The Memoir – Does Our Privacy Die When We Do?

July 19, 2007

Last night, I finished Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett. In this memoir, she writes about her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy. Grealy attended the Iowa MFA program with Patchett, and they struck up a friendship there (at about age 21) that lasted until Grealy’s death at age 39.

Grealy was most famous for her memoir Autobiography of a Face about dealing with the results of jaw cancer and the dozens of surgeries to reconstruct her face and jaw. According to reviewers, hers is one of the best memoirs written in recent times. She was also a poet. She wrote these lines: “When I dream of fire / you’re still the one I’d save / though I’ve come to think of myself / as the flames, the splintering rafters.” Immediately, I wanted to read more, so I googled her name and the word “poems” and found the following:

Grealy’s sister discussing her sadness over Ann Patchett’s memoir in a British newspaper. This is part of what she said:

Then Ann began to write what was to become Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with my sister. At first I believed that this was as it should be. Ann is an artist, how else could she express her grief? This was the defence I used to friends in New York. They had been surprised by some of the personal detail in the New York magazine article; they asked, “But why is she doing this?”

I could understand that her sister was grieving. After all, I have a dead sibling, so I think it’s fair to say I can empathize AND understand. Although not all of the article made sense to me — and some of it seemed plain snarky — I could not help asking myself how I’d feel if a friend wrote about me with this level of personal detail. Would I want my friends to talk about my personal problems on such a public level? Lucy Grealy was evidently addicted to heroin and painkillers towards the end of her life. She was also depressed. I’d be mortified to have my letters and conversations shared with the world even if those were not my problems.

Does our privacy die when we do?

—–

I still wanted to find more out about the Lucy Grealy’s poems. That one line haunted me.

What I found was a blog post from fellow poet David Hernandez:

One of these days I’ll read a poetry collection again, but right now I’m too wrapped up in memoirs, the latest being Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty—which, if you don’t know about already, chronicles Ann’s friendship with Lucy Grealy. It’s a beautiful and tragic book. Beautiful because of Patchett’s prose, tragic because of everything Lucy went through—the surgeries, the tauntings. Ann does an incredible job of making Lucy come alive, but her friend’s death looms as well, fluttering across the page like the shadow of a fallen leaf. Does anyone know if Lucy Grealy ever published a book of poems or a chapbook? I can’t seem to find anything online. Not even a poem. All I have are these lines from this memoir: “When I dream of fire / you’re still the one I’d save / though I’ve come to think of myself / as the flames, the splintering rafters.”

What I searched for this week, David had already searched for several years ago. As far as I can tell, there’s no poetry collection by Lucy Grealy. I’m curious to read her poems, and I might look up her work in journals at the local university.

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