Biography 24.1 (2001) 172-184
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Writing As Refiguration: Lucy Grealy's Autobiography Of A Face
Susannah B. Mintz
The disabled woman who writes the story of her body transgresses a particularly charged ideological boundary. Her rootedness in textual flesh, her stubborn insistence on telling the tale of a broken body, defy the disembodied consciousness, the triumphant will and mind that are the legacy of Cartesian dualism as well as the originary point of much life writing by men. 1 At the same time, she may also seem to reproduce a problematically essentialized view of female identity as meaningful only through the body. How does such an author take advantage of post-structuralist indeterminacy, the verbal play that locates identity and autobiography alike in a slippage of possibilities, without also relinquishing the corporeal specificity by which she demands recognition of her experience? How does the idea of creating a self through writing reconcile itself to the way in which illness returns one so resolutely to the forces of anatomy?
This essay will address such questions through discussion of Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy's account of a nearly twenty-year attempt to surgically restore a jaw lost to cancer. In this narrative of disfiguring disease, Grealy does more than rewrite the "script" of female or disabled identity, as if the body were simply inert, "raw material" written on by cultural assumptions. While she does foreground the idea that selfhood is in part narrated by such forms of storytelling as movies, television shows, and medical discourse, she also insists that the body exerts its own force, emphasizing the combination of language and body in the formation of self. Indeed, Grealy suggests that thinking in terms of "twoness" at all--of "body" and "mind" as discrete, if connected, entities--falsely separates what are interpenetrating and mutually constitutive aspects of self. Instead, she demonstrates that her sense of self is inseparable from the condition of her face, even if, or especially because, that face is also subject to patriarchal attitudes toward female [End Page 172] beauty and sexuality. Grealy writes not as a passive body onto which otherness, in the form of gender or deformity, has simply been pasted, but rather as a uniquely lived body enmeshed in social practice, family circumstance, and private desire.
To the degree that we cannot detach her narrative from her disease, Grealy suggests that there is also no way to disentangle the physical from the psychical--from that thinking mind or writerly consciousness we discover in Autobiography of a Face. She is her body, so far as we come to know her through her text. Or as she declares, "my face, my 'self'" (170). At one level, Grealy risks enforcing the idea that women are bound to the flesh, or that the "true" nature of the disabled is condensed in their afflicted body parts. In a similar way, the fact that she records the process of accepting herself after painful encounters with prejudice may seem to heroize the experience of disease. Yet I would argue that by openly displaying her "freakishness" on the one hand, and by ultimately coming to terms with a face that does not abide by societal norms on the other, Grealy enlists corporeal difference to force a confrontation with cultural mythology--exposing the deleterious effects not of disease, but rather of normative attitudes about the body and identity that signify that illness in a particular way. Far from solipsistically "confessing" her physical pain and hurt pride, or sentimentalizing her triumph over adversity, 2 Grealy provokes us to reconsider the notion of the disabled figure as a "normal" body gone wrong, an inversion or perversion of the ideal. The social construction of the female body as inferior, a deviation from the male, places the disabled woman at a difficult cultural intersection, where she confronts not only patriarchal oppression against her gender, but also the oppressions of an able-bodied culture that "glorifies fitness and physical conformity" (Hillyer 3). As many critics have noted, the tradition in western ideology of figuring women in terms...