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Lucy Grealy, 39; Wrote Candid Memoir on Her Disfigurement

Times Staff Writer

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 in New York City. She was 39.

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. More recently, however, she suffered from depression. She had been staying at the home of friends at the time of her death. The cause was not announced.

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.

He worked as a news producer for ABC and CBS, commuting to New York City. Her mother, Trena Anne, stayed at home to raise their children.

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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.

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.

Book reviewers called her story unforgettable.

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“So many memoirs make you feel that you’ve been sealed up inside a wall with a monomaniac,” wrote Margo Jefferson in the New York Times. “A really good one, like ‘Autobiography of a Face,’ makes you feel there is more to ask and learn. You are not just seeing a writer; you are not trying to see yourself. You are seeing the world in a different way.”

While other teenage girls hoped that a new haircut or diet might bring true happiness, Grealy hoped that each new surgery would make her lovable. “How could I pass up the possibility it might work, that at long last I might finally fix my face, fix my life, my soul?”

“When my face gets fixed, then I’ll start living.”

Her physical pain was compounded by the taunts of schoolboys who called her “dog girl.” In seventh grade she decided she was too ugly for school and spent most of the year at home.

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By the time she wrote about these experiences, at 31, Grealy had gained some perspective. “I’d spent 15 years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else,” she explained in her memoir. “It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy in my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”

During her long years of illness and recovery, her family struggled with other problems. Grealy’s older brother developed schizophrenia at 17. Her mother was hospitalized for depression. Her father could hardly bear the pain of seeing Lucy in the hospital, and the family’s medical bills were crushing. Desmond Grealy died when Lucy was 15.

“It was very hard to talk to Lucy,” her mother later said about those years. “I had four other children and there were a lot of other tragedies going on in our family at the same time.”

Lucy’s twin sister, Sarah, said that illness did not greatly change her twin’s natural inclinations. “Lucy was a loner,” Sarah said in 1994. “She would have been a loner whether this happened to her or not.... I think Lucy went through something that she wasn’t able to explain when she was young.”

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At 18, Grealy entered Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. For the first time she made real friends and found something outside of herself to absorb her. “Poetry became a religion for me,” she said.

The poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and John Ashbery brought back feelings she had while she was recovering from chemotherapy sessions, when “simply to ‘be’ was reason enough for joy. I knew that joy was a kind of fearlessness, a letting go of expectations.”

She graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1985 and entered the master of fine arts program at the University of Iowa in 1987. She later taught at both schools and at Amherst College, Bennington College and New School University.

Her poetry began to appear in literary magazines, gaining a stream of honors and awards. She won the Academy of American Poets Prize and the Times Literary Supplement Poetry Prize. Her first book, “Everyday Alibis,” included poems and a novel.

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In 1995, she received the Whiting Writer’s Award for new literary talents.

Two years ago, Grealy published her third book, “As Seen on TV: Provocations,” a collection of essays, including one on what it was like for her to become a U.S. citizen, and others on riding horseback and learning to tango.

Only her memoir brought her the recognition and acceptance she longed for and never thought she would know. The burst of attention thrilled and unsettled her. “There are points where I think, ‘Great, I’m getting famous for being ugly,’ ” she told People magazine in 1994.

She refused to wear makeup and mistrusted the beauty editors who called. “They wanted me to represent the truism, or the platitude, that beauty is only skin deep and it’s what’s on the inside that makes you beautiful,” Grealy told the Boston Herald in 1995.

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She preferred an alternative to their cliche: “It is important to enlarge the repertoire of people you can find attractive,” she said.

Grealy wished she had learned that lesson sooner. “If I had put one-tenth of the energy I spent obsessing over my face and my body into my work, I could have written ‘War and Peace’ 10 times over,” she said.

During one of Grealy’s book tours, an interviewer asked whether pain and suffering are a prerequisite for great art. She doubted it.

“Look at it this way,” she said. If a bad childhood made someone an artist, “we’d be a country of geniuses.”

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Grealy is survived by her mother and three siblings.


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