Autobiography of a Face

“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.”

I used to change the books I use in my class every semester, but that is so much work that I’ve used the same material for the past couple of years. I’ve loved focusing on education and criminal justice, but I’m getting bored and it’s time to move on. My attempt to write a memoir has led to my immersion into the world of writing about oneself, so I thought the topic would be a good focus for class.

A memoir is different from an autobiography in that memoirs generally focus on a specific period or an event in a person’s life, while an autobiography covers their entire life.

I had some memoirs in mind, but I asked my Facebook friends for some recommendations. I received many that I had already read and learned of some new titles.

My friend and co-worker Jean recommended Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. I LOVED the book. I liked that it was about fitting in. About self-image and the lengths people will go through to fit in.

“At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.”

I wanted to know why Jean recommended it, so I asked Jean to answer a few questions about the book.

When did you first read the book?
I think when I was a sophomore in college. Sometime around then, so mid-90’s.

What did you like about the book that made you recommend it?
You were looking for biography/autobiography, and this is one that ranks high on my list of all books. I think the themes are universal and what still resonates is that it’s an autobiography that’s so raw and honest. There’s no sense of her trying to be a good person or hide flaws. There’s no happy ending. She’s so human, and her story is so sad. I mean, it some ways it’s a very positive and brave message about self-acceptance, but the way she grapples with her identity because of her appearance is so sharp and visceral. Her wounds are so deep. Her struggles with her disfigurement and the ongoing changes of her face put her in the constant state of flux, which is painful to see at times.

Did the book make you think about beauty? Explain.
In some ways. It made me think about how individuals in this world are consumed with appearances and the “right” way to look. More than that though, it made me think of people who do not have the “right” look and what they must feel. As I mentioned above, I think what is especially taxing about her condition is that she has so many surgeries so her face is always changing. It must be difficult to see your reflection change to radically and rapidly. This book also made me think about our desire to want to fix things and make things look normal. This book was written in the nineties, and while that isn’t so far off, I think a lot of things like plastic surgery and Botox, etc, were not as normalized as they are now. I think we have this sense that we can control things, and we sort of rely on that, but really we cannot. Lucy’s story is our story about how we grapple with that notion.

Anything else you want to add?
I love that you love this book. Great minds! Are you going to teach it at all? If so, I’d like to hear how it goes. I think students will really be able to see excellent writing that is autobiographical and not academic.

Thanks Jean! I agree, I think that the students will enjoy it.

The author Ann Patchett writes the afterword in Lucy’s book. She and Lucy were very close friends. I then discovered that Ann wrote a memoir about their friendship titled Truth & Beauty. Of course I read that one too. Lucy and Ann wrote each other often; Ann’s book includes many of the letters and her perspective of Lucy and their friendship. Perspective changes so many things about a story. Imagine if you wrote a book about your life and then your best friend wrote a book about your life. Would the narratives be the same? I highly recommend reading the books back-to-back.


“Ann Patchett and the late Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981, and, after enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. In Grealy’s critically acclaimed memoir, Autobiography of a Face, she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer, years of chemotherapy and radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries. In Truth & Beauty, the story isn’t Lucy’s life or Ann’s life, but the parts of their lives they shared. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans twenty years, from the long winters of the Midwest, to surgical wards, to book parties in New York. Through love, fame, drugs, and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined . . . and what happens when one is left behind.
This is a tender, brutal book about loving the person we cannot save. It is about loyalty, and being lifted up by the sheer effervescence of someone who knew how to live life to the fullest.”

I have some good titles for the fall, but I’m desperately in search of a good memoir about Latinos that does not focus on gangs. Also, any good memoirs about Native Americans? What memoirs do you love?

One thought on “Autobiography of a Face

  1. Liz Moseley

    Probably the first memoir I read was “Manchild of the Promised Land: A Modern Classic of the Black Experience” by Claude Brown. I checked it out from my high school library and never returned it. I still have it. The front cover barely hanging on, pages now brown and the back cover missing. It’s been so long ago (41 yrs.) that I’ve read it. But, it must have been something powerful to real for me to have kept the book this long. Quotes on the cover and inside state: “The first thing I ever read which gave me an idea of what it would be like day to day if I’d grown up in Harlem.” – Norman Mailer. “It is written with brutal and unvarnished honesty in the plain talk of the people, in languarge that is fierce, uproarious, obscene and tender.” – The New York Times Book Review

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