Truth (not the made-up kind) & Beauty

Stewart Oksenhorn
Ann Patchett appears in an Aspen Writers' Foundation Winter Words event at the Given Institute. (Courtesy Aspen Writers' Foundation)

With “A Million Little Pieces,” James Frey’s supposedly factual account of his battle through drug addiction, exposed as embellished and even fictional, writers of memoirs can expect to have their stories scrutinized to the letter. And when the memoirist’s subject is a deceased best friend, the writer might be even more mindful not to enhance the memory’s for the sake of prosperity.”Truth & Beauty,” Ann Patchett’s 2004 account of her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, fashions a picture of a seemingly too-much-to-be-true character. Grealy, who was struck with a cancer that wreaked havoc on her face from childhood on, is portrayed as a woman of wild highs and maddening lows, capable of brilliant writing and heartbreaking addictions. Her quest for romantic love is indelible.These are not the heightened memories of a grieving friend, vows Patchett. Lucy was a remarkable being in many eyes.”She was totally that amazing person,” said Patchett, speaking by phone from Nashville, both her current home and her hometown. “At 18, she was hanging out with Divine” – the flamboyant drag queen star of John Water’s “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray” – “Divine’s pet, going to Studio 54, dancing on tables. She was the girl in the back of the limousine. She did MTV’s ‘House of Style’ with Cindy Crawford and was also hanging out with Spalding Gray. She had a ton of lovers. She’d take off and go to Turkey.”She got the most mileage out of life of anyone I’ve known. And she would get massively depressed, and wasted so much time. She was in every way, larger than life. If you knew her for 10 minutes, you knew her. She was very accessible.”Patchett, of course, wrote “Truth & Beauty” well before the current wave of memoir controversy. Still, writing about a figure like Grealy, a best friend who happened to be an extraordinarily sensitive person while alive, would seem to be an endeavor best approached with great care. The lasting memory of the dearly beloved possibly rests in the balance. You’d want to get it just right.For Patchett, however, getting it right meant doing it right away, while the recollection was fresh and unmediated, and fast. Ten days after Lucy died, in December 2002, Patchett wrote a reflection of her for New York magazine. “It was all pretty immediate, without any thought. I was never asking myself, do I really want to do this?” she said.”I could not write that book now. I don’t even remember writing that book. I just had this sense of wanting to get it all down, what I was feeling, as fast as I could. Almost like making a portrait, pressing a leaf. If I wrote it now, there’s a lot I wouldn’t want to tell. I’d be more concerned with writing a good portrait, a sweet portrait, a loving portrait. It wouldn’t be such a true portrait.”

“Truth & Beauty” is a story not only of friendship, but of the friendship between writers. Most of the friendship takes place as Patchett and Grealy work their way into and around the contemporary writing world, and it reveals much of that odd universe: time spent and misused at the University of Iowa’s writing workshop and writer’s retreats from Scotland to Cape Cod; experiencing acceptance and rejection from publishers and fellowship programs; going on book tours; struggling with ideas. So it is fitting that in bringing Lucy’s story to the page, Patchett had a spell of drama that reflects the ups and downs of the writer’s life.Originally, Patchett pitched her article to the New Yorker, for whom she had not written previously. “And they are just really difficult,” she said. “They said we’ll print it sometime in the next 18 months. It might be cut in half. If anybody else writes a piece about her, we may not run it.

“Very frustrating. And I’m not at a point in my career where I’m willing to deal with that. And I wanted it to happen right away.” (Part of the reason she wanted to have the article published immediately was to dispel the false rumor that Grealy had killed herself by jumping off a building.)While stewing, Patchett received a call from a reporter from New York magazine, seeking to interview Patchett for his own piece on Lucy. Patchett sent him the article she was trying to place in the New Yorker. Patchett got the quick turnaround she was seeking: New York would run the story the following week, on the cover.”I said, ‘deal,'” she recalled. “I got to call the New Yorker and say something choice.”

Over some five months following the New York article, Patchett expanded on her memories of Lucy, putting her thoughts down on a series of tape recordings. “Truth & Beauty” landed on The New York Times best-seller list, and was named among the best books of the year by the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Examiner and Entertainment Weekly.Not everyone was so taken with the account, which doesn’t shy away from Lucy’s heroin use and the lies associated with it, her reckless ways with money, or her morally casual attitude toward sex. Patchett’s father took particular issue with the inclusion of the episode where Lucy, at a writer’s event in Provincetown, follows Patchett’s turn at the podium by reading an explicit tale of serial masturbation.Patchett wrote, in “Truth & Beauty,” “As I listened I felt, in no particular order, that I couldn’t believe that Lucy had masturbated all night in front of a stranger; I couldn’t believe she’d never told me that it happened; I couldn’t believe she’d written about it and then read it to a roomful of strangers. … Shock is not a particularly sustaining response to literature, but I was shocked by all of it. Like the act itself, the story went from something that was briefly sexy, to something that was grinding and mechanical, to something that was embarrassing and, finally, exhausting.”Patchett’s father, “felt I went too far and said too many things,” said Patchett. In her self-defense, Patchett notes that Lucy had already published the masturbation essay in her 2000 collection “As Seen on TV.” That points up why Patchett was so comfortable about taking on the task of memorializing Lucy’s life: She is not the only one to do so. Grealy had already written her own memoir, 1995’s “Autobiography of a Face,” an acclaimed history of the cancer in her jaw, her disfigured face and the numerous operations she had to try to repair it.”So I didn’t feel I had that terrible responsibility of keeping Lucy alive. She had her own book. She had already made herself known,” said Patchett. “My number two reason for writing the book – if number one was framing our relationship, our friendship – was to get people to keep reading ‘Autobiography of a Face,’ to keep that book alive.”Patchett also said that one aim of “Truth & Beauty” was “to get the world to miss Lucy as much as I did.”

Despite those strong intentions, Patchett opted not to do a book tour with “Truth & Beauty.” “I didn’t want Lucy to become a dog-and-pony show,” she explained. Still, she has done some readings from the book, and is grateful for the chance to bring up the topic of Lucy Grealy.”One of the saddest things about death and grief is, after a few weeks, no one wants to talk about it anymore,” said Patchett. “Life presents me a constant opportunity to talk about Lucy. And that allows me to be very psychologically healthy about the thing.”The very first place Patchett read from “Truth & Beauty” was in Aspen, at her first Aspen Writers’ Foundation appearance. She had brought a copy of “Bel Canto,” her 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel that blends terrorism and opera, but decided to let the memoir, then 100 pages long, make its debut. Pleased with the book’s fortunes, Patchett is returning to the well. She will do the first reading of her latest book, a novel-in-progress about a man with three sons, one of whom is being raised to be president of the United States, when she appears in a Writers’ Foundation Winter Words event, Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the Given Institute.”It makes me feel Aspen’s going to be my lucky place,” she said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is