teaching Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face

Monday, January 28, 2013

Each teaching semester at Penn I choose the memoirs I want the class to dwell on, learn from.  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  The Duke of Deception.  House of Prayer No. 2.  Running in the Family.  Slices from Annie Dillard, Patricia Hampl, Vivian Gornick, the memoiristic poetry of Pablo Neruda. More.

This semester we're reading three, and this weekend I was preparing my notes for our coming discussion of Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, a book with so much to teach that I filled six pages with citations and notes and sent my students more consider-this questions than perhaps a teacher should.  As a child, Lucy has cancer.  As a teen and young woman she endures more than thirty surgeries—first to remove the tumor from her jaw, then to try to resurrect her face.  That's the back story, but it isn't the reason this is such teach-worthy memoir.  I will teach Lucy Grealy tomorrow because of her reach—her attempt to make sense, her generosity, her thematic juxtapositions.

Autobiography is full of passages such as this:
By the end of my freshmen year I'd gained a reputation as one of the better poets on campus, which aided the development of my artistic persona.  How trivial to actually think about one's appearance.  The attire of my fellow scruffy artists told the world to recognize them as geniuses too preoccupied to care about anything as mundane as clothes.  But for me, dressing as if I didn't care was an attempt not to care, to show the world I wasn't concerned with what it thought of my face. In my carefully orchestrated shabbiness, I was hoping to beat the world to the finish line by showing that I already knew I was ugly.  Still, all the while, I was secretly hoping that in the process some potential lover might accidentally notice I was wearing my private but beautiful heart on my stained and fraying sleeve.

This is my home, my table where I sit with family and friends.  Tomorrow I'll take this spirit of community (pretend there are flowers, pretend there are candles), and we'll talk.



KFP said...

Autobiography of a Face and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are so beautiful! They are two of my all-time favorite memoirs. I prefer Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life over his brother Geoffrey Wolffs' The Duke of Deception. But both are excellent.

I wish I could sit in your class. But at least I have been lucky enough to do so in the past. Remember Penn's annual writing conference? So good. I wish Penn still ran that.

No surprise that your family place is so warm and welcoming.

Have a good teaching day.

Beth Kephart said...

Oh, there is so much great writing. Tobias's book is wonderful reading, but he himself has noted how much fiction has crept in (all that dialogue is a dead give away). DUKE seeks answers to big questions, where as Tobias tells a very engaging story.

patti.mallett_pp said...

Your home lovely - just like its Mistress.

Pretty sure what the next book I'm ordering is. Thanks for sharing all this goodness, Beth.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

One thing that struck me the most from this book was its exploration of the old expectation women can't seem to kick no matter how liberated we become: women are judged on their external beauty so often that, God help us, we start judging ourselves using the same stingy, demanding yardstick. It is always easy to see the beauty in others, to want to whack that yardstick out of their hands when they start measuring themselves against it. But they cling to the yardstick, as we do in our turn.

Richard Gilbert said...

Grealy's book is a wonder, and so is Ann Patchett's memoir of their friendship, Truth and Beauty. They make an interesting pairing.

I have considered The Duke of Deception for class, but isn't it still out of print? I guess students can get used copies easily enough, though.

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