Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira
Marcia Meier’s recent Face: A Memoir (Saddle Road Press, January 2021) opens with an idyllic early-1960s suburban childhood scene. The school year is done, the day is already warm, and 7-year-old Meier, now free to zip through her Michigan neighborhood on her new bike, won’t be expected home until dinner. Her bike gleams with red paint and chrome trimmings. Even better: the training wheels are off, so the girl sets off “discovering that middle place where you know you’ll never fear tipping again.” But in the space of a few pages, the hope of that balance is shattered by the inattention of a driver who did not see the girl walking her bike across the street — and did not notice once he’d hit her. “I had been dragged,” Meier writes, “caught with my bike under the car, nearly two hundred feet… The bike was stuck under the carriage; I was still holding the handlebars. The left side of my face was gone.” Moving through the rest of her difficult childhood and decades beyond, Meier’s book is itself an exercise in reconstruction and healing — not only of the past, but also of the self through story.
The book is partly a chronicle of Meier’s 20 reconstructive surgeries over 15 years of her life (and even incorporates surgeons’ notes from her files), and Meier uses these to show a passage of time from childhood through marriage and midlife. In addition, the surgeries lend a rhythm to the book that incorporates both periods of hurt and healing. Face is also part family memoir, however; Meier is always trying to examine the role her accident played — and still plays — in her relationships, including her marriage decades later. For the bulk of the book, the relationships she has with her parents are pretty central, as each parent reacted differently to Meier’s accident and injury. When Meier wakes after the accident, for example, she recalls being confined to a cage-like metal hospital crib, her mother nearby. Meier remains in the hospital for a 5-week stint, but it’s that first post-accident memory that really sticks: just awake and relieved to see her mother, Meier hears her mother say: “We told you not to cross the street without looking.” Meier circles back to this moment often in her narrative, prodding this layer of self-blame her mother’s words add to the physical pain of the surgeries. Though Meier knows she looked before crossing — her body and its pain contradicts her mother’s story — these words are enough to shake Meier decades later. Often, she experiences danger where she should have been kept safe. At Catholic school, Meier is bullied both by the students and the nuns. Her mother remains distant, even cold. Meier is urged to forgive the man who hit her, even to accept him as an adoptive relative. And throughout, Meier experiences social rejection and prejudice along with the physical pain of having yearly surgery.
Though Meier eventually switches schools and later finds her path as a journalist and mother, the pain doesn’t disappear. She writes, “I knew myself as someone to be avoided, knew that my face was frightening, even for adults.” Nevertheless, Meier moves into adulthood with the help of her father’s love, and also the support of Dr. Kisov, her surgeon. This relationship with Dr. Kisov — a sculptor of clay as well as an expert in grafts and scar tissue — is one of the delights in the memoir. A warm, creative and upbeat man, he’s someone able to use the skill in his hands to do difficult work in which the stakes seem very high indeed. To Meier, “He represented hope and pain, sadness and conflicting, inexplicable feelings of love. He was my protector and my torturer, my savior and my accuser, my surgeon and father figure.” Elsewhere she refers to him as a “chief revisionist,” almost as though the face were a text, and his role was in helping the intended message come through.
His comments also provide Meier with opportunities to mull over questions about how much importance we attach to appearance and beauty. Though the memoir tended to flag a bit in its last quarter, I found I was often drawn in by the kinds of questions Meier asks about faces, and the ways in which we are judged by how we look. “What is a face?,” she writes. “Eyes. Nose. Mouth. Cheeks. Chin. Forehead. An invitation… or a warning. A reflection… or a misrepresentation. The still surface of a deep pool… or a raging creek. Does a face really say anything about a person? Does it say everything? If a face is destroyed, does a person change?” Though I wished, at times, that the memoir spoke even more about the wider society, particularly when so much seems to rely upon the ideal female face being pleasing and perfectly symmetrical, I was deeply impressed by the rawness and personal depth with which Meier approaches this subject.
Meier refers at one point to how, as a journalist, she found relief in focusing on other people’s stories. Given that, I can only imagine what it feels like to throw this much light on her own story when, as she says, “I have spent most of my life covering up the skin that covers me.” Still, Face: A Memoir is a sensitive and engaging read, rich with detail. With its emphasis on the body, Face made me think of the essay anthology Beautiful Flesh and readers who enjoyed that collection might also be drawn to Meier’s book. Thematically, though, the reconstruction of surgery in Face aligns beautifully with the reconstruction of memory and personal history through writing, and I can’t say I’ve read anything exactly like it. I had the feeling while I read that the memoir was an attempt to construct her image for herself since, after injury and surgery have both had a hand, she’s working towards embodying her own story now.