Born With Teeth || Kate Mulgrew

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Back in 2013, the first whisperings of Kate Mulgrew writing a memoir started doing the rounds. For years, I have wanted Kate to write an autobiography. I've been a fan of hers since I was eleven years old and I've watched countless convention panels, interviews and read interviews featuring her and the woman is an absolute riot! The way that she conveys a story is captivating and she is incredibly articulate and has an extremely sharp wit and such an energy that draws you in. So, you can imagine my excitement when I knew that she was putting pen to paper and writing her life story.

I wanted my hands on this book from the publication date but since I'm in the UK and it won't be available here until July time, I knew that I had to wait. I initially had it pre-ordered on Amazon UK but I didn't want to wait until July. I cancelled that order and placed one with Amazon US. In less than a week, the book was in my hands and I began reading immediately. 

Writing this blog post feels strange because it is about someone that I have admired for 15 years and I'm struggling to find my voice about this as I'm balancing myself on a fine line between being an English Literature student and being a fangirl. This isn't going to be a very impartial review, more simply a collection of my thoughts on the book.

Firstly, I have to mention the title, Born With Teeth. From the moment I found out what the title was going to be, I instantly thought, "That is so Kate Mulgrew". Not that I personally know Kate Mulgrew but she has described herself in the past as being full of "spit and vinegar". The title was perfect to me. Being born with teeth is an extremely rare occurrence. On the first page, you find out that Kate had teeth from being "issued to this world" and that her mother boasted about to the other pregnant woman on the block, alongside boasting at having such a beautiful baby girl. Mulgrew was born into a large Irish-Catholic family that knew "how to drink, how to dance, how to talk, and how to stir up the devil" she saw the consequences of a life deferred in the shape of her mother who gave up her own dreams to have one child after another in a small town in Iowa. Unwilling to settle for anything less, Mulgrew was determined to find her own dreams, no matter the cost. Since she was born with teeth, with that instinct to fight, it seemed destined that she would do just that.

One of the first things that struck me about this book was that the writing style wasn't what I had expected from Kate Mulgrew. Over the years I've grown accustomed to the way that she speaks. You're immediately drawn to her whether or not you're drawn to the soothing lilt of her voice, her words or her intelligence. When you watch her interviews or convention panels you are either enraptured or you're clutching your sides with laughter. She reminds me of the way that my mother speaks, who is precisely two-months younger than Kate. Yet in this book, somehow, her writing style took a while to click with me as I guess I was expecting it to sound like she was talking to her readers. Mulgrew is still extremely articulate from page 1 to page 302 and she doesn't keep the reader at arm's length, instead, it feels like you're with her with a glass of wine in hand. 

Ultimately, throughout the book from the very first page, you are brought into her world in the most intimate of ways. You are introduced to her family, her parents, her brothers, her sisters, each as they continuously seem to come along and fill the bassinet, her childhood homes and all of the chaos that was a part of her upbringing. We are there when her baby sister dies and when another sister's health starts to fail when she was a young woman. There was a lot of pain thrust upon Mulgrew from a young age and it was Stella Adler, her acclaimed acting teacher, that imposed the most influential words of her life that ultimately helped her to survive, "Use it".  

What I found very striking about the book is that Mulgrew doesn't portray herself as anybody particularly admirable or as strong as she would like us to believe. She shares with her readers the heartaches that go with all over her relationships, being involved with men that were ultimately bad news yet still followed her heart, being pregnant by a man that ultimately wished he had never met her, going through an ugly divorce and all while trying to find her feet as an actress. She even paints her parents in such contrasting lights which is why one of the stipulations of writing this book was that they had to be dead because she confesses a lot to the reader about their private affairs. Even her romantic relationships weren't particularly healthy. There were a number of times when I wanted to yell into the book, "He's no good! Look at what he's doing to you! Dump him!" as if I were reading another romance novel. But I wasn't, I was reading Mulgrew's past and I was reading her heart and how she desperately wanted to find that one true love that we all wish for. What I noticed was that Mulgrew appeared to take a more passive roles in her relationships being the supportive role; moving to Italy to be with this man that proposed to her after only knowing her an extremely short time and knowing very little Italian, or walking around the swimming pool over and over again until the words from her script rang true because her director husband wanted it. She moved from here to there because of her partners and none of them would let her open up and do what she desperately needed to do and that was to discuss her daughter. They all just seemed to want what she could do for them and how they could control her. That was quite shocking to me as I always imagined her as a gal that knew what she wanted and didn't accept anything less.

There were two particularly haunting moments in the book. The first was when at twenty-two, she was alone, pregnant and about to give birth to a baby girl that she had already signed the adoption papers for. She was young, a struggling actress and alone in New York after having her heart broken. The paragraphs are all short and snappy and whilst reading it, I felt like I was being pulled here and there in a whirlwind just as she was. Her experience of birth was anything but pleasant and hardly as Romantic as any of us would like to think childbirth would be i.e. a nice doctor, an understanding nurse and a great support team. Mulgrew did have her best friend there. It was all rather harsh and the makings of an excellent soap opera storyline and my heart ached when I read it. The second moment was in a chapter called 'Cut' which were her memories of how she was sexually assaulted whilst walking home from grocery shopping, house keys in hand and outside her very door. The entire chapter from beginning to end was one unbroken paragraph which communicates such an anxious stream of thought that just wants to get everything out and be done with it. There is just the smallest of paragraphs at the end before it moves to the next chapter.

Going into this book, I knew that it wouldn't have a large focus on her seven years as Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. I had that inkling that it wouldn't be a great focus because let's face it, an entire novel itself could be dedicated to those years, but there are panels and interviews that could easily cover 75% of what happened there. However, in Born With Teeth, Mulgrew shares how much of a whirlwind those initial few months were for the single mother of two, from being bundled from hair to costume to makeup. Whilst reading that I had to smile because Mulgrew has mentioned over and over again how much of a bane having her hair tampered with was and is. Over the years, Mulgrew mentioned how her long hours on Voyager affected her young boys. She shared her heartache of how her two young sons reacted to suddenly not having the constant presence of their mother and how they made it publicly clear to her that they were upset. It showed the most vulnerable side of Mulgrew, that away from the camera of Stage 8 of the Paramount lot, she was just Kate the woman and Kate the Mom and she was trying to her best to survive. Clutching to Stella Adler's words, she channelled that into "the Work" and the injustice of being a working single mother and how a working man would not have to go through such judgmental times:
"The work did not let me down, and neither did the part. When Mulgrew suffered, Janeway picked her up. And when Janeway felt like giving up, Mulgrew slapped her into shape. I was put to good use in every way, and this saved me." [264]
"If I were a man, I said to myself, none of this would be in question. My children would respect me, my wife would honor me, and everyone would exalt the work. But turn the knife just lightly to the left, and what you have is harried woman sneaking out before dawn, cracking the whip for sixteen hours on a soundstage, creeping back home under cover of night, forever explaining, forever apologising, forever in conflict. [...] The male artist has always been respected. For the actress, there is no resolution." [268] 
You get the most in-depth view of Mulgrew herself and I happily take this overhearing all the gossip that I'm sure was plentiful on the Voyager set. You see Mulgrew in the rawest of states, as that "harried woman" that is forever apologising for doing something that she loves with all her being and doing what she dreamt of doing.

Born With Teeth was simultaneously what I expected and not what I expected. I expected a lot of what was shared and naturally, there were anecdotes and memories that I didn't expect. I thought that a chapter would have been dedicated to her mother's prolific battle with Alzheimer's Disease but it was only hinted at when the first symptoms started to appear and nothing more was said on the subject. I knew that the reunion with her daughter was going to happen as I knew that it had happened without reading the book. The ending, however, was something that I did not expect. To me, it seemed far too abrupt and it left the reader with far too neat of a nice little bow that kind of left the reader dangling in the middle of nowhere. The book ends with Voyager's fifth season when she is reunited with her daughter and rekindling the romance with the man that would eventually become her second husband. It feels like there was so much unsaid in Born With Teeth with so much that could have been said yet you still get such an intimate invitation into Kate Mulgrew and the woman behind the cameras. You can't be too greedy and I feel grateful for the insight that Mulgrew has given to her fans and readers. I have always respected Kate Mulgrew and there have been moments when I've gasped at what I've learnt about her but that respect has never faltered. She has been through so much in her life, things that no person should ever have to go through and she has survived all of those things and I doff my cap to that. This truly was a beautifully written book and I will continue to admire this woman who was certainly born with teeth.

Selfishly, I hope that she does a UK book tour so that I could meet again and share a bit of the craic with her. Craic was certainly the very last word I would have expected to read in this book. It's an Irish thing! Now, I have to wonder how the non-Irish readers are pronouncing it. Hint: It's exactly like 'crack'. Just don't ask me to explain it because it just is. 

Sláinte agus táinte Kate, Fad saol agat, from The Irish One.

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