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The Face of Pain

In her dazzling Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy detailed her quest to reclaim her jaw, disfigured by cancer. Suddenly, she was the toast of literary New York, beloved for her quick wit and wild streak, saluted for her grit. But her endless surgeries left her so weak, impoverished, and dependent on drugs that even her dearest friends couldn’t save her.

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Elusive Beauty: Lucy Grealy, shot by her friend Marion Ettlinger in 2000.  

I knew Lucy Grealy for several years before she knew me, and now that she’s dead, I think of all the years I will know her again in this one-sided way, me thinking of her. We started college together in 1981. Even at Sarah Lawrence, a school full of models and actresses and millionaire daughters of industry, everyone knew Lucy and everyone knew her story: childhood cancer, endless reconstruction. She was the campus mascot, the favorite pet in her dirty jeans and oversize Irish sweaters. She kept her head tipped down so that her long dark-blonde hair fell over her face to hide the fact that much of her lower jaw was missing. It was her work-study job to run the film series on Friday and Saturday nights, and before she would turn the projector on, it was up to her to walk in front of the screen and explain that in accordance with the New York State fire marshal, there were exits located at either side of the theater. Only she couldn’t say it, because the crowd of students cheered her so wildly, screaming and applauding and chanting her name, “LOO-cee, LOO-cee, LOO-cee!” She would wrap her arms around her head and twist from side to side, mortified, loving it. Her little body, the body of an underfed 11-year-old, was visibly shaking inside her giant sweater. Finally, her embarrassment reached such proportions that the audience settled down. She had to speak her lines. “In accordance with the New York State fire marshal,” she would begin. She was shouting, but her voice was smaller than the tiny frame it came from. It could not be heard past the third row.

I watched this show almost every weekend. It was as great a part of the evening’s entertainment as seeing Jules et Jim. Being shy myself, I did not come to shout her name until my junior year. By then she would wave to the audience as they screamed for her. She would bow from the waist. She had cut off her hair so that we could see her face clearly. It was always changing, swollen after a surgery or sinking in on itself after a surgery had failed. There was the year that she walked with a cane and someone told me it was because they had taken a chunk of her hip to graft into her jaw.

Everyone knew that Lucy was the poet. I wrote short stories. I thought we were not so far apart, but when I waved to her in passing or said hello in the cafeteria, she would look at me blankly for a minute and then look away as if we had never met. Lucy Grealy was much too cool for the likes of me, a girl from Tennessee who did not go to clubs in the city.

To read the full article, pick up the March 3, 2003 issue of New York magazine.

Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face at bn.com.


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