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.
Sat Oct 10 2009
Section: Weekend: Books
Byline: SUSAN SCHWARTZ
Source: The Gazette
She did such outrageous things as a teenager – like take the family car when she was only 13 to meet friends at the local pizza joint and, a few years later, get herself hired as a short-order cook at a Howard Johnson’s even though she didn’t know how to cook – that several times while reading Catherine McClure Gildiner’s memoir about coming of age in the 1960s, I laughed out loud, the way I would at Lucy Ricardo’s antics on I Love Lucy.
The young woman we meet in After the Falls is sassy and cocksure, absolutely. But the book is more than simply funny and Gildiner, then Cathy McClure, is not just outrageous. She is smart and caring, determined and enterprising, curious and brave. And some of the tales she tells are nothing short of harrowing stories in which sex, infidelity, even murder, figure.
Gildiner came of age in the United States at a time defined by the Vietnam War, by civil rights demonstrations and by the death of Martin Luther King – and readers see the time through the prism of her experience. “We all lost people in Vietnam,” she said in an interview. “We all knew people who were maimed.”
1. Discuss what makes a good memoir. How does Too Close to the Falls incorporate these qualities?
2. How did you feel about Catherine’s childhood “career”? Did it place her in situations that were inappropriate for a child of her age? Elaborate. How do you think being exposed to these realities affected her?
3. If Roy were to describe young Catherine McClure, what do you think he would say? What about Mother Agnes? Father Rodwick?
4. Early on in the book, the reader understands that Catherine feels she is a misfit. How much of that can be attributed to her natural character? Should her parents have made more of an attempt to force Catherine to conform? More importantly, is it wrong for a child to feel “different” from everyone else? Can it build character?
5. Catherine struggles throughout Too Close to the Falls with double standards and issues of moral hypocrisy. In which scenarios did you find these themes especially pronounced?
6. Did Catherine experience a loss of innocence? If so, when? Do you remember a particular moment in your life that contributed to a “loss of innocence”? Is that moment an unavoidable part of growing older?
7. Is the spirit of rebellion evident in Catherine’s character simply innate in certain individuals, or does growing up among particularly restrictive institutions (a strict Catholic school, a small conservative town, for instance) incite rebellion where there may otherwise have been none? Are there any people or institutions that you rebelled against as a teenager, but later embraced?
8. Consider the women Catherine comes into contact with: her mother, Miranda, Marie Sweeny, Marilyn Monroe, Warty, and Mother Agnes. What did she learn from each of them?
9. How did you react to the last scene in the book, the evening that Catherine spent with Father Rodwick? Was is surprising that Catherine—the adult looking back—seemed not to be judging the priest’s actions? Do you think that the time they spent together was inappropriate? Might she have drawn something positive from that night?
10. “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”—Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. If you could choose that significant moment in Too Close to the Falls, what would it be? What about in your own life?
1. At what age, or stage of life, did you decide that you wanted to write a memoir, and what triggered the actual writing? How long did it take to write the book?
I was a psychologist for 25 years and running out of empathy, and then once I was at a party and someone said they had worked at their father’s store. I told a few stories about working in my dad’s store and someone at the party said I should write it up so I did–just one story about Roy. I sent it in to the first name on the Canadian publishers list–ECW on a Friday–and then Monday I got an advance for a book and the enclosed note said ‘Finish it’. Since I didn’t want to give the money back, I finished it.
2. Your memory of details from a very young age is amazing–I’m envious!–right down to the colour of chalk your teacher used on the blackboard. Did you keep a journal during childhood, or was all of Too Close to the Falls in your memory bank? Did you have to work at some of the memories to get them to reveal themselves fully?
I never kept a diary. I was too busy. When I wrote the first draft I didn’t have any of the fine details–like the chalk colour but human memory is organized according to associations–so with each draft I would remember a few more details–one memory would jog another. If you write a skeletal draft it will expand each day if you let the picture expand.
3. Did you ever hesitate when deciding how truthful to be in describing real people? Some of your portraits, particularly of more minor characters, are not particularly flattering. As a reader I appreciated them because they seemed very honest, but I know this is always a tricky area for memoir writers.
I was really naïve about that. I had a fantasy that as long as you wrote what was ‘true,’ everything was fine. Of course that theory leaves much to be desired. I learned that when I went back to read the memoir to a few hundred people in Lewiston. Anthony McDougall showed up and had a few things to say. Also some of the town thought they had been kinder to Warty than I portrayed. On the whole, I was surprised at how accepting they were of most of my descriptions. The descriptions of people didn’t send anyone into orbit – but the anti-Catholic feeling made some people mad. But hey, you never make everyone happy. One of the upsides of having no living relatives is there is no one close to me to disagree.