2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence Longlist Selection
The extraordinary story of one woman’s ten-year medical and metaphysical odyssey that brought her physical, creative, emotional, and spiritual healing, by a MacArthur genius and two-time Pulitzer finalist.
With a play opening on Broadway, and every reason to smile, Sarah Ruhl has just survived a high-risk pregnancy when she discovers the left side of her face is completely paralyzed. She is assured that 90 percent of Bell’s palsy patients see spontaneous improvement and experience a full recovery. Like Ruhl’s own mother. But Sarah is in the unlucky ten percent. And for a woman, wife, mother, and artist working in theater, the paralysis and the disconnect between the interior and exterior brings significant and specific challenges. So Ruhl begins an intense decade-long search for a cure while simultaneously grappling with the reality of her new face—one that, while recognizably her own—is incapable of accurately communicating feelings or intentions.
In a series of piercing, witty, and lucid meditations, Ruhl chronicles her journey as a patient, wife, mother, and artist. She explores the struggle of a body yearning to match its inner landscape, the pain of postpartum depression, the story of a marriage, being a playwright and working mom to three small children, and the desire for a resilient spiritual life in the face of illness.
Brimming with insight, humility, and levity, Smile is a triumph by one of America’s leading playwrights. It is an intimate examination of loss and reconciliation, and above all else, the importance of perseverance and hope in the face of adversity.
In this stunning work, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ruhl (44 Poems for You) reflects on her long and arduous battle with Bell's palsy after giving birth to twins. For about 85% of people, Bell's palsy, a weakness in facial muscles, lasts for three months or less, yet for an unlucky 5%, it can be long-term. For Ruhl, the condition has persisted for more than a decade. In a series of insightful and witty essays, she provides an unvarnished look at coming to terms with a face that's paralyzed on one side ("Kissing with one eye open isn't exactly a peril, but it is strange"); the postpartum depression she dealt with after a complicated pregnancy; and a celiac disease diagnosis that made her give up her beloved bagels. Ruhl juggled all this while simultaneously working in theater and mothering three children under the age of five with her husband. "My years of writing plays tells me that a story requires an apotheosis, a sudden transformation," she muses. "But my story has been so slow... the nature of the chronic, which resists plot and epiphany." As she recounts learning to find joy in small things such as regaining the ability to blink Ruhl proves that even life at its most mundane can be fascinating. This incredibly inspiring story offers hope where it's least expected.