A beauty pageant

My search for purity became a way of countering boredom.

I sat in church sandwiched between sisters and brothers on the hard wooden benches of Our Lady of Good Counsel and listened as the priest droned his way through ideas on how to be a better person. His sermon considered how to live a good life, how to honour God’s teachings, but not how to stay awake or take the priest’s words seriously.

So I tuned out and watched the people around me instead.

When I was in grade three over the course of many weeks I began to notice that my teacher Miss Anderson sat several rows in front of me on the other side of the church. I could see her side on, eyes to the front, as if she were concentrating hard on every word the priest said and needed to get a good look at him in order to take it all in.

Her faced raised to the pulpit took on an angelic look, saintly and devout. Her skin was pale against her raven black hair, which she wore in one of those French buns my mother raved about but could not manage in her own hair because hers was too curly.

Miss Anderson gave off a radiance that left me in love with her. And as the priest rambled on I fell under her trance but pulled myself up short with a series of rules I set for myself on the nature of female beauty.

To begin, and based on what I had learned in church and at school, I decided that the Blessed Virgin Mary was without a doubt the most beautiful woman who had ever lived. And given she was an eternal saint, her beauty dominated all others.

Next in line, I included my mother. My mother was more beautiful to me than any other woman I had ever seen beyond the Blessed Virgin, and although my mother’s skin sagged around her neck these days and she complained about the wrinkles on her elbows, wrinkles that gave away a woman’s age, she told us, I had also seen my mother’s younger woman photos when she was a movie star, with her own head of dark, albeit curly hair, and although her skin was not the alabaster white of my school teacher’s – my mother’s complexion turned towards olive – she still radiated the beauty of the angels.


So I gave my mother second place.

After her, in third place came Miss Anderson and because I was allowed thereafter to make my own choices, the next in line came from the television screen, a movie star called Ava Gardner.

Every Sunday I looked around the church for other beauties to add to my list. Not only were they to exude a radiance that belonged to the saints, they needed to be pure, unsullied in their demeanour. These words came to me from the nuns and the prayer books, which told me all I needed to know about truth and beauty.

The priest one day talked about parishioners who had complained about the church. He took these people to task. They were complaining about their own church, he said. Their own church, one to which they belonged as though they were finding fault with someone else’s church.

How could this be?

These people set a bad example for the rest of us. We were in this together and given that our religion was the one and only religion, the pure religion, the one true faith, then it was important for all of us to honour that position and be loyal to our calling as God’s children.

That attitude of purity overruled all superficial aspects of beauty. A pure mind was best of all and a pure mind was almost impossible to achieve, unless I stopped paying attention to what was on the outside and cared only about the whiteness of my soul.


I haven’t read the book, but in my opinion, it’s not worth reading.

It’s within a week of a year since I broke my leg. At the time recovering from this break seemed interminable. Eight weeks of my life weighed down with a cast from ankle to knee and now I can scarcely even remember that it happened. I no longer even notice the twinges that beset me earlier this year when I was still recovering.

My broken leg has healed and now all I have is the memory and the cast which I could not bring myself to chuck out. For one thing it cost over $900.00 – would you believe? – and for another, it seems sacrilegious to chuck it out. But it’s of no use and when I dragged it out the other day to show my brother-in-law who lives interstate and missed out on the drama of my broken leg, I realised that it could not serve as the basis of any work of art – an earlier fantasy of mine.

The cast was custom made to fit my leg. It has no place in my life anymore, not unless I were to break my leg again in the same place, and that is unlikely. In the next clean up, which I plan to go through over the Christmas holidays I may bite the bullet and consign it to the tip.

I have a chapter in my thesis in which I discuss the furore that erupted over Ann Patchett’s book, Truth and Beauty. The book is her memorial, you might say, to her friend Lucy Grealy, author of the renowned Autobiography of a Face. Grealy died in her early forties of a suspected heroin overdose.

To me both books are beautifully written and well worth reading, but the reason I focus on them in my thesis has more to do with the audience response to these books, particularly as I see them played out within the blogosphere.

There is a post dedicated to discussions of a letter that Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s older sister, wrote to The Guardian about Patchett’s book.

Suellen believes that Ann Patchett has ‘hijacked’ her family’s grief by writing about her younger sister and to some extent about the Grealy family as she has. Mind you, there is not much about Lucy Grealy’s family in Patchett’s book as far as I can see. The book is more about Lucy herself and her relationship with Ann Patchett.

The thing that intrigues me is the degree to which this book has inspired a line of hate mail directed against Patchett for daring to violate the Grealy family’s right to its private grief, or at least for daring to present a different image of Lucy Grealy to the one she presented in her autobiography.

I’m interested in notions of grief, particularly in so far as they relate to issues of privacy and the public sphere. I understand Ann Patchett’s book to be in part her attempt to come to terms with the loss of her beloved friend and a commemoration of their friendship, but also as an expression of, or a space in which to explore, some of Patchett’s anger with her friend for perhaps not making a better fist of things.

Having said that, I don’t sense that Ann Patchett lacks in empathy for her friend, Lucy, whose life sounds as though it was horrendous. There’s something though in the way we live our lives, the uses to which we put our lives, especially when those lives are described in public as in the writing of these two books that then invite others to come along and judge those lives, for good or for ill.

To me there’s a confusion between the content of the writing, the writing itself and the real lives of the people, either those who write or those written about.

In one of the comments on this blog discussing Suellen’s letter of protest, Jack Grealy, a nephew, writes a comment in which he complains about what he considers to be one blog commenter’s attack on his aunt, Suellen. ‘She’s my aunt,’ he seems to say. ‘You can’t talk about her like that.’

But in the public sphere, in the blog world, Suellen Grealy is not simply Jack Grealy’s aunt, she has become a commodity of sorts, a character in a novel.

She has written about her perceptions in her letter to The Guardian and has thereby thrown herself into the mix, her sister Lucy’s book about her own life, and Ann Patchett’s response to that life and in so doing, she has become a source of interest and curiosity for readers throughout the blogosphere. Therefore another commenter, tells Jack Grealy that he’s out of line.

Although Patchett’s book came out in 2004, and Grealy’s ten years earlier, comments still arrive at the blogsite that posted Suellen’s letter from The Guardian.

Lucy is dead, Ann Patchett has gone on to write several more successful novels, and heaven knows what Suellen is up to these days, but the saga continues.

I find extraordinary the extent to which people feel free to comment on this fracas, including those who admit to not having read either book.

They wade in on the fight as if a mob is gathering on the street and people are baying for someone’s blood – any one’s blood it seems, though not Lucy Grealy’s. She’s seen as the true victim, but her friend, Ann Patchett, is fair game for daring to write about Lucy as she has done, or likewise Lucy’s sister, Suellen, for daring to take Patchett to task.

I suppose literary skirmishes are not uncommon. They bring out the worst and the best in us. It is for this reason, too, I think there is some merit to the notion that even the best of writing can disturb and evoke a hostile reader response.

What is it that happens to us when we read? Is there some sense that when we take in the words off the page they become our own and therefore we have the right to judge, not only the standard of the writing, but also the content. It is as if we become both judge and jury, not only of the writer but also of those who are written about.

It is a powerful phenomenon and it’s one reason why I remind myself constantly that writing is a dangerous business. There is a world of potential critics out there ready to berate you for writing things they may not have read, or they may not want to read, or see, or hear, or remember, or for writing in such a way as to stir up emotions in readers for which they have no other outlet than rage directed at the writer, who is only the messenger after all.

Somehow unlike the cast from my broken leg, certain published writings can never be consigned to the tip. They go on being worn, even after the leg has healed.