Sarah Ruhl: ‘This is the age of Narcissus. Something got to give’

The US playwright on the traumatic impact of Bell’s palsy on her life, the American obsession with smiling and why Jo from Little Women is her literary heroine

The US playwright Sarah Ruhl, 48, had recently given birth to twins when she discovered, after a lactation consultant noticed one of her eyes was drooping, that something was disconcertingly awry with her face. In her wonderful memoir Smile: The Story of a Face (out in paperback on 29 September), she writes about being diagnosed with Bell’s palsy and suffering postpartum depression at a point when she had a Tony-nominated play transferring to Broadway (the smile on the red carpet an impossibility). This is a book that raises fascinating questions, not least about the dangers of judging by appearances.

Has writing Smile been a way of putting the experience of having Bell’s palsy behind you?
It was absolutely necessary for living the next chapter of my life. I didn’t even know how necessary it was. I’d resisted writing about it because it felt so personal. I’d resisted trying to make narrative sense of what had happened to me. Even after the book’s publication, when asked to retell the story, my mind would go blank. There was trauma there… Writing about it has helped me and I’ve connected with so many readers. And in a literal way, it has led to a diagnosis.

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