The summer before eleventh grade, my English teacher assigned a book called Autobiography of a Face, by an author I’d never heard of named Lucy Grealy. I read it, of course, and diligently wrote the required journal entries on how it made me “feel,” but the truth is, it just made me sad. I have no insights more poetic than that—just sad. Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, when she was nine, and the rest of her adolescence was hell, especially by Sartre’s definition: She endured not just devastating chemotherapy and countless rounds of reconstructive surgery on her face (none of which were really all that successful), but merciless taunting for being “ugly” by the kind of assholes we’re all too familiar with but still can’t quite believe exist. She studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and became a successful poet and author, and then she died in 2002, ostensibly from a drug overdose, though when I read about her death I assumed it was a suicide, and the article—I can’t remember which one—intimated the same.
In 2005, author Ann Patchett—she of Bel Canto, which everybody likes, including me—published a memoir about her friendship with Grealy. Truth and Beauty was highly recommended to me, but I honestly didn’t expect to be as moved by it as I was. It’s a “small” book, but an infinitely wise one, and—perhaps this is a testament to the fact that I really have matured since I was sixteen?—this time I felt consumed by more than just sadness. I don’t think the book was intended as a comment on self-pity, but ultimately, that’s what it became for me, and it conjured in me the far more insufferable emotion of . . . let’s call it self-chagrin. As in: Think of all the people out there who have it worse than you do, who have real problems—and you, you’re one of the luckiest women on Earth and all you can do is feel sorry for yourself, mired in whatever meaningless melancholy you can’t escape from today. Look at the “big picture,” you fool.
I quickly made the transition to self-disgust, at allowing somebody else’s moving story to become wrapped up in my own. Though aren’t we all guilty of it? No matter whom we meet or what we read, the most any of us are really capable of is casting the supporting players in the story of our own lives; we are inherently selfish creatures not because we mean to be that way, but simply because that’s all one’s consciousness will allow. I am not, in any way, claiming that empathy is not possible or logical, but it’s still ultimately a shallow sentiment. We relate everyone else’s tragedies back to our own because they’re all we know, all we are ever capable of truly knowing—and even that kind of comprehension is a stretch for most of us. Nevertheless, I felt ashamed for a.) relating to what Lucy Grealy expresses in the book and b.) using her much more profound experiences to attempt to snap myself out of my breakup-induced “Stormy Weather”-on-repeat lugubrious haze. And yet the mere fact that I could relate to her underscores the always-heartening universality of the human experience. It’s also a sure indicator of why her writing captured so many hearts.
Toward the end the book changed tone. Lucy Grealy’s heroin addiction seemed to come out of nowhere, and Ann Patchett appeared to feel the same way. Grealy’s death underscored that truth is indeed stranger than fiction; if this had been a novel, I wouldn’t have bought it. But Patchett does a wonderful job of presenting her own despair at watching a friend sink further and further into the abyss, and for the first time, I was able to concentrate solely on Lucy, on her pain. Maybe it’s because when it comes to drugs I’m almost embarrassingly devoid of any drama, but I’ve never really “gotten” the addiction narratives; in fact, I’ve tended to avoid them like the plague. Patchett wisely chooses to focus on other aspects of Lucy’s life—and after all, why shouldn’t her friend be remembered for more than how she died?—but I found the heroin chapters surprisingly captivating. I would never call Grealy’s life a tragedy, but her death certainly was, and you’d have to be made of stone to remain unmoved by the squandering of so many possibilities—artistic and otherwise.
On that note, what I ultimately liked best about Truth and Beauty was Patchett’s illumination of the life of a writer: The workshops, the fellowships, the “writers colonies,” the relentless goal-setting (500 words every day) and goal-breaking, the elation of actually finishing a first novel, the book parties, the inevitable wishful thinking that if one only lived somewhere like Paris, the words would come easy. (They would not.) This book was written by a successful writer about a successful writer, and they both “get” what it’s all about. And the two women complement each other perfectly: Patchett is the ant, Grealy is the grasshopper (as is the book’s primary recurring metaphor), and each believes their writing would be better if she could only be more like the other. Grealy’s spirit made Autobiography of a Face what it was, but her flightiness prevented her from writing her second book and ultimately earned her a canceled contract, debt up to her ears and a heroin addiction. Patchett was not as “cool” as Lucy, as she readily admits. But she’s the one who “made it,” and while her talent and imagination are unassailable, what any aspiring writer can take away from this book is that persistence and perspiration are what truly pay off.
Recommended: Joyce Carol Oates’ 2005 review of Truth and Beauty and A. G. Mojtabai’s 1994 review of Autobiography of a Face, both in The New York Times; and Ann Patchett’s profile of Grealy after her death in New York magazine (if you don’t actually want to read the book!)