Face: A Memoir
By Marcia Meier
Saddle Road Press
Many of us have traumatic events that divide our lives in two: the life we had before that defining moment and the life that came afterward. In Marcia Meier’s case, those two segments are of heartbreakingly unequal sizes. When she was just five years old, Meier was struck by a car while riding her bicycle and dragged 200 feet, necessitating fifteen operations over the next four years to reconstruct her injured face, then several more until the age of eighteen when she finally declares that enough is enough. She goes off to college determined to reinvent herself and to be known for more than the little girl in the horrific accident.
And she succeeds. She becomes a capable journalist, her skills on full gorgeous display in this book. She marries. She adopts a little girl.
It isn’t until later in life that she begins to deeply process her trauma. That trauma includes more than the accident and the surgeries themselves as she surrenders her body to doctors and nurses and loses her agency over her life. It also includes the reactions of others, especially the utter lack of sympathy from her Catholic school nuns towards a suffering child. They punish her in a dark cloak closet which became “her refuge and her shame” and also led to her estrangement from her Christian faith. It includes her mother’s cold reactions, from her initial response to Meier’s accident (“We told you never to cross the street without looking”) to her later watching stonily as her child screams, “Don’t leave me!” as the hospital’s elevator doors close on her. Her mother’s response to Meier’s announcement that she is seeking a divorce (“You know you’ll never find another man”) is equally chilling. Her trauma is exacerbated by the casual and hurtful remarks from her plastic surgeon, such as, “I will make you beautiful”, implying of course, that she is not already.
Meier realizes, in a mid-life reckoning, that she has created an emotional distance between herself and others as a way to cope with her life of trauma. Now she craves intimacy but finds it is too late. In an effort to heal herself, at the age of 45 she begins therapy. She researches Carl Jung’s work on primary archetypes, identifying herself as The Wounded Child, but also as “the artist, the teacher, the storyteller and the hermit.” She comes to understand that “integrating one’s archetypes and all those selves means being able to understand and blend them so that, ultimately, we become whole beings.” She learns to become comfortable in her body through yoga. She gives herself the gift of a private writing and meditation retreat at a cousin’s unused vacation home in Costa Rica. There she photographs the rainforest creatures, blue butterflies and glass frogs. Sometimes she needs her guide to literally take her by the shoulders and point her in the direction of an insect or animal that is right in front of her. She feels she is slowly opening her eyes, watching her own life “come into stark relief, colors growing vibrant with each revelation.”
While this book’s talented prose and creative structure, highlighted by its second person point-of-view chapters and fluid movement between author, character and narrator, keep us hungrily turning pages, it is Meier’s thoughtful generosity that kept me thinking long after I’d closed the cover. She researches the life of her surgeon in order to understand him and her relationship with him better. She finds that he is a talented artist, sculptor, and garden designer. She generously tries again and again to find a place to fit her forgotten faith into her life and reconcile her betrayal by her church.
Most generous of all is her treatment of her mother. We learn that Meier’s mother had few words for her daughter during her long hospitalizations, sitting silently and knitting by her side. We learn that for many years, her mother lit up and became animated around her siblings and their children but remained silent and cold around Meier and her daughter. We also learn of her mother’s losses. Two siblings before Meier died young, one of an accidental burn, one shortly after birth of unclear causes. Over and over, Meier finds herself struggling to understand her mother’s distant relationship with her wounded daughter in the context of such overwhelming loss. When her mother is diagnosed first with lymphoma, then dementia, Meier cares for her in her home, then in assisted living when her care becomes too much for her to manage alone. When Meier says goodbye to her after one visit her mother asks, “You can’t stay?” her eyes saying do not abandon me. Meier finds she is familiar with that lonely place of desertion she’d inhabited for so many years in that hospital bed.
In the final pages of this powerful book, Meier returns to a basic fact of the accident that defined much of her life: the direction she was going when she was hit. Her mother insists she was moving away from her house when the car struck her. But Meier knows in her DNA that she was on her way home. After trying for years to piece together the truth with medical records and newspaper clippings, she finally trusts herself—not just her memory that is “just as jagged and piercing, just as white-hot with emotion, as if seared inside me by grief”, but her cells and her body, the place where she recorded the trauma. And trusting herself may have been the key to her healing all along.