Autobiography of a Face

Autobiography of a Face

by Lucy Grealy


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A New York Times Notable Book

“This is a young woman’s first book, the story of her own life, and both book and life are unforgettable.” —New York Times

“Engaging and engrossing, a story of grace as well as cruelty, and a demonstration of [Grealy's] own wit and style and class."—Washington Post Book World

This powerful memoir is about the premium we put on beauty and on a woman's face in particular. It took Lucy Grealy twenty years of living with a distorted self-image and more than thirty reconstructive procedures before she could come to terms with her appearance after childhood cancer and surgery that left her jaw disfigured. As a young girl, she absorbed the searing pain of peer rejection and the paralyzing fear of never being loved.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544837393
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 93,885
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

LUCY GREALY (1963–2002) was an award-winning poet and a memoirist. In addition to Autobiography of a Face, she was the author of the essay collection As Seen on TV: Provocations.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



I was knocked into the present, the unmistakable now, by Joni Friedman's head as it collided with the right side of my jaw. Up until that moment my body had been running around within the confines of a circle of fourth-grade children gathered for a game of dodge ball, but my mind had been elsewhere. For the most part I was an abysmal athlete, and I was deeply embarrassed whenever I failed to jump bravely and deftly into a whirring jumprope, ever threatening to sting if I miscrossed its invisible boundaries, like some science-fiction force field. Or worse, when I was the weak link yet again in the school relay race. How could one doubt that the order in which one was picked for the softball team was anything but concurrent with the order in which Life would be handing out favors?

Not that I considered myself a weak or easily frightened person; in more casual games I excelled, especially at wrestling (I could beat every boy but one on my street), playing war (a known sneak, I was always called upon to be the scout), and in taking dares (I would do just about anything, no matter how ludicrous or dangerous, though I drew the line at eating invertebrates and amphibians). I was accorded a certain amount of respect in my neighborhood, not only because I once jumped out of a secondstory window, but also because I would kiss an old and particularly smelly neighborhood dog on the lips whenever asked. I was a tomboy par excellence.

But when games turned official under the auspices of the Fleetwood Elementary Phys-Ed Department, everything changed. The minutea whistle appeared and boundaries were called, I transformed into a spaz. It all seemed so unfair: I knew in my heart I had great potential, star potential even, but my knowing didn't translate into hitting the ball that was coming my way. I resigned myself early on, even though I knew I could outread, outspell, and outtest the strongest kid in the classroom. And when I was picked practically last for crazy kickball or crab relays, I defeatedly assumed a certain lackadaisical attitude, which partially accounts for my inattention on the day my jaw collided with Joni Friedman's head.

Maybe I was wondering whether Colleen's superiority at dodge ball would be compromised by her all-consuming crush on David Cassidy, or maybe some other social dilemma of prepubescence ruled that days game. I do know that the ball I was going for was mine. I hadn't even bothered to call it, it was so obvious, and though it was also obvious that Joni was going to try to steal it away from me, I stood my ground. The whistle to stop playing began to blow just as the ball came toward us, toward me. I leaned forward and Joni lunged sideways, and suddenly all thoughts about Colleen's social status or Joni's ethics were suddenly and sharply knocked out of me.

I felt the force of our collision in every one of my atoms as I sat, calm and lucid though slightly dazed, on the asphalt. Everyone was running to get on line. I assume Joni asked me how I was, but all I remember is sitting there among the blurred and running legs, rubbing the right side of my jaw, fascinated by how much pain I was in and by how strangely peaceful I felt. It wasn't the sensation of things happening in slow motion, which I had experienced during other minor accidents; it was as if time had mysteriously but logically shifted onto another plane. I felt as if I could speculate and theorize about a thousand different beautiful truths all in the time it would take my lips to form a single word. In retrospect, I think it's possible I had a concussion.

My jaw throbbed. Rubbing it with my hand seemed to have no good or bad effect: the pain was deep and untouchable. Because the pain was genuinely unanticipated, there was no residue of anxiety to alter my experience of it. Anxiety and anticipation, I was to learn, are the essential ingredients in suffering from pain, as opposed to feeling pain pure and simple. This alien ache was probably my first and last experience of unadulterated pain, which perplexed me more than it hurt me.

"Are you all right, dear?"

Interrupted in my twilight, I looked up to see Mrs. Minkin, who was on playground duty that afternoon. She fell into the category of "scary" adults, and from there into the subcategory of adults "with cooties." In her plaid wool skirts and thick makeup, luridly ugly to schoolchildren's eyes, Mrs. Minkin was not someone to whom I was willing to admit distress.

"I'm fine, thank you."

And I was fine: as quickly as it had happened, the sharp ache in my jaw receded and my sense of self transported itself back to the playground. I quickly stood up and brushed myself off The looming issue now was how far back in line I would have to stand because of this bothersome delay. By the time I was back in the classroom I had forgotten the incident entirely.

I was reminded of it again that evening as I sat on the living room rug earnestly trying to whip up a book report I had been putting off for two weeks. Now, to my grave dismay, the report was due the very next day. Gradually I became aware of possible salvation: I had a toothache. This wasn't as welcome a reason for staying home from school as a cold or a fever because it would entail a visit to the dentist. Had it been only a minor toothache I'd probably have preferred to suffer the wrath of my teacher rather than my mother's inevitable agitation, but now that I had noticed the ache it seemed to be worsening steadily.

Table of Contents

2Petting Zoo29
3The Tao of Laugh-In53
4Fear Itself69
5Life on Earth88
6Door Number Two103
8Truth and Beauty140
9World of Unknowing160
10The Habits of Self-Conciousness176

Reading Group Guide


"So many memoirs make you feel that you've been sealed up inside a wall with a monomaniac. A really good one, like Autobiography of a Face, makes you learn. You are not just seeing the writer; you are not trying to see yourself. You are seeing the world in a different way."
--New York Times

In her moving memoir, Autobiography of a Face, award-winning poet Lucy Grealy describes her life as a cancer victim who, at nine years old, has part of her jaw removed. From then on, she endures operation after operation in order to reconstruct her disfigured face, and suffers cruel taunts from classmates and uneasy stares from their parents.

As a child, Lucy finds refuge in the hospital where her face is considered an illness just like any other patient. It is here where she gets her first kiss from Derek, her partner in crime on Ward 10. Her life at the hospital is, ironically, where she feels the best about herself.

Although she maintains a few friends who she had before the surgery, and lives among her four siblings, Lucy is alone. She is torn between wanting to be loved for who she is and wishing desperately and secretly to have a perfect face.

Her search for truth and beauty continues throughout her life -- at college where she finds true friendships and the power of poetry, at graduate school where she discovers her long-awaited sexuality, and later in Britain where she takes advantage of their health system to begin another series of operations. Throughout it all, Grealy tells her story, the story of her face andher heart, with stunning strength and remarkable wit.

On December 18, 2002, Lucy Grealy died at the age of 39. She leaves behind this courageous picture of her life so that the rest of us might learn something about ours:

I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn't so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things. Society is no help. It tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else, only to leave our original faces behind to turn into ghosts that will inevitably resent and haunt us... [I]t suddenly occurred to me that it is no mistake when sometimes in films and literature the dead know they are dead only after being offered that most irrefutable proof: they can no longer see themselves in the mirror.

Discussion Questions

  1. Autobiography of a Face has been widely adopted in high school and college curriculums. Do you think that this book would be appropriate for younger audiences -- such as junior high, or sixth graders -- to help them understand the feelings of sick and handicapped kids and to teach them the importance of a kind word?

  2. As a child, Lucy lives in three worlds: the hospital, her home, and the outside world. How do the people in each of these environments treat her? How does Lucy respond to them?

  3. "We were taken to another floor with a playroom that boasted a large, ornate dollhouse, a real collector's item probably donated by some well-meaning person. You could only look at it from behind a glass partition, but it was too nice to be played with anyway. Sometimes you'd see a child standing there, staring, but for the most part the giant miniature house, despite its prominent position near the door, was ignored" (page 40). Do you think Lucy tells her readers about the dollhouse to describe her own loneliness? Or do you think Lucy craves a picture perfect place in which to hide and be left alone?

  4. The author remembers the first time she grasped the severity of her disease: "Someone dated an event as something that had happened 'before Lucy had cancer.' Shocked, I looked up. 'I had cancer?'" (page 43). Do you remember a time in your life where you were surprised to find out something about yourself that everyone else already knew?

  5. "Being different was my cross to bear, but being aware of it was my compensation. When I was younger, before I'd gotten sick, I'd wanted to be special, to be different. Did this then make me the creator of my own situation?" (page 101). Do you think Lucy, like many children do, blames herself for her sickness and, as a result, her disfigurement? Does she believe that she deserves her fate?

  6. Young Lucy is tormented by other kids, mostly male: "'That is the ugliest girl I have ever seen.' I knew in my heart that their comments had nothing to do with me, that it was all about them appearing tough and cool to their friends" (page 124-125). Were you surprised at her level of maturity and reasoning? Or do you see this is an example of a defense mechanism -- distancing herself from the situation in order to hide the hurt?

  7. In the hospital bathroom, someone scratched "Be Here Now" into the door. This message has a significant meaning to Lucy later on in the book. Discuss.

  8. The struggle between truth and beauty is prevalent throughout Lucy's memoir: "I had put a great deal of effort into accepting that my life would be without love and beauty in order to be comforted by Love and Beauty. Did my eager willingness to grasp the idea of "fixing" my face somehow invalidate all those years of toil?" (page 157-158). How would you answer Lucy's question?

  9. Does Lucy's death change your feelings about this book? How?

About the Author:

Lucy Grealy (1963-2002) was born in Dublin, Ireland. She moved to Spring Valley, New York, with her family when she was four years old. When she was nine, a surgery to remove a tumor also resulted in the removal of part of her jaw, leaving her disfigured and fated to endless reconstruction operations. She found comfort in her love for horses and, later, in her passion for poetry.

She received a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, and a Masters in Fine Arts in Poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her poetry appeared in a number of magazines, including The Paris Review and The London Times Literary Supplement.

After living abroad for several years (West Berlin, London and Aberdeen) she returned to the states in 1991 to take on a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., and then went on to be a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Living in New York since 1994, Lucy taught at the New School for Social Research's MFA in the Creative Writing Program, and also at Bennington College in Vermont, where she taught in both the graduate and undergraduate programs.

Autobiography of a Face, published in 1994, grew out of an essay that first appeared in Harper's magazine, and which won a National Magazine Award. Her second book, a collection of essays titled As Seen on TV, was published in 2000. She has a chapbook of poems, Everyday Alibis. Lucy Grealy won several prizes for her poetry, among them the Sonora Review Prize, the London TLS poetry prize, and two Academy of American Poets awards.

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Autobiography of a Face 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 77 reviews.
Schmutz93 More than 1 year ago
Autobiography of a face is the autobiography of Lucy Grealy, a very talented writer. It tells of her first struggles as a child, all the way to after her college days. It takes you in depth into the hospital world as if you were her, being treated and operated on. She tells of going through school with about a third of her jaw line missing because of cancer. If you thought the kids in your neighborhood were cruel, then prepare yourself for a forceful revelation that you really didn't have it so bad. This book will chew you up and spit you out, but at the end of your journey through Lucy's life, you will somehow feel enlightened and even thankful for everything you have, ad also the things that you don't. So, stop feeling sorry for yourself and pickup this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is probably one of the best non-fiction book I ever read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book several years ago, and Lucy's story stayed with me. . She is an exceptional writer, and her story is one you simply must read.  On a scale from 1 to 10, her book is a 10.  Buy it, read it, share it when you're done.  You'll be glad you did.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is soo sad But its a real eye opener
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
read this book for school and fell in love with it, i was so in touch with the character and i found myself brought to tears at some parts but love the ending and everything else about the book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My grandmother had cancer and she found out that it did not spread the day i was born so it was emotional for me.
karstelincoln on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderful writing, but artful I think in what she leaves out. Having previously read Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, I think the reality lies somewhere between the two. Horrible journey for anyone, though she's resourceful enough to find silver linings throughout. The sparse detail lends an emeciated feel to the lack of family support and enouragement. Would recommend to anyone wanting a different kind of autobiography, especially women's perspective.
cestovatela on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lucy Grealy lived a life few of us can imagine. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age nine, she spent the next five years of her life undergoing surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. When the treatments were over, she had lost a third of her jaw and the opportunity to look like a normal person. Grealy conveys this experience with precision and clarity, but what really shines about the book is how easily we can empathize with a life so different from our own. Isolation, longing for love, and desperation for approval are human emotions that we can all identify with, even if Grealy experienced them at a far greater magnitude than we have known. At times, I longed to shake her, to beg her to talk to someone about her problems, and above all, to recognize that she is and always was a beautiful woman -- not just intellectually, but physically as well. The photographs I have seen of her are absolutely magnetic. Yet, Grealy began cancer treatment in a decade where little psychological support was offered to survivors. Who can fault a nine-year-old girl for getting lost in her head in those circumstances? And who can help but be amazed by the story she grew up to write? She is unflinchingly honest about herself and the people around her, so she portrays them all as complex human beings with strengths and flaws. Her observations about suffering and beauty are vivid, complicated, and true, and I felt a genuine sense of loss when I discovered she died of a drug overdose ten years after the book's completion.
ilovebooksdlk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lucy Grealy's memoir chronicles her experience surviving a childhood cancer that forced the removal of a large part of her jaw leaving her face severely disfigured. She helps us understand the experience of being "grotesquely" different, as both a child and an adult. In adulthood, she attends the writing program at Sarah Lawrence where she meets Ann Patchett (and the two become dear friends, a friendship that becomes the centerpoint of Patchett's stunning memoir, Truth and Beauty.)Lucy goes on to attend the Iowa Writer's Workshop and the publication of this book brings her national writing acclaim. But it never solves the problem of the intense aloneness she feels in the world, wondering if anyone will ever truly love her, a hunger she can't manage to feed.Honest and horrifying in parts. A brilliant memoir.
kcslade on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pretty good account of the life of a disfigured girl (from disease).
sgerbic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reviewed October 1998 Lucy contracted cancer of the jaw at 9 years old, to remove the cancer doctors took one-half of her jaw. She experienced treatments for 2 1/2 years, the pain she felt is very vividly expressed. Lucy shares with us her loneliness and pain at times so real I found myself crying for her. This autobiography is about beauty, those who have it don't really know it. She searches for it and finally finds it in her love of horses and poetry. Hospitals give her comfort only there she is treated special and not teased or taunted. All in all a truly honest book, and a quick read. 37-1998
goldiebear on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It was extremely well written and I found it quite beautiful, even though the content was heartbreaking. I know it's easy for me to say, but why not just stop having all the operations and just move on? I know she was young and I don't know what happened after she wrote this book. (I intend to read Truth and Beauty next.. and that might give more insight). It seems that she was finally able to accept herself for everything she was, which made me feel good. I can't even imagine going through everything she did at such a young age. But above all, this book kept me interested and was very well written.
ChocolateMilkMaid on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Please read this completely disarming book about a child with cancer, who grows up to become a marvelous poet and author, so gifted and raw. Sure, her story ends sadly later, but that doesn't make this book any less true. Maybe the best autobiography I've ever read.
Berly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am having trouble writing my review for [Autobiography of a Face], by [[Lucy Grealy]], because I am so afraid I will not do it justice. This is a beautiful, brave and candid memoir of Lucy¿s battle with cancer and subsequent multiple surgeries. It is not maudlin, but witty and insightful. I was afraid to read it, because I, too, grew up with lots of medical issues and I didn¿t want to plumb those angry, fearful memories again. Did it touch upon those raw nerves? Yes, but just a touch. I found myself focused more intently on the beauty of her writing, and that would have made Grealy so happy. In the afterward, Lucy¿s friend [[Ann Patchett]] explains that during her book readings, Lucy ¿was not there as a role model for overcoming obstacles. She was a serious writer, and she wanted her book to be judged for its literary merit and not its heartbreaking content.¿ Done! I loved it. Her voice is honest and lyric and her book is so much more than a medical diary. She delves inside the pain of being different, the secret desire to be perfect, and the ways in which our parents and circumstances shape (sometimes unwittingly) who we become. One more point before I go. [[Patchett]] also wrote a book, entitled [Truth and Beauty] in which she shares Lucy¿s life from her point of view as a friend in college and graduate school. Several people have said that they found it strange that Patchett is not mentioned in Grealy¿s book. Not so much. Autobiography of a Face is centered far more on Lucy¿s childhood and her family and Patchett entered the picture much later. I will say that I far prefer the character of Grealy in her own book, rather than the needy, sex-driven girl portrayed in Patchett¿s book. An interesting contrast none-the-less.
kkkoob on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A beautifully written memoir filled with good writing and pyschological hauntings.
pictou on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Read this after reading [book: Truth and Beauty] by Ann Patchett. These two books should be read as a pair.
litelady-ajh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written, but sad & depressing.
titania86 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Autobiography of a Face is Lucy Grealy's honest and unflinching look at her own life. It all starts when her jaw collides with a fourth grade classmate. Then she is diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a cancer with only a 5% survival rate, in her jaw. Over time, she goes through not only grueling chemotherapy, but also the removal of part of her jaw (causing the disfiguration of her face) and the countless reconstructive surgeries that follow. Lucy's story is both inspirational and real. I admire how she admits inconsistencies in her memory, her innermost thoughts, and her insecurities. I liked that she didn't sugarcoat things. She talked about the things she thought as a child, whether they made sense or not, like did her wanting to feel special make her sick or was she too ugly to be loved? She illustrates how painful and time consuming the treatment for cancer is. The side effects for chemotherapy that she had were vomiting, weight loss, radiation burns, loss of appetite, pain, hair loss, and damaged teeth. This doesn't even include the initial removal of part of her jaw (and her disfigured face). To go through this as an adult is unimaginable to me, let alone as a child. Throughout her life, Lucy experiences many of the same things that most people do, like her awkward relationship with her parents, the painful teasing and tormenting from schoolyard bullies, envy of normal children, fear of death, and her insecurities about her looks. The media's perception of the nature of beauty is so different from real people, that I can understand why the body image issues that typically plague young girls would be so much worse for Lucy. Growing up is hard enough to do without the extra complications she had to go through. Just a side note: I first heard of this book because Chuck Palahniuk named it as an inspiration behind Invisible Monsters. These two books are very different from each other, but are excellent in their own right.
knitwit2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lucy Grealy's memoir was in a word, amazing. She chronicles her battle with cancer and subsequent reconstructive surgeries with candor and humility. Starting with diagnosis at age 9 and continuing through her twenties she tells the story so that you think your hearing it directly from her 12 year old self, her 15 year old self and so on. She has the reader's sympathy, but not pity, quite a feat in a memior. I've never read anything quite like it, shewas a talent unmatched.
bookworm12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At age 9 Lucy was diagnosed with a cancer of the jaw. In this nonfiction memoir she chronicles her 5-year battle with the cancer and then the years that followed, during which she has dozens of reconstructive surgeries. More than the disease though, it's about Grealy's battle with learning to accept herself and feel comfortable in her own skin. It's about the universal struggle of feeling ugly. Grealy's story is a tragic one, but it's also beautiful. "Beauty, as defined by society at large, seemed to be only about who was best at looking like everyone else."If you find a copy to read, male sure it includes the afterward by author Ann Patchett that was added in 2003. Patchett was one of Grealy's best friends and later wrote the book "Truth and Beauty" about their friendship. I think she sums up Grealy's book perfectly with this... "In the right hands, a memoir is the flecks of gold panned out of a great, muddy river. A memoir is those flecks melted down into a shapeable liquid that can be molded and hammered into a single, bright band to be worn on a finger, something you could say, "Oh this, this is my life." Everyone has a muddy river, but very few have the vision, patience and talent to turn it into something beautiful."
maverickmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The late author Lucy Grealy shares the story of her childhood battle with a rare cancer that cost her the lower right side of her face. She won the battle with the cancer, but was left to deal with the physical and psychological effects of facial disfigurement. Her story is *not* a "triumph of the human spirit" tale, but rather a story of Grealy's journey through hopes and disappointments, self-acceptance and self-abnegation. The culmination of the story is simply the point at which she wrote the book; the reader is left with the sense that this is where Grealy is *now,* that the twists and turns of her journey continue -- and if you know anything about Grealy's life after 1994, you know that that is true. Grealy's writing is clear, flowing, honest, wry, and full of effective imagery.
msjoanna on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a wonderfully well-written account of Grealy's experience of childhood cancer. The book was brutally honest -- the account of the reactions and feelings of the author's parents and the author herself rarely painted a flattering picture, but did provide much insight into the author's experience. I'm looking forward to following this up with Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett.
alexlane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book truly allows you to understand what it is like to have cancer, or at least, how someone with cancer might feel, phsycially as well as emotionally. The writing is exquisite. This is the most honest autobiography I have ever read. Everyone should have this book in their library.
mikitchenlady on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was somewhat disappointed by this book after reading Ann Patchett's "Truth and Beauty" which was really amazing. My edition included Ann's comments at the end, in which she emphasized that Lucy wanted her book to be evaluated more for its writing skill than the story. I was moved by the story, and garnered a greater understanding of Lucy Grealy by the end of the book (she seemed an odd, unfocused, unmotivated, quirky, self-centered type of friend in Ann's book, one that I could not imagine being friends with). In this volume, I understood why she became the person that she did. In terms of its writing quality, I felt there were too many realizations that were incongruent with a child's understanding -- too many ah-ha moments that a child would never have, no matter the circumstances. Perhaps I'm being too hard, that it is difficult to write a memoir without infusing one's adults thoughts into the details. She does a great job with showing our cultural emphasis on beauty, and how despite the fact that she survived this cancer (and others were less fortunate and less obviously whole), she would never find her own beauty, nor believe that others could see it in her.I would recommend this book to people who read Ann Patchett's book, as well as to those who need or want to better understand childhood cancer more.
Cate88 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Captivating story about courage in the face of disfigurement. Well written, and convincing non-fiction.