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, or the vibrator play,” 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. There’s a story about “In the Next Room” on Broadway and the leading actress complaining about feeling upstaged by the leading man’s very exposed genitals.
Ruhl brings this up with him, and he replies: “Unfortunately, my penis is on the same side of my body as my face.”
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.
In a phone conversation from her Brooklyn home, Ruhl thought of an inability to smile as “immediately becoming a metaphor for so much.” For instance, in the book, she recounts classes at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, taking a role in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at Children’s Theatre of Winnetka — working up courage to act. After developing palsy, that small urge to stand in front of others now made her envious of the professional expressiveness of the actors she worked with. “After the twins were born, Frances McDormand came over to see them and I remember sitting there with my implacable face and seeing how expressive she is and I’m thinking ‘I really can’t mirror at all what is she is putting out here.’ As a working playwright, having a passive observer face is fine, but it gets frustrating when you don’t seem like you’re actively listening or reacting. Especially at an audition table, right? I would think, ‘I look like such a judgmental person.’ I had what is described as ‘resting bitch face.’ I couldn’t look happy when I was happy or worried when I was worried. That unconscious mirroring that everyone does for people, all day long — I couldn’t do that.”
Which can be doubly difficult when you’re from the Midwest.
Typically I wince when I come across a mention in a book to the innate pleasantness and hearty reliance of Midwesterners — it’s a cliché easily applied to any region of the country — but Ruhl gives that local back-patting a fresh resonance. Being “a self-sufficient Midwestern,” she writes, Ruhl would like to conclude she dug herself out of her hole. She spent most of the past summer in Evanston, living in director Mary Zimmerman’s Victorian home, her husband swimming in the lake each morning, Ruhl wondering if she should create a theater company for pleasant front-porch productions. She found her hometown “actively kind, running after me in a parking lot because I dropped two dollars. In Brooklyn here, if someone is running after me in a parking lot, I did something wrong or I’m being told that no, you cannot bring a dog into this CVS.”
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 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.
A decade after the initial diagnosis, she can mirror more expressions now. But unless you’re one of her theater students at Yale, or talking to her on Zoom (where social cues are reduced largely to faces), she doesn’t feel any need to explain herself anymore. She figures that she’s 70% recovered “and the other 30% might get there, if I actively work at it.”
Finally: I have a dream to run away and write about animals exclusively, but not the new-zoo-panda stuff — unless it’s like the panda journalism in “On Animals” (Avid, $27), Susan Orlean’s breezy new pile of old pieces on pigs, Iceland’s difficulty freeing the real Willy the whale, the Midwest’s World Taxidermy Championship. The lede of her New Yorker profile of a show dog remains my all-time favorite first sentence: “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale.” A decent chaser: Mary Roach’s latest quirk-filled science roundup, “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law” (Norton, $27), which doesn’t live up to its title — it’s about coexistence, not transgression — but nearly every page holds a jaw dropper. Make a seagull nervous, “it will vomit.” Just saying.