Several years ago, while teaching at a community college in northern New Jersey, I scanned the textbook looking for essays I might use as writing prompts. I found an excerpt from a book called Autobiography of a Face by an Irish-American writer named Lucy Grealy. Her full name was Lucinda Margaret Grealy. The essay–or really a chapter of the longer book–was devastating. It described Grealy as the victim of Ewing’s Sarcoma, a horrible disease that disfigured Grealy at an early age and caused her no end of physical suffering and emotional agony. Neither of those terms even approximates what Lucy Grealy endured. She underwent thirty-eight surgeries to rebuild her jawbone. Yet her face seemed to look as though it had collapsed on itself. And while the cancer itself was arrested, she herself emerged with a severely disfigured jaw and face. The pain was excruciating. It made her drug-dependent. Eventually she became addicted to oxycontin and finally to heroin, which killed her in 2002. There is still no consensus about whether Grealy died of an accidental overdose, or whether it was suicide, the surrender to a struggle against a disease far more devastating to her than any addiction could have been.
Grealy, as I remember the story, allowed men to use her. They were men who wanted her for one purpose only; and she, even knowing the likelihood of yet another insult to her body and soul, threw herself into liaisons in what I suppose was the hopeless hope that this one man might be able to look past a shattered visage and see the soul of the woman beneath. None of them ever did. They went almost as soon as they came, you might say. Lucy was not a woman you would take to meet your friends, after all. She was someone strictly to fuck. She was the stuff of one-night stands. How long did this go on? I do not know.
What shocked me–and I still cannot understand this–were the appalling comments and expressions of utter vituperation hurled at her on the street. This was not “Hey baby” catcalling: that is bad enough. Instead, Grealy was “told” she ought to hide her ugly face, that she had no business being alive, that she was simply disgusting. Nobody solicited these comments on her looks. Instead, they were flung at her like crossbow bolts, as weapons meant to eradicate her. Did men fear her looks? Were they somehow insulted by an appearance that did not conform to their vision of what a woman is “supposed” to look like? What on earth were they frightened of?
Lucy is everywhere. In my early 20s, I “dated” my own version of Lucy Grealy–only she was a physically beautiful girl who allowed herself to be used and abused, who threw herself at men, who disprized herself and so heaped contempt on men like me who thought they loved her. Like Lucy Grealy, she became enamored of hard drugs, and for all I know is no long alive. One suicide attempt in 1968 may have led to another, ad infinitum, until she finally got it “right.” God help her if it’s so.
How many Lucy Grealys are there out there? Women with shattered spirits, who grow up either believing they are not beautiful, or who have suffered a disastrous disease or injury that has cut into their vision of themselves? I would like to believe that, had I met Lucy Grealy, I would at first have been shocked, yes; but that if I took the time to sit and talk with her, I would have found myself attracted by her inner self and vivacity, and would actually have fallen quite in love with her–not because of how she looked but because of what she was. I would like to believe I could merit the love of such a woman.