Transcending a Difficult Childhood in Lucy Grealy’s “Autobiography of a Face”

Lucy Grealy’s remarkable memoir, Autobiography of a Face, was published over twenty years ago. Discovering it now leaves me wondering how I missed it all this time, but grateful that I finally read it.

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Grealy was diagnosed at age nine with Ewing’s sarcoma, an extremely rare form of bone cancer that most often affects children and adolescents. For Grealy, the cancer developed in her jawbone, and the surgery to remove it resulted in the loss of a third of her jaw. Following the surgery, she spent two and a half years undergoing radiation and chemotherapy five days a week. She and her mother made the trek from New Jersey into New York City and back (one hour each way) for that entire time period.

Grealy describes these experiences with precision, putting us into the mindset of a child going through tremendous suffering. She writes about how, at first, she welcomed all the attention, and the break from school and her somewhat volatile home life it provided her. But no one ever actually bothered to explain to her the seriousness of her condition or the extent of the surgery, so she was left, repeatedly, to piece these things together on her own. In fact, it took years before she even realized that Ewing’s sarcoma is a form of cancer.

The surgery left her disfigured, and when she returned to school, she faced the awful cruelty that kids can display, enduring their teasing and taunts. She wanted desperately to fit in, but never felt at ease.

She had to have repeated surgeries on her jaw, as the doctors tried to use various measures to rebuild it and give her a more “normal” appearance. But time after time, these did not go as planned, leaving Grealy feeling even more isolated at school. She, like anyone else, craved acceptance and love, and she came to believe she’d never find either.

It’s in her evocative writing about feeling alone and wanting more than anything to feel connected to her peers that Grealy’s book becomes more than just a specific story about an illness and its aftermath. It becomes something universal, something that I’d guess just about any reader who has been a pre-teen or teenager can relate to. While her situation was undoubtedly extreme, and she faced abuse from her classmates that will break your heart, Grealy captures here what it’s like to be a kid looking for your place in the world.

When she went off to a small liberal arts college, she at last did feel the warmth of acceptance and lack of judgment from her fellow students. Differences were celebrated. It was here she began writing, an outcome we are the richer for.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2016/03/book-biz-an-arresting-memoir-about-childhood-illness-and-loneliness/)

“In Paradise” Presents Hard Questions About Humanity & the Holocaust

Writer and conservationist Peter Matthiessen’s last book, In Paradise, was published just a few days after his death in April 2014. He was known for writing both fiction and nonfiction, and for being the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both. However, Matthiessen himself believed that he was primarily a fiction writer at heart, so it’s fitting that his final work was a novel.

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And what a novel it is. Many of his earlier books explored themes around the environment and how human civilization has changed it throughout time. He also traveled extensively and his books served to highlight different cultures and ecosystems across the globe.

Here, however, he brings his pointed gaze squarely onto us, asking hard questions about the nature of good and evil and about the human condition. He does this in In Paradise by writing about the Holocaust.

Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and starting in 1996, he attended three meditation retreats at the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This experience would undoubtedly go on to inspire the fictional account of a similar retreat in In Paradise.

The main character here is the “Polish-born American poet and scholar,” Dr. Clements Olin. He is at the retreat, he tells the others, not to participate formally in the silent meditations, but instead, for research purposes. This is the first time Olin has ever visited the country of his birth. As the book unfolds, so does Olin’s personal history, which is more tightly bound to the Holocaust than he initially lets on.

Alongside him on the retreat is a diverse group of about 140 people, including Catholic nuns and a priest, a few young Germans, some elderly survivors of the Holocaust, Jewish rabbis, and several spiritual seekers. They are thrust together in meditation while sitting on, for example, the train platform where SS doctors sorted prisoners into those who would be put to work and those who would be put to death immediately. They sleep in the barracks that the Nazi officers used and eat in their cafeteria.

Emotions run high. Even in this most solemn of places, in the cold dark dampness of December, flashes of human frailty pop up, as the retreat members find themselves arguing and attacking one another personally, with some doubting others’ motivations for coming. They debate, too, about whether another Holocaust could happen, whether we have learned anything at all.

In Paradise asks some difficult questions about the limits of empathy and compassion, and the nature of evil and humanity. It’s a thought-provoking, intensely worthwhile book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/09/book-biz-hard-questions-about-humanity-set-against-the-holocaust/)