Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Humour and Humanity in the Memoirs of Catherine Gildiner

Author Catherine Gildiner in Toronto (Photo by Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News)

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
  Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
This apt epigraph opens Catherine Gildiner’s first volume, Too Close to the Falls (ECW Press, 1999), of a memoirs’ trilogy that was followed by After The Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009) and Coming Ashore (ECW 2014). Anecdotally, some readers have indicated that they prefer the first volume and I think I understand why. It has laugh-out-loud humour and describes, in the style befitting a young precocious Cathy McClure (her maiden name), life during the conservative 1950s in small-town Lewistown, New York, and a childhood that, though chock-a-block with incredible escapades, was a happy, secure one, albeit in some ways unconventional. (Cathy, for example,  has no memory of ever having eaten a dinner at home since her mother did not want to cook.) Perhaps most importantly, each of the thirteen chapters recounts a pivotal event or relationship that reverberates in the subsequent volumes, a pattern I noticed because I read the third volume first and read backward to the first. Arguably, After the Falls has a less sassy, more sombre tone than Too Close as she describes her activism in the civil rights movement after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and explores more fully her relationship with her parents. Nonetheless, that and the concluding volume, that narrates her time in Oxford, Cleveland and Toronto from 1968 until 1974, acquire greater depth and continue to demonstrate her strengths. She is a gifted story-teller who vividly evokes the cultural texture of the eras of her memoirs. She also reveals her humour, her vulnerabilities and above all her humanity, alongside a penchant for finding herself in bizarre and almost improbable circumstances.

Consider how the Greene epigraph applies in Too Close to the Falls to relationships and seminal moments that resonate in the later volumes. In the first chapter, “Roy,” Gildiner describes how a pediatrician’s prescription that at the age of four Cathy should work to channel her hyperactive energy. As a result, since she could already read, Cathy worked for her father, who owned a pharmacy. From 4:30 A.M until 7 A. M., she was the navigator for the driver Roy, an illiterate, but streetwise and compassionate black man who together delivered prescriptions to the disparate strata of the Lewiston/Niagara Falls community among whom were a former madam and abortionist, a native chief who needed sedatives to subdue his violent impulses, and a fungus cream to a woman who operated the city dump and suffered from neurofibromatosis, the disease made famous in The Elephant Man. Her entry into the recipients’ living space not only constituted the most valuable part of her early education, but also contributed to the highly-attuned capacity for empathy that she demonstrated in her teenage and early twenties. For almost all of her childhood, Cathy and Roy worked together; they loved each other’s humour and Roy became her best friend and confidant. Then he disappeared one day, and when something subsequently occurred about which she could not talk to her parents, she would frequently have imaginary conversations with Roy, a pattern that persisted as she grew into young womanhood. Years later, as recounted in After the Falls, Cathy won an essay contest and was flown to New York for a speaking tour. There she met a handsome African-American poet, Laurie Coal, who became the first love of her life, and then betrayed her. She reproached herself for her gullibility, but one wonders whether her trust in Laurie was rooted in the deep friendship she once shared with Roy, even though Gildiner does not make that connection.

“Anthony Mcdougall” is about how Cathy responded to a sadist, and it is the funniest chapter in the book. Anthony sat behind Cathy in grade three and persistently tugged at her hair, causing her physical pain. When the school authorities refused to address the issue, Cathy, in consultation with Roy, decided to take the matter into her own hands, and during a class in which compasses were used, she took the instrument and stabbed him. Since Cathy had shown no remorse, she was not allowed back into school until a psychiatrist certified her sane. What follows is a hilarious account of her sessions with the “appropriately named” Dr. Small. Apart from an occasional retrospective observation or judgement, Gildiner, writing as her younger self, enhances the humour. Once Cathy receives the necessary certification, she returns to school where Anthony will no longer torment her. (Her exchanges with the psychiatrist did however plant the seed for her future vocation, that of a practising psychologist, a career which is beyond the scope of her memoirs.) In later years, whenever she encountered sadism – the judge who reduces his daughter to tears and physical illness or the condescending, class-ingrained attitudes of the mother of an Oxford friend – Cathy utilized a new weapon to respond to bullies: her sharp tongue, which she effectively deploys to silence the tormentor.

After the Falls opens in 1960 with her family leaving Lewiston since Cathy has been expelled from her Catholic school for showing insufficient piety and for possessing an inquiring mind. They decamp to a Buffalo suburb to a much more modest house. This volume chronicles her teenage years in high school, her undergraduate years at Ohio University and her relationship with her parents, especially her father. School was a trying time for her both academically and socially. What kept her sane was reading at least two books a week and working at a doughnut shop. She could no longer work for her father (he's sold his drug store when the family moved), and the easy relationship she had enjoyed with the “boss” did not survive the geographical uprooting. In typical adolescent fashion, she mocks him and what he does. The second half of the book is more compelling, describing how Cathy enters university, becomes intellectually engaged in English literature and the sciences and is appalled at the racism within the sororities. When she is not studying, she attends civil rights rallies, becomes involved in voter registration drives and falls in love with Laurie. Besides his betrayal of her, Cathy chronicles the steep price that some of her friends paid during this tumultuous decade. One was killed in Vietnam, another took a bad acid trip that turned her into a schizophrenic, another became a paraplegic because she got into car with drunk friends, and a “blowhard” acquaintance was murdered that resulted in her being investigated by the FBI for any possible involvement. In this volume and in Coming Ashore Gildiner provides texture by referencing pop artists – The Doors, Joplin, Dylan among others – and quotes pertinent lyrics. (She might have added Simon and Garfunkel’s "Bridge over Troubled Water," or their songs like “Richard Cory” and “I Am a Rock,” as they resonate deeply with her narrative.) Neither does she ignore the clothing fads. On one occasion, Cathy wears into her home bell-bottomed pants emblazoned with the American flag; her father becomes so enraged that she had desecrated the national symbol that when she leaves the house, he enters her bedroom and cuts them into pieces.

The evanescent phase of teenage rebellion is eclipsed by more enduring associations and emotions when her father is diagnosed with a brain tumour. She realized that she had to grow up and “separate abnormal behaviour from teenage loathing.” Even when she found him “unbearable,” she recognizes that he was there for her if she needed him, such as the time she phoned him in the middle of the night from a bar an hour’s drive from home because she refused to get into a car with a drunk driver. He responded, picked her up and asked no questions. Her relationship with her father cannot be understood if isolated from her connection with her mother. Rarely had they ever judged her: her father said nothing about the compass-stabbing incident and her mother, rather than indulging in psychobabble, said that she was unique. Her only expression of disapproval for anything that Cathy ever did was that she “was surprised.” They primarily let her be, but they did pass on to her qualities that Cathy made her own. Just as she acquired from her mother a droll sense of humour to which Cathy added a caustic layer, she recognizes that her growing love of words and her engagement with the wider world were rooted in the attention that her father placed on learning new words and his interest in current events. Once he was diagnosed with the tumour after exhibiting bizarre behaviour, Cathy made certain that he could not obtain the car keys. And when she volunteered to defer her university entrance, her mother pleaded with her not to forgo her education. When his cancer worsened four years later as he continued to lose his faculties, she made the same offer even though she'd received an invitation to attend Oxford; again her mother encouraged her daughter not to pass up this opportunity. Gildiner concludes the second volume with her father's death, six years after the original diagnosis. Her final chapter is deeply moving.

Coming Ashore, which carries the most intellectual heft of the three volumes with a revelatory epigraph beginning each chapter, chronicles her time at Oxford, her student teaching experience in a Cleveland ghetto school, her graduate work at the University of Toronto and her evolving personal relationship with a significant other. Cathy received an offer to study poetry at Oxford after she wrote a “Book Thirteen” to Milton’s Paradise Lost as an alternative to an essay she believed would be “sophomoric tripe.” But it was the fear of being further investigated by the FBI for an unsolved murder (noted above) that impelled her to decamp to England. Recalling her time there, Gildiner again demonstrates her gift for relating what often appear to be fantastical capers: entering an Oxford post office airborne, a mountain climbing expedition without the proper footwear, arranging a sexual tryst between Jimi Hendrix and a dying friend. But the most important insight Cathy acquires from her Oxford experience is the vast gulf between the class-conscious English (at least at Oxford during her time there) who value above all who you are over what you do and Americans who recognize individual achievement.

When Cathy returned to America, she followed through on a promise to her father that she would acquire a degree in education enabling her to teach. She spent a semester in 1970 as a student teacher of English at an inner-city school in Cleveland, where the teachers talked as though they were inmates who awaiting their release. Any reader would be impressed with the creative way Cathy taught Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and how she channelled the students’ pain and rage into poetry. Apart from a few that she wittily dubbed the “five pillars of salt,” she managed to win over her students. Yet when the semester ended, she decided that teaching high school was not for her, although I wondered whether her disenchantment with the conservative attitudes of the teachers and their families and friends contributed more to her decision than the teaching itself.

When Cathy pursued a Master's Degree at the University of Toronto to work with one the leading world scholars of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the improbable and the comic followed her. At her first lodging, she shared a rooming house with members of the FLQ at the time of the October Crisis. They quickly vanish the moment the police appear to find only her to question. Then she moves into the rent-free Rochdale residence known as a “drug supermarket” to share (platonically) an apartment with a drug dealer. In her academic work, she reprises her earlier creativity demonstrated with Milton when she delivers a humorous presentation in Coleridge’s stylistic voice based on his Shakespeare lectures. She had to be creative since there apparently is no extant record of those talks, only other peoples’ reactions to them. Later, her professor, who found her lecture “very entertaining,” asked Cathy whether she had ever considered comedy writing, an astute question given that the Coleridge scholar rightly recognized that academic life did not play to Cathy’s strengths. Her unexpected inquiry also anticipates the three volumes of memoirs that Gildiner wrote years later.

The memoirs reveal not only Gildiner’s capacity for comic writing, even though it is a distinctive component. Written with novelistic panache, they also provide perceptive insights into the times and about herself. In Too Close to the Falls, she shines a spotlight on the underbelly of small-town life in the 1950s, a corrective to the wholesome Norman Rockwell view of the times, and how the fears generated by the McCarthyite view of the world impinged on her and her family. In After the Falls, she uses the example of her mother to illuminate the idealism and civic commitment inspired by Jack Kennedy, and then her mother’s profound disillusionment with public participation after his assassination. Later her own rage against the injustice of segregation, more subtle forms of racism and her hostility to the Vietnam War impelled her to become publicly engaged. Yet after she was cast out of SNCC because she was white and literally shown the door during a wedding shower in conservative Ohio after venting her anger about the killings at Kent State, she, like her mother, retreated from public engagement, and in her case, into the realm of literature. In Coming Ashore, given the tragedy of a friend after her experiment with LSD, we know that Cathy will stay clear of the drugs at Rochdale. After her brush with hardline ideology in the black power movement, it is not surprising that she is sceptical of acquaintances she meets in Toronto and at Cornell who view everything, including films, through a militant Marxist lens. Gildiner on occasion can slip into cliché when she refers to the “loss of innocence,” as America morphed from public-spirited activism into rigid political fault lines, but when writing about specifics, either individuals or events, she is more convincing. Her contretemps with a police officer in Chicago during the 1968 National Democratic Convention reveals not only a generation gap but her own spunkiness and willingness to defend her parents from the allegation of permissiveness. Throughout, Gildiner exhibits empathy for the vulnerable, the fragile and the outcast. At the same time, she acquires a facility for delivering verbal zingers against petty tyrants, spokespersons of racism, sexism and state violence who blame the victims, and the voices of rigidity and unthinking conformity. Yet Gildiner does not flinch from exposing her own vulnerabilities: her loneliness, her wariness of men after Laurie and a need for trusting close friends to check with whom whether her perceptions were off. What I think is most evident is that, after Roy disappeared from her life, it took until the final chapters of the third volume to find a close friend and a confidant. True, she does have some women friends, but they do not remain a persistent presence in her life. She, and her readers, can at least take solace that the early chapters in the first volume and the concluding chapters in the third do constitute satisfying bookends.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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