Autobiography of a Face

by Lucy Grealy

Other authorsAnn Patchett (Afterword)
Paperback, 2003

Call number




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


"Lucy Grealy's ruthless self-examination, rich fantasy life, and great derring-do inform this powerful memoir about the premium we put on beauty and on a woman's face in particular. It took Lucy 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 surgery left her jaw disfigured. As a young girl she absorbed the searing pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special. Later she internalized the paralyzing fear of never being loved. Heroically and poignantly, she learned to define herself from the inside out." "This memoir arrives at a time when the worship of beauty in our culture is at an all-time high, a time when more and more women seek physical perfection. Lucy Grealy awakens in us the difficult truth that beauty, finally, is to be found deep within."--BOOK JACKET.… (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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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 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 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,
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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.
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LibraryThing member Cate88
Captivating story about courage in the face of disfigurement. Well written, and convincing non-fiction.
LibraryThing member carmarie
This is a heartbreaking memoir from a woman who did not want to be known for having cancer, but for her art of writing. This is the story of a young girls struggle through life as "different" and never really seemed to grasp the seriousness of her illness and having cancer.
LibraryThing member maverickmom
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
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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.
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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
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experience. I'm looking forward to following this up with Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett.
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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
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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.
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LibraryThing member kcslade
Pretty good account of the life of a disfigured girl (from disease).
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
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emeciated feel to the lack of family support and enouragement. Would recommend to anyone wanting a different kind of autobiography, especially women's perspective.
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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 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
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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.
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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
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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.
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LibraryThing member kkkoob
A beautifully written memoir filled with good writing and pyschological hauntings.
LibraryThing member pictou
Read this after reading [book: Truth and Beauty] by Ann Patchett. These two books should be read as a pair.
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member ilovebooksdlk
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
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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.
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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
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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.

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LibraryThing member glade1
What a wonderful reflection on a difficult life! At the age of 9, Grealy was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently had half of her lower jaw removed. Following this surgery, young Grealy had radiation, chemotherapy and multiple surgeries to repair her dentition and to attempt to reconstruct her
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jaw. Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, the author essentially defined herself by her illness and treatments, and anticipated that her life would "begin" when her face was fixed.

Grealy's style is frank and open, and the reader must admire her relative fearlessness. As an adult writing about her unusual childhood, she honestly assesses her actions and motivations and gives us a picture of a bright, resilient girl. The bulk of the book is spent on her childhood, and the last few chapters rush through her young adulthood and the continuing surgeries, one of which finally restores a portion of her jaw.

Though most of us never have to face disfigurement such as Lucy Grealy did, as a reader I could still identify with her childish belief in "if only." If only her face were not disfigured, everything would be perfect in her life. If only she had a beautiful face she would find love. If only her family were not so "different," life would be ideal. I believe most humans have some glimmer of this belief: if only I were more attractive, more intelligent, thinner, wealthier, THEN everything would be perfect. I found the end of this book to be a bit of a letdown, mostly because I had bought into Grealy's assumption that everything would be fine once her jaw was repaired. Of course it did not live up to her expectations and of course she now has to learn, as all of us do, to live with the cards she's been dealt.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) her hardships, Grealy has been academically and intellectually successful. She is an accomplished poet and teacher, she has had vibrant friendships, she has been able to travel and live in various places, and she seems to have a full life. I did feel that the story ended a bit abruptly. After laying her childhood bare, Grealy seems to have held back with regard to her adulthood. Perhaps her recent experiences are too recent for her to view clearly and comment on.

The bullying and teasing Grealy suffered did not play as large a role in the story as I had expected, although it was clear that the taunts deeply affected the author and her sense of self worth. I was appalled at the behavior she described. I know children can be mean and see depictions of teasing and bullying all the time, but I did not experience this sort of behavior (or I was blissfully unaware of it) and I did not inflict it. I cannot understand people who have no empathy, especially for someone whose appearance and situation are so obviously out of her control.

Overall, I found this to be a thoroughly engrossing and ultimately uplifting memoir. Highly recommended!

I did mark a few passages that stood out to me:

One had to be good. One must never complain or struggle. One must never, under any circumstances, show fear and, prime directive above all, one must never, ever cry. I was nothing if not hars. Had I not found myself in the role of sick child, I would have made an equally good fascist or religious martyr.


Gradually my earliest memories of Ireland transformed into pure myth. Where I was now was not only no good, it was getting worse all the time. The flawless times of the family were past; I had missed them simply by being born too late. I began a lifelong affair with nostalgia, with only the vaguest notions of what I was nostalgic for.


I resolved to Believe, even in the face of this lack of response. Was it possible to prove my worthiness by repeatedly asking the question, even in th the brunt of this painful silence? In the same way I was sure I could prove my love, and lovability, to my mother by showing her I could "take it," I considered the idea that what God wanted from me was to keep trying and trying and trying, no matter how difficult it was. My goal, and my intended reward, was to understand.


In my carefully orchestrated shabbiness, I was hoping to beat the world to the finish line by showing that I already knew I was ugly. Still, all the while, I was secretly hoping that in the process some potential lover might accidentally notice I was wearing my private but beautiful heart on my stained and fraying sleeve.
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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.




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