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Remembering Lucy Grealy

By Flaminia Ocampo

Once, now it seems so long ago, I applied to the New School, where I hoped to study for an MFA in Creative Writing. Before I applied, I researched different writing programs in New York City. From the library, I borrowed books that had been written by writers who taught in some of these programs. This is how I came to read Autobiography of a Face, a heartbreaking memoir by Lucy Grealy (she would have hated the use of this adjective to define her work, but it was heartbreaking). I went to the first of her non-fiction workshops prepared to see a person whose lower jaw, on one side of her face, was missing due to a cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, at the age of nine.

Later, reading Ann Patchett’s book Truth & Beauty about her friendship with Grealy, I learned that, in general, people liked Lucy. I found this reassuring, considering that when she was our writing teacher, students actively disliked her. After her death, as it usually happens, many forgot about their animosity, but while we were in class they felt indignant about the lack of encouragement she gave us. Lucy had no problem telling the truth; she wasn’t afraid of the consequences of sincerity, even in a writing program where teachers are paid to ensure that students will show up again next semester. The advantage of telling the raw truth is that the courage this requires makes one trustworthy. Once she referred to a famous writer who had just written a best seller, saying she was a horrible person, and I believed her without question.

***

After the first three weeks, I found out that none of my classmates had read her book, and I assumed that this was why, contrary to them, I wasn’t angered by her comments about our writing, its lack of rigor or seriousness. If you want to write, be unsatisfied with your first ten drafts, she told us. It was clear she abhorred the lightness and emptiness of our subjects. In an essay I wrote about the French poet Jules Laforgue, an early adopter of free verse who made a living working for the German Empress Augusta as her reader, Lucy started her comments praising it “…something I’d love to read much more often,” but then she proceeded to demolish the writing. She always offered an encouraging first sentence in her comments to lift our egos, only to then bring them down in an avalanche of arguments against our dull writing. I was reassured by her frankness, her way of avoiding the hypocritical stance of other teachers, writers who, while praising our writing, despised it and wondered how we dared call ourselves “writers.”

Here, I must pause and confess that very few writers inhabit my pantheon of great writers, a group that has remained unchanged for decades. Below the pantheon, I place the writers that belong to the purgatory of literature. There, I can count many more, and they all have something in common: A tragic vision of life, the knowledge that death makes everything end badly. It should be a common awareness, but, luckily, we human beings have been blessed with the habit of denial. I placed Lucy in the purgatory after reading her first book. Her tragic vision of life could not be faked. Some compensate with a virtuosity of language, but a text built only of dense, rich language might empty itself of meaning, leaving the reader with complete emptiness.

The rest of us are in the earthly category of literature, places that can be, with some luck, a mansion (perhaps even a castle), with a little less luck a mall, or, somewhere between the mansion and the mall, a dead-end road.

As the classes progressed, I listened as she methodically destroyed our hopes of impressing her with our good writing, and I marveled at how non-nurturing she was. For reasons too many to enumerate, when I wasn’t spoiled yet by “nice” workshops, I found myself drawn to her verbal cruelty, as if it were proof of intellectual rigor. Lucy knew how to make clear everything that we didn’t want to hear about our writing in a single sentence, or worse, in a fragment of sentence (here she would have suggested that I give an example).

As a palpable coldness descended on the classroom, I remembered parts of her book, most precisely, the scenes about the wigs. The story of Lucy’s sickness and treatment had appeared in a local newspaper, and people took pity on her. They began sending cheap wigs to her home. She tried them all on, but each transformed her into someone else, a girl with another personality, and Lucy, already at that time of childhood must have been too deeply herself to pretend she could be someone else. Finally, her family tired of this invasion of the wigs and resorted to black humor. They wore them and made faces, trying to find a resemblance to people they knew; they even sat at the dinner table with the wigs on, and when they grew tired of the game, threw the wigs at each other.

When I was recalling these scenes in class, I didn’t have Lucy’s book with me to ensure that my recollections were accurate. I tend to remember things from books that are nowhere to be found. All the same, what mattered about the anecdote of the wigs was that Lucy’s narrative was a formidable account of how the human mind can react and make accommodations even when facing extreme emotional and physical pain. Having gone through what she had, Lucy more than deserved the reward of telling us that we were mediocre.

Like Lucy, I was the kind of child who thought that if you get along with horses you don’t need to get along with humans. I’ve noticed that those of us with this mindset tend to be unsuccessful at social interaction, and either become silent or say too much.

Besides sharing with her a love of horses, she and I shared a taste for Japanese food. The first time I saw her, I wrongly assumed that she was so skinny because she didn’t have enough money to eat well. After class, I invited her to have dinner with me at Japonica, because she once told me that she liked the place. In our first meal together, I realized that eating was excruciating for her. While we spoke about Emile Cioran, discussing if his peculiar nihilism was not proof that nihilism is early, excessive optimism turned sour over time, I tried not to pay attention to how little and with what difficulty she was eating.

Many people are far away from what is considered psychologically “normal,” though most can more or less escape unnoticed or simply be labeled “weird” as almost everybody else; physically, however, our society doesn’t allow much deviation from the norm. It was not a question of being pretty or ugly (Lucy said in a class that pretty was perverse), but a question of having the two sides of her jaw, a complete face. She wanted to be loved by a man in the way men love beauty in a woman. This longing for such a common sort of love sounds almost ironic coming from a woman who confronted life with a completely original mind. At the same time, she aspired to absolute love, to a kind of fusion that would complete her and to which she would have access only if her damaged jaw was repaired. Even with a “whole” face, this kind of love is hard to find.

In class, Lucy often spoke of her boyfriend. One of my classmates complained afterward that she mentioned him only to make it clear to us she had one. “Why shouldn’t she have one?” I asked, surprised. I had assumed she talked about him because it was the conversation we inspired in her, not serious writing, no conversations of books or authors she could admire and would want to share. Rather, we brought out simple gossip about her boyfriend and the plumbing of her apartment.

One day, listening to Lucy talking in class, I had a vivid image of Alejandra Pizarnik. Pizarnik was an Argentine poet and a good friend of my mother. She died in her early thirties and now is a cult figure among the young. She spent some time at our summerhouse, not long before she took an overdose of barbiturates. I remembered Alejandra one time when she got drunk; she was standing on a table reciting poetry in different languages, finally ending with some of her own. Compared to Alejandra’s enthusiasm for declaiming poetry, even we children seemed like prudent ghosts who understood all too well the dangers of passion and of being excessively alive. I, who am rarely able to remember the poetry that I supposedly know by heart, suddenly recalled in Lucy’s class what Alejandra was reciting while on top of that table: “Vida, mi vida, déjate caer, déjate doler, mi vida, déjate volver silencio, olvido, déjate caer y doler, mi vida.” (Life, my life, let yourself fall, let yourself hurt, my life, let yourself become silence, oblivion, let yourself fall and suffer, my life.)

At first I thought it was an appropriate poem to recite while standing on a table. Probably, from my childish perspective, I saw that drunk as Alejandra was, she would fall and hurt herself at any moment. And then, when repeating those words silently in Spanish while in an English writing workshop more than twenty years later, I understood for the first time what Pizarnik really had written. She had, in a subtle way, played with language. Her “déjate” didn’t mean “let yourself,” or “allow yourself,” but “stop.” Stop life hurting me. Continue your downfall. Become silence, oblivion. Inspired by the memories of Pizarnik in Lucy’s class, I later wrote on the subject of suicide, and I mentioned Alejandra. Lucy wrote “Clarify” in almost every paragraph’s margin. Now, I read these words as if she were asking for a clarification on the subject of a poet’s suicide. At that time, I didn’t know she considered herself more a poet than a prose writer. When talking in class about my suicide piece, Lucy commented on Pizarnik, and while listening to her I found in both of them a strange resemblance, or better said, I felt in Lucy’s presence what I had felt in Alejandra’s. A feeling of despair came from both of them, despair I couldn’t explain back then, but that suddenly Lucy made transparent. Theirs was a despair of wanting excessive love and absolute recognition, and a despair of already knowing they wouldn’t have them.

Like Alejandra, Lucy was a person without a future, and I sensed this keenly while she was talking about the missing details of Pizarnik’s suicide. One of the requirements for having a future (if you are not doomed to die by a genetic curse, a destiny Lucy avoided in childhood) is to live life on an even keel, skipping the depths and heights. Achieving this requires a certain talent for mediocrity, for feeling easily satisfied.

Alejandra died of an overdose of barbiturates; Lucy went on to die of a heroin overdose. Both had too much pain in them, and too much talent. These combined characteristics rarely age well, as a matter of fact, they never age. For those who have them, death seems always to come first.

 

Flaminia Ocampo has an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School. Her work has been published in Web Del Sol and Inkwell Magazine (second prize, 2000).

Flaminia's last contribution to VerbSap was Hairy Rugs.

 

Photo "Masks" courtesy of Tim Chesney, Christchurch, New Zealand.

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