Disfigured face shows but one facet of the woman

November 06, 1994|By Judith Bolton-Fasman

Lucy Grealy, an award-winning poet and gifted memoirist, has suffered greatly in her 31 years. At the age of 9, Ms. Grealy was stricken with Ewing's sarcoma, an almost always deadly form of cancer. Survival depended upon removing half of her jaw, followed by a harrowing three years of chemotherapy.

Although she recovered from the cancer itself, she embarked on a two-decade odyssey during which she had scores of unsuccessful operations involving grafts of skin and bone. "Autobiography of a Face" is the story of that odyssey. It is at once a discomfiting and redemptive reading experience. Ms. Grealy, a fierce and relentless chronicler of her recovery, presses her readers to confront their own sensitivity about their faces and their perception of beauty.

The process of writing a book like "Autobiography of a Face" is mined with traps of self-pity and saccharine sentiment that Ms. Grealy gracefully sidesteps. Instead, she philosophizes about fear and bravery, ugliness and beauty. She first recorded these musings in an essay she published in Harper's. "Mirrorings," which won a national magazine award, is an unflinching account of Lucy Grealy's evolving relationship with her severely disfigured face.

In a chapter adapted from that essay, she writes about how she "became an expert on the reflected image, its numerous tricks and wiles, how it can spring up at you at any moment from a glass tabletop, a well-polished door handle, a darkened window, a pair of sunglasses, a restaurant's otherwise magnificent brass-plated coffee machine sitting innocently by the cash register. I perfected the technique of brushing my teeth without a mirror, grew my hair in such a way that it would require only a quick simple brush, and wore clothes that were easily put on, with no complex layers of lines that might require even a minor visual adjustment."

As a child, Ms. Grealy had to deal with her own fear of physical pain. At her first chemotherapy session, her mother admonished her for crying even before the needle was inserted in her arm. Initially, she devised elaborate ways to avoid the dreaded treatments. In the winter, she lay on her front lawn in a nightgown, hoping to catch pneumonia. In the summer, she wrapped herself in a heavy wool blanket, waiting for heat stroke to overtake her. Eventually, though, she "became a machine for disassembling fear."

Although she proves to be physically sturdy, she is stricken with psychological wounds. Only dressing up for Halloween gives her a brief respite from her suffering:

"I put on a plastic witch mask . . . suddenly bold and free: no one could see my face. I peered through the oval eye slits and did not see one person staring back at me, ready to make fun of my face. I breathed in the condensing, plastic-tainted air behind the mask and thought that I was breathing in normalcy, that this freedom and ease were what the world consisted of, that other people felt it all the time. . . . I again named my own face as the thing that kept me apart, as the tangible element of what was wrong with my life and me."

Ms. Grealy vividly re-creates the sights and smells of Ward 10, the children's ward of New York's Baby Hospital, with the immediacy of a diary. She also remembers Ward 10, in a poem of the same name, as a place where she and her fellow patients took to their surroundings as "nervous, fearless explorers." Laboratories filled with experimental animals are experienced as grotesque petting zoos.

The hospital itself provides a specialized and stern education. "Before I knew high school I knew words/ like vincristine, cytotoxin, sarcoma, failing./ I understood the basic theory of radiation,/ the vacuum principle of hypodermics,/ that it would be a long time/ before I would say out loud/ the names of my friends again."

As an adolescent, Ms. Grealy keeps her sexuality at bay. The boys at school are so cruel that she eats her lunch in a guidance counselor's office. As a young adult, she ignores the issue by dancing at gay bars with men who do not acknowledge her as a sexual being or by socializing with transvestites who distract her from her own femininity.

First love comes as an affair with an older man. For a time, she dresses provocatively and veils her scars behind her long, blond hair. As an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, she finds acceptance and discovers that "reading and writing poetry brought together everything that had ever been important to me. I could still dwell in the realm of the senses, but now I had a discipline, a form for them."

Lucy Grealy initially felt as if her illness "were a blanket the world had thrown over me: . . . somehow I transformed that blanket into a tent, beneath which I almost happily set up camp." Ms. Grealy crawled out of her makeshift tent and faced her illness. She also reclaimed her life by shedding her image instead of avoiding her reflection.

E9 Ms. Bolton-Fasman is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

Title: "Autobiography of a Face"

Author: Lucy Grealy

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 223 pages, $19.95

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