The Ant & The Grasshopper, pen and ink on graph paper, doodle © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
At Sarah Lawrence College, Ann Patchett admired the hugely popular Lucy Grealy from afar, never realizing that the two were destined to become the greatest of friends. Ann wrote short stories that people liked but was not someone they remembered. Lucy was the one everyone knew.
Talented poet, waif who as a child lost part of her jaw to cancer, Lucy ran the Friday night film series back at Sarah Lawrence. Students chanted “LOO-cee, LOO-cee, LOO-cee,” and crowded into the coffee shop to hear her read her poetry. Ann sat in the audience, watching, believing they might have something in common.
Now this. It is August 1985. Ann and Lucy are the only two from their graduation class who’ve been accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Lucy couldn’t afford her own place; hence, the two are roommates, meeting up for the first time since arriving in Iowa City. Ann stands in their empty house, and like a banshee Lucy shoots through the door and throws her ninety-five-pound body on to Ann, locking arms around neck and legs around waist.
Here is Patchett writing in her memoir Truth & Beauty: A Friendship:
I do not remember our love unfolding, that we got to know one another and in time became friends. I only remember that she came through the door and it was there, huge and permanent and first.
And so their friendship began. Instantaneous, complex, epic. It lasted seventeen years, until 2002. Lucy died in December of that year of a drug overdose — ruled accidental — at the age of thirty-nine.
Writing Truth & Beauty, Patchett said, was part of her mourning process: “I wrote a book about us. I wrote it as a way to memorialize her and mourn her, and as a way of keeping her own important memoir, Autobiography of a Face, alive, even as I had not been able to keep her alive. This was a story of a Herculean effort to endure hardship, and to be a friend.”
The Ant & The Grasshopper
Throughout the book, Patchett draws on Aesop’s fable of “The Ant & The Grasshopper” as metaphor for her relationship with Grealy. Ann is the industrious Ant, laboring through summer to have food in winter. Grasshopper Lucy whiles away time, too concerned with the business of living to think about the future.
When winter comes, Grasshopper finds himself dying of hunger, while Ant eats from the stores collected in the summer. But in her version of the fable, Patchett makes this modification:
What the story didn’t tell you is that the ant relented at the eleventh hour and took in the grasshopper when the weather was hard, fed him on his tenderest store of grass all winter…Grasshoppers … find the ants … They need us to survive, but we need them as well. They were the ones who brought the truth and beauty to the party, which Lucy could tell you as she recited her Keats over breakfast, was better than food any day.
And so Patchett tells the whole story of Ant and Grasshopper — their dependencies and differences, the sordid details of their lives.
Ann and Lucy were creative muse to one another, better off together than apart. “We were tender and patient and kind. We were not like the world at all.” They were physically in the same city only for a small portion of their long friendship. Ann eventually settled back home, in Nashville, while Lucy’s home base was the glamour and glitter and grit of New York City.
Apart and together, they shared a deep desire to become real writers. Writing was not only salvation but the one thing that made the two of them interesting. And Lucy, with her celebrity and high drama, made Ann more interesting and more alive:
Even when Lucy was devastated or difficult, she was the person I knew best in the world, the person I was the most comfortable with. Whenever I saw her, I felt like I had been living in another country, doing moderately well in another language, and then she showed up speaking English and suddenly I could speak with all the complexity and nuance that I hadn’t even realized was gone. With Lucy I was a native speaker.
Year of the Grasshopper
On the back cover of her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, Grealy is quoted: “I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I’ve spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”
Autobiography of a Face made Lucy famous. She struck the universal chord — of wanting to belong, to not be different.
The memoir starts with the diagnosis of Ewing’s Sarcoma at age nine. After chemotherapy and radiation, reconstruction began. Lucy’s life was on hold as she waited for surgery after surgery — thirty-eight total — to bring forth normalcy, possibly even beauty.
While she waited, her insecurities deepened, becoming incessant and overwhelming. Do you love me? Do you think I’m pretty? Why doesn’t he love me? Will I ever have sex again? She wanted to be loved, but more than anything, she wanted to give love. She confused sex for love.
Grealy wrote of early drug use in Autobiography of a Face. She got codeine pills for each surgery and root canal, and after a while, even when she wasn’t in pain, she took the pills for the milky high they offered.
No matter how bad I felt about the world, about my position in it, I felt safe and secure and even rather happy thirty or forty minutes after I’d downed a couple of pills.
In spite of securing a book contract on the heels of her memoir, Grealy struggled with writing. The surgeries became more painful and less effective, her loneliness deeper and more despairing. She could hardly swallow food, and the physical pain intensified. She was tormented by self-hatred. Eventually she got hooked on heroin. She lost the book contract, lost the trust of her friends, and eventually lost her life.
- Enviable work ethic, writing her novel “as if it were a factory job.”
- Responsible (she funded her own degree, prepared for classes she taught, and used every writing fellowship to get actual writing done).
- A tendency to “blur into other people.”
- Tidy (“Unlike Lucy, I could never give myself so completely over to my art that I would not notice the half-eaten plate of spaghetti in the middle of the living room floor.”).
- Above all, always going to be fine; “It’s your blessing and your curse,” Lucy once told her.
From the moment Lucy jumped into her arms in their Iowa City rental house, until almost the end of Lucy’s life, Ann carried Lucy. Physically at times, and emotionally. Ann was present during Lucy’s many jaw reconstruction surgeries, holding her head while she puked into a pan or serving as patient advocate with medical staff. More fundamentally, Ann soothed as best she could Lucy’s constant self-doubt and tried to boost her esteem.
It was the single thing I wanted most for Lucy, to have a minute of peace from her relentless desire to understand why she hadn’t found True Love.
Toward the end of Lucy’s life, as her emotional and physical pain spiraled out of Ann’s control, the pragmatist Ant sought tangible ways to help the Grasshopper — sorting and paying bills or furnishing a new kitchen. Ann tried to get Lucy to move from New York to Nashville, to go through a sort of Ant-inspired rehab. Shelter, soft “Lucy food,” love.
But Lucy was never going to live in Nashville. Even if it might have saved her life, it wasn’t the life she wanted.
It’s natural to look at your closest friends and wonder how you’re different from them and how you’re the same. Early on, the differences are exotic. Have you ever been attracted to a friend who is so spontaneous — pure in-the-moment grasshopper — that you can’t help but be drawn to their energy? There’s something about how natural Grasshopper is, without filters and boundaries, that makes Ant more natural.
But then your ant nature kicks in. Try as you may, you can’t stop from becoming critical. Ant watches Grasshopper refuse to plan for the future or seem unable to take cues on when to stop talking about herself. Enough already! you want to say. Grow up! It’s not all about you.
The further I got into Truth & Beauty, the more I grew impatient with Lucy. I found that my admiration for her brilliance dulled at certain points, overtaken by my exasperation with her obsessions and insecurities. Yet, when I was done, I admired even more the deep, pure writing that came out of those same obsessions and insecurities.
My face may have closed the door on love and beauty in their fleeting states, but didn’t my face also open me up to perceptions I might otherwise be blind to? At the end of each day, as I lay in the bathtub, I looked at my undeveloped child’s body. I considered the desire to have it develop into a woman’s body a weakness, a straying from my chosen path of truth. And as I lay in bed at night, I considered my powers, my heightened sense of self-awareness, feeling not as if I had chosen this path, but that it had been chosen for me.
I also at times winced at the bald honesty with which Patchett laid her truth on the line. Ann admitting to Lucy her growing revulsion at how Lucy lived her life. Lucy calling Ann on her superiority, her got-it-all-togetherness: “…at least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you’ve always wanted.”
I read Grealy’s book first, then Patchett’s, then Grealy’s again, this time looking for clues as to what really caused her addictions and eventual death. Was it the cancer or the shame that came with having part of her face caved in? Or was there something in her core – recklessness, risk-taking – that was apparent early on?
I came to no conclusions. Or rather, I came to the conclusion that writing memoir is the most courageous and risky kind of writing one can undertake.
Not everyone loved Truth & Beauty. At Clemson University in South Carolina, Patchett’s book generated enormous and uninformed criticism for its portrayal of drugs, sex, and women in romantic relationship. Patchett talks about that firestorm in an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly in August 2007 and again in an interview with the same magazine.
Lucy Grealy’s older sister, Suellen Grealy, wrote a heartbreaking essay titled “Hijacked by grief,” in which she lashes out at the “not so gifted” Ann Patchett for “hitching her wagon” to Lucy’s star. These jabs stand out against an almost polite tone of desperation, a genuine longing for privacy and a return to wholeness for a family that has been picked apart.
Ann and Lucy started out believing writing might save their lives. Each walked the long, arduous road to become a writer. But even when a writer is brilliant and talented, and even when a writer possesses equanimity and self-control, writing will not save one’s life.
Writing does, however, demand that you be willing to let go, to let it out, to write the truth as you know it.
Must-Read – Must-Hear
- “Fresh Air”/NPR Re-Broadcast of an interview with Lucy Grealy (1/3/2003)
- “Remembering Lucy Grealy,” NPR (12/23/2002)
- “Truth & Beauty – A Tale of Friendship,” NPR interview with Ann Patchett, (5/11/2004)
- “Take a good look at my face,” The Guardian interview with Lucy Grealy (2/16/1995)
- “Lucy Grealy,” Leonard Lopate/WNCY interview with Lucy Grealy (scroll several screens down the page) (9/15/2000)
Charlie Rose interviewed Lucy Grealy on November 16, 1994. She is the last guest on his hour-long program. Her interview starts approximately at 38:20 on the youtube video below. [Note: It's advised that you let the show run its course versus trying to fast-forward to the start of the interview; the latter might cause audio and video to get out of sync.]
-Related to posts Ann Patchett – On Truth, Beauty, & The Adventures Of “Opera Girl” and Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read?