Thursday, November 21, 2013

Beautiful Truths?

I've recently been reading Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty (2004).  It's a memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the poet and author of Autobiography of a Face (1994).  I blogged about Grealy's book this time last year ("Worlds of Unknowing")--it's a really interesting (but intense) memoir.

Patchett's memoir is a book a colleague recently mentioned to me.  I won't say she "recommended" it, because quite frankly, she didn't.  I told her I was teaching Grealy's memoir in a class this semester, and she asked me if I had read Patchett's book.  I hadn't.

What I did know was that Grealy's family was extremely angry when Patchett's book was released, and I had read Suellen Grealy's expression of this anger and grief.  When I mentioned that to my colleague, she said, "They were angry with good reason.  That book did unnecessary things."

Patchett wrote the book quickly, after Lucy Grealy died of a heroin overdose in 2002.  As Suellen Grealy points out, in order to do this, she had to obtain the rights to publish Lucy's letters.  Patchett did this in the immediate aftermath of her friend's funeral, a move that many would attribute to a writer's need to cope with grief via art, but that others (including the Grealy family) would eventually come to see as ambitious and self-serving on Patchett's part.

In addition to feeling that Patchett's account of their sister's life did Lucy Grealy a serious disservice, members of the Grealy family felt that their grief was overlooked in a rush to capitalize on Lucy Grealy's life and tragic death.  They are largely absent from Patchett's account of Grealy's life; Patchett's own family, however, is mentioned in connection with Grealy and her friendship on multiple occasions--it is Patchett's mother, for example, who tells her to save all of Lucy's letters, because the two of them will be famous someday.

Patchett's book makes me uncomfortable.  That's the only way I can express it.  It seems to me to be in somewhat poor taste, given the speed with which it was written and the timing of its publication, but it's more than that.

It reminds me of Hemingway's account of his "friendship" with Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast and of Truman Capote's literary manuevers with his own "friends."

My mom used to remind me, when I was growing up, of a social convention that has apparently fallen by the wayside in contemporary American culture, "Don't speak ill of the dead."  She wouldn't tolerate gossip or snarky comments about the deceased, and if someone seemed to be about to stray  into that dangerous discursive territory (or if she was at risk of doing it herself), she'd quietly taper off and leave it alone.

My dad behaved very similarly: the sense seemed to be, the person had had a life, and s/he may not have lived or behaved in a way that the rest of us approved of, but given that the person had died, it was no longer fair to comment on or criticize the terms on which the person had lived that life.  The implication was, it was disrespectful to only savor the bad memories, and I think, that it was dirty pool.

Perhaps the person might have changed, might have done things to redeem him- or herself, had s/he lived.  My mom would say, "Would you want to be remembered for the bad things you'd done?  No.  Of course not."

In this age of the tell-all book and the made-for-TV movie, such comments seem naive, I know.

Patchett's memoir doesn't simply remember the bad moments of Grealy's life.  I think it does a more insidious thing: it purports to memorialize Lucy Grealy's strength and her personality, but it does so by means of what used to be known as "left-handed compliments" (my apologies to the lefties out there).

When Patchett seems to be praising Grealy, a closer look reveals that her compliments aren't necessarily flattering--in many cases, they're definitely double-sided (at best).  The memoir is subtitled "A Friendship," but I don't think it actually is the memoir of a friendship: instead, it memorializes what a good friend Ann Patchett (allegedly) was to Lucy Grealy.

That distinction is key, in my opinion.  Much of Patchett's account seems designed to cause the reader to sigh and marvel at Ann's devotion, Ann's patience, Ann's understanding.  Because Lucy is represented as narcissistic and overwhelmingly needy, insensitive and insecure.

And maybe she was all of those things.  And maybe Patchett has earned her crown in heaven for putting up with all of that.  But I think that, if that's the case, Patchett made her own choices and glorifying that aspect of their "friendship" does a serious disservice to Grealy's memory.

Grealy can't tell her side of the story.  Patchett seems to suggest that, even if she were alive, Grealy wouldn't tell it--she'd be too self-involved with her own life and artistry to consider it worth telling.

As I said, it reminds me of Hemingway's depictions of F. Scott Fitzgerald: near the end of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recounts an elliptical conversation that he and Scott Fitzgerald (allegedly) had about... the size of their penises.

What better testimony to the bond of male friendship, right?  Except that Hemingway depicts Scott Fitzgerald as extremely worried: his wife, Zelda, had recently had an affair (according to Hemingway) and allegedly dropped hints that Scott Fitzgerald might not measure up.  So of course, Fitzgerald asks his good buddy "Hem," for his advice.

Hemingway checks and reassures Fitzgerald he has nothing to worry about, then gives him some advice about pillow-usage and other manly strategies for self-aggrandizement.

Hemingway similarly represents a scene in which he overhears Gertrude Stein (who was a lesbian) begging another woman for... we never know what, exactly.  Or do we?

For me, this is the mark of a tacky tell-all and the mark of a bad friend.  If these episodes really occurred (and I'm by no means convinced that they did), why would a friend feel compelled to recount them to the public at large?

Patchett does similar things--insinuations are made about Grealy's sex life (in particular, her promiscuity) and its motivations, episodes of sobbing self-doubt are recounted in unnecessary detail and at some length.

Why?  To publish what you think you know about another person's sex life and to do so after that person has died, is 1) to invade a region of intimacy that you have no business invading (and that you may not know as well as you think you do), and 2) to violate the terms of friendship itself.

If Grealy wanted to broadcast details--even if she did so throughout her entire life--that was her prerogative.  It is not, in my opinion, Patchett's, and to presume to do so in the wake of her friend's death is not at all beautiful, even if it all just happens to be true.


  1. I disagree with the blogger's thoughts about "Truth and Beauty." In adulthood, we develop friendships if we're lucky that are as important as family; some people, however, maintain their family as the most important relationships. I believe Patchett's book describes the former. Patchett has not been accused of lying but of revealing Lucy Grealy as her family member and of Lucy Grealy's life as messy, spectacular, full of achievement and missed opportunities, and Lucy Grealy herself as smart, loving, fun, and funny as hell--as three dimensional. Lucy Grealy is three dimensional in her "Autobiography of a Face" and her other writings.
    Patchett describes her friendship, not the Grealy family. If I observe that Lucy Grealy's friends were fierce supports of her, for her, just as the definition of "family" has it, I am not dismissing Lucy Grealy's birth family. We choose our friends as adults; we can't choose our birth family. If our birth family become our supports, we're lucky and they're lucky. Suellen Grealy et al. are not owed anything because of their biological connection to Lucy Grealy. It's not a contest. Lucy Grealy chose her family and lived her life with her choices--Joy, Andy, Stuart, LucieB, Patchett, among others. Some people make their spouses their family; Lucy Grealy made her friends her family in her adulthood, her addiction, her intimacy, her death (dying in one friend's apartment).
    Suellen Grealy's grief for Lucy, her brother, father, sister Sarah, mother, and herself are tragic to read of; I cannot imagine how she feels. Neither can Patchett, which is why she doesn't describe Suellen's feelings. "Truth and Beauty" is honestly about Patchett's friendship with Lucy Grealy.
    Of course Suellen Grealy has feelings about the book. But for her to begrudge Patchett the writing of her book is an expression of Suellen Grealy's feelings, with all the messiness inherent in grief and loss, with all the ugliness and competition inherent in grief and loss.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful criticisms of my post. I think it's difficult to know whether, as an adult, Grealy chose "friends as family" over the members of her biological family. We don't really have a detailed record of Lucy Grealy's own opinions on the subject during her adult years.

      I suspect Lucy's feelings were far more complex than simply "choosing" one over the other. I think it's that kind of emotional complexity that's missing from Patchett's account (in my opinion).

      In a sense, we're forced to take Patchett's word for it in "Truth and Beauty"-- that these were the relationships Lucy Grealy chose to regard as the ones that were most important in her adult life.

      Like Suellen Grealy, I have been both a grieving friend and a grieving family member. I have been compelled to cope with multiple deaths in a very short space of time, so I can imagine something of what Suellen Grealy felt, actually.

      According to Suellen Grealy, Ann Patchett requested legal permission to use Lucy Grealy's personal letters only 6 weeks after Grealy's sudden death from a heroin overdose. It was when Patchett formally made this request that Suellen Grealy realized she had decided to write a book (and not an article, as she had originally been led to believe) about her sister.

      Grieving family members always have an enormous amount of legal paperwork to handle in the weeks following a loved one's death. Given that Grealy died of a drug overdose in a friend's apartment, I suspect there were additional legal formalities that the Grealy family had to handle as well.

      The fact is, the Grealys had to deal with elements of Lucy's death and its aftermath that Ann Patchett did not. And they had to do all of this because they were biologically related to Lucy.

      Ann Patchett could--and in my opinion, should--have been more considerate of the legal and emotional burdens the Grealy family faced in the year following Lucy's death.

      Also, if I remember correctly--and forgive me if I have it wrong, because it's been a while since I read "Autobiography of a Face"--Grealy did describe how her sister was a source of sustained support while she was living in England and during her various surgeries as an adult.

      I absolutely agree with you that, in her memoir, "Autobiography of a Face," Lucy Grealy is three-dimensional. However, I think that writing a tell-all book that focuses predominantly on a deceased friend's sex-life and her struggles with drug addiction, disfigurement, emotional insecurity and writer's block, makes for a very one-dimensional story of "a friendship."

  2. I found the book to a be a stunning portrayal of unalloyed giving. I read it through over several hours interrupted by a night's sleep and found it fascinating and often brutal. I didn't feel it lacked veracity. Of course one doesn't read about anything other than Patchett's experience of her friend or observations of others within their orbit. The author, I think, does Lucy a good service in highlighting her huge vulnerabilities alongside her courage. Yes, it is brutally honest, but if Patchett hadn't the courage and commitment to write her experience of an astonishing friendship humanity would be worse off. Permission for letter publishing is really of no great import in my view - the letters were Lucy's and Patchett's, equally. The letter actually advertise Lucy's imaginative writing and reinforce the delicacy of her intelligence and help stimulate a wish to read her story.

    Lucy was a high conflicted very intelligent woman with a massive drive to live and create but she was also a near insufferable tyrant, cruel, careless but not judged so by Patchett. Consequently this is a most astounding story, a kind of "bible" for friendship and it has enhance my appreciation of humanity, the importance of tolerance and unconditional love.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and for your thoughtful comment. Obviously, I disagree with your assessment of Patchett's memoir and her role as Lucy's friend--if it's "a kind of 'bible' for friendship," I'm afraid I won't be keeping the faith. :)

  3. Suellen Grealy's comments on Ann Patchett in The Guardian article left me amazed. Take for instance the criticism of Ann's writing ability in comparison to Lucy Grealy's. These comments are snarky and reek of jealousy over the relationship. Suellen also admits her family accepted the financial offer made by Ann to support their mother, etc. I empathized with her complaints until I read the article. If not for Truth & Beauty, I probably would never have read Lucy's book and I feel Ann honored Lucy in every way possible.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to read my post--obviously, I disagree with your sense that Patchett honored Lucy Grealy's memory, but I'm glad you had the chance to discover "Autobiography of a Face." Personally, I think it's the better book. :)

  5. I would have hated to have been asked for permission to use those letters while thick in the throes of grieving. I'm sure I would have reaction exactly as Suellen Grealy. I would have given permission in an effort to make things alright, to avoid confrontation, to avoid thinking anything awful about Lucy's friend. And then I would have had to suffer Ann Patchett's book and the tarnishing of Grealy's memory. How depressing and how unfair.
    I read Patchett's memoir years ago and read it through quickly - it was like being taken on voyage into Ann's treacherous world. I was overwhelmed when I finished with how horrible it was and what a nasty thing it was to do to a "friend". I read "Autobiography of a Face" much later. It really is a special book. Ann Patchett must have been jealous of its dignified beauty.

  6. Thank you for taking the time to read my post! I read Grealy before Patchett, so yes, my reaction to Patchett's memoir was similar to yours.

  7. I found Truth and Beauty hard to put down once I began reading it. But, after reading Suellen Grealy's article and your blog, I have to say I agree with you. I wish she had written it for herself and tucked it away. At least it introduced me to Lucy Grealy and I look forward to reading her work next.

  8. "Autobiography of A Face" is a really good book (in my opinion), and I hope you think so too. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Carly!


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."