Although Lucy Grealy’s title Autobiography of a Face suggests an emphasis on her physical transformation in response to cancer, I believe that her novel feels more like an Autobiography of a Soul. As a child, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma; for her, cancer of the jaw bone. But rather than focus on merely the corporeality of her cancer, she expresses its indirect, internal invasion of the self through written word.
Grealy seeks refuge in the attention she receives in the medical sphere, a space that imperfectly fills the void created at home. In writing, she travels through her life experiences and allows the reader to explore the inner depths of her mind as she retrospectively relives the past. She discusses her traumatic experiences with cancer: unforgiving treatments of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery; the futile persistence of reconstruction.
Although initially unaware of the implications of such an illness, her maturation over the years enables the appearance of psychological scars. Grealy defines her burden of depression, her feeble sense of identity, her struggle to conceptualize and cope with beauty, her hopeless disregard and perpetual desire for love.
Cancer certainly provides a backdrop, or rather a catalyst, for Lucy Grealy’s story, but her story is so much more. Woven through her work is a thread of tension between her external and internal persona, between her face and her soul. The disjunction between these situates her within struggles larger than the physical disease.
What struck me is that Grealy makes a point of resisting an illness narrative understanding of her story. Instead, she regards cancer as “not the part of the story I’m interested in” (230). Unlike a majority of patient illness narratives, Grealy is a writer. Her profession has shaped her grasp of language and eloquent creation of memoir (or recreation of memory).
This raises the question: to what extent should a narrative about illness be defined as such, and how does it artistically escape this narrow scope? What I mean is that yes, Grealy discusses how cancer affected her life, but does this focus overshadow the merit behind her novel as a written work? Ann Patchett summarizes this powerfully: “Certainly, Autobiography of a Face can be read as an account of a child’s cancer and disfigurement…but it can also be read as it was written: as a piece of literature” (232).
Grealy demonstrates that although narratives can indeed provide great insight into the experience of illness, this does not qualify a general ignorance of what lies in the periphery. Creators such as Grealy recognize the illness experiences conveyed through narrative and the others that escape narrative; readers must do so as well. Grealy notes the empowerment and limitation of language:
“Language supplies us with ways to express ever subtler ways of meaning, but does that imply language gives meaning, or robs us of it when we are at a loss to name things?”
Illness narratives are about more than illness; only in understanding the more can we arrive at an understanding of the illness.