Autobiography of a Face

by Lucy Grealy

Other authorsAnn Patchett (Afterword)
Paperback, 2003

Call number




Harper Perennial (2003), Edition: 1st, 236 pages


At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect. "I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cestovatela
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Marlene-NL
It was a great read. Some of her sentences really struck a nerve.
let me go find one...................

About the way kids at school have to pick teams. (and they still do this nowadays and I remember how horrible that was. I was never picked last but always nearly last and that hurt. I hated sports
Show More
and especially the picking).
"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?"

She wrote this book in such an honest way, sometimes really tough to read. weirdly enough i did recognise a lot, especially the part about having pain and such and feeling so insecure.

Now I want to read Ann Pratchet's book: Truth and Beauty. I might treat myself.
I do not know how she died but I am sure I will find out.
Show Less
LibraryThing member emcnellis16
Grealy was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma at the age of nine. From then on, her life was divided into two parts before and after cancer. After the surgery to remove half her jaw, Grealy spent over two years enduring weekly chemotherapy treatments. When she was finally declared 'healthy', Grealy
Show More
returned to the sixth grade -- only to be met with scorn and cruelty from her classmates.

Her story is written clearly and concisely. She is unerringly honest about how her disease affected her family, her developing personality, and those around her. As we follow her through years of skin and bone grafts, we witness her need or acceptance from others and her gradual acceptance of herself.

I was particularly struck by Grealy's need to be 'strong.' She is constantly reminded not to cry and to never show fear. This begins Grealy's quest to be the model patient. I am amazed that this small child was able to internalize and minimize her emotions, suffering, and considerable pain. To me, she seemed like an adult soul in a child's body.

I recommend Autobiography of a Face -- it is a moving and meaningful read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member weijen123
Quite a book. Make sure you read it in conjunction with Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty. Not a happy tale, but Lucy was gifted with language, and it is a gripping story. I found myself yelling at her as I was reading it...
LibraryThing member Berly
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member alexlane
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.
LibraryThing member sgerbic
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
Show More
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.

Show Less
LibraryThing member tls1215
This was a well-written book about a sad story, though Lucy seemed to have handled herself quite well. Interesting insights.
LibraryThing member Cate88
Captivating story about courage in the face of disfigurement. Well written, and convincing non-fiction.
LibraryThing member goldiebear
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member mikitchenlady
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,
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Crowyhead
I actually started this last year, put it down, and finally picked it up and finished it this week. This is a moving and candid memoir that's not so much about surviving cancer, as about surviving surviving cancer. Lucy Grealy had Ewing's Sarcoma as a child, and treatment required the removal of a
Show More
third of her jaw. What followed was fifteen years of painful cosmetic surgical procedures. Lucy found herself constantly torn between wanting to accept herself and be accepted as she was, and the desire to be normal, even beautiful.
Maybe it's not fair, but the impact of this memoir was lessened somewhat for me because Grealy committed suicide in 2002. The book ends on a hopeful note, but I ended up feeling depressed because I felt like Grealy ultimately gave up... I may read Anne Padgett's Truth and Beauty, which is about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Maybe it would help me understand her better.
Show Less
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
At nine her face is changed forever by cancer, as her life goes on she faces the trauma and stupidity of people from doctors to fellow school students, and learns about herself and life. Inspiring.
LibraryThing member karstelincoln
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
Show More
emeciated feel to the lack of family support and enouragement. Would recommend to anyone wanting a different kind of autobiography, especially women's perspective.
Show Less
LibraryThing member thesuperflychic
The book is written by Lucy Grealy, a woman who was diagnosed by Ewing's Sarcoma. She had an unfortunate childhood: boys calling her ugly, people staring at her, and hating her own face.

This book is easy to read, so straightforward. It's kind of disturbing sometimes how descriptive she is about her
Show More
experiences. I would suggest that people who plans on reading this shouldn't read it while eating. I've done that (eating while reading) a couple of times, and it made me want to spit out the food I just bit. But other than that, it's really a good book.

She gives a vivid description of everything and it seems like you're also experiencing her experiences as you're reading this book. In my opinion, she didn't write this book so that people would pity her for having such an unfortunate life. I think, she wrote this so that we would be grateful of what we have and not complain for what we don't have. This book is really an eye-opener.
Show Less
LibraryThing member kcslade
Pretty good account of the life of a disfigured girl (from disease).
LibraryThing member litelady-ajh
Beautifully written, but sad & depressing.
LibraryThing member titania86
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member kkkoob
A beautifully written memoir filled with good writing and pyschological hauntings.
LibraryThing member msjoanna
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
Show More
experience. I'm looking forward to following this up with Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Jenners26
I just finished reading Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. I originally got this book because I started out the year reading Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, which is about Ann's friendship with Lucy. Lucy is a quite a colorful and tragic character in the book and I wanted to
Show More
know more about her. I was also very curious to see what Lucy looked like because the subject of this book is her face, which was disfigured as a result of childhood cancer.

Her experiences with a disfigured face and the agonies and hardships caused by her cancer are the primary topics of this book. Her cancer treatment, which begins at age 9, is harrowing and heart-breaking. As a result of the treatments, a third of her jaw is removed--giving her a face that results in teasing, alienation and feelings of being unlovable. Two things struck me most about the book. One was how much she must have left out. She literally spent years having new procedures done to reconstruct her jaw and spent endless amounts of time in hospitals. Although you get a glimpse of what some of those operations and hospital stays were like, I can't even imagine what it must have been like to have been that sick for so long.

The second thing is how little information she seemed to have received about her various treatment and the lack of communication amongst her family. She writes several times about her mother's wish for her not to cry during chemotherapy and subsequent treatments: "If you pretend to be brave then you will be brave." What a burden to put on a child! She also writes about her father going into the hospital for stomach pains, but then he doesn't come home for months and virtually no one in the family goes to visit him except Lucy's mother. He ends up dying there--never returning home. Lucy goes to visit one time and then is ambushed by grief years later. One of the recurring themes of the book is how little her family talked about what was happening in their lives and how they felt--leading to so much unnecessary pain and misunderstandings. This is something I think so many of us can relate to--the things we leave unsaid to those we love the most.

Lucy's central struggle is to come to terms with her face and her concept of beauty and the question of whether someone with this kind of face can be loved. I think it is a struggle that we can all share--especially women. Physical beauty is so often correlated to being desirable and "lovable." But how many of us feel truly beautiful? How often have you felt undesirable because of how you looked? I know this is something I always struggle with (although it has gotten better in recent years). I think that once someone truly knows you as a person, they see the beauty within you and you do become beautiful and feel beautiful with them. But what about people you don't know? When all they are judging you on is how you look on the outside? I often feel so confident and good about myself and then will catch a glimpse of myself in a store window and go "Oh yuck. You look so ugly and dumpy and overweight." And all my good feelings about myself go down the drain.

Another thing that struck me as being universal about the book was Lucy's constant belief that with the next operation, her face would be "normal" again and then everything will be better. How often do we do this in life? "Once I make more money, things will be better." "Once I find someone to love me, things will be better." "Once I lose the weight, things will be better." We spend so much time thinking about how much better things will be if only this were true or that were true. And how often do we achieve something and find that things are still not better? At the end of the book--after a particularly long and extensive series of surgeries--Lucy realizes that her face is a normal as it is ever going to get. There will be no more surgeries, no more fixes. The man she is sitting with is only giving her positive reactions. She writes: "And then I experienced a moment of the freedom I'd been practicing for behind my Halloween mask all those years ago. As a child, I had expected my liberation to come from getting a new face to put on, but now I saw it came from shedding something, shedding my image. 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."

This is a not a fun, happy and breezy book, but it is thought-provoking and interesting. I would definitely recommend reading this book together with Ann Patchett's book as they complement each other very well. I wish I had read them closer together.
Show Less
LibraryThing member HunyBadger
I'm not sure how I feel about this book. There were times it made me pity Lucy, times I truly identified with her, times I could not understand her thought process at all. I was horrified how her parents handled her illness and was stunned at the medical profession's nonchalance about her emotional
Show More
state during the 30 years we read about her life. So the book was successful from the point that I really felt for a time that I understood what she had gone through.

However, I was disappointed at the end. I had hoped that she would have come to some conclusion, or at least, less ambivalence about her situation, but that did not happen. I didn't expect her to start skipping around but I thought she might find a sliver of nirvana or peace. Although the final words hint at that, they never go so far and it felt more like a "required wrap up" for the book to end in so many words than a real conclusion.
Show Less
LibraryThing member akblanchard
Lucy Grealy was a typical nine-year-old girl until a random playground accident revealed a deeper problem: she had a rare, usually fatal form of childhood cancer called Ewing's sarcoma. After surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she is left with only part of her jaw remaining. Reconstructive
Show More
surgery is disappointing; plastic surgeons promise good results, but the artificial jaws they create out of skin and bone grafts are continually reabsorbed by her body. Grealy was left with with a deep sense of being ugly and unlovable, despite her blossoming intelligence and literary sensibility. This sense of being hopelessly disfigured was reinforced by the continual rounds of teasing she endured in junior high and even in high school.

Autobiography of a Face is Grealy's memoir in essays about her difficult coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s. She does come across as self-absorbed, but her insights into truth and beauty (to borrow the title of one of the book's strongest chapters, as well as the title of the book her friend Ann Patchett wrote about Grealy) make this book still well worth reading some seventeen years after her death.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ChocolateMilkMaid
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.
LibraryThing member deldevries
Another perspective of the story starting at Sarah Lawrence is by Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty




0060569662 / 9780060569662
Page: 0.24 seconds