Special to The Globe and Mail, Published
Cathy McClure, Catherine Gildiner’s younger self and the heroine of her third and final memoir, Coming Ashore, is funny, energetic, incisive and courageous. She’s also, at times, a little bit lonely.
She wasn’t always that way, though. Gildiner’s first memoir, Too Close to the Falls (1999), documents Cathy’s “wonderful and secure” 1950s childhood in small-town New York. Gildiner’s second bestselling memoir, After the Falls (2009), deals with her traumatic coming-of-age in the tumultuous 1960s.
In Coming Ashore, we meet 20-year-old Cathy. It’s 1968. She’s landed a spot at Oxford “after ingesting [a] kick-ass army-green pellet of inspiration,” and writing “a lengthy poem that answered God in the same rhyme that Milton used in his twelve books of Paradise Lost.”
From here, Cathy charts a wild seven-year course to adulthood through England, Cleveland and Toronto. The ever-changing social climate of the late sixties and early seventies is her backdrop. Along the way, Cathy verbally duels her aristocratic English boyfriend’s judgmental mother, orchestrates a sexathon with Jimi Hendrix for a dying friend, wins over a class of inner-city high schoolers as a student teacher in Cleveland, and, as a University of Toronto graduate student, lives in Toronto’s infamous Rochdale residence, part “drug supermarket” and part “free college.”
Although she is friendly and open, Cathy is often at odds with her environment. She finds British society stuffy. She clashes with her right-wing colleagues in Cleveland. She feels humiliated when a professor advises her to become a “comedy writer” rather than an academic.
Gildiner’s voice is so breezy and engaging, however, that it’s possible to overlook Cathy’s feelings of isolation and fear.
Those feelings were obvious to me, though. I’ve been feeling a little lonely lately, too. I recently finished my MFA in creative writing. As soon as I submitted my thesis, a memoir, I felt a lot of space: in my mind, in my body, in my life. The space felt good, but it also felt scary. I’d made room in my life, but room for what?
So when I opened Coming Ashore one night, I was looking for guidance and connection. I’ve always found books comforting. My dad, a New Age devotee, raised me on a steady diet of self-help books. When I was six, I read Ram Dass’s Be Here Now over his shoulder. At eight years of age, if I got sick, I consulted Louise L. Hay’s little blue book of affirmations, Heal Your Body, in search of the perfect words for warding off headaches and colds. That book was great fun – I felt just like a little witch casting spells whenever I chanted its affirmations out loud.
A memoir is not a self-help book. But it is an invitation into another human being’s life. When a memoir works, it’s not narcissistic; it’s insightful. And like all good literature, a good memoir reflects readers back to themselves.
Coming Ashore reads like a super-cool lady whispering secrets over cold tea late at night – a lady who holds her liquor so well, she refrains from self-pity and self-aggrandizement. The result is a clear-eyed look at life.
Gildiner writes plainly about shame and confusion and loneliness, with which we all struggle. If we don’t feel lonely today, we’re petrified that we’ll feel lonely tomorrow. As Gildiner says, we’re all just seeking the unconditional love we (hopefully) felt as children.
But I resist the popular notion (and Gildiner’s suggestion at the conclusion to Coming Ashore) that the way home requires the unconditional love of a romantic partner.
I much prefer Gildiner’s sentiments in her author’s note at the beginning of the book, the hint that loneliness might be an illusion: After thanking readers for the “thousands of letters and e-mails” she’s received over the years, Gildiner writes, “I guess we all think that the way we interpret the world is weird, or that we have made mistakes that no one else could have ever made, yet your comments have helped me to see that no matter what I have done or thought, I was never alone.”
Perhaps memoirs work like the mystical affirmations I recited as a child, by casting spells that banish the disease of loneliness, connecting us to each other by an invisible thread. Perhaps memoirs work, as Mary Karr, the high priestess of the genre, once said, because literature is “Eucharistic.” We ingest the writer’s words. We receive their pain. And, as Karr says, “through passion, we’re transformed by it… It works the way communion works. It makes a community of us.” Catherine Gildiner’s benevolent books have done just that.
Leanne Milech lives in Toronto.