by Lucy Grealy
This is the kind of book that causes people to toss around the word heartbreaking. As a child, Grealy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Two and a half years were devoted to chemotherapy and radiation treatments; she survived but a sizable portion of her jaw did not.
The horror one might assume from this situation wasn’t present: Grealy had no idea she might die, even though the survival rate for Ewing’s sarcoma was only five percent. She does not present her parents as overly afraid for her life, either. Her memoir is not a story about the fear of death.
Instead, Grealy tells a story about not fitting in, about unbearable pain that takes up residence in one’s head as loneliness and confusion, about questioning what things mean, about being scared and lost in your family, about enduring intense physical pain, and about figuring out who you are. She was a talented writer: that her skill is not overwhelmed by the bare facts of her story proves as much.
One of the questions Grealy asks early on is “how do we go about turning into the people we are meant to be?” For her, for years, the answer didn’t come because of what she saw, or what she didn’t see, or couldn’t look at in the mirror. Years of vicious school taunting and reconstructive surgeries took their toll.
“Sooner or later” she tells us, “we all have to learn the words with which to name our own private losses.” I think that is what she is doing in this book, finding the right words for her story, in crafting art from the substance of her life. Some of it is expected (“I did not trust that happiness could be an option”) and some of it is funny. When she is picking up food at a corner store, her face distorted by a “tissue expander,” she sees a man covered in tattoos, even on his face. They lock eyes briefly, and she notes that she is “living in a story Kafka would have been proud to write.”
The real heartbreak here is revealed by the afterword’s “second” ending, written by Grealy’s friend, novelist Ann Patchett. She tells us that Grealy died at 39. She doesn’t say how she died, other than to note is wasn’t the cancer that shaped the form of her face and her life.
In her own ending, Grealy says that she realizes that “most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.” The most basic things — hope, connections to other people, becoming the person you are supposed to be — were apparently what Grealy could not keep in mind. She died of a heroin overdose at 39.
Patchett wishes for more of her friend’s writing; after reading this book, I can see why. Grealy’s poetic ear, her pacing, her observations and insights are things I’d like to read more of myself. Recommended.