann’s reputation as a writer, though many have questioned the speed with which she published it, and the validity of exposing Lucy’s frailties, not apparent in Autobiography Of A Face. I’m sorry I stood by as this happened.
My sister Sarah and I have been travelling too long in the land of grief, and we would like to come home, to prop our pictures on the mantelpiece and to get on with our lives. But there is the book: what can we do with a grief thief?
UPDATE: I did go on to read Truth & Beauty. My review is HERE.
Filed under: book clubs, Book Reviews, books, Family, friends, Life, reading, Reading Groups, Relationships Tagged: | ann patchett, authors, autobiography of a face, bel canto, books, Family, lucy grealy, reading, suellen grealy, truth and beauty, writers