Reading/Reviewing: Autobiography of a Face

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m torn in my final analysis of this book, a memoir of writer Lucy Grealy’s childhood, growing up with a face that was disfigured after surgery to remove cancer (and half of her jaw) during childhood. In many ways it impressed me very deeply. Grealy is incredible at connecting her observations of her experience with what was going on — the good reflective work that makes a powerful memoir.

For instance:
– “At a time when everything in my family was unpredictable and dysfunctional … here [as a sick child] I had been supplied with a formula of behavior for gaining acceptance and, I believed, love. All I had to do was perform heroically and I could personally save my whole family.”
– “I wasn’t used to seeing my parents defer to people in positions of authority; I wasn’t used to seeing them act together, pair up like this; and I wasn’t used to seeing them act so normal, like the parents of the friends in my neighborhood, like parents I had seen on TV. It was generally assumed that we were not a normal family, a feeling we proudly carried and tried to hide at the same time.”
– “I watched [my father’s] back as he left and felt relief, because his embarrassment and awkwardness caused me as much pain as they did him. There was no blame in those moments, no regrets, no accusations, not even despair. Those things came later, when I learned to scrutinize and judge the past, but at the time his leaving was enabling. Knowing that my father had his own burdens, his own failings, allowed me to continue on through what would otherwise have been unbearable. As an adult, I wonder how he could have left me alone in there, but as a child I knew the answer to this clearly, and knew that as soon as he was out of the room I was, if nothing else, free to respond as I chose.”
– “I told myself what fools those boys at school were, what stupid, unaware lives they led. How could they assume their own lives were so important? Didn’t they know they could lose everything at any moment, that you couldn’t take anything good or worthwhile for granted, because pain and cruelty could and would arrive sooner or later? I bombed and starved and persecuted my own suffering right out of existence.”
– “In the wake of my recurring disappointment I’d often chide myself for thinking I’d ever be beautiful enough, good enough, or worthy enough of someone else’s love, let alone my own. Who cared if I loved my own face if no one else was going to? What was beauty for, after all, if not to attract the attention of men, of lovers? … Life in general was cruel and offered only different types of voids and chaos. The only way to tolerate it, to have any hope of escaping it, I reasoned, was to know my own strength, to defy life by surviving it.”

And yet to me the book was ultimately emotionally unsatisfying because of the way it keeps the reader at arm’s length. We hear for pages, covering years, how the narrator believes love will make her believe she is lovable, but then when it happens it’s simply “the man who would become my first lover,” and then there she is. Similarly I had so little perspective on her family, her siblings. I understand the rationale – that the book is her philosophical evaluation of her experience – and by writing it this way, Grealy is able to provide a fairly dispassionate description of the events and procedures of her childhood that otherwise might be quite horrific to read. But it left me feeling distant from the book in a way that I didn’t expect.

Have you read Grealy’s book? What am I missing?

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