Published in the Chapel Hill Herald, May 09, 2015
I don’t generally have great expectations when celebrities of any stripe cross genres to write a book. I hold out some hope for actors and actresses whose understanding of characterization and pacing has the potential to show up in their writing.
Kate Mulgrew’s Born with Teeth: A Memoir (Hatchett, 9.5 hours;book from Little Brown) challenged my assumption. I knew I’d enjoy hearing her rich, gravely voice as much as I have in her role as Galina “Red” Reznikov in “Orange Is The New Black,” but was delighted to find the same richness in her writing.
Like the best memoirists, Mulgrew writes to understand. In a recent interview, she speaks of how she became her mother’s mother early in life and the book resulted from her desire to understand the “deeply defining…mysterious current that has run through my life.”
Mulgrew was born to unconventional Irish-Catholic Midwestern parents. Her intelligent, eccentric mother and irresistible, bar-fighting father were known to their friends as Chickie and Ace. They “knew how to drink, how to dance, how to talk, how to stir up the devil.”
Mulgrew, as if armed for life, is born with teeth, “two pearls on top and two nonpareils on the bottom.” “Kitten,” who soon lived in a brood of seven, had to “forage for food” and hold her own during fights with cow pies and snow balls. Mulgrew’s early life was also marked by the death of a baby sister so that “at the age of 4 I felt my mother’s growing distance and I became her constant shadow” and Mulgrew sometimes imagined herself “in charge of her mother’s happiness.”
Mulgrew’s mother had another profound effect when she encouraged her daughter to become a great actress, not a mediocre writer.
But Mulgrew has writing skill. Early in the memoir, her portrayals of people and places are colored by events of joy and grief to set a strong emotional tone. This continues through the ebbs and flows of her life aided by her honesty. She writes candidly of trying to understand the technical writing of the Star Trek scripts, living in an oppressive marriage, finding and losing the love of her life, the heartbreak of giving up her child for adoption and, later, her bliss at their reunion.
Mulgrew’s intonations and emphasis demonstrate how her early bravado opened doors and convey in equal measure her passions in love, work and parenting. Mulgrew expresses dramatic tension throughout, continually revealing her depth and breadth of feeling, pausing often for insightful reflections. In one scene, she takes her sons to a Star Trek set imagining the pride they’ll feel in their mother. To her surprise they intentionally misbehave, she suffers the embarrassment until recognizing how much they need her.
Again and again she returns to the relationship with her mother — her childhood worry at her mother’s depressions, her disappointment and confusion when her mother urges her to give up her child, admiration of her mother’s art and panache, and her horror at her mother’s signs of Alzheimer’s.
The only unfulfilling part of this book comes with a rather abrupt end. Mulgrew covers neither her second marriage to the love of her life, or her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. I’m hoping for an encore.