Tuesdays are Ideas Day here at Taking it to the Streets
I heard about this memoir by novelist Ann Patchett on NPR and decided to read it, even though I was pretty sure upfront it would be sad. I was right. The story of Patchett’s 20 year friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy who died of a heroin overdose at age 39, it was both hauntingly beautiful and crazy sad. Crazy as in the kind of sad/alarm/adrenaline you feel watching a car wreck before your eyes – or the Twin Towers collapsing. You can SEE death and destruction coming and you can’t stop it.
In an odd bit of synchronicity, I finished reading this book just as Amy Winehouse was found dead in London at age 27. The news reported that she joined “the 27 club” – famous musicians who died at age 27. Many of those mentioned were my contemporaries – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison – and I remember them dying seemingly falling like dominoes, and how scary and sad the world seemed then.
I can’t say what demons chased Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison or Amy Winehouse, but having read a biography of Janis Joplin and now Truth and Beauty, I think I know what killed Janis Joplin and Lucy Grealy. In both cases one of the underlying causes seemed to have been a sense of hopelessness about ever finding love. Feeling, at their core, that perhaps they were unlovable. Janis Joplin famously said “I go out on stage and make love to 50,000 people and then I come home alone.”
Lucy Grealy had cancer as a child and the radiation therapy to kill the cancer also killed a big part of her jaw and scarred her throat. Her face was permanently disfigured. By the time she died she had endured 38 surgeries to try to fix something that was probably never fixable. Her throat issues made eating and swallowing difficult. Lucy’s life really WAS difficult, made worse by the “hole in her soul” that led her ultimately to heroin.
Lucy’s story was sad and alarming. Ann’s story – and the story of their friendship – felt far more complex to me. Ann compared herself to the slow but steady ant, Lucy to the glamourous, gadabout grasshopper in Aesop’s fables. She painted Lucy as glamorous, charming and fun, herself as more plodding.
Their friendship was remarkable and puzzling. It’s easy to see what Ann gave Lucy – she seemed forever to be saving her life and even, at a prosaic level, provided order to Lucy’s whirlwind of chaos.
I suspect what Ann got besides a brilliant, fun friend who provided some vicarious thrills, was a sense of purpose. Of being needed. Of knowing she mattered and made a difference. It ain’t heroin, but I think that’s strong medicine, too.
I finished the book feeling sad, and wondering if anything could have saved Lucy. I know if any ONE could have, it would have been Ann Patchett. Lucy, who felt unloved, received love from her friend that many people never experience.
Beautifully written, thought-provoking, a paean to friendship – and sad. That was Truth and Beauty. Read it. And prepare to weep.