- Rewriting AnotherDiscussing Ethics and Disability through Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty
What does Grealy’s disability have to do with her friend writing a memoir about her?” John, a student in my graduate-level memoir class, asked.1 During a discussion of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, other students echoed his sentiments, refusing to see any problems with Truth and Beauty, a memoir by an “able-bodied” writer describing her friendship with a “disabled” writer, written and published after Grealy’s death.2 Grealy became famous for her memoir about how her battle with cancer left her with a face that others described as “disfigured.” Patchett’s book, Truth and Beauty, began as an obituary of Grealy written for New York magazine. It was marketed as Patchett’s memoir, but reads as more of a biography of Grealy. Writing about someone after her death has its own ethical considerations, but is perhaps particularly complicated when an able-bodied person rewrites the story of a disabled person.3
“Disabled doesn’t seem to be the right word for her because this memoir is really about her face,” remarked one student. She had a point. Many of Grealy’s struggles had to do with cultural conceptions of beauty that do not accept difference. Nevertheless, her experiences complicate the category of disability. While much of Grealy’s pain came from how others viewed her face, she did have cancer. She also endured debilitating pain, and eating was difficult at times because of her jaw. Then again, the students in my class were right to interrogate the broad notion of “disability” in relation to Grealy’s memoir. In The Ugly Laws, Susan Schweik shows that there is a history of laws devoted to punishing and discriminating against those who do not fit the bodily norms of a particular culture. I was concerned that students’ discomfort with discussing Grealy as a “disabled” author partly expressed their need to pretend that disability was invisible. They were also uncomfortable discussing disability. Their stance was along the lines of “It’s mean to call her disabled,” and their discussions often focused on what they saw as the irrelevancy of her disability to her work as a memoir writer. While I understood the reluctance to focus on an author’s identity rather than her writing, Grealy’s memoir concentrates on her experiences of feeling different and on how others’ and her own perceptions shaped her identity. Grealy takes control of her identity through her writing. She wants readers to consider how disability—and her experiences of disability—are perceived. [End Page 163]
In class discussions, my students seemed to think the most polite option was to pretend that difference or disability doesn’t exist. Even with this well-known memoir, the students were defining Grealy’s relationship to disability and then using politeness as a strategy for not discussing their perceptions. Perhaps, as apparently able-bodied people, they were uncomfortable discussing disability. I wasn’t surprised by this reaction because, unlike with other identity categories that students have more practice speaking about such as gender, race, and sexuality able-bodied students have less practice talking about disability. I asked, “If someone in a wheel-chair came in right now, would you notice that the person was in a wheel-chair?” I wanted them to realize that they have some perception of difference and to consider what happens with those perceptions.
I paired Grealy’s memoir with Patchett’s as a way to re-think agency, the ethics of life writing, and the rhetorical stare in life and in texts.4 I am not a disability studies scholar. I teach first-year writing, research writing, creative nonfiction, memoir and a graduate course called “Theories of Writing.” but I incorporate discussions of disability into many different writing and literature classes. I have found that for students to learn how to discuss disability, it should be regularly incorporated into courses, even if only in relationship to one or two texts in the class.
Grealy illustrates the nuances and the specifics...