Welcome to Scandalous Women, Catherine! I can’t tell you how excited I was to read your new memoir AFTER THE FALLS. But I have to ask, how does a clinical psychologist suddenly become a bestselling author? Tell us about this metamorphosis.
I am not so sure that it was a metamorphosis—it was more of an accident. I didn’t start writing until I was 50 years old. (I did write a psychological column for a magazine but it was not creative writing.) I had been a psychologist for 25 years. I was at a dinner party and a guest said that she felt sorry for her sixteen year old daughter who had to get a job and lose her childhood. I said that sixteen year old kids should be working. You can’t be a child forever. I worked at four years of age and it was good for me. On our way home from the dinner party my husband informed me that we would never be invited there again.
The next morning the hostess of the party called me and said the story of my childhood working with the black delivery car driver was interesting and she thought I should write it up as a short story and send it in to a literary competition. I tried to write it as fiction but kept falling back on the memoir genre with me as the first person. I decided to send it to a publisher as a memoir book proposal. He sent back an advance check that had a yellow post-it note on it that said “finish it!” So I could either send back the advance check or make it into a whole book. I chose the latter. Then I was published and on the best seller’s lists for a long time and I was launched as a writer.
Do you feel that your professional life as a psychologist has helped you in any way become a better writer?
Yes it helped me in several ways. I had very little fear of sounding ‘strange’ to others because after listening to other people’s problems, which are after all, their stories I realized that almost everyone has the same feelings. They may find different ways of expressing them, but at our core we are remarkably similar. I learned that the search for fitting in and longing for love is universal. I also learned that everyone feels they don’t fit in –no matter what are their actual circumstances.
I also learned a great deal about human nature when I worked in forensic psychiatry (combination of criminality and psychiatric disorder) before I went into private practice. There I learned that you had to have empathy for everyone. If you didn’t you were bad at the job. We were all babies who wanted love. It is the job of the psychologist to find out what went wrong and where it happened. That job made me realize that everyone is really the same and we just get launched on a good or bad path.
AFTER THE FALLS is your second memoir. Was it an easy decision to write about your youth in these two books, and did you have to change a few names or events to protect the innocent?
I had no intention of writing about my teenage years. My family moved, Roy was gone, the drug store had been sold and my life was very different. I went on to write another book after TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS called SEDUCTION, a thriller novel about Darwin and Freud. Unfortunately it never came out in the States due to a threatened law-suit. It has been a hit in Germany and was chosen by the magazine Der Spiegal as one of the thrillers of the year. It was also on the Canadian best seller’s list. However I had hundreds of readers of TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS who wrote to me over the years wanting to know what happened after TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS. So I decided to write about my teenage years.
In the first memoir TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS I didn’t change everyone’s name because it was my first book and I was naïve. When I wrote AFTER THE FALLS I realized that I should change everyone’s name. I was also legally advised to do so. Memory is a fallible. What I remember is not what another person may remember of the same incident. If you have siblings how often have you fought over how something happened in the past? Memory is a way that our mind constructs the past. It is subject to repression and other defense mechanisms of the unconscious. Aside from the possibility of memories being inaccurate, there is also the problem that people many not want to be in my memoir. If I choose to use someone’s life it was not their choice to be in my book. The best way around these problems is to camouflage the character and give them another name.
Growing up in the 60's, your teenage years as described in AFTER THE FALLS were pretty turbulent, filled with some incredible highs but also some amazing lows. How do you look back at the 60's now?
I look back upon the 60’s with fondness. I have a few regrets such as I wish I had been kinder to my father and had been more tolerant of others, but teenage years are a learning period. We were all trying on adult clothes before they really fit. I have learned to cut myself some slack. On the whole I felt proud of what I did with civil rights. I was only a tiny part of it, but more civil rights legislation was passed in the 60’s than any other time in history. Feminism hit in the late 60’s and I was again on board for that. I demonstrated in Chicago and still think it was for a good cause. My most fond memories of the 60’s were working and planning with others for a future we honestly felt we could change. Of course in retrospect that was overly optimistic and we were naïve, however it was a great feeling to be planning a better future. There were some personal tragedies along the way but then all teenage years have some tragedy. You grow through tragedy and learn from mistakes. How else do you grow up?
In your author’s note, you share “In many ways the trajectory of my life during that time mirrored what was happening in the sixties across North America. Residual fifties conservatism evolved into riots in the streets, all in a few years – and in my own life I experienced just as radical and tumultuous a transformation.” Do you think that your transformation was inevitable, regardless of the societal changes?
I have no way of knowing that. I know I really didn’t fit in the 50’s and I didn’t feel so alone in the 60’s. I think I would have had much the same transformation emotionally no matter what the politics of the era. Maybe if the 60’s hadn’t happened I would have still dressed in collegiate golf attire but my psyche would have developed along the same lines no matter what the sociology of the era. I have always been a scrapper. As my father used to say “I was born with my dukes up.” I enacted the lawn jockey caper where the police were on my tail well before the radical 60’s revolution hit.
Going to the HoJo’s in Kingston was big part of my growing up so I was fascinated to read that you actually met the real Howard Johnson. What was that like and did it have an influence on your life?
Howard Johnson was a hard worker and he did everything scientifically. I really liked that about him. Each serving was measured out so you never gave anyone too much or too little. He had his own scoop for ice cream with a point so the amount looked larger than it was. He fought the Coke and Pepsi cartel and won and served Ho-Jo cola. He had a system for everything and traveled incognito to the restaurants and dined to see how they were run. In person he was unassuming. When he asked me about Salisbury steak I said I’d rather eat sawdust and then I recommended the steak. He was happy I was up-selling him when really I just hated the Salisbury steak. He was really the first fast food restaurant dressed up to look a little fancier. The orange roof was another brilliant touch so that you could see it from great distances. I learned an enormous amount about business while working there—especially when I ran my own business. Have procedures for everything in writing and work hard yourself and you will be successful.
You had a pretty atypical childhood for the period, going to work at your father’s drugstore at the age of 4. How hard was it for you when you moved to Buffalo, not to have that structure anymore?
It was really hard. I think I went a bit off the rails. I got in all kinds of trouble much of it has been cut from the book since the reader would have never left high school. My parents realized that I had no idea what to do with unstructured time. It seemed to hang too heavy on my hands. They wisely channeled me back into work. I worked at the donut store from 4:30 in the morning at 14 and then when I worked at Howard Johnson’s at 16 and 17, I would get home at 1:30 in the morning. I learned to replicate my childhood work habits since that worked best for me. My teacher Mother Agnese was spot on when she said “The phrase ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop’ was made up for Catherine McClure”.
You had a social conscience from an early age, starting with your attempt to get rid of the black lawn jockeys. Where did that awareness come from? Was it your parent’s influence or your friendship with Roy? Or a little bit of both?
Social conscience is usually based on role modeling from parents. I think it would mostly have been my father. He would not ever allow any racist statement or unkind statement to be said by anyone in the store. He rarely got angry but one of the few times I saw him angry was when ‘Warty’, who had had neurofibromatosis, the elephant man’s disease, was mistreated. He would also become angry if the cosmetician would refuse to sell cosmetics to the prostitutes and told her to remember ‘We are all God’s children.”
Roy never once said a bad thing about anyone. Strangely, in all the years I delivered medicine with him I never heard one racist word about him. Everyone invited us in for a drink and fruit cake, etc. I had no idea at the time that Lewiston was to be commended for that. I thought it was normal. That is why I was so shocked when I went to college and I heard all of the racist statements in sororities, etc. I must have lived in a great town who was accepting of most people. I was shocked the rest of America didn’t follow suit.
You managed to end up on the FBI suspect list for various reasons which is not an experience many of us have had. Do you think that they are still keeping tabs on you?
I doubt it very much. First of all I have not lived in America for forty years. When I did live there I think I was a bit player in the 60’s. The FBI was really interested in Laurie as he was a black radical in the 60’s and a group leader. They wanted to find out what I could tell them about him. Every minor and major leader in the civil rights movement in the 60’s was investigated by the FBI including Martin Luther King. I don’t think the FBI was interested in Splits’ murder. They were just trying to find out more about Laurie. When they investigated me they had all of my hundreds of letters to Laurie. When they talked to me they didn’t even put on another record or tape for the second part of the interview. I don’t think they saw my file as anything of importance.
Music plays a large role in the descriptions of events throughout the book. Does music still play as significant a role in your daily life now as it did then?
Music stopped for me in the 60’s. I moved to Canada, was immersed in Grad school, and child rearing and I couldn’t tell you what was on the hit parade. I never even listen to the radio today and I haven’t bought music in 40 years. Yet I had one of the best 60’s collections around. My lack of interest in music is odd because Roy loved music and we listened to the black station all day long and sang duets together and I can to this day remember all of the words. (I did Ella Fitzgerald to his Louis Armstrong.)
Lyrics of the 60’s were very powerful for me. It seemed that the music was just a little ahead of the current zeitgeist. I remember feeling that I did not fit in and then I got a letter from my good friend Kip from Vietnam who told me what a fiasco was going on over there. I felt like I was shedding my skin – I wasn’t who I thought I was. Suddenly I realized I was not alone when I heard the lines from the Buffalo Springfield:
There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Telling me I got to beware.
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down.
When I was totally ostracized in Ohio without one friend, due to my relationship with Laurie, I remember listening to Morrison: “When you’re strange and no one remembers your name.”
When Kip was killed in Vietnam we all listened to Dylan scream ;
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
Teenagers are notoriously inarticulate and the lyrics of the era expressed so perfectly how we all felt. I never found lyrics of the later decades to express my feelings.
Throughout this book there are stories of great sadness, anger and frustration. How does has humor contributed to your storytelling, even during sadder times?
I think that Irish Catholics use humour to express their sadness or frustration. Whining and complaining never help anyone and as we learned in Catholic school, ‘Offer up your sufferings for those less fortunate.’ You can get away with a lot of complaining if you do it with humour. People are entertained and yet they still hear you. I think humour has always been my main way of expressing myself and getting love from others. I worked in the store and I had to be able to contribute at coffee break even as a little kid—so I offered humour. My mother was a quiet woman who lived on the periphery and whenever I came home she would ask “What funny things happened on the road?” Tragedy is going to happen no matter what you do so you might as well see the humour in it. My mother and I were the queens of black humour – that was the glue of our relationship.
After everything that happened in AFTER THE FALLS, how did you end up in Toronto instead of say New York?
Well that is the big question in the third volume called THE LONG WAY HOME which I am now finishing. The short answer is a professor at Oxford said if I wanted to do a PhD on Coleridge then the world’s authority was at University of Toronto.
Will there be a third memoir concerning the life and times of Catherine McClure Gildiner? Were the 70's just as eventful for you?
Yes there is a third volume and the 70’s were equally eventful – and far less tragic. I take the reader through my schooling in Oxford, England, where I have hilarious antics trying to fit in among the English. The second part is when I teach in the Hough area of Cleveland during the riots of the 6o’s and we are escorted to school by our the national guard . The last third of the book takes place in Canada when I move to Toronto in 1970 to go to Graduate school during the Canadian War measures Act. Believe it or not I get involved in that from my home in Rochdale College.
Who or what do you like to read for fun?
I am now re reading Dickens so that I can better understand character. I am almost finished now but I’m having a bit of trouble with OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. I have a rule that I read one classic and then one contemporary novel. I just re-read Charlotte Bronte’s first novel Villette. You can see that she was just learning to write. The main character is too passive to hold the interest of the reader. I just finished LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann. He is an Irishman who now lives in New York who wrote a great book using the literary device of tying together characters who watch the tightrope walker who walks between the twin towers. Like so many Irish writers he makes writing sound as easy as telling a story. Yet the book is mesmerizing and profound.
What's next in store for Catherine McClure Gildiner?
I hope to write a non-fiction book about bravery. I think bravery has been wrongly defined as a ‘great testosterone moment’ where someone acts suddenly to save others. I think real bravery is based on those who get up every day and try to deal with their painful lives. I saw many people in therapy never gave up despite horrific circumstances and tried to live their lives or stayed with abusive parents to take care of their younger siblings. Bravery should be measured over time—years not minutes. I am going to describe several cases of bravery and then hopefully we can look at expanding the term brave.
Here are the rules for the giveaway. Sorry, this is only for Canadian and American readers! The contest runs from today through Wednesday, November 24h.
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