Lynn: What is beauty? That question has deeply impacted lives, especially of women, through time and remains a dominant force today. And how does that definition dominate your life and worth if you are not beautiful by the classic ideal? Perhaps none know the answers to that better than Ariel and her twin sister Zan, born with a rare genetic disorder, Crouzon Syndrome. The life-threatening disorder causes the bones of a person’s face to fuse in infancy. With the skull unable to expand, the brain’s and face’s normal growth cannot happen. To save their lives, the twins underwent dangerous surgery at 8 months of age and eventually more than 60 surgeries to “correct” their facial features.
Ariel Henley’s searing memoir brings this experience to readers in her debut book and it is unforgettable. When they were young children, a national magazine carried a story about the twins, writing that, “their faces resemble the works of Picasso.” Henley uses Picasso’s appalling life story and treatment of women to frame her story, eventually reclaiming her life from that narrow definition and moving past it. Her story is broken into three parts, Before, After, and Healing with 7th grade, an especially emotionally traumatic year, as the midpoint.
Henley’s account describes the risky, often experimental, and incredibly painful surgeries in some detail but the most enduring pain she describes is the treatment and reactions of other people. That pain was deeper and more lasting than any surgical procedure and marked the twins in ways that it has taken decades to deal with. The casual cruelty of other people is the stuff of nightmares and Henley writes of it with great skill. The twins had a wonderfully supportive family and childhood friends but for years the reactions of others defined their sense of worth. Ariel Henley has come a long way in her healing and her story is both painful to read and incredibly inspiring. She is a writer to watch and a person to cheer for. Her reflections on beauty and how we as women allow that ideal to define us is, for me, the heart of this story. I will be pondering this for weeks to come.
Sadly, this book was hard to find in my public library consortium. It should be purchased by all libraries and available for teens and adults everywhere.