Women’s History Month: Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty about Lucy Grealy

Ann Patchett writes about her friendship with Lucy Grealy in this touching book.

Having arrived at my mid-40s, I have found that I savor just about everything more than I did when I was younger, even if I need occasionally to remind myself to do so.

A short drive to school with Aidan for his 6:00 a.m. morning lacrosse practice.  Stopping to hug Dunreith during one of our walks.  Being able to go just a little faster on the exercise bike than I did in 2006.

And, of course, the pleasure of longtime friends.

The nature of friendship has changed dramatically from when we were Aidan’s age and much of our lives revolved around spending time together.  Geography, family, and personal and professional choices has made on-line and phone, let alone, in-person contact far more rare than it was during our high school and colleges.

Still, there is something enormously gratifying in talking with and seeing someone who knew you when, someone to whom you don’t have to explain yourself, someone with whom you share a reciprocal unconditional acceptance.

Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy appeared to have that kind of relationship.  The two met at Sarah Lawrence during the 1980s, when they were both aspiring writers, and continued and deepened as they applied for and received fellowships, wrote books, took lovers, married and divorced (Ann), and grappled with drug addiction and ultimately overdosed on heroin (Lucy).

Grealy went through dozens of surgeries and excruciating pain due to the aftereffects of the cancer she contracted during her childhood.  In Autobiography of a Face, a book I have not yet read, she tells her story of having been the subject of endless taunts from other children during her youth, among other subjects.

In Truth & Beauty, Patchett tells her version of their friendship (Like many, if not all, good things in my life, this book came at Dunreith’s suggestion).

Patchett seems to have understand and accepted Grealy’s constant need for affirmation, and to have stuck unflinchingly by her as she spiraled down her unfortunate path of destruction.  Some, including Grealy’s sister Suellen, criticized Patchett for baring unattractive sides of Lucy they would have preferred had been kept private.  The book, Suellen wrote in a Guardian article, made her ask, “what can we do with a grief thief?”

Others felt that Patchett was getting back at Grealy in death that which she had not done during life, and questioned what was in this apparently one-sided relationship for the Bel Canto author.

As a non-family member, I cannot comment on Suellen Grealy’s very real feelings, but I can say that I had a different take on the book.

I found the book a celebration of an enormously gifted and courageous writer who died far too soon.  Patchett does indeed show Grealy as simultaneously needing support and being self-absorbed, and my feeling was both that she was often there for Patchett and that Patchett, who tended at times to defer her own desires, learned something profoundly important from Grealy about living closer to herself.   Patchett’s more dutiful side emerges in her description of her discomfort at Grealy’s partying and focusing on social activities rather than writing during a fellowship they both had in Provincetown, for instance.

The inclusion of letters between the two gives the work a sense of the relationship unfolding in time and heightens the feeling of anticipatory dread as Grealy spiral down a self-destructive cycle of drugs, surgery and despair that culminates in her premature death.

I imagine that many, if not all, of us have had similar experiences with a friend with tremendous gifts and deep trauma falls into the grip of uncontrollable urges that have destructive and even deadly consequences.

While I respect Suellen Grealy’s feelings, I did enjoy the book and look forward to savoring Lucy’s Autobiography of a Face and to talking with old friends about the subject that underlies all conversations: life.

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