Lucy Grealy

I hope that my previous blog, along with this and perhaps two more blogs, will highlight the scope of shame and something of the depth of its effect on us. Today I want to point you to an autobiographical book by Lucy Grealy. In Lucy Grealy’s story, shame has nothing to do with morality. Nonetheless it comes as an overwhelming, overpowering, destructive force into her life. Her book, ‘Autobiography of a Face[1] is an account of her childhood struggle with cancer in her jaw. It is a poignant example of the power of shame.[2]

“Lucy Grealy describes classic signs of shame when she writes of her extreme sense of self-consciousness, her acute sense of herself as ugly, her sense of being an outsider and her desire to hide from the blatant stares of other children. With every uncensored stare, her head “dropped just a little bit further in shame,” for “their approval and disapproval defined everything for me, and I believed with every cell in my body that approval wasn’t written into my particular script. I was fourteen years old … The pain these children brought with their stares engulfed every other pain in my life.””[3]

“Searing shame characterizes Grealy’s experience and we sympathize with her pain-filled response, recognizing it as reasonable given contemporary standards of beauty, her apparent attitude towards these standards, and her failure to match them.[4] Yet, in feeling shame Grealy need not consider herself morally defective because of her judgment about her face. The point to press here is that people often feel shame about morally irrelevant features or actions and often mistakenly believe that their actions or features are morally salient when they are not.”[5]

“Shame often hits hard, reverberating deeply into our sense of self, and its effects are difficult to shake. Sartre compares the revelation shame affords with succumbing to a shudder so intense that it feels like an “internal haemorrhage.”[6] Lucy Grealy suggests that the pain of being ashamed of her appearance hurt more than the pain of her cancer. She also describes the way in which shame often saturated her entire sense of identity and worth. She writes: ‘I was my face, I was ugliness …. I began having overwhelming attacks of shame at unpredictable intervals … Out of nowhere came an intense feeling … that I was too horrible to look at, that I wasn’t worthy of being looked at, that my ugliness was equal to a great personal failure.’”[7]

“Gershen Kaufman describes more generally Grealy’s specific experience of the penetrating, sweeping reach of shame. He writes, “shame is the piercing awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some vital way as a human being …. Shame is an impotence-making experience because it feels as though there is no way to relieve the matter, no way to restore the balance of things … The excruciating observation of the self which results, this torment of self-consciousness, becomes so acute as to create a binding, almost paralyzing effect upon the self.””[8]

Does the cross have anything to say to Lucy Grealy? What does it say to Lucy and many others: people who have experienced damaging abuse; or who cope with what society perceives as deformity; people whose sense of self-worth has been destroyed through the experiences of life? The thing these people have in common is an overwhelming sense of their own worthlessness. This kind of shame is no mild dis-appointment, it is a devastating sense of self-negation, of being an utter failure. Does the Cross have something valuable to say to those of us who are trapped in this kind of shame? Can we legitimately talk of the Passion of Christ defeating this kind of shame in a person, or a community’s life?

[1] Lucy Grealy; “Autobiography of a Face;” Houghton Mifflin Company, New York: 1994.

[2] I am indebted to Jennifer C. Manion in whose article I encountered Lucy Grealy’s story, and whose words I quote here: Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2002), p73-90.

[3] Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” p74. See Lucy Grealy, “Autobiography of a Face;” pp. 4, 7.

[4] This claim about the appropriateness of Grealy’s shame simply acknowledges that her feeling shame in such a situation, about such a disfigurement is not an extraordinary, unexpected response.

[5] Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” p74.

[6] Jean-Paul Satre, The Emotions: Outline of a Theory (New York: Philiosophical Library, 1948), p261.

[7] Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” p78. See Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), p7, 185.

[8] Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” p78. See Gershen Kaufman, Shame, the Power of Caring (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1985), p9. The italics are Kaufman’s.


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