Fortune wears an expensive one. The Japanese Buddha has a broadly indulgent one, curtaining up the sides of his mouth. Women are forever being told to arrange their faces into one. For a decade, the playwright Sarah Ruhl lived without one.
Before it “walked off my face,” Ruhl wore a beatific smile. Without one, she feels a silhouette of herself. In her intimate memoir, Smile: The Story of a Face, Ruhl recounts how, after giving birth to twins, she contracted Bell’s palsy, which left one side of her face paralyzed. Appointments with chiropractors, physical therapists, surgeons, and neurologists ensued. None was able to return her wayward smile. Her unsparing new work is, in her words, “the story of how I learned to make my way when my body stopped obeying my heart.”
In Smile, Ruhl includes several photos of herself, playing up the contrast of her face and its repertoire of motions before and after Bell’s. “I had always been a little Victorian in my fears about pregnancy anyway,” she remarks, good-humoredly. Yet it takes her three years to reach something like a grudging acceptance of her now-asymmetrical face, and nearly a decade to produce this book, a kind of nonaggression pact with her half-formed smile. There is no medical consensus on what causes Bell’s palsy, recovery rates vary among patients, and treatment can sometimes take a maddeningly scattershot approach. “Doctors generally give you some steroids, and then you wait for the nerve to grow back,” Ruhl writes. Some doctors fail to ask the right questions or to take other precautions, like prescribing antivirals or treating for Lyme disease.
Ruhl’s story of getting Bell’s is an outline in 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, published in 2014. Smile fills it in. The earlier work was composed of brief, episodic meditations–some as short as a single word or sentence–on topics as diverse as wabi sabi; Greek masks of comedy and tragedy; bickering and sword fights on stage; and an Ovidian form of narrative transformation. The memos were like so many paper airplanes, whimsically constructed and weighing only a few words. With Smile, Ruhl attaches new wings to some of these planes and we see them test different literary altitudes, come in and out of focus, and make looping detours into the philosophical, dramaturgical, and pop cultural. For all their weightlessness, they convey a tonnage of emotion.
Taking such an approach comes with a few risks, most notably that of experiencing deja vu. Some of the material gets recycled, almost verbatim, from that earlier work, such as when Ruhl recounts the experience of sitting in a theater, stony-faced, as she watches actors auditioning to play Masha in a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. She wonders, both times: “Can one experience joy when one cannot express joy on one’s face? Does the smile itself create the happiness? Or does happiness create the smile?”
In Smile, one also hears, with tick-tocking regularity, about her desire to “clone” herself for her children, giving each of them the individualized attention they demand. The familiarity lends these moments a foggy dullness as we watch laments eddy around the same ontological current. Yet, while reading, I was unable to make up my mind whether this repetition was a deliberate aesthetic strategy—was Ruhl making an oblique comment on the tyranny of domestic duties? Were we meant to hear, in her intertextual recapitulation of themes, the reverberations of Echo?—or was she bumping up against the limits of what was expressible?
Like Echo, Ruhl is deeply receptive—a singular antennae for the metaphysical signals of longing and loss. (In her plays, she brilliantly metaphorizes the literal and literalizes the metaphorical; Melancholy Play, for instance, sees characters transform into literal nuts after drinking from a vial of tears.) Yet unlike the Ovidian figure, Ruhl is a fully embodied individual who struggles to balance the competing demands of being a playwright, mother, wife, daughter, and sister.
When she was young, Ruhl had a penchant for portrait painting, trying “to capture the quicksilver of a soul on paper.” Anyone familiar with Ruhl’s versatility as a playwright will not be surprised to see her wring comedy and pathos from her illness. Not being able to smile is a special kind of agony for Ruhl. It nullifies the Midwesterner’s cogito ergo sum—I smile, therefore, I am. She writes: “I didn’t know how to be ingratiating with strangers without smiling. How does one do that, especially if one is from the Midwest, where a smile is almost a prerequisite for citizenhood?”
Her childhood in the Midwest also provides the setting for some of her most poignant meditations on asymmetry. As a child, Ruhl liked to enact a farce with her older sister. Frequently beset with mysterious illnesses, she would lean into her “sickliness” and her sister would play up “her enviable stolid athletic health.” Sarah, disguised as her “ancient second cousin” Beulah, would struggle to open a pill bottle, and her giant of a sister, taking earth-quaking strides across the floor, would offer to help, only to shatter the bottle with her unbridled strength. “Why is it that two sisters often divide the world between them in this way? A sort of primal, unspoken noncompete clause?” Ruhl wonders.
This “sculpting of sibling realms,” especially sororal ones, rings true, I suspect, for many of us. And it is just one of several other threads wrapped around the spindle of her illness. Along the way, Ruhl unspools other stories about her postpartum depression (“the post in post-partum depression stood for postponing my own joy,” she writes); her late-in-life diagnosis of celiac disease; losing relatives to cancer; the association of disfigurement with villains in the popular imagination; the ambiguity of Mona Lisa’s smile; and the challenges of working in an industry that doesn’t always anticipate the needs of breastfeeding mothers.
The cruel irony of being a playwright who is not able to fully express what she feels is not lost on her. The left side of a face, as she reminds us, is the side that tends to be more emotive. The onset of Bell’s leaves Ruhl with a drooping brow, eyelid, and lip, and renders her left side all but immobile. “Puppet faces, strings cut,” is her candid assessment of her present condition. Ruhl’s mother had Bell’s and made a full recovery. So have actors, like Angelina Jolie, and other well-meaning acquaintances, who remind Ruhl that most people recover in a few short months. At such moments, Ruhl has to effortfully refrain from telling them that for her, it has already been three weeks, then months, then years—all with very little sign of progress. “I was in the land of the rare, the unusual, the outlier, the slow boat, the 5 percent,” Ruhl reflects.
There is a technical term for the muscles of a face misfiring, causing involuntary movements at incongruous odds with a voluntary one: synkinesis. The term sieves through Ruhl’s mind the first time she hears it. “What a writerly position I took,” she muses. “If I did not learn the word, I could not have the diagnosis.” Her synkinesis does not ever fully go away, but by the end of the book, Ruhl is able to offer a Buddhist-inflected prayer to herself and to readers: “May what appears to be broken, actually be in the midst of an untold, unforeseeable healing.” The world may be a stage, but life is no play parcelled into three acts. There is no predictable rising and falling of action, no linear Aristotelian plot, no closure. Just this: a humble grace that fastens us to the few things that matter.
Elsewhere, Ruhl has praised the novelist Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In the first of his memos, Calvino described a fork in the literary path: “It might be said that two opposing literary tendencies have competed over the centuries: one that seeks to make language a weightless element that hovers over things like a cloud, or better, a fine dust, or, better still, a magnetic field; another that seeks to imbue language with the weight and thickness and concreteness of objects and bodies and sensations.” Smile gives the lie to such a dichotomy, binds up these binaries. It achieves a delicate balance, if not quite symmetry, in all these things and reminds us that between lightness and heaviness, we don’t always have to choose.
Smile: The Story of a Face
by Sarah Ruhl
Simon & Schuster
Published October 5th, 2021
Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She has published or forthcoming work in 4Columns, Artforum, Air Mail, The Baffler, The Believer, BOMB, Bookforum, Frieze, NPR, The White Review, Vogue, The Times Literary Supplement, Observer, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, Jacobin, The Washington Monthly, The Guardian, The Hedgehog Review, Public Books, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, The Paris Review Daily, Village Voice, High Country News, Undark, and more.