Cumulative Connectedness: Style and Identity in ‘Autobiography of a Face’

In Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy explores the theme of the self and she tells the story of her struggle to create a positive perception of herself in spite of the ridicule and bullying she endures because of her disfigured face, the result of a cancer in her jaw. As Grealy matures and begins to create an identity for herself, she struggles to separate the opinions and thoughts of others from her own sense of self. She spends the majority of her lonely life allowing the people in her life to define her while at the same time rarely venturing out of her own mind, which only leads to a narrow minded view of the people around her, with Grealy seeing them only as they are relevant to her own life. Grealy’s use of cumulative sentences mirrors the way that she looks at her life, with herself acting as the independent clause and her experiences and the people around her as the subordinate clauses that exist only in their relationship to her, relationships she craves because of the isolation she feels throughout her life.

Throughout her childhood, Grealy’s facial disfigurement leaves her subject to the bullying of her peers and feeling of isolation and ostracization that she experienced on a daily basis followed her throughout her adolescence and adulthood. She develops a strong disgust for her own face and even reaches a point when she “ha[s] not looked in a mirror for so long that [she] ha[s] no idea what [she] objectively look[s] like” (222). By refusing to look at a mirror, an objective representation, Grealy essentially gives up an objective definition of her face, which represents her as a person, in favor of a more biased image of herself: the one that she sees reflected in the taunts and insults of her peers. She fixates on the fantasy of “living without the great burden of isolation, which is what feeling ugly felt like” and allows the feelings of ugliness and isolation to become her defining characteristics (177). She allows the people in her life to change the perception that she has of herself. This relationship mirrors that of the independent and dependent clauses in a cumulative sentence with the subordinate clauses–in this case Grealy’s experiences with her peers–adding up to offer a description of the independent clause–Grealy’s identity. The ridicule she endures because her disfigurement results in feelings of ugliness and loneliness so Grealy learns to associate abstract concepts with the reactions of the people around her and this connection between her peers and abstract ideas causes her to see other people only in terms of how they make her feel about herself.

Grealy holds a very egocentric view of the world, unable to see people or events except through how they relate to her. Her constant alienation means that she only ever had to consider herself and not the people around her, so she became selfish, focused only on the people and events that concerned her. Even when she is finally in a position to make friends, “they [are] people [she] spen[ds] time with more than true friends” and she “would never have considered showing [her] private self to them” (192). Her hoarding of her own sense of self is ironic, however, given the extent to which the thoughts and reactions of others influence her sense of self. Her efforts to preserve her own identity fail. None of the people around her, however, have any “idea what [they] had just implanted in the deepest part of [Grealy]” with their comments (65). None of the people she regularly interacts with–parents, peers, siblings, strangers–truly understand how much they affect her but all of their interactions with her very much influence her negative perception of herself. Grealy does not get close enough to anyone for them to confide in her their own thoughts, feelings, and insecurities, so she only ever thinks about events or experiences in terms of how they affect her, regardless of how these events affect the other people in her life. She can “sense [her]self changing” as a result of her experiences and all of these experiences add up to define her identity (145). Just as the subordinate clauses of a cumulative sentence add up to define the independent clause, so too do Grealy’s experiences define her identity. Additionally, the relationship between the independent and subordinate clauses is one-way, with only one affecting the other, just as Grealy believes the relationships in her life to be.

The commas in the cumulative sentences serve to break up the fluidity to show that although the connection between Grealy’s perception of herself and the reactions of others exists, that connection is not unbroken. The commas reflect Grealy’s knowledge that although the reactions of others influence her sense of self, she eventually realizes that she holds some autonomy over the way she sees herself. She realizes that there is a separation between other people’s perception of her and her own perception of herself. Although the gap between Grealy and the people in her life usually does little but discourage Grealy, in this case the gap is actually beneficial. She initially feels “sick in [her] heart at this newly discovered chasm opening up between [her] and the rest of the world” (86). Her recognition of this chasm opens up the possibility of her separating her opinions of herself from those of others. With time, Grealy even comes to separate herself from her own feelings, feeling “only a void” (137). This division, however, only leaves Grealy feeling more depressed. She feel separated from everything around her, including her feelings because she never gets a chance to get to know herself outside of her relationships with other people. She remains “ignorant of the details of [her] appearance” (104). Her appearance, of course, represents her identity. Eventually Grealy does improve on separating her own thoughts from those of the people around her. She realizes she can no longer deny herself but rather needed to accept that “this was [her], this was [her] face, like it or lump it” (212). The use of commas shows that although Grealy is now trying to solidify the connection between her face and her identity as they appeared separate in her own mind, the connection is still not yet fluid, if it will ever be. Grealy still needs to learn to connect the image of her face with an identity that she can call truly hers.

Lucy Grealy keeps her physical identity separate from this inner identity even as she struggles to form one cohesive identity for herself. She still maintains, however, a narrow-minded view of the people around her, seeing them only as they relate to her. The people in her life are meaningless but for their relationships to Grealy. This way of thought continues throughout Grealy’s life. She continues using cumulative sentences throughout the different developmental stages of her life, showing that her relationships continue to follow this pattern. Grealy’s inability to create a cohesive identity and–one that is not entirely dependent on the thoughts and views of others–despite her constant fixation on her “self” demonstrates the futility of attempting to create an identity separate from one’s experiences and the influence of peers, family, friends, and mentors.