“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.”
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