Playwright’s facial paralysis didn’t follow usual story


That’s why Sarah Ruhl’s ‘Smile’ is so good

By Christopher Borrelli - Chicago Tribune



“Smile: The Story of a Face,” by Sarah Ruhl; “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law,” by Mary Roach; “On Animals,” by Susan Orlean.

“Smile: The Story of a Face,” by Sarah Ruhl; “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law,” by Mary Roach; “On Animals,” by Susan Orlean.


Chris Borrelli/Chicago Tribune/TNS

A decade ago the playwright Sarah Ruhl gave birth to twins and lost her smile, all at once. She was still in the maternity ward when her expression stuck, then wouldn’t unstick. “My smile walked off my face,” that’s how she puts it in her new memoir, “Smile: The Story of a Face” (Simon & Schuster, $27), easily one of the best things I’ve read this year. She developed Bell’s palsy, which paralyzes, restricting facial movement.

Ruhl, a Wilmette, Illinois native, and among the most acclaimed theater people of the past few decades, fell into the narrow 10% of those who get Bell’s palsy and don’t recover.

Which only sounds like the inevitable wind-up to an inspirational journey of recovery.

It gives away nothing about this touching, hilarious meander of a memoir to note, 10 years on, Ruhl has yet to entirely recover. It is, instead, about learning another gear in life. And understanding when to move on. She writes that years of playwriting taught her a good story needs an abrupt transformation, yet any degree of recovery here came so slowly “the chronic resists plot and epiphany.” But “what kind of story is that?” she asks.

To answer: It’s the inverse of Ruhl’s best-known work, “In the Next Room,” a 2010 Pulitzer finalist that landed on Broadway, partly about 19th-century women learning to control and possess their own bodies. “Smile” is the kind of story that is no story. Charmingly so. Rather, like another North Shore author, the great essayist Eula Biss, it’s an opening onto a path strewed with digressions and untidy roads, full of the offhand humor that dots “The Clean House” (her other Pulitzer finalist) and “Eurydice,” the 2004 play that confirmed Ruhl as a Hot Young Playwright, partly inspired by Saturdays with her father at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House on Green Bay Road. “Smile” finds room for the history of bed rest, her friendship with mentor Paula Vogel, summers in New England, scandalizing her Catholic school by refusing confirmation.

Not unlike her stage work, thoughts, moods and ideas skip through so seamlessly, you pause momentarily, not out of confusion but to look up, surprised at your destination.

If you require a memoir to provide a lesson, it’s this: Stop trying to read a person’s face.

She writes in the book that being unable to easily express herself to the nice (and the blunt) among us becomes a kind of “social torture.” For a while after getting palsy, “I couldn’t express joy,” she told me, “and at some point, your inner landscape decides to follow suit. I didn’t even realize how far down that rabbit hole I had retreated. I think my husband knew. But I don’t know if my kids knew, or my family. It becomes a private grief, and so when you bury something like this for so long, of course it affects your relationships.”

For a long period, she didn’t seek much help. She said didn’t know if there were support groups and didn’t really discuss her palsy with other sufferers. She was busy. She figured this is how it would be. “Smile” partly recounts attempts at relief. Acupuncture. Buddhism. A physical therapy routine (that fell apart with the pandemic). She said she felt like “a failed patient” who somehow could not slip into that 90% who recover.

“Smile: The Story of a Face,” by Sarah Ruhl; “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law,” by Mary Roach; “On Animals,” by Susan Orlean.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2021/10/web1_BOOKS-BOOK-BORRELLI-COLUMN-TB.jpg“Smile: The Story of a Face,” by Sarah Ruhl; “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law,” by Mary Roach; “On Animals,” by Susan Orlean. Chris Borrelli/Chicago Tribune/TNS
That’s why Sarah Ruhl’s ‘Smile’ is so good

By Christopher Borrelli

Chicago Tribune

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