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by Ann Patchett
HarperAudio, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 18th 2004

Truth & Beauty

Truth & Beauty is a memoir by fiction author Ann Patchett of her friendship with poet and memoirist Lucy Grealy.  It starts with her ride up to the Iowa's Writer's Workshop where she will share an apartment with Grealy and finished with Grealy's death from an overdose of heroin. What made Grealy special was her physical appearance caused by her having Ewing's Sarcoma at age 9, and series of reconstructive surgeries to repair the missing part of her lower jaw.  The story tells of their different struggles and successes, their wonderful intimacy of their 20-year relationship, and Patchett's readiness to stand by her friend as Grealy suffered from despair, loneliness, many more surgeries, and finally, addiction. Both of them became successful authors, Patchett with her novel Bel Canto and Grealy with her memoir Autobiography of a Face.  Patchett achieved a happy marriage and Grealy had many lovers and a strong social network.  Grealy's final decline came about as a foolish decision to get an experimental surgery taking bone from her fibula to use in her jaw.  She was in terrible pain for months after the surgery and as a result she became heavily reliant on painkillers, and this led to her use of powerful street drugs such as heroin.  Driven by her depression, her use of drugs became out of control and it eventually killed her.  When Patchett finally got the phone call telling her of Grealy's death, she wasn't surprised. 

It is a well-told tale.  Grealy is a strong character and both she and Patchett lead very full lives.  The audiobook lasts 8.5 hours, and it goes quickly.  It is read by Patchett herself, and she does a remarkable job.  Most authors are uninspired performers of their works, and audiobooks tend to be far more gripping when performed by actors.  Patchett however is as good as any actor in bringing her words to life.  Through the memoir, one gets a clearer idea of the life of a young writer and the current literary scene. 

However, at the heart of the memoir is a profoundly moral question of how to understand Grealy's behavior and character.  Time and time again, Grealy behaves in ways that would appear to most as self-centered, needy, manipulative, and arrogant.  The first mention of Grealy in the book provides a good example.  She got a note from Grealy explaining that she had been disappointed to hear that Patchett had also been accepted into the Iowa's Writer's Workshop because she had wanted to be the only person there from the college they both attended, Sarah Lawrence.  But Grealy had changed her opinion when she had learned that Patchett was going up to Iowa City to find an apartment, because she was unable to afford to make the trip, and she requested that Ann locate a cheap apartment for her.  Patchett goes on to explain that she had known of Grealy all the way through their time at college, but on the several occasions Ann had attempted to be friendly, she was rebuffed with a blank stare by Lucy.  Once Patchett arrived at Iowa City, however, Grealy made her her best friend and the two were initially inseparable.

There's no question that Grealy did love Ann in her friendship, so her use of her friend was not cold and calculating.  Rather, her attitude seems uncalculating and bare in its command for those who love her to serve her needs.  Although she was a virgin when she left college, Grealy soon found people to have sex with in Iowa City and proceeded to have many affairs.  But she never had a lasting and reliable relationship: many of the men she was with were married, or were just coming out of long-term relationships.  Sometimes it was simply casual sex.  So the romantic love she received from men was never long-lasting or sustaining.  Grealy made demands on many of her friends, in terms of time, money, and love.  When Ann made a new firm friendship later in her life with another woman, Grealy insisted on being told, in front of the new friend, that Patchett loved her, Lucy, more. 

Patchett forgives all Grealy's extreme behavior.  There were many reasons to forgive and to be understanding.  Grealy had so many medical problems, had gone through such a painful childhood, and suffered from so many difficulties with men.  She had no family support whatsoever.  Over and above these extenuating circumstances, there was the positive fact that the two women had a friendship of exceptional intensity.  When they in different places, even when Grealy was living in Scotland, they wrote letters frequently, sometimes twice a day.  Patchett felt a fierce loyalty to her friend, and would make great sacrifices for her.  One time when she was visiting Lucy in Aberdeen, they were taunted in the street by a group of drunk men, and Patchett rushed into them shouting and fighting, which thankfully amused them rather than angered them.  In the love of friendship, one makes sacrifices for each other. 

The worry is that the friendship was so one-sided.  When Patchett was feeling depressed and sorry for herself and wanted consolation from her friend, all Grealy said was "you'll be fine."  Of course, she turned out to be correct, to the extent that Patchett has achieved success and personal stability.  Grealy was equally sure that she would not be fine, and she was constantly worried that she would never have sex again, she would be unloved by a man, and that she would never achieve literary success.  Aristotle argued that true friendship must between equals, two men of virtue.  Although the two women may have had comparable literary talent, it is harder to compare their virtue, because Grealy's medical problems and her past life make her circumstances so different.  She endured things that Patchett and most other people never have to cope with -- the stares of people in the street, dozens of surgeries, real fears that she looked repulsive.  So maybe Grealy had amazing courage and spirit to keep on going.  She certainly had charisma; wherever she lived, everyone knew her and she would be hailed warmly by apparent strangers.  At the same time, she suffered from excruciating self-doubt.  What's more, it is not clear from Patchett's account whether Grealy had the capacity to really care for other people, just as she often seemed to lack the capacity to care for herself.  Indeed, she was often gratuitously inconsiderate for the feelings of her friends. 

It is striking that Patchett finally started to draw a line with her friend when Grealy started to be more actively self-destructive, such electing to go in for a risky and damaging surgery and putting aside all her other priorities such as finishing the novel she was working on.  At the end of her life, she became even more desperate and inconsolable, and once she started using drugs, she may have made herself impossible to be helped.  Her friends got her to sign in to a psychiatric ward, partly with an implicit threat to get her signed in involuntarily if she refused.  She was seeing a psychiatrist.  Ultimately, however, it wasn't enough, and on one of the occasions when she took dangerous quantities of drugs, it killed her. 

The moral question is not whether Patchett should have made such large sacrifices for her friend, or whether she could have done more to help her at the end.  She did what she could, and she certainly did more than could be reasonably expected.  The question raised by Truth & Beauty is more whether this was an admirable friendship, whether we should be pleased for her, whether we should encourage other people, including our children, to have such friendships.  But how can we address such a question?  It certainly does not help much to try and calculate whether it gave more pleasure than pain, more gains than losses.  Maybe it is too individual an issue to simply give a straightforward general answer to.  Maybe each person has to think for him or herself "yes, I would want that" or "no, I could never have that sort of friendship." 

If we are to try to think about this friendship at a more general level, we might link it to questions of caring relationships.  Parents tend to make many more sacrifices for their children than children do for their parents.  When a member of a family has a chronic illness or a disability, it often happens that other family members or close friends end up doing much of the work of caring.  Lucy Grealy had a chronic medical problem with her jaw and she certainly had psychiatric problems at the end of her life.  Some might speculate she struggled with depression and anxiety for much of her life, and the difficulty she had in forming a long-term relationship with a man was linked as much to a personality problem as to her appearance.  Such diagnoses are questionable enough when the person can be thoroughly examined and tested, and they are largely useless once the person is dead.  What is pretty clear is that Grealy was troubled and needy for much of her life.  For her to form a profound loving relationship with another person, it is likely that the other person would have to do most of the caring. 

Caring for others is potentially enriching, especially when it involves really helping and nurturing.  But it can be extremely draining and it can mean putting one's own life, one's personal ambitions, on hold while the other person takes priority.  Often it is wives and mothers who end up doing caring work, and Patchett's story fits in with a tradition of other stories of caring even though in her case the relationship is simply friendhship.  As a society, we are certainly better off when people choose to do such caring, but the danger is that it becomes the role of a certain part of society, most likely the women.  In Patchett's case, she chose to care for her friend and even though in some ways it seems that Grealy was manipulative, ultimately Patchett was free to extract herself from the relationship if she wanted.  Her caring remained her choice, and indeed, there came a point where she decided she could not do more. 

Truth & Beauty is a powerful story not so much because of its details of the literary life or even Patchett's lucid way with words, but because it makes us think about friendship and caring.  It does not provide answers, but it at least raises penetrating questions. 

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.