TAmerican playwright Sarah Roll, 48, had recently given birth to twins when she discovered, after a lactation consultant noticed that one of her eyes was drooping, that something was disturbingly skewed in her face. In her wonderful notes, The smile: the story of the face (Published in paperback Sept. 29), she writes about her diagnosis of Bell’s palsy and suffering from postpartum depression at a time when a Tony-nominated play is taking to Broadway (A Smile on the Red Carpet is Impossible). This is a book that raises fascinating questions, not least about the dangers of judging by appearances.
has writing smiling Was it a way to put the experience of 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 resisted writing about it because it felt so personal. I resisted trying to give a narrative meaning to what happened to me. Even after the book was published, when I was asked to retell the story, my mind went blank. There was a shock … Writing about it helped me and connected with many readers. Literally, it led to the diagnosis.
what do you mean by that?
An infectious disease doctor read my book, somehow got my number, and suddenly called me and said, “I think you have stage 3 Lyme disease.” I said: “It is not possible, it has already been tested.” “There are more complex tests you can do now, you really have to go,” he said. So I went and tested positive and am now in treatment for it. What happened to me was probably a perfect storm: I had underlying Lyme, gave birth to twins and had Bell’s palsy.
And can you now talk about the moment you first saw your changing face?
It was a huge shock – after I looked in the mirror, I felt a completely different person. There was also concern that I might have had a stroke. In a way, the diagnosis of Bell’s palsy was a relief.
Are you more careful now about judging by appearances?
Being in the theater, I’m used to the axiom – a pseudo-axiom – that we read expression through the face, and that this is our main access to emotional life. The irony is that I, as a playwright, have been providing the actors with language. We have language, bodies, and voices – we don’t have Just her face. And while I don’t think of myself as someone who would have been judged by appearances much before Bell’s palsy, it has given me more sympathy for people who might have a mismatch between the outside and the inside and I have more doubts about thinking that we can tell a person by looking at his face.
Can you explain how not being able to smile made you miserable?
There is a neural feedback loop where the more you smile, the happier you are… and the happier you are, the more you smile. Most people recover quickly from Bell’s palsy, but I didn’t, and the longer it took me to adjust my inner landscape to fit my expression of neutrality. It was only years later that I realized how depressed I was.
You write so well about the way the United States is busy with the big smile
Americans are obsessed Smiling: Smiling at strangers, grinning with teeth to take pictures – it’s a weird American thing. I have since learned that one reason to focus on smiling is because we are a culturally heterogeneous society. In more homogeneous cultures, there is more coding that everyone understands. An American smile indicates that a person who may not be from his culture is friendly.
Do women need to be less invested in looks?
As a feminist and writer, I thought of myself above her; I didn’t know how much I cared or dependent on how I felt about my appearance, but then, when I suddenly couldn’t smile for pictures, I felt like there was this tool in my toolbox that was now missing. But our culture needs to temper it. I think of girls on Instagram who are completely depressed, their endless self-reflections – this is the age of selfies in all their ugliness. It’s the final age of Narcissus – something to give.
When you remember having twins 12 years ago, what images come to mind?
Unfortunately, the pictures are tired and short. When the twins were children, I always felt inferior. No one asked about postpartum depression, no one checked it out—even with all the medical challenges I’ve been having—which is still shocking to me.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from a small town outside of Chicago. My parents are from Iowa. My mom is an actress and she was a teacher. My father worked in game marketing and passed away when I was twenty. But it was a fun family for someone who would become a writer (laughs).
What are you currently working on?
Coming to Lincoln Center: Nurse Becky Salemscreaming around Crucible And the hatred of women I see in her. Arthur Miller wanted to have sex with Marilyn Monroe but was married and felt bad about it. So he puts his fat energy into the character of Abigail Williams, who wants to have sex with John Proctor. What is deceptive is that while the rest of the play reads as historical fact, this was a complete fabrication. Abigail was eleven years old. And she didn’t even meet John Proctor.
What are the books on your bedside table?
Sharon Olds latest release: Ballads. I have always loved her – her poems opened a portal to the world for me. Cassandra at the wedding By Dorothy Baker, About Twins, Reprinted From 1962 – The prose is amazing. And my friend Rachel M. Harper’s book The other motherabout a gay couple who adopt a child, and then break up.
What is the best memoir you’ve ever read?
Saint Augustine confessions – It’s really cracked. He figured out how to be open-minded, how to make himself vulnerable before the reader and God.
Do you prefer memoir over fiction?
I was skeptical about my memoirs in my thirties, but the older I got, the more interested I was in the reality of people’s experience. During the pandemic, I was drawn to fairy tales because fictional universes seemed like an amoral escape.
What play do you like to write?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
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 in bed. It was a page flip – I ended up making a play for their characters.
Who is your favorite literary heroine and why??
Joe by Louisa May Alcott little Women. She is a model for a writer, a radical, a sister and a daughter, and a model for how to survive a time of war, poverty, and sexuality. Just awesome.