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  • Scripting Wholeness in Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face
  • Sylvia A. Brown

I. Prologue

In Autobiography of a Face (1994), Lucy Grealy (1963–2002) relates her efforts to come to terms with the physical and emotional ramifications of the removal of a cancerous portion of her jaw at the age of nine. Covering several years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments and more than a decade of reconstructive surgeries, Grealy's narrative of alienation is a complex meditation on the nature of identity—what we desire to be, what "we are meant to be,"1 what others make of us, what we discover or make of ourselves in conjunction with the roles we play in society and the images of ourselves that the world reflects back to us. Given the agonizing sense of fragmentation left by physical and emotional scars, it should not be surprising that Grealy's life and the story that she crafted from it became a quest for wholeness, her narrative implicitly addressing the following question: how can she (how can anyone?) recoup a sense of wholeness or satisfy a craving for a sense of wholeness when not merely the body's limitations but a kind of social disease reinforces feelings of incompleteness—when, as she observes, "society tells us again and again that we can most be ourselves by acting and looking like someone else"?2

The extremity of Grealy's case obviously exacerbates but also clarifies the dilemma of finding, feeling, and asserting wholeness. Grealy relates a struggle made all the more difficult because of her dual identity as a woman and a person with a disability, a term encompassing both physical illness and the social, economic, and psychological ramifications of the stigmatization of facial difference.3 Referencing representations of women from Aristotle to the nineteenth century to the present day (including representations in feminist discourse), Rosemarie Garland Thomson points out, "Both the female and the disabled body are cast as deviant and inferior . . ."4 For Aristotle, women and "mutilated [End Page 297] males" were basically the same; thus, "even the ideal female body is abnormal compared to the universal standard of the male body," but the woman who has a physical impairment or who simply deviates from Western or European notions of "absolute beauty" and proper femininity is considered all the more aberrant.5 Obviously, given such norms, no woman matches the ideal, but some fall shorter of it than others, and some flaws are more visible than others. Grealy's sense of incompleteness was perhaps more acute than it would have been if her disability had taken a different form. Given that the face is, more than any other part of the body, equated with the self, a fracturing of the face becomes tantamount to a fracturing of identity. Since women have been most often praised and valued for having physical beauty, particularly facial beauty,6 Grealy's insufficiencies, relative to such an ideal, were all the more obvious and painful because of her gender; indeed, it was "always and only boys" who openly tormented and ridiculed the young Grealy.7 Such objectification of Grealy as a woman and as a figure of disability is made clear through the title of her autobiography.

Reduced to a face and an object by medical treatment and the stigma associated with her condition, Grealy chose a course of therapy that involved wresting self-representation away from others by telling her own story. She would write her way to wholeness and to a more stable and acceptable sense of identity amidst a fluctuating physical appearance and dominant cultural constructions of her as an object or as an incomplete person. Autobiography would seem to be the perfect genre for accomplishing her personal goals as well as the larger political agenda of disability studies and activism. To an extent, of course, personal and political goals coincide within personal narratives of disability like Grealy's. The title of G. Thomas Couser's Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing references just this potential of autobiography to recover or to take back a vital part of the self that has been lost or stolen—in one sense, the "subjectivity" of the...


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pp. 297-322
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