Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience

by Dr. Jessie Voigts / Feb 16, 2015 /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I love reading memoirs - they give us a glimpse into another life, of course, but also another way of being in the world. It's like traveling - and traveling through time. Such is the case with a beautiful memoir by Eileen Cronin, entitled Mermaid. Now anyone who knows me will know that this book was meant to find me. And find me, it did, for which I am grateful. Cronin crafts her tale with sensitivity, honesty, and wry humor. Named on Oprah's list of Memoirs Too Powerful to Put Down, this book is history, growing up, difference, disability, and self-empowerment, all at the same time.

 

Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience

 

I will be honest. People with physical differences have two main choices in presenting their true selves to the world - to try to 'pass' as abled, or to accept your body and push on. In many ways, it's so much easier to try to pass, despite pain, difficulties, and not being true to who you are. You don't need to cope with limitless curiosity, deal with pity disguised as sympathy, and answer eternal questions about your body. But there comes a time (and for some, sooner than others) when passing as abled grows tiresome. This is when you gather your courage, get ready to answer questions for the rest of your life about your physical difference, and become settled in your body. It's a part of growing up, of accepting yourself - and people with disabilities cope with it in myriad ways, of course. (The first thing you learn in the field of disability studies is that disabilities are all so different that they defy categorization, really; that the one unifying theme to the field is that of physical difference.) And how you present yourself to the world, how you live in the world, defines who you are, really. It's a challenge for everyone.

So Mermaid. Cronin beautifully details her life, starting with learning, at around the age of 3, that having no legs was unique. From then on, the book shares tales of getting new legs (a trip alone with her mother!), of losing a leg dancing (and watching it spin off away from her), of growing up different, of being strong, of dealing with bullies, siblings, changing family dynamics, love, pain, life. Through it all, Cronin's sense of humor shines, as she can make even the most difficult events come to life, and with the power to make you smile through her pain and readjustments. The saying that we're forged by the events that define us is true, of course, but we are also forged by our compassion, our personality, humor, and the way we handle things thrown at us by life.

This book? It's a shining example of looking at life honestly, and moving forward with grace. She has many lessons for readers in accepting ourselves, our families, and people we love. But the biggest takeaway is learning to accept yourself, grow up, love, and find your purpose in life. This defies labeling, and is a lesson we all need to learn - and practice.

 

Mermaid releases today in paperback, from Norton. There are also Korean and Spanish versions (the Spanish title is La Sirena), and a Chinese translation is forthcoming.

 

We were lucky enough to catch up with Dr. Cronin, and ask about her book, inspiration, writing challenges, Thalidomide, disability studies, and more. Here's what she had to say...

 

Eileen Cronin. Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience

 

Please tell us about your book, Mermaid...

This is a memoir that appeals to people of all ages and all walks of life. For people who like "period pieces," it offers a close look at 60s culture in the Midwest. For people who like family saga, this book is packed with family dynamics: humorous, sad, terrifying, and a few that cross into each category. There were 11 kids in my Irish-German Catholic family and our mother battled depression. And finally, MERMAID is about growing up with a "disability." I prefer to use the term physical difference. It covers many stages of life so the reader is pulled into family squabbles, school stories, romances, and my launch into the world.

 

What inspired you to write this book?

I've been writing since my teens. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post in the 80s, and from that I had offers to write a memoir, but I wasn't ready to do that then. Over the years I wrote and published short fiction and personal essays, but I was also becoming a psychologist and getting married and starting a family. Finally, in my forties I was ready, and I started writing this in 2007.

 

Memoir must be really difficult to write - what were the challenges for you?

I didn't want to have to tell so much about my personal life. Some memoirists can get away with writing about a subject, such as travel, and they can weave in only a part of their personal story. My story would not have been as interesting, sincere, or useful, if I didn't cover the lifespan. That's a huge amount of work, and it is enormously taxing, emotionally. One has to be very ready, and after years of fine-tuning my craft, I felt ready to take on the challenge.

 

Eileen Cronin. Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience

Eileen at 5 years old

 

You describe your foray into disability studies - how has that impacted your life (and writing)?

I am an advocate for social change. It is my opinion that people who have physical differences are regularly discriminated against by employers and in school settings. In many cases, people are abused by spouses or family members or caretakers, or as I have written, some kids are bullied by physical assault or taunting at school. People with physical "disabilities" are as vulnerable if not more vulnerable than transgendered folks. We need protection from employer discrimination, as well.   

 

Thalidomide was such a horrific thing to be created - and be used so carelessly. How did you research and finesse writing about it so sensitively?

I read a few books on the topic. Increasingly there are more articles coming out. I have written even more extensively on this topic through my blog on the Huffington Post.

We need more coverage of this topic. People have a lot of false impressions about what happened and how it happened and where it happened, and to whom it happened. This is crucial because we live in a pharmaceutically-engineered culture. As it happens, thalidomide is in use again as a treatment for cancer and leprosy, and while it is said to be closely monitored in the U.S., it is actually sold on the streets in some countries. It is a sedative drug and therefore people will use it to get a buzz. Drug addicts will and do abuse it in places like Brazil.

Here in the U.S., there are drugs given to sexually active women, and the effects of those drugs could be passed onto a developing fetus. We don't have long-term studies of the effects of many drugs on a fetus. Recently, for example, we found out that in fact Zoloft has an impact on the developing fetus. But in the 90s, I was offered Zoloft while pregnant because of insomnia. The list goes on and on. 

 

What's up next for you?

I am writing a novel. It has nothing to do with physical differences, but it has a lot to do with family rivalries, Catholicism, sex, love, competition, and how these factors play out in the lives of two cousins. 

 

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

If you want to help promote my work, please share my website: www.eileencronin.com or my Huffington Post site with friends on Facebook or Twitter. My Twitter handle is @CroninMermaid.

 

 

 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Eileen Cronin