A couple of months ago I picked up Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy in a used bookstore. I had never heard of the book but was intrigued by the title, and after reading the back cover, learned that it was the author’s story of battling and overcoming childhood cancer. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for “overcoming the odds stories” so I bought it. I got more from reading the book than I anticipated.
When Lucy was nine years old, doctors discovered a tumour in her jaw. It was a potentially fatal form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. To fight the cancer, doctors removed a third of Lucy’s lower jaw and subjected her to weekly chemo and daily radiation treatments for two and a half years. The treatments saved her life but had a devastating impact on her body, particularly her face. Lucy writes eloquently about being tormented by the boys in her high school. She kept her hair long so that it would fall over her face and partially hide her deformed jaw. Later as an adult, Lucy recalls being whistled at by men at a construction site—until they saw her face. Throughout the book, Lucy tells her story with a cool honesty and doesn’t appear to sink into self pity. She ends her story after undergoing extensive reconstructive surgery in Scotland. Her face isn’t perfect, but she writes about achieving a level of acceptance of her looks. She seems hopeful of the future.
The afterword by Ann Pachett reveals that Lucy had died. The two writers had been close friends, even living together while they attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, although Lucy never mentions Ann in her book.
Intrigued to learn more, I looked up Lucy on the Internet. It turns out she died of a heroin overdose after becoming addicted to narcotic painkillers after more reconstructive surgery on her jaw. Ann Patchett wrote the non-fiction work Truth and Beauty about her friendship with Lucy. Ann portrays Lucy as a talented, beautiful spirit with many demons. As Ann writes it, Lucy never really came to terms with her appearance and she gives a clearer picture of Lucy’s condition than Lucy herself did in her own book. The cancer treatment had removed more than a third of her jaw and the radiation treatment had destroyed almost all of her teeth and affected her ability to swallow. As a result, Lucy wasn’t able to chew and struggled to swallow only the softest foods.
Lucy’s experience separated her from everyone. Ann barely mentions Lucy’s family and they don’t appear to have been present or offer much support to Lucy. Instead, Lucy’s large circle of friends supported her through her many surgeries and later tried to save her from her addiction. Despite this, Lucy spent her whole life feeling lonely and desperate to find a man who would really love her, not just have sex with her. She didn’t love herself so no one could get through to her.
After her death and the publication of an article by Ann Patchett about Lucy in New York magazine, Lucy’s family emerged to accuse Ann Patchett of profiting off Lucy. Ann had received permission from Lucy’s family to reprint some of Lucy’s letters in her book Truth and Beauty (and compensated the Grealy family). Suellen Grealy wrote about having her grief at losing her sister hijacked by the publication of Truth and Beauty in an article in the Guardian newspaper. However, Suellen Grealy comments that some of Autobiography of a Face is “careless” with details. Lucy told her story from her own vantage point, but there are other vantage points. I think Lucy did this knowingly. Ann Patchett recalls in the afterword how, during a reading, an audience member wanted to know how Lucy was able to recall with such clarity events that had happened when she was so young. Lucy responded by saying, “It didn’t remember it. I wrote it.” I don’t think Lucy was being deliberately untruthful. She was trying to write a compelling story from her own vantage point.
All of this makes me wonder what is truth, what is fiction? Is there even really a difference between a novel and a memoir? I struggle with this in my own writing. For years I’ve been trying to write the period during my childhood when my family and I spent time living on a sail boat travelling from Canada to the United States and the Bahamas. Aside from struggling with how my family members will react to my depictions of them and the events that transpired, I’ve oscillated between writing it as a memoir and a novel. Although when I’ve viewed it as a novel, I’ve still stuck fairly close to my memories and interpretations of what happened to me and my family. The sailing trip took place over 20 years ago and by now each of us have retained different memories and feel very differently about what happened. Each of us sees the trip through our own peculiar lens, my father remembers the trip with rose-coloured glasses, my mother with dark sunglasses. My own view is rather grey. Which view is the truth? Is any view really truthful?
For now, I don’t really have an answer to this question. So, I’m writing my story as a novel as it seems freeing and, should it ever get published, no one could accuse me of a James Frey style fabrication.