Kelly Blewett

“In fairy tale logic, you must trade something for something you desire,” writes Sarah Ruhl. “By this logic, I traded my face for my children. And it was a fair trade.” This is just one of the many arresting sentences in Ruhl’s new memoir, Smile: The Story of a Face, which details Ruhl’s pregnancy and subsequent experience of facial paralysis, a condition that set in immediately after delivery. The memoir moves from the intimately personal to the nearly universal: motherhood and medicine, soul and body, and the poetic logic that underlies everyday life. A playwright with an incredible eye for detail and a searing voice, Ruhl excels at putting striking ideas into simple forms that vibrate with power and energy.

Sarah Ruhl recalls passing her time on bed rest by reading the Twilight series. “We can’t predict how our minds will behave in extremis or when we are ill.”

Though Ruhl spent years avoiding her face in daily life, on the page she stares at it without flinching. She recalls refraining from looking at her reflection and how she came to rely on gestures and murmuring to communicate what her mouth and eyes could not—excitement, welcome, affirmation, connection. Behind this performance, or maybe because of it, Ruhl began to disassociate from her face, which no longer expressed her essential self. As a playwright, Ruhl works with actors, whose faces are the tools of their trade and who believe that bodily expression and the inner life are intertwined. Reflecting on these relationships, Ruhl wonders whether appearing more aloof and disengaged has, in fact, made her so. 

Meanwhile, life carried on. Ruhl wrote plays and essays, tried acupuncture and meditation and attempted to raise three children under five while remaining herself. Her memoir is wildly funny about the day-to-day realities of mothering. “My children’s temperaments can be summed up in the way that they vomit,” begins one memorable anecdote. In all, this is a beautiful book that expresses the big feelings of life and the daily practices that allow for incremental progress.

A playwright with a searing voice, Sarah Ruhl excels at putting striking ideas into simple forms that vibrate with power and energy.

“The great work of our lives is [figuring out] how to tell the story of our lives,” says Sarah Ruhl, speaking by phone from Chicago. Ruhl, a MacArthur Fellow and two-time Pulitzer finalist for drama, knows about stories. Her eye for detail is on full display in her memoir, Smile: The Story of a Face, which explores Ruhl’s experience with Bell’s palsy, a rare condition in which a part of the face becomes paralyzed. “The process of writing the book was cathartic,” Ruhl says, because for the first few years of her paralysis, “I wasn’t able to talk about my face. It was shoved deep under. But astonishingly, it was right on the surface.”

Quick, illuminating turns of phrase like that—shoved under but right on the surface—abound in Smile, which examines the paradoxes of illness, especially as experienced by women. The book historicizes the topic, recalling, for instance, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the short story that Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote after enduring bed rest as a medical treatment. The same doctor who prescribed this remedy for Gilman offered a different prescription for men: adventures on the Western frontier. “The 19th-century response is not as far away as we think,” says Ruhl, who was prescribed bed rest herself during her pregnancy, even though the treatment has had mixed results historically.

“I wasn’t able to talk about my face. It was shoved deep under. But astonishingly, it was right on the surface.”

Ruhl spent her time in bed reading the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, thinking idly that they would make a good play (which she later wrote). She also dove unapologetically into the Twilight series. “We can’t predict how our minds will behave in extremis or when we are ill,” Ruhl says, remembering that when her father was sick with cancer, he read books about sea voyages. “Often you need something deeply plot-driven just to get through the stasis. You’re not able to look at the thing directly when you’re really scared about how your body is betraying you.” The epigraph in Smile, taken from Virginia Woolf, reiterates this point: “when the lights of health go down, undiscovered countries are then disclosed.”

Ruhl’s experience with Bell’s palsy began the morning after she gave birth to twins. A nurse entered her room and said, “Your eye looks droopy.” When Ruhl looked in the mirror, she writes, “I tried to move my face. Impossible. Puppet face, strings cut.” Bell’s palsy is typically a temporary facial paralysis that clears up completely in a matter of days or weeks—as opposed to Ruhl’s experience, which has lasted for over a decade, though the paralysis has lessened over time. Initially it impacted everything from chewing food to pronouncing words to conveying emotion. Writing about it required self-examination as she searched for ways to frame her experience. These framing lenses, which she calls “thinking lenses,” helped her “really feel what I was feeling about my face.”

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Smile.

For example, Ruhl drew strength from public figures who’ve had facial paralysis, including the poet Allen Ginsburg. The book features a photograph of Ginsburg staring into the camera, forcing viewers to engage what Ruhl describes as “the disturbance” of his asymmetry. She also turned to art history, looking at Mona Lisa’s famous half-smile, a mismatched expression that captured the world’s interest. And, because of her connection to the theater, she examined theories about the link between facial expressions and emotion. “Thank God I am not an actor,” she says. “To have that instrument taken away as an actor would be so demoralizing.”

As Ruhl wrote about her face, she found she had a surprising amount to say—about women caught in ambiguous medical problems, about the face as the part of the body where the soul resides (or not) and about the difficulties of mothering young children while pursuing passionate, consuming work. Often these stories overlap, as in one memorable instance when she chose to breastfeed her child while on a stage in front of 300 people. Gloria Steinem was speaking when the baby began to fuss. Mary Rodgers, who wrote Freaky Friday, was seated next to Ruhl, and as Ruhl began to nurse her infant, Rodgers patted Ruhl’s leg and said, “That’s right, that’s right.” Ruhl excels at exploring connections like these, both near and distant, that help pull us through trouble.

“Sometimes teaching is no more than saying, ‘You can be a writer. Welcome to this secret society.’”

For Ruhl, this includes her connection with her husband, Tony. “My editor always wanted more scenes with Tony,” she laughs. And, indeed, when I talk about Smile with my friends, it’s a story about Tony that comes to mind: how Ruhl coined the phrase “sexy-cozy” to describe her feeling when he cared for her. “Sexy-cozy,” she writes in the book, “is the opposite of dirty-sexy.” Clearly this is a word that should be in wider circulation, one that would probably resonate with many happily married women, which is how Ruhl gratefully regards herself. “There’s something about the narrative of a happy marriage that we don’t see that much,” she says.

Ruhl also credits her teacher, Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel, for her support. “I wouldn’t be writing plays without Paula,” she says. “I think that Paula tapping me on the head and saying, ‘You can do this,’ was profoundly important. Sometimes teaching is no more than saying, ‘You can be a writer. Welcome to this secret society.’”

Though Ruhl’s journey with Bell’s palsy is not entirely resolved—she says that she is still thinking through how to live in her body, such as deciding whether she is willing to smile at people with her teeth—this warm-hearted, brave and funny memoir is her way of tapping readers on the head, encouraging us. You can keep going. You are part of the club. You are not alone.

Author photo credit: Gregory Costanzo

A playwright with an incredible eye for detail and a searing voice shares her own story of motherhood and facial paralysis.

From ages 7 to 12, Qian Julie Wang lived as an undocumented immigrant in Brooklyn, New York. Her hunger was regularly so intense that she broke into cold sweats—which, according to her Ma Ma, meant Wang was growing and getting stronger. One classmate referred to Wang’s family not as “low-income” but “no-income.” Her world was simultaneously frightening and normal as she sat listening to scuttling cockroaches with her parents nearby. She describes childhood trenchantly in Beautiful Country, allowing readers to feel her anger, longing, loneliness and fear—and to observe her parents’ desperation.

In Beijing, Wang’s mother was a published professor who spoke Mandarin, the language of intellectuals. But in Brooklyn, her mother lamented, “All these Cantonese assume that if you speak Mandarin you’re a farmer from Fuzhou.” Wang’s mother got a job sewing in a sweatshop, where “there was no day or night; there was only work.”

Wang’s parents regarded her as their best hope for a future, optimistic that she would be suited to this Mei Guo, “beautiful country.” They were right to believe in her. By fourth grade, Wang wrote so well that her teachers suspected plagiarism, and now Wang has written a memoir precise enough to chill her readers. The narrative is full of sharply rendered scenes, such as one in which Wang’s mother suffers in a cold sushi factory before coming home to warm herself in front of a pot of boiling water.

Wang dedicates her memoir to “those who remain in the shadows.” Indeed, Beautiful Country shines light on the childhood that continued to haunt Wang into adulthood, even as her professional accomplishments mounted. She is vulnerable in revealing her uniquely American trauma: a bruised wrist that never quite healed; a hunger that was never quite sated; a feeling that everything, at any moment, could suddenly be taken away. Wang, who is now a civil rights lawyer, is a voice we need. Readers will be grateful for the courage she has displayed in persevering and speaking up.

Qian Julie Wang courageously reveals her uniquely American trauma: a hunger that was never quite sated; a feeling that everything could be taken away.

Meg Lowman, known as “Canopy Meg,” has a big public presence, and her latest memoir demonstrates why: She excels at bringing the natural world to life in language. The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us takes readers around the world, from the forests of New England to the hills of Scotland, from the jungles of Australia to the riverbanks of the Amazon. It also tells the story of a passionate young naturalist whose childhood collections of wildflowers and bird eggs were supplanted by mosses during adolescence until, during college, she discovered the enduring love of her life: trees. Specifically, the tops of trees, which have been historically understudied even though they compose a vibrant ecosystem that Lowman refers to as the “eighth continent” of the world.

Lowman’s driving curiosity finds a productive outlet in the scientific process, which she ably describes for lay readers. Her research is full of life, energy, intelligence and determination. It’s impossible to read about it without wanting to examine the natural world more closely! While reading The Arbornaut, I found myself staring out of my second-story windows, trying to discern whether the leaves of the “upper canopy” of my Midwestern trees differed from those visible at ground level. This is exactly the kind of response Lowman hopes for. She is dedicated to getting everyday folks into the canopies, which she argues can advance scientific discovery (more eyes collecting more data) and benefit the planet (more people dedicated to ecological preservation).

Across multiple projects, Lowman’s reputation has grown within and beyond her discipline, and in this memoir, she also attends to the impact of gender on her professional experience. After detailing multiple instances of unwanted attention, ranging from innuendos to attempted assault, Lowman describes herself as a “tall poppy,” a flower that others try to cut down because it stands out. And yet, she persists, leading expeditions to the Amazon, collaborating with scientists and citizens alike and sharing her results in both technical journals and delightful memoirs. She deserves her celebrity.

The Arbornaut is a book to reach for if you, like Lowman, love the natural world and want to live in it fully.

Meg Lowman’s research is full of life, energy and determination. It’s impossible to read about it without wanting to examine the natural world more closely.

When Krys Malcolm Belc sees pregnant women, he turns the other way. He doesn’t want to hear pregnancy stories and finds it difficult to share his own. But in The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, the transmasculine author doesn’t turn away from his story. Instead, he lays it out page by page, with pictures and legal documents juxtaposing his poetic prose.

Belc’s process of becoming himself—the growing realization that he identified as male, the move toward a nonbinary and eventually masculine presentation, the decision to start taking hormones—happened alongside the rest of his life, as he married his partner, as she bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well, only a few months after his wife gave birth. 

The result is a family that looks one way now—a father, a mother and three boys—but looked another way several years ago. This is the story of how that family came to be, and of the erasures (often painful) that happened along the way, including the legal erasure of the friend who donated sperm for all three pregnancies. There’s also the erasure of the body Belc had, which he generously laid out to birth his son Samson. “He has permanently altered my composition,” Belc writes.

But in the midst of these erasures, something new emerged: an identity and presentation that was always there but in shadow, just beyond view. Bearing Samson clarified the man Belc wanted to be.

The Natural Mother of the Child refuses easy stories or pat answers. Instead, Belc tells a counterstory that resists hegemonic narratives and pushes toward something messier and truer. Belc’s devotion to his son—and especially his bodily devotion—comes through powerfully, a clear signal. By comparison, some of the other signs that supposedly tell us who we are—birth certificates, marriage certificates, adoption certificates—seem desperately incomplete.

Krys Malcolm Belc’s growing realization that he identified as male happened as his wife bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well.

What does it mean to find work that you love? To make a home in one city only to move somewhere else for a job? To be friends—real friends—in adulthood? Jonny Sun approaches these questions in his new book, Goodbye, Again. Composed of dozens of short essays and illustrations, Sun’s captivating and immersive book invites readers to listen in as he thinks aloud on the page. 

This book is at once sad and hopeful. It’s sad about the cultural pressure to be constantly working. It’s sad about the inevitability of change. It’s sad about the many ways we say goodbye to each other, whether ending a visit or moving away. But it’s also attentive to life and movement in unlikely places. For example, Sun contemplates house plants—their small leaves, tilting to water and warmth. They need the right kind of care for life to take root, and even when a plant seems to die, it can in fact be growing in a different direction.

Through descriptions like these, the reader feels Sun’s desire for renewal. The book is hopeful as it shows how little moments from the past, something as simple as cooking an egg, can reverberate in the present. In this way, we never really say goodbye. We are still together, still remembering each other in small daily ways.

To spend time with this book is to spend time in the private world of a creative, sensitive person who finds life inviting, beautiful and rich, but also overwhelming, scary and exhausting. Goodbye, Again acknowledges the crushing constancy and anxiety of work, but it also celebrates the joy of creating something where nothing was before—the pleasure of being totally immersed in work and the way that work can make us come alive. By acknowledging both sides of this reality in gentle and specific ways, Sun ultimately gives his readers license to experience their own contradictions and to be fully human.

To spend time with Goodbye, Again is to spend time in the private world of a creative, sensitive person who finds life inviting, beautiful and rich.

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