Review: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy is an extraordinary memoir, at once innocent and wise. At age 9, Lucy was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare and usually fatal form of cancer that attacked her face. Her illness required surgery to remove a third of her jaw, followed by more than two and a half years of radiation, horrific chemotherapy treatments, and 15 years of reconstructive surgery.

When Lucy tells about her time in the hospital, she does so simply and without pity. Other sick children were her friends and she never felt like an outsider there. The special attention she received at the hospital became very important to her, because it was sorely lacking at home, and like most kids, she was happy about missing school. Fridays, though, were chemo days and were full of pain and nausea and suffering, but then by mid-week she’d be feeling relatively normal and could enjoy a day or two before the next round of chemo.

She never thought of herself as sick and was mostly unaware of the drastic change in her appearance until she went back to school in the sixth grade. The cancer didn’t set her apart from the other kids so much as the disfigurement of her face. Her peers judged her by her appearance, and the teasing got worse in junior high. Boys were especially vicious, calling her ugly and daring each other to kiss her or ask her out, and this taunting started eating away at her self -esteem. Suffering from social isolation, she began to think that no one would ever love her “in that way”. She found happiness and acceptance through her love of horses, working at a stable and spending time with the animals and the people there, who treated her like anybody else. But throughout adolescence and into young adulthood Lucy pinned her hopes on each new surgery as the one that would fix her face and make her beautiful and thus worthy of love.

Anyone who ever felt different or had any kind of physical characteristic or flaw that they were self conscious about while growing up will relate to Lucy and what she went through. If you were too tall or too small, had a facial birthmark or a big nose, crooked teeth or frizzy hair or acne, if you were not beautiful in the traditional sense or were different in any way- you will understand Lucy. Her profound insight into beauty, and what is beautiful, will hit home with you. It did with me.

Lucy went on to Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Iowa’s MFA program. She became a published poet and author. Autobiography of a Face shows her excellence as a writer, and I only wish there was more of her work to read. Lucy died tragically in 2002 at the age of 39. With her death, the world lost a beautiful literary voice.

The following youtube video includes an interview with Lucy on the Charlie Rose show. Her segment is at the 38 minute, 20 second mark (scroll over). I watched this the day after finishing the book, and seeing her reduced me to tears. She endured so much and seems so sad and small. You can see how pretty she is and imagine what she would have looked like had cancer not ravaged her face. By the way, the sound is a little off, but it’s worth watching just to see Lucy. The same broadcast can be seen here (again, scroll over to 38 min. 20 sec.) and the sound is better, but I couldn’t embed it in my post.

This incredibly moving memoir was first published in 1994 and was reprinted in 2003 with an afterword from Lucy’s friend, author Ann Patchett, who wrote about their friendship in her book, Truth and Beauty. Would anyone like to guess what I’m reading next?

UPDATE: I’ve since decided not to read Truth and Beauty, based in part on Lucy’s family’s reaction to the book.  You can read an article about it by Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s sister, HERE.

29 Responses

  1. What a sad story. I think I’ll save something like that for after the holidays.

  2. Great review! I’ve had this on my “to buy” list for a while and haven’t gotten there yet, but it sounds absolutely wonderful.

  3. I read this book a few years ago. It was so moving to see her face on this film. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Kathy, I didn’t feel sad when I was reading it. She tells it so straightforwardly and does not feel sorry for herself. She’s got such a strong spirit.

    Rebecca, it really is wonderful.

    Jeane, I know!! I loved being able to see her like that! I just wanted to give her a hug.

  5. Such a sad story. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like as a child to go through something like this. I heard about this book from someone in my book group but I was not aware that she passed away.

    I watched the video and I think her doctors did an amazing job because she looked pretty good to me. I’m amazed that her speech was not affected more.

  6. I’ve been dying to read this. Memoirs like this make me grateful for what I have.

  7. I actually read the two books in reverse order – Patchett’s first, then Grealy’s. I got the sense that Lucy was a bigger part of Ann’s life than vice versa. I’ll be interested in your thoughts on Truth and Beauty and how you would compare/contrast the two books.

  8. Wow, I wasn’t aware of the friendship between her and Patchett. I haven’t read this memoir yet, but it’s been on my radar for a long time.

  9. Very interesting interview with Charlie Rose. The interview felt like a bit of a tug of war between what Charlie Rose got out of the book and what Lucy Grealy wanted people to get out of the book.

  10. This sounds really good! I started Truth and Beauty around this time last year, but didn’t get too far into it … can’t remember why. This one goes on my TBR list and I’ll give Truth & Beauty another try.

  11. Great review, thank you.

  12. I’ve never heard of this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  13. I’ve heard of this book, and Lucy’s story. What a shame that she died so young.

    I’ll be interested to see what you think of the Ann Patchett book. I understand that they was some sort of issue between her and Grealy’s family and they were perhaps not happy with the book.

  14. Thanks for posting the video. T&B is one of my faves – although I wish I had read Lucy’s book first.

  15. I read the books in the opposite order, so Autobiography of a Face was very bittersweet for me – I’ll be interested to read your review of Truth and Beauty – it’s a great book as well.

  16. […] Say it! Anna on Looking for Book Recommendatio…Natasha @ Maw Books on Book Fairs Create Young Reader…julia on Book Fairs Create Young Reader…julia on Book Fairs Create Young Reader…Elizabeth on Review: Autobiography of a Fa… […]

  17. Thanks for this very thoughtful review. She sounds like an inspirational person, so sad to think she is no longer with us. I must hunt this book out — I do enjoy a good memoir.

  18. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time, thanks for the great review. I do think it’s a shame that you’ve decided not to read Truth & Beauty, which is really a lovely book. I highly recommend it!

  19. I began reading it yesterday and just finished it. this evening. I was hungry for more about Lucy Grealy and before I found your review I read an article by Ann Patchett and was really turned off by it.

    I found myself wondering what Lucy would think. This was a girl she didn’t acknowledge before Iowa, who was starstruck with Lucy and I kept thinking as I read, she’s making this seem as she was much more important in Lucy’s life than she really was. Sycophant was the word that kept popping into my head.

    I could be wrong, but gut feelings serve me well. I also think she said too much. Grealy’s cause of death wasn’t mentioned in Autobiography of a Face, just the date.

    I feel great empathy for Suellen Grealy. I’m with you, I’m not going to read Truth and Beauty.

  20. […] Patchett, about the author’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, the late author of a book I loved, Autobiography of a Face.  I’m reading this book because I want to feel close to Lucy again, not because I like Ann […]

  21. […] Ann Patchett, about the author’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, the late author of a book I loved, Autobiography of a Face. I’m reading this book because I want to feel close to Lucy again, not because I like Ann […]

  22. […] Ann Patchett, about the author’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, the late author of a book I loved, Autobiography of a Face.  I’m reading this book because I want to feel close to Lucy again, not because I like Ann […]

  23. […] read Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face last year and developed very strong, protective feelings for this brilliant girl/woman who was […]

  24. […] read Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face last year and developed very strong, protective feelings for this brilliant girl/woman who was […]

  25. […] read Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face last year and developed very strong, protective feelings for this brilliant girl/woman who was […]

  26. […] Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. This true story documents Lucy’s battle against a rare form of cancer that leaves her face disfigured from an early age. […]

  27. […] Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. This true story documents Lucy’s battle against a rare form of cancer that leaves her face disfigured from an early age. […]

  28. […] Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. Leaving her This true story documents Lucy’s battle against a rare form of cancer that leaves her face disfigured from an early age. […]

  29. Truth and beauty was a wonderful book too. I was moved by their friendship

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