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.