All photographs courtesy of Eileen Cronin.
Left: Mary Eileen Cronin, age 5
In her youth, Mom had been an aspiring artist specializing in pen-and-ink fashion drawings like those in the ads for Giddings Jenny or Henry Harris, the toniest stores in town. Now she was a suburban housewife in a camel-hair coat, which she wore like a movie star wore a mink; she was angular, from her lean calves locked onto feet that seemed rooted in the concrete, to her head tilted just so above the collared coat. She was an unlikely mother of eight. Her brown-velvet eyes often soothed me, although her eyebrows added to her every demand: “I mean business!” At the wheel, she always swiped a hand over her hair, checked her lipstick, and then attended to the business of driving.
Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience — Eileen Cronin
WHEN I SIT DOWN to read Eileen Cronin’s Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience, I am at the beach, shielded from the bright sun under an umbrella, my feet in the sand. My 8-year-old daughter sits next to me; likely inspired by the book jacket, she draws a mermaid of her own in one of her favorite, old-fashioned, composition books with a mottled black-and-white cover, her name written in pink marker on the lined centerpiece. I watch as she draws flowing hair, big eyes, a big smile, seashells for breasts, a scalloped tail curled like an upside-down U. I turn the composition book right side up to look at the image, but she corrects me. “She’s supposed to be upside down. That’s the point.” She’s right, the mermaid is swimming upside down, the rough coral is beneath her head, and I realize it all makes sense.
Like my daughter’s mermaid, Eileen Cronin was in an upside-down world for most of her life. She was eight years old and in second grade when her mother suffered the first of her nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized; she was much younger when she realized that her missing lower legs would not grow in. She had to contend with many challenges and hardships in her life, including her place in a rowdy, often-contentious family of 11 children, a rigid Catholic-school upbringing in 1960s-1970s Cincinnati, her discovery and struggles with love, men and sex, her concerns about marriage and childbearing, her father’s abandonment, and her mother’s manic episodes and recoveries. She felt most free when she was swimming or skinny-dipping, with her wooden-and-steel-hook, heavy, prosthetic legs cast aside. Then she felt like “an elusive mermaid, the Venus de Milo spit from the ruins.”
Cronin sought answers about her legs and her reconstructed left hand with four fingers. Her mother routinely denied taking the drug thalidomide during her pregnancy — a drug that has been linked to birth defects. Instead, she told Cronin it was God’s will for her to “bear the cross.”
In her 20s, while earning her PhD in clinical psychology, Cronin faced the death of a beloved brother as well as alcohol addiction; she left an early marriage in her quest for self-discovery (she also attempted suicide before college). It wasn’t until she was remarried and a mother herself in her mid-30s that her mother admitted a stewardess had given her a thalidomide pill on a flight to Germany during the early stages of her pregnancy.
Despite her tremendous obstacles, Cronin was a spunky kid and a risk-taker. She didn’t let her clunky “legs” and constant, stabbing pain prevent her from walking a treacherous route to school with stairs and overpasses, or riding rollercoasters, even if that meant leaving a prosthetic “foot” perilously hanging off the side of the ride.
On the beach, reading her memoir feels like being on a rollercoaster — thrilling, heart-thumping passages portend a ramping up (to near-catastrophe), leaving me baited, wondering when the next shoe will fall. The prologue entices with a tale of a drunken spring-break episode in Fort Lauderdale, where she lies to her dance partner and says her limp is due to a tennis injury. I fear what’s coming, and it does. As he lifts her, spinning her around under the disco ball to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive,” her left leg goes flying. In another poignant, horrific scene, in the chapter “The Last Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” she is pushed down several flights of stairs at school by a band of cruel junior-high girls, who accuse her of being, of all things, “stuck up.”
Mermaid went into its second printing within its first month out and was recently named one of Oprah’s “Memoirs Too Powerful to Put Down.” The memoir has only two photos; no more are needed as Cronin’s words powerfully create the images instead. The book is currently being translated into Korean, Chinese and Spanish.
As I continue reading, looking up at times to take in the waves or read my daughter’s interpretation of the cover, I move in to a particularly compelling moment in Cronin’s story: her first recognition that she doesn’t have lower legs. She has been left by her family at an aunt’s home while they go on vacation and is screaming behind bars in her crib, though she is nearly 4 years old (at six months she had rolled off her parents’ bed and lived in a body cast for some time thereafter). It’s a tangible, heart-wrenching moment, at once inviting and also terrible. Her writing is riveting and I find myself smiling at her wit, laughing at her learning to make out from The Happy Hooker; I’m drawn in by her vivid, crafted passages, in self-reflection, self-evaluation and empathy. The book’s ending makes me cry in relief, because it is storybook, complex and real: she is a clinical psychologist in Sherman Oaks, married to a husband she loves deeply, who loves her; her daughter is a vibrant teenager and dancer who has performed with the Joffrey Ballet. She has recast her past long ago. And she has made peace with her mother.
I met Eileen Cronin at the LA Times Festival of Books, after attending the “Memoirs: Trials of Life” panel where she spoke with Samantha Dunn, Elizabeth Scarboro, Ron Suskind and Mary Williams. We continued to stay in touch. For a Mother’s Day interview for the Los Angeles Review of Books, we agreed to focus on mothering: hers and her mother’s.
MICHELE BOTWIN RAPHAEL: As children, we tend to revere our parents, no matter the circumstances. But at some point, the sheen comes off and we see them as real, dethroned, flaws and all. When did that happen for you with your mother?
EILEEN CRONIN: To me, my mother was I Love Lucy, Blanche DuBois, and a lion trainer all rolled into one, even after her first three-month hospitalization for bipolar disorder, even after a nun told me in the fifth grade in a cruel and public way that my mother took thalidomide and that it caused me to be born without legs. It was when I asked my mother if this was true that she fell from grace in my eyes. First she denied it, then she refused to discuss it, and slowly I felt myself putting more and more distance between us.
You show considerable sympathy for your mother, and as readers, we empathize with her, but it can be a risky endeavor to share a memoir with its characters. Has your mother read the book? What was her reaction?
When I first told her about the book being published, she said, “Oh God, those thalidomide people will be so happy.” After considerable hesitation, I sent her a copy of the book when the box arrived at my house because my brother, known as Ted in the book, told me that I absolutely had to send it to her. Then he told my mother that she absolutely had to read the book. I know that she read some of it because she asked me questions about it up until the high school chapters. She seemed fine with my having written about her downward spiral. Then I believe she was pressured not to read my book by certain siblings. I haven’t heard much about it from her since. We still talk. I never expected her to read the book, so I was surprised to learn that she read any of it.
There comes a point as an adult when one must accept one’s parents’ limitations. What has your experience been with that kind of letting go? For instance, when you asked your father to tell you he loved you in a letter but weren’t able to get the response you wanted? Or accepting your mother’s version of history after learning thalidomide was widely distributed in the US by Cincinnati-based Richardson-Merrell when your mother was pregnant with you?
Everyone is different, but I’ve come to terms several times in my life with the fact that my parents’ feelings toward me have always been complicated. I may have mentioned in the book that I’ve read my father’s letter several times over the years, and I feel differently each time I read it. I’m so grateful for that letter. I’m also grateful for the fact that there are no complications in my relationships with my younger siblings and my older brother “Kevin.” My brother “Ted” and I are exceptionally close.
Although your book is about forging your own way in a pair of artificial limbs, the underlying theme is more about motherhood: your relationship with your own mother and your quest to find out if your disability would be passed on to future children. Let’s talk about the relationship between independence and motherhood.
To me, the whole point of motherhood is to give a child all the tools needed to become as self-sufficient as possible. This is tricky because you want to be building a bond at the same time. My mother was exceptionally good at fostering independence but she had 11 kids, and it’s impossible to have an equal bond with every child. I suppose I had only one child because I never wanted to find myself in the position of having to dole out my affection. With one child you have the opportunity to develop a deeper bond, I think, because there is no issue of competition among siblings. My daughter is extremely close to me and my husband. Family is very important to her. It’s humbling for me to witness that because I was not mature enough at her age to value my family in the same way that she values her time with us.
Below: Eileen with her husband, Andrew Lakritz, and Ania Sophia
How does it feel be a mother of a daughter who’s such a success in ballet, which you longed to do as a child?
It’s one of my greatest joys. There is nothing I love more than watching my daughter [Ania] dance. One would think that she would revel in the freedom of movement within her body; this is something I never knew as a child, but then I was the one skinny-dipping in high school with friends, and Ania is often being called out by her ballet instructor for sticking too rigidly to the routine and not allowing herself to feel the music and interpret it through her own body and soul. I see that emotion inside of my daughter fighting to get out. Every day she lets a little more of her vulnerabilities show. At her age, I was writing poetry daily after school because I couldn’t contain my feelings. I felt they were going to consume me. I think my daughter is fighting the same battle. Every teenage girl fears that her emotion will consume her, but my daughter has a totally different approach to that battle than I had because we’ve led different lives. This is how ballet becomes poetry in motion. It’s too bad that the art discriminates against older women and women who are not rail thin. The best dancers are those who have some battle scars. Wendy Whelan (46) and Diana Vishneva (37) are some of the best ballet dancers of our time.
At what point did your daughter realize you were different from other moms?
I don’t remember a specific time when Ania noticed that I was different. She says she doesn’t remember either.
What may have been more trying for my daughter is the fact that she is an only child. She enjoys it, but I see that it has definitely affected her standing in the community in the sense that other kids’ identities are pegged to their siblings. As an only child, Ania has to prove herself in every new situation.
What are some of the biggest similarities and differences between your childhood and your daughter’s?
Obviously my daughter has none of the physical restraints and none of the discriminatory social issues working against her, but she is far more shy than I am. Like parents of my generation I have coddled her somewhat. Now that she is approaching adulthood and I’ve had time to reflect on my own childhood, I see the benefits of my parents’ approach to childrearing. They were fearless about sending us out into the world, and I used to think of them as reckless. For example, my Dad bought a car at 16 and drove to Chicago from Cincinnati with his friends, one of whom was an eigth-grader with a 5-dollar bill sewn into his jacket pocket by his mother. From the time Dad was 10, his parents put him on a train every summer from Cincinnati to Minnesota where he worked on his grandparents’ farm.
So I’ve gone from a mom afraid to let my teenage daughter cross a busy street alone to one who sent her 16 year old alone on a flight from LAX to Cincinnati, with a transfer in Chicago. She was not only intact upon arrival but she came home from that trip a more confident young lady.
What is your daughter’s relationship like with your mother?
Ania loves her grandmother and my mother adores Ania. My mother has about 30 some grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, and we don’t live close by but Ania sees her just about every year. My mother sends gifts to Ania often.
Your memoir includes family dysfunction, your relationships with men prior to marrying your husband, and your early battle with alcohol. Has your daughter read this book?
My daughter has heard me read chapters during public events, and she heard me read aloud while writing the book at home. I find it helpful to read aloud in the final drafts. During these times I made a point of not reading any of the intimate scenes while she was at home. When I finished I told her that she was free to read the book or not, but I advised her that she might want to wait until she is in college or after college before reading the whole book. It is actually a book perfect for teenage girls, but it’s different reading about your mother’s early romances than about a stranger’s romances. Thankfully, Ania has decided to wait until she’s older. In the meantime, I think she enjoys the early childhood chapters because she loves my family and all the stories from our childhoods.
You write about longing to be a mother, and yet being concerned, especially before knowing if your child would be subject to a genetic issue (as you hadn’t yet been able to confirm your mother’s use of thalidomide by the time you became pregnant). Did you face scrutiny during your pregnancy?
It was already my fear that people would be hostile toward me if I had a child. In Boston during the 80s I was invited by the Women’s Health Book Collective to join a task force on disability and motherhood. One panel member was so fanatical that she fell just shy of advocating for forced sterilization of women with disabilities. When I got pregnant in 1997, to my astonishment, people seemed to rally around my pregnancy. Even total strangers were kind and very solicitous. I lived in a suburb of Washington, DC, that was progressive. I’m not sure that reaction would be the case everywhere. It makes a difference too that my disability is not totally obvious. I prefer to wear long skirts. It’s not that obvious that I’m wearing artificial legs. People think I just injured myself or something minor happened.
You travel with a group of psychologists doing conference presentations on sexuality, motherhood and women with disabilities. What kinds of challenges do you find mothers with disabilities face? Have you experienced discrimination personally?
One psychologist is in a wheelchair and she is constantly being treated as if she were invisible or an inanimate object. For example, when her daughter was a small child, people in stores would ask her, “Where’s your mother?” The girl would say, “Right here,” and point to her mother. Then the person would ask again, “Yes, but where is your MOTHER?”
Once my daughter was born, the community accepted us, as far as I could tell, until we hit a couple of snags in grade school. The mom who ran the Girl Scout troop refused to let me go on the camping trip, even though most of the mothers were going. Every time I asked about signing up, she kept telling me that my husband was welcome to join them. Finally I said, “He’s not asking to go on this trip, I am!” She just looked at me and repeated, “As I said, ‘your husband is welcome to join us.'”
A similar situation arose with a fifth-grade teacher. The common thread, as far as I could tell between all these women, seemed to be this intense belief that they were responsible for the safety and well being of the community. It’s as if they see people with disabilities as a threat to their livelihoods and to that of their children.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being a parent with two artificial legs?
It hasn’t been that challenging ever since I figured out that my daughter was smart about choosing friends and her close friends have been very cool about my legs. Occasionally I worry about what will happen when I get old, since she is an only child. I don’t want to have to become dependent on her some day, but who wants to depend on their child?
What have you learned from motherhood, and do you think you will write a memoir of that experience?
Motherhood has been far less stressful than I ever imagined it would be. They say you shouldn’t make your child your best friend but I prefer Ania and my husband’s company to anyone else. We share similar tastes: films, books, biking, cooking and travel. Occasionally we argue like siblings but an hour later we are on track again. Ania is levelheaded and takes direction from us fairly easily. I appreciate more and more the sense of humor that my parents passed down to us. I see that reflected in our relationship with Ania. My parents’ love of children is also a family trait. I believe my mother has had a similar relationship with my oldest sister and my youngest sister to the one I have with Ania.
I’m eager to finish a novel. For now I will write an essay here and there but no book-length memoirs for a while.
How did writing Mermaid and its positive response heal, change or affect you?
I set out to write this book as an artistic endeavor. What I had not realized was that the reflection and the drilling that goes into the creative process when writing from your own life is in fact healing. The most healing aspect of all has been the fact that the book has been evaluated by critics for its artistic merits. I feared that it would be dismissed.
Michele Botwin Raphael is a writer and editor, specializing in digital media, entertainment, pop culture, books, arts and lifestyle topics. Recently named a National Press Foundation Fellow, she currently blogs for the Huffington Post. She previously held roles as a staff writer and “Cybertainment” columnist for Los Angeles Times, and a director of publications and special projects for the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center.