JAmerican playwright Sarah Ruhl, 48, had recently given birth to twins when she discovered, after a lactation consultant noticed that one of her eyes was falling out, that something was seriously wrong with them. his face. In his wonderful memoirs Smile: the story of a face (out in paperback September 29), she writes that she was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy and postpartum depression at a time when she had a Tony-nominated play transferred to Broadway (the smile on the red carpet is an impossibility). It’s a book that raises some fascinating questions, including the dangers of judging by appearances.
Wrote Smile been a way to put the experience of having Bell’s palsy behind you?
It was absolutely necessary to live the next chapter of my life. I didn’t even know how necessary it was. I had resisted writing about it because it was so personal. I had resisted trying to make narrative sense of what had happened to me. Even after the book was published, when I was asked to tell the story, my mind went blank. There was trauma there… Writing about it helped me and I connected with so many readers. And literally, that led to a diagnosis.
What do you mean?
An infectious disease doctor read my book, somehow got my number, called me out of the blue and said, “I think you have neurological Lyme disease. at stage 3.” I said: “It is not possible, I have already been tested”. He said: “There are more sophisticated tests you can do now, you really should go for it.” So I went there, I tested positive and I am now in treatment for it. What happened to me could have been a perfect storm: I had underlying Lyme, gave birth to twins, and had Bell’s Palsy.
And are you now able to talk about when you first saw your changed face?
It was such a shock – after looking in the mirror, I felt completely different. There was also the fear that I might have had a stroke. In a way, being diagnosed with Bell’s palsy was a relief.
Are you more wary now of judging by appearances?
Being in the theatre, I’m used to the truism – the false truism – that we read the expression through the face, that it’s our main access to emotional life. The irony is that as a playwright, I have always provided the language to the actors. We have language, bodies, voices – we don’t just have face. And while I don’t think of myself as someone who would have judged by appearances long before Bell’s palsy, it has given me greater empathy for people who might have a disconnect between the outside and the inside. and I’m more skeptical of the idea that we can know a person by looking at their face.
Can you explain how not being able to smile made you unhappy?
There is a neurological feedback loop where the more you smile, the happier you are… and the happier you are, the happier you smile. Most people recover quickly from Bell’s palsy, but not me and the longer it lasted the more I adjusted my inner landscape to match my expression of neutrality. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how depressed I was.
You write well about how the American concern with the big smile
Americans are obsessed with a smile: smiling at strangers, smiling with teeth for photos – it’s a typical American thing. I have since learned that one of the reasons the focus is on smiling is that we are a culturally diverse community. In more homogeneous cultures, there is more coding that everyone understands. The American smile tells someone who may not be from his culture that he is friendly.
Should women be less invested in looks?
As a feminist and writer, I used to think myself above that; I had no idea how much I cared or depended on how I felt about my appearance, but suddenly when I couldn’t smile for photos anymore, I felt there was this tool in my toolbox which I miss now. But our culture needs to lighten up on that. I think of the girls on Instagram who are completely depressed, their endless reflections on themselves – it’s the age of the selfie in all its ugliness. This is the ultimate age of Narcissus – something has to give.
When you remember having twins 12 years ago, what images come to mind?
Unfortunately, the images are of fatigue and insufficiency. When the twins were babies, I always felt needy. No one asked about postpartum depression, no one checked it out – even with all the medical challenges I was facing – which still shocks me.
Where did you grow up?
I come from a small town outside of Chicago. My parents are from Iowa. My mother is an actress and was a teacher. My dad was in toy marketing and he died when I was 20. But it was a happy family for someone who was going to be a writer (laughs).
What are you currently working on?
An upcoming play at Lincoln Center: Salem Nurse Beckya diatribe on the crucible – and the misogyny I see in it. Arthur Miller wanted to have sex with Marilyn Monroe but was married and felt bad about it. So he put his libidinal energy into the character of Abigail Williams, who wants to sleep with John Proctor. What’s sneaky is that while the rest of the piece reads like historical fact, it was a complete fabrication. Abigail was 11 years old. She never even met John Proctor.
What books are on your bedside table?
Latest from Sharon Olds: Ballad. I have always loved her – her poems opened a door to the world for me. Cassandra at the wedding by Dorothy Baker, on the twins, a 1962 reprint – the prose is amazing. And my friend Rachel M Harper’s book The other motherabout a lesbian couple who adopts a child and then separates.
What’s the best memoir you’ve ever read?
Saint Augustin confession – he really cracked up. He worked on how to be open, how to make himself vulnerable before the reader and God.
Do you prefer memoirs to fiction?
I was suspicious of memoirs in my thirties, but the older I get, the more interested I am in the truth about people’s experiences. During the pandemic, I was drawn to non-fiction because fictional universes seemed almost like an amoral escape.
Which play would you most like to have written?
Dream of a summer night.
What is the best book you have ever received as a gift?
Letters between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. My friend gave it to me when I was pregnant with twins and on bed rest. It was a page-turner – I ended up making a game of their letters.
Who is your favorite literary heroine and why??
Jo from Louisa May Alcott Little woman. She is a role model for a writer, radical, sister and daughter, and a role model for surviving war, poverty and gender. Just wonderful.