“Ten years ago, my smile walked off my face, and wandered out in the world. This is the story of my asking it to come back.”
Sarah Ruhl is a lauded New York City playwright (Eurydice et al.). These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after the delivery, she developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face that usually resolves itself within six months but in rare cases doesn’t go away, and later discovered that she had celiac disease and Hashimoto’s disease, two autoimmune disorders. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression on her paralyzed side – she knew this was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet it provoked thorny questions about to what extent the body equates to our identity:
Can one experience joy when one cannot express joy on one’s face? Does the smile itself create the happiness? Or does happiness create the smile?
Women are accustomed to men cajoling them into a smile, but now she couldn’t comply even had she wanted to. Ruhl looks into the psychology and neurology of facial expressions, such as the Duchenne smile, but keeps coming back to her own experience: marriage to Tony, a child psychiatrist; mothering Anna and twins William and Hope; teaching and writing and putting on plays; and seeking alternative as well as traditional treatments (acupuncture and Buddhist meditation versus physical therapy; she rejected Botox and experimental surgery) for the Bell’s palsy. By the end of the book she’s achieved about a 70% recovery, but it did take a decade. “A woman slowly gets better. What kind of story is that?” she wryly asks. The answer is: a realistic one. We’re all too cynical these days to believe in miracle cures. But a story of graceful persistence, of setbacks alternating with advances? That’s relatable.
The playwright’s skills are abundantly evident here: strong dialogue and scenes; a clear sense of time, such that flashbacks to earlier life, including childhood, are interlaced naturally; a mixture of exposition and forceful one-liners. She is also brave to include lots of black-and-white family photographs that illustrate the before and after. While reading I often thought of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Terri Tate’s A Crooked Smile, which are both about life with facial deformity after cancer surgery. I’d also recommend this to readers of Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss, one of my 2021 favourites, and Anne Lamott’s essays on facing everyday life with wit and spiritual wisdom.
More lines I loved:
imperfection is a portal. Whereas perfection and symmetry create distance. Our culture values perfect pictures of ourselves, mirage, over and above authentic connection. But we meet one another through the imperfect particular of our bodies.
Lucky the laugh lines and the smile lines especially: they signify mobility, duration, and joy.
With thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.
This is a bimonthly feature of mine. I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. Because I usually 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. (I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.) I always like hearing about your bookish coincidences, too!
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- The author takes Valium to cope with fear of flying in two memoirs I read at the same time, I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- The fact that the Spanish brought wild horses to the USA is mentioned in the story “The Team” by Tommy Orange (in The Decameron Project) and the poetry collection Rise and Float by Brian Tierney – this also links back to a book I reread in late 2021, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
- There are roaches in a New York City apartment in I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and the story “Other People’s Lives” in Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary by Johanna Kaplan.
- The same Dostoevsky passage from The Brothers Karamazov, about loving everything (“Love all the earth, every ray of God’s light, every grain of sand or blade of grass, every living thing. If you love the earth enough, you will know the divine mystery” and so on), is quoted in Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren and Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd Olson.
- A description of nicotine-stained yellow fingers in What I Wish People Knew About Dementia by Wendy Mitchell, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, and Free by Lea Ypi.
- Joni Mitchell’s music is mentioned in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick, two memoirs I was reading at the same time.
- From one summer camp story to another … I happened to follow up The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer with Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.
- Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic is quoted in Body Work by Melissa Febos and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk, both of which are March 15, 2022 nonfiction releases I’ve reviewed for Shelf Awareness.
- The 2017 white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia is mentioned in This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris (who lives there), Faith after Doubt by Brian McLaren (who was part of the clergy counterprotest group that day), and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk (she went there for a literary event a few months later).
- The Salvador Dalí painting The Persistence of Memory (that’s the one with the melting clock) is described in The Reactor by Nick Blackburn and This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris.
- On the same day, I came across the fact that Mary Shelley was pregnant while she wrote Frankenstein in two books: Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- The fact that cysts in female organs can contain teeth comes up in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Reading two novels by Japanese-American authors who grew up in Hawaii at the same time: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara.
- Twins are everywhere! Including, just in a recent reading pile, in Hands by Lauren Brown (she’s a twin, so fair enough), Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell, The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall, Smile by Sarah Ruhl (this and the Cornwell are memoirs about birthing twins, so also fair enough), Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. For as uncommon as they are in real life, they turn up way too often in fiction.
- Bell’s palsy AND giving birth to twins are elements in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and Smile by Sarah Ruhl.
- There’s a no-nonsense maternity nurse in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- U.S. West Coast wolves (a particular one in each case, known by a tracking number) are the subject of a poem in Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz and The Necessity of Wildfire by Caitlin Scarano.
- Herons appear and/or have metaphorical/symbolic meaning in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury, What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle, Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall, and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple.
- There’s a character named Edwin in Booth by Karen Joy Fowler and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- The use of “hoard” where it should be “horde” in Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan – both errors were encountered in the same evening.
- I read about Lindisfarne in Jini Reddy’s essay in Women on Nature (ed. Katharine Norbury) and The Interior Silence by Sarah Sands in the same evening.
- “Flitting” as a synonym for moving house in Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury and Nature Cure by Richard Mabey.
- A brother named Paul in Tides by Sara Freeman and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.
- A woman knows her lover is on the phone with his ex by his tone of voice in Tides by Sara Freeman and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan.
- In two novels I’ve read so far this year – but I won’t say which ones as it’s a spoiler – the big reveal, towards the very end, is that a woman was caught breastfeeding someone who was not her baby and it caused a relationship-destroying rupture.
- Reading a second memoir this year where the chapters are titled after pop songs: Dear Queer Self by Jonathan Alexander (for a Foreword review) and now This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- A second short novel entitled The Swimmers this year: the first was Julie Otsuka’s, recently reviewed for Shiny New Books; a proof copy is on the way to me of Chloe Lane’s, coming out from Gallic Books in May.
- Reading a second memoir this year whose author grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Illinois (Arlington Heights/Buffalo Grove vs. Oak Park): I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.
- The linea nigra (a stripe of dark hair down a pregnant woman’s belly) provides the title for Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera and is also mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell.
- The famous feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves is mentioned in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins.
- Childbirth brings back traumatic memories of rape in Birth Notes by Jessica Cornwell and This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps.