Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Autobiography Tells the Sad Tale of What It's like to Be Ugly

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Autobiography Tells the Sad Tale of What It's like to Be Ugly

Article excerpt

I KNOW A woman who went trekking for a couple of weeks in the mountains of Nepal. She said it cleared her head: two weeks of nothing but mountains and sky and putting one foot in front of the other.

By the end, she said, she'd nearly forgotten what her own face looked like. She hadn't seen it. The only face she'd been seeing was her trekking companion's, so she'd begun to assume that maybe she looked like that.

Not that it mattered. In the mountains, away from everyone and everything she knew, her appearance had become inconsequential.

Lucy Grealy might've had an easier time of it if she'd grown up in Nepal. Except that she would have died. When she was 10, doctors told her parents that Lucy's toothache was caused by a tumor called Ewing's sarcoma. Years later, shelving library books, she flipped through a medical text and found it had a cure rate of about 5 percent.

She was lucky.

They removed half her jaw; radiation and chemotherapy took up most of the next two years of her life; and she's still here to tell the tale of what it's like to live in America with a face that isn't right, that leads strangers to look away quickly - or, worse, ask what happened to you - and that inspired the boys in the junior high lunchroom to say, "Hey, girl, take off that monster mask - OOOOPS, she's not wearing a mask!" and double over with laughter.

"We're living in a time that is setting ugliness up as one of its fundamental taboos," Bernard-Henri Livy remarks in "Men and Women: A Philosophical Conversation" (Little, Brown).

In "Autobiography of a Face" (Houghton Mifflin), Grealy, a poet, offers an exquisitely drawn view of some of the subtler punishments that await those who - however unwillingly - break that taboo.

Even she, clearly a fiercely intelligent child, hadn't noticed how her ruined face had diminished her until Halloween, when she put on a mask and went trick-or-treating: "I felt wonderful. It was only as the night wore on . . . that I began to realize why I felt so good. No one could see me clearly. No one could see my face.

". . . I felt such freedom: I waltzed up to people effortlessly and boldly, I asked questions and made comments the rest of my troupe were afraid to make. …

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