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.
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/)