Pin it

Lucy Grealy, poet and author of the celebrated memoir Autobiography of a Face, died on December 18th, 2002, at a friend’s house in Manhattan. She was thirty-nine. Grealy’s memoir recounted how she lost half her jaw to Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, at age nine, and spent the next two decades undergoing operations to rebuild her face. Grealy contributed twice to Nerve: first, this personal essay described how she sought out sex to prove she wasn’t ugly and learned that “beauty is only an easy label for a complex set of emotions: feelings of safety and grace and well-being.” More recently, Grealy visited the Sex Maniacs’ Ball in London, an annual event hosted by the Outsiders, an organization that promotes sexual freedom for the disabled. There she discovered that her sexuality was “part of something I am, a state of being rather than a state of action. And that’s true whatever my body looks like from the outside.”

No cause of death was announced. The New York Times obituary noted that, according to friends, Grealy was despondent over recent operations on her face. Her legacy is a body of work that rises above the clichés of victimhood; it wasn’t until she completed her memoir, she once said, that she realized, “I’d actually done not only well, but very well, considering those circumstances.”

This essay was originally published in October of 1997. — Emma Taylor

I began my seductions incognito, as a boy. With hair shorter than my brothers’ had ever been and my thin body almost breastless, the only thing which might have given away my true sex was my rather curvy (though at the time I would only describe them as “too big”) hips. This problem was solved by wearing huge shirts and baggy pants, clothes usually bought in the boys’ or men’s department of the local thrift store. At one point, at the age of twenty or twenty-one, I was denied entrance to a PG-13 movie because the ticket seller was convinced I was a twelve-year-old boy. A degree of pride deepened my voice when I told my friends about the incident.

A few other times men approached me in the bars I haunted with my friends. I could see them eyeing me from across the room, and I’d watch them slowly but surely work their way through the crowd towards me.

“What are you drinking?” “I haven’t seen you here before.” “You look just like someone I know. What’s your name?” The lines were ancient and predictable. And just as predictable was the gallant quickness with which these men would scramble away as soon as they heard my high, undeniably female voice. These were, after all, homosexual bars.

I told my friends about these comic scenes too, but I left out crucial elements to the story. I left out how secretly thrilling it was to have these men desire me, even if for only a minute, even if only by mistake. I left out how safe I felt, knowing that I could “pretend” to be attractive, yet without challenging my deeply ingrained habits of fear. I was afraid, no, make that sure, that I was ugly, that no one would ever want me, that I would die an unloved virgin. My chin and jaw were scarred and distorted from childhood jaw cancer, and the words scarred and distorted were, without doubt, synonymous with ugly, which was synonymous with unlovable.

Being “ugly” was the cause of all my life’s despair, of this I was sure. It was true I had many friends who loved me, but the fact that I didn’t have a lover, even by the time I graduated from college, was proof that I would never be a card-carrying member of the sexual world. Beauty was the key to all happiness, and the only way I would ever find love; without it, I was meaningless.

Sex became a litmus test; if I could get someone to have sex with me, that would prove that I was lovable. I overlooked the fact that all the men I knew were gay, and that I made no attempt whatsoever to find a lover—no, my virginity, my unhappiness, my sense of self and my face all grew so intertwined that I became unable to respond “I’m depressed,” when someone asked me how I felt. All I could say, believing this said it all, was, “I’m ugly.”

During my first year of teaching, I asked my English Composition students to write a paper about a time when they were truly afraid. To my surprise, every single one of them wrote about either a ride on a roller coaster, or a horror film they had seen. I had no doubt that they’d experienced real fear in the course of their lives, but it struck me as sad and foreboding that they could only recognize it clearly when it happened vicariously. No fear that originated within them was acknowledgeable.

I was, poor little old me, secretly learning about sex by osmosis.

I had a similar blindness to the nature of my relationship with gay men. Gay men, especially the kind that frequent particular clubs in lower Manhattan, structure their personalities around the grammar of sex. My friends throbbed and sweated and grinded around me, spoke constantly in overt innuendoes; yet there I was, poor little old me, secretly learning about sex by osmosis, pretending that none of this had anything to do with me.

Even at the age of twenty-one, sex was still a murky thing—I wasn’t entirely sure how people could bear to look at each other afterwards. All those legions of friends who adored me and who told me I was beautiful and lovable meant nothing in the face of such an event; only actual intercourse would convince me I was worth anything at all.

A week after moving to Iowa to attend the Writers’ Workshop, far away from the safe male homosexual world of college, I lost my virginity. Looking back, I have no doubt I was an easy mark for Jude, the man who had the honors. He was tall, broadly built and extremely chivalrous. We met when I asked him the time at a local auction, where I was buying furniture for my barren apartment. I must have glowed with naiveté, and I know now that this was precisely what attracted him to me, for Jude was without doubt an opportunist and, in many respects, a bastard. He was seventeen years older than me and deep in the throes of a rather unoriginal mid-life crisis which demanded he drive imported sports cars and seduce young virgins. Of course, I did not see it this way at the time.

In my mind, Jude was the most dashing thing going, and I could not believe someone as worldly and as handsome as he would want me. Jude was obsessed with sex. Fortunately, he was experienced and taught me both the basics and the exotics: the precise place on a man’s penis that was most sensitive; how, while sitting on top of a man, I could vary the speed and depth of the thrusts; that if I hummed as gutturally as possible while performing oral sex it had a noticeable effect. He taught me all this openly, even academically, standing or lying there stark naked in his living room, speaking as evenly as if he were teaching me how to drive a stick shift. “You’ll drive men wild for the rest of your life,” he told me. The thought filled me with power, yes, but also hope: someone might one day love me.

Unfortunately, I began to assume some of his philosophies about sex. If before I had confused sex and love, now I was slowly becoming exactly the kind of person I’d never quite understood before: someone who could use sex as a weapon, someone who could distance herself from a lover through sex. This hit me one day while listening to a Leonard Cohen song in the car—a song about a man leaving a woman. My whole life, up until that point, I’d always identified with the lovelorn woman; suddenly, I realized I identified with the man who just wanted to be free.

I’d always identified with the lovelorn woman; suddenly, I identified with the man who wanted to be free.

It was not only for his immediate sexual pleasure that Jude taught me things. Jude, who had been raised in an orphanage, was deeply unable to commit to any one woman, yet, at the same time, was desperate to mean something special to women. Jude wanted me to go out and sleep with other men, but he wanted me to always think of him when I did so. A dedicated emotional manipulator of women himself, he told me how to manipulate men sexually. He taught me how to choose and then perform a specific yet non-sexual act during sex, such as a certain way of stroking a man’s forearm, or tapping his elbow. Do this often enough and the act becomes sexualized, so that, in public (and it was important that it be in public), all I would have to do was tap my man’s elbow and immediately he would get a hard on. This kind of power astounded me—astounded me that it was me who had it, and astounded me that anyone could be that easily manipulated. Once more, I felt unloved, no longer because a person wouldn’t have sex with me, but because mere calculation could steer them towards desiring me.

Jude also taught me about the complicated relationship most men have to their anuses; how sexually charged yet humiliating this arousal is for them; how, if I could break that barrier with them subtly and correctly, they would become dependent upon me to provide that secret pleasure. Now I could not only convince men to have sex with me, and then resent them for it, but, if I used their desires against them, cause them to resent me for it. Jude’s world was all about emotional dominance and manipulation, about tricking people into becoming obsessed with you, and, ultimately, about the total absence of love. I had come full circle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. In one year I went from dressing like a boy to becoming a seductress — quite a swing of the pendulum. Once Jude had me under his sexual wing, he started instructing me in how to dress. Short leather skirts, high heels, garter belts. These were items I’d never have considered wearing only a short time ago, but the simple fact that Jude was “willing” to sleep with me gave him power over me. And even though I still hated my face, I had to admit I had a good body. Yet the scant clothing I wore became just as much a costume as my asexual garb had been previously: it hid me from myself, from my own fears. I became dependent upon the clothes to the point where I could not even go to the grocery store without dressing up.

Before I’d ever had sex, I saw it only as a way to prove that I was not ugly, and therefore lovable. Yet because the sex-equals-love equation didn’t bear out, I continued to feel ugly and concluded I was not having enough sex, or good-enough sex. This was, after all, easier than reconsidering the basic truth of the equation itself. Despite the fact that all I really wanted was for one special person to love me, I persisted in believing I could only conjure this person by being as sexual with as many people as possible.

At Jude’s urging, and even long after we had our final split, I went out and seduced men whenever and wherever I could. I vaguely reasoned that each man I slept with brought me five to six inches closer to the man who would ultimately love me. Bent on proving I was desirable, I worked my way through a series of affairs that always ended, I was absolutely certain, because I wasn’t beautiful enough. Convinced that anyone who might actually want to have a relationship with me was someone I didn’t want, I began hurting people, though of course I never saw this. If they regretted my leaving (my favorite ploy was simply to move to another city or even another country), I simply refused to believe I could matter that much. I felt I had only tricked them into loving me, and therefore their love could never be genuine. In retrospect, I see my lovers dropped me many hints that it was more than this, but at the time I thought I had to hedge my bets by investing my energies in quantity.

There was no easy way to climb out of this cycle, which cavorted on for years. Each man offered some type of power: I slept with a friend’s boyfriend because it made me feel sexier than her, I slept with a plastic surgeon in his examining room because it made me feel less like a patient, and I slept with numerous married men because, perversely, I wanted to be married. I slept with sleazeballs because I thought it would prove I didn’t care, I slept with drunks because I was drunk, and I slept with men I hated because I thought it would prove I would do anything for love.

Though often sorrowful throughout the years of my sexual rabidness, I do not want this to stand as a parable on the virtues of monogamy. What caused my sadness and my deep-seated unsatiableness was not a moral breakdown on my part (as conservative cultural watchdogs would have us believe) but rather my credulousness in believing beauty equals worthiness. I had not yet recognized all the subtle clues that beauty is only an easy label for a complex set of emotions: feelings of safety and grace and well-being.

I still did not recognize sex as a shared experience: I saw it as a contest

Most important to my blindness, I think, was my belief that I was in this alone, that I was the only one who had these doubts. Though very subtly, without my ever knowing it consciously, my sexual and emotional lives were slowly forming some kind of underground harmony. Consciously, however, I still did not recognize sex as a shared experience: I saw it as a contest, two people in different rooms trying to push various buttons, despite all the hints that Fate was dropping me.

I remember, once, having sex inside a wax museum in Berlin with one of the curators. He was a very handsome curator — a bit like Paul Newman, but with bad teeth. We were behind the Franz Liszt display: a dusty Liszt in a yellow brocaded coat seated on a bench mechanically and repeatedly bent forward and sat up in front of a piano that was playing the same solo over and over again. My lover and I fruitlessly rubbed against each other. Museum patrons kept clopping past us, hidden from view by a fake wall.

“I think this I can’t do,” he finally told me in his heavy accent, sitting up. “Too many people. And, I keep thinking how I could lose my job.”

“But you do think I’m attractive, don’t you?” I asked him, worried again.

He looked at me quizzically for a long moment, the piano starting again at the beginning of its loop. “Of course,” he said, and paused again, a line of deep and serious concern on his face. “We both are. It is the music that makes us so.”