I became familiar with Lucy Grealy through Ann Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty. I read Truth and Beauty first and I recommend reading these books in that order.
I think the title of this book should be Autobiography of Pain. Grealy does talk a lot about her face, but most of it is about the amount of pain her face causes her. Diagnosed with cancer at age nine, she goes through years of grueling chemo and radiation treatments to live through a form of cancer that has a 5% survival rate. She then endures years of bullying for being “ugly.” Finally, she suffers years of difficult reconstructive surgeries, living in a cold climate so can wrap her face in a scarf.
Grealy does not report much self-pity, but she reports various coping mechanisms. She comes from a tough Irish family that discourages emotional displays. She isn’t allowed to cry when she’s receives chemo. She later interprets this to mean that she is not entitled to any emotion at all. Perhaps in her family, she’s not. Even years later, in her own memoir she does not question how little compassion she was given. She was not even allowed to give it to herself.
While Grealy tries very hard to be “deep” (her word), I get the sense that her depth does not come naturally to her. She even admits that if another child had been the one with cancer, she’d have probably been the bully. She tries to make something profound out of her childhood pain, but nothing arises out of that for me. She does talk about her gradual ability to transcend her suffering, which happened out of necessity. In the end, I found the raw look at her pain itself was meaningful and didn’t require any philosophical conjecture.