Publishers Weekly Review: Readers who met Cathy McClure Gildiner in her memoirs Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls will be thrilled to have another opportunity to follow her life in the third and final installment. She’s a gifted writer with a stunning [Read more…]
Publishers Weekly Review: At age 12, Gildiner and her family moved from their Niagara Falls home to a Buffalo suburb, leaving behind a family business, smalltown contentment, and the rebellious childhood chronicled in her first memoir, Too Close to the Falls. While her uprooted parents struggle to adjust, Gildiner stumbles in making new friends and edging into puberty. Her restlessness and a fundamentally outspoken and argumentative nature regularly catapult her further than simple teenage trouble, and she frequently fails at the standard American girlhood, often with comic results. The conflicts between the narrator’s individuality and conformity propel her into her first relationship at the same time that the seismic shifts in American society, culture, and politics hit home with ever-increasing force. On the page as in life, comedy, tragedy, and elegy live right on top of each other, and as with most remarkable memoirs, the straightforward, honest voice and perspective are steady even in the most painful moments. (November 2010)
Publishers Weekly Review: Now a successful clinical psychologist with a monthly advice column in the popular Canadian magazine Chatelaine, Gildiner tells of her childhood in 1950s Lewiston, N.Y., a small town near Niagara Falls, in this hilarious and moving coming-of-age memoir. Deemed hyperactive by the town’s pediatrician, at age four Gildiner was put to work at her father’s pharmacy in an effort to harness her energy. Her stories of delivering prescriptions with her father’s black deliveryman, Roy, are the most affecting parts of this book, with young Cathy serving as map reader for the illiterate but streetwise fellow, who acted as both protector and fellow adventurer. In a style reminiscent of the late Jean Shepherd, Gildiner tells her tales with a sharp humor that rarely misses a beat and underscores the dark side of what at first seems a Norman Rockwell existence. Mired in a land dispute, the local Native American population has a chief who requires sedatives to subdue his violent moods. Meanwhile, the feared “”monster”” who maintains the town dump is simply afflicted with “”Elephant Man”” syndrome. And Cathy’s mother–with her intellectual preoccupations and aversion to housework and visiting neighbors–is an emblem of prefeminist frustration. The book’s vaunted celebrity dish–Gildiner delivered sleeping pills to Marilyn Monroe on the set of Niagara–pales in comparison to such ordinary adult pathos. By book’s end, Cathy, too, gets her share, as beloved Roy mysteriously exits and an entanglement with a confused young priest brings her literally and figuratively “”too close to the falls.”” (February 19, 2001)
November 3, 2010
When Cathy Gildiner walked into the offices of Artvoice on a sunny day last summer, I immediately thought she was the most elegant person I’d ever seen come through that door (and Artvoice has been host to, among many others, Hillary Clinton, Louise Slaughter, Malachy McCourt, and the ever-dapper Carl Paladino). Dressed all in black and pulling a very nice set of luggage (she’d just come from the Canadian consulate), Gildiner has a silky swirl of platinum hair and the kind of alabaster skin found only on certain fair-complected women, her face bearing no trace of the acne she says plagued her throughout high school and college.
Born and raised in Lewiston and Amherst during the 1950s and 1960s, respectively, Catherine Gildiner nee McClure is the author of the best-selling memoir Too Close to the Falls and its just-published follow-up, After the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties. In the first book she chronicles her unusual upbringing as the only child of middle-aged parents, a memoir that ranks with Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle; it’s that good.
1. At certain points in the memoir (p. 30, 166), Cathy’s childhood confidante, Roy, appears to her to offer guidance and a sympathetic ear. How do you interpret these moments—as a literary device or as a spiritual visitation?
2. Cathy McClure and her father, Jim, are dedicated to the task of protecting her mother from any emotional pain she could encounter from the outside world to the point that Cathy is expected to take on a much more adult role in the family than is normal for a teenager. This dynamic is explained at the end of the book (p. 333) with a shocking revelation about Cathy’s parents’ past. Were you surprised by this revelation? How had you explained the family dynamic and the mother’s behavior to yourself before you finished the book?
3. The “Donny Donnybrook” is Catherine Gildiner’s flippant way of referring to a traumatic incident in her early adolescence, when her father sharply criticizes her for flirting (p. 24). How do you think this incident colored the relationship between father and daughter? Do you think it influenced young Cathy’s decisions in the coming years, in ways she as a memoirist doesn’t specifically mention?
4. As parents, Jim and Janet McClure take a rather unusual approach—especially for the time—to raising their headstrong daughter. While Janet is blasé and undemanding, Jim does try to exert some control over Cathy, especially as she becomes a young woman. Which parent do you relate to more? Why?
5. After the Falls recounts life in a time that has become characterized by movies like Forrest Gump and American Graffiti, as well as TV shows like Mad Men and The Wonder Years. How does Gildiner’s portrayal of what it was like to grow up at that time compare to the pop–culture image? How does it compare to your own impressions or experience of the era?
6. Cathy’s teenage rebellion takes her on what she sees as a high road—vandalizing property in the name of civil rights—and a low one—stealing her father’s car to impress the popular crowd. Which of her antics surprised you the most? What did you get up to as a teen that embarrasses you as you think back?
7. On page 61 Gildiner writes, “Somehow, in some compartment of my brain, I equated witnessing these boys abusing Veronica with my own shame. I, too, had humiliated myself, and my father had had to witness it.” How do you interpret this statement? Do you see a connection between Veronica and Cathy (at the time of the “Donny Donnybrook”)?
8. Another surprise that fate had in store for young Cathy McClure was the truth about her first love—the dashing, sensitive poet Laurie Coal. Did you think this relationship was too good to be true? Or were you surprised by how it ended? What would you have done in Cathy’s place?
9. While dating Laurie, and fighting against racial prejudice, Cathy makes a few assumptions about her roommate, Baby, which turn out to be incorrect (p. 262). What do Cathy’s assumptions regarding Baby reveal about her own prejudices? Do you think her assumptions about Baby are comparable to the racial prejudice she was fighting?
10. Jim McClure’s illness robbed him of much of his identity and his relationship with his family. Do you agree with Cathy’s decisions in the years that followed: trying to explain his illness to him despite his memory loss, taking his car keys from him, and ultimately allowing him to go off life support? What about his wife Janet—how do you view her behavior in the face of Jim’s illness?
Q. Do you think your father’s illness brought you and your mother closer together, or did it actually allow you to separate yourself from your family?
My mother and I were always close. I think that my father’s illness made us even closer because we had a shared problem that we had to solve together. I took it over initially and at the end of his life, but she filled in for years in between. We both had to make sacrifices together. We often used black humor to get us through the rough parts. When one of us was at a low, the other would crack a macabre joke so we could go on. I had to deal with my father’s anger, which she found too hard to bear. She, however, sold her beloved collection of Niagara Falls lithographs in order to make the money for me to get away to college and then England. We both did what we could to help the other.
In answer to your question, which I noticed I haven’t answered, I don’t think my father’s illness per se helped me separate from my family, but his illness put me on the fast track to adulthood. There is no room for adolescent rebellion when the family is in the midst of trauma.
Q. You vividly describe how shame “becomes part of you” (p. 26). You say that “for the rest of your life . . . the forked tongue of shame is there.” Do you still feel the residual shame or after effects of the “Donny Donnybrook” to this day?
I had misbehaved in my childhood on many occasions and my father had called me to task. He had always used his intellectual faculties to correct me while remaining dispassionate. However, on the Donnybrook occasion he used full throttle rage. If a parent has never once been angry with you in your whole life, when he finally blows up—you listen.
Too Close to the Falls has received the following awards/success…
- Was on the extended New York Times best seller list
- Holds Canadian record for The Globe and Mail best seller’s list — 104 weeks
- On the Boston Globe‘s best seller’s list
- Short listed for Trillium Award
- Won Different Drummer’s Award 2000
- On The National Post‘s best seller list for over a year
- Listed in The Globe‘s top 100 books for 2000
- Short listed for the British Young Minds Book Award
1.) How does a clinical psychologist suddenly become a bestselling author? Tell us about this metamorphosis.
I was a psychologist in private practice for 25 years until one day when I was at a dinner party, someone said that they were saddened that their 16-year-old daughter was getting a job for the summer and would have to face the work world. I sort of ‘sounded off’, saying that I’d worked since I was four years old and there was nothing wrong with working at sixteen! Then I regaled people about working with the black delivery car driver named Roy and how I worked delivering narcotics around the Niagara Frontier for my father’s drug store. Someone at the party suggested I write up an incident from my childhood years with Roy. I wrote it as a short piece and sent it to a publisher. I went alphabetically through the phonebook under publishers and sent it out on a Friday. On the following Monday I got an advance check couriered to me with a yellow post on it that said ‘Finish it.’ –so I did. Since I didn’t want to give back the check, a writer was born.
2.) Do you intend on continuing your private practice or do you write full time now?
I write full time.
3.) Do you feel that your professional life as a psychologist has helped you in any way become a better writer?
It has helped me enormously. I feel that I understand a lot more about human nature than I would have otherwise. Also in terms of memoir writing– it has freed me up to write ‘the truth’ (whatever that is) about myself. I have seen thousands of patients. I know that what people show the world is only the tip of the psychological iceberg. I know that no matter how strange my thoughts felt to me, they were no weirder than I heard daily in my office. One thing I learned while in private practice: we are all very much alike–especially in what our basic wants and needs are. The differences in most human natures are superficial.
Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I was a psychologist in private practice for twenty-five years. For fun, I once wrote an unsolicited column for Facts and Arguments in The Globe and Mail and just faxed it in one day. To my surprise it was published. An editor at Chatelaine magazine happened to read the column and invited me to be their psychological advice columnist. That was the birth of my journalism career.
My creative writing career was equally serendipitous. I’m a bit of an Irish storyteller, so once, at a party, I told a childhood tale about how I’d worked full time from the age of four delivering drugs with a black delivery car driver, and how we’d been trapped in the snow overnight. Someone at the party told me to write the story and send it to a publisher. So I quickly wrote up the tale and then mailed it in on a Friday. On the following Monday I received an advance cheque in the mail with a yellow Post-it attached that said “finish it.” Not wanting to give back the cheque, I finished the book. That is how my childhood memoir, Too Close to the Falls, was hatched. It was on the bestsellers list for seventy-two weeks, so that helped me to decide I must be a writer.
What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
Twenty-five years ago I wrote a Ph.D. thesis titled Darwin’s Influence on Freud. Over the many years I spent in the library reading their letters and works, I got to know Darwin and Freud fairly well. I noticed personal quirks and inconsistencies that I believed were subtly reflected in their theories. My mind was full of the sort of details you can put in a novel but never in a Ph.D. thesis.
1. Discuss Kate’s role as the narrator of this story. What effect does her perspective have on your reading? How much do you trust her to be true to the facts?
2. Was Kate correct to suspect Dr. Gardonne’s motives right from the start? Or does “paranoia” play a part here? And if so, is there a sense that paranoia helped her solve the case? Consider also the role of Bozo, who was labelled a “paranoid” by Konzak.
3. In what ways is Seduction a conventional detective story? What elements distinguish it from the genre?
4. Kate and Jackie travel far and wide — Vienna, Toronto, London, New York, the Isle of Wight — during their search. Discuss how Gildiner brings these places to life for readers, through Kate’s eyes and her memories.
5. In her author’s note at the start of the novel, Gildiner states that she “freely altered” historical information about the lives of Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud and Charles Darwin for the sake of her fictional storyline. Discuss the responsibility, if any, novelists have to the facts of history.
6. Discuss Kate’s attitude towards the murder of her husband. Is she dispassionate? How may her years behind bars have affected her perceptions? What do you think really happened that day?
7. In the first chapter, Kate tells us of Freud’s belief that everyone is born with two drives, sex and aggression, and that what interested him was what happened when these drives are curtailed — for instance, when we use defences like repression, denial, intellectualization and sublimation. How does this theory play out in the events and characters of Seduction?
8. Both Kate and Jackie have come up with ways to deal with their feelings of guilt and shame — Kate analyzes her emotional reactions and throws herself into her studies; Jackie lives in the moment and refuses to feel shame for the past. How healthy do you think they are, emotionally and psychologically? Consider both characters in terms of how prison has affected or shaped them.
9. Do you think that the truths uncovered about Freud and Darwin would have struck the blow to psychoanalysis that Gardonne and the rest of the industry feared?
10. Why does Kate feel such a bond with Anna Freud? In what ways are they similar, or different? Think particularly of their childhoods and their relationships.
11. Discuss the quote from Freud that opens this novel. Do you think “every normal person” has some psychotic element to his or her psyche? What about the characters in this book?
12. How do the letters, diary excerpts, notes, papers and other documents included in the text add depth to Seduction? Did you ever find yourself forgetting that you were reading fiction?
13. In what ways is Kate affected by her visits to the house that Bozo, Shawna, The Wizard and Edgar live in? What do these characters and their lifestyle represent in the novel? And what do you make of The Wizard’s disappearance?
14. In chapter 4, Kate and Jackie discuss Freud’s seduction theory and how it morphed into the Oedipus complex, as they try to get to the root of Konzak’s plans. Discuss these theories and their role in this novel, both in past events and in the current story. For instance, what kind of relationships do Kate, Jackie, Dr. Gardonne and Anna Freud have with their parents?
15. Discuss Seduction and its characters (such as Jackie, Kate, Dr. Von Enchanhauer, The Wizard) in terms of the Darwinian statement “Only the fittest survive.”
16. What do you think of the relationship between Kate and Jackie? What does the future hold for them? Is romance likely?