Lucy Grealy

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There was a long period of time, almost a year, during which I never looked in a mirror. It wasn’t easy, for I’d never suspected just how omnipresent are our own images. I began by merely avoiding mirrors, but by the end of the year I found myself with an acute knowledge of the reflected image, its numerous tricks and wiles, how it can spring up at any moment: a glass tabletop, a well-polished door handle, a darkened window, a pair of sunglasses, a restaurant’s otherwise magnificent brass-plated coffee machine sitting innocently by the cash register.

Lucy Grealy: There was a long period of time, almost a year, during which I never looked in a mirror. It wasn’t easy, for I’d never suspected just how omnipresent are our own images. I began by merely avoiding mirrors, but by the end of the year I found myself with an acute knowledge of the reflected image, its numerous tricks and wiles, how it can spring up at any moment: a glass tabletop, a well-polished door handle, a darkened window, a pair of sunglasses, a restaurant’s otherwise magnificent brass-plated coffee machine sitting innocently by the cash register.

The Face of Pain

Lucy Grealy, whose 1994 memoir, “Autobiography of a Face,” was a fearless account of growing up with a disfigurement caused by cancer, died Dec. 18, 2002, in New York City. She was 39. She had accidentally taken an overdose of heroin. Her life had been hard, but she had also experienced more joy than many.

Her fiercely honest account of this tortured existence and what it was like for her to be “ugly” in a society obsessed with physical beauty captured national attention. For a time she was the toast of talk shows and literary circles. However, she suffered from depression. She had been staying at the home of friends at the time of her death.

Born Lucinda Margaret Grealy (pronounced GRAY-lee) in Dublin, Ireland, she was one of five children. Her father, Desmond, helped found RTE, the Irish national broadcasting network, before he moved the family to Spring Valley, N.Y., when Lucy was 4.

Grealy was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare and often lethal form of cancer that began as a dental cyst. Starting when she was 9, Grealy had chemotherapy and radiation treatments as often as five times each week for five years. It dissolved nearly half of her jaw bone.

Grealy wrote of her nine-year-old self facing cancer, “Every day I’d have some test, and it never occurred to me to ask what was going on, what the tests were for, what the results were.” We all get caught up in systematic processes, like medical diagnoses or job searches, and neglect to stop to think about what’s really going on and what the results will mean in the long run. We’re swept along by a lot of life’s goings-on.

Over the next 15 years she had 30 surgeries, hoping each time to restore her once-pretty face. Most of the operations were failures.

Grealy’s memoir about the long years leading up to her imperfect face launched a book tour and a spate of articles about her. Interviewers invariably described her large, bright eyes as expressing a type of wisdom formed by pain.

In the book, Lucy 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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