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  1. Book ImageMermaid: A Memoir of Resilience

    Eileen Cronin

    “Extraordinarily courageous; [Cronin] chronicles her journey to fit in and thrive with bravery and wit.”—O, The Oprah Magazine

A Q&A With Eileen Cronin

You are a practicing clinical psychologist as well as a rehabilitation counselor. Do you have a heightened sense of empathy for those struggling to fit in because of your disability?

Rehabilitation hit too close to home so I made the switch to psychology. I’ve treated a variety of people with any number of problems, but I specialize in issues affecting women and adolescents. For me, it’s crucial to balance my practice.

Your mother took thalidomide during her pregnancy with you. Because of this, do you have a deep interest in today’s complex world of prescription drugs?

I spent a year as an APA Health Policy fellow to the US DHHS, and I learned a lot about the efficacy of treatments for the mentally ill. For some biologically-based mental disorders, drugs are the best solution. But too often severely mentally ill adults and children are prescribed drug “cocktails” that can include four or more psychotropics. I think they deserve more than drugs, especially children. We forget that psychotropics only last a few hours. Mental and emotional change takes hard work but it lasts a lifetime, and there are no side effects. If you invest in change and adaptation in the early years, the payback is huge. If you don’t, the cost to the individual and society is astronomical.

Oscar Pistorius’s alleged murder of his girlfriend in 2013 received a great deal of media attention. Do you feel that this has cast a shadow on the disability community?

No. I think Oscar Pistorius’s participation in the Olympics made it clear that people with disabilities should have a place on the mainstage. I hope we see more people with physical limitations competing in the Olympics. As for the bad press, people with physical limitations have been negatively stereotyped long before Oscar Pistorius came along.

Mermaid is your first book, but certainly not your first foray into the world of writing. How did the experience of writing a memoir compare to the other work that you’ve done?

With memoir, your life becomes like a block of stone that you have to refine until you find the sculpture inside of it. It’s grueling, disturbing, exhausting, and exhilarating work. Right now I’m getting back to a novel that I want to complete and to me fiction is like taking a bunch of tiny balls of clay and shaping them into a small village.

Is there any advice that you wish you could give to your younger self?

I could tell myself to go more gently into the world, but I’m not so sure I would have survived certain situations without grit. I just hope that I’ve brought joy to those who know me, and that I’ve done a few constructive things.

When you first learned that you were pregnant, did you worry that your child would be born with a disability?

Yes and no. I was terrified and at the same time I was relieved that I didn’t have to worry about worrying anymore. I was pregnant and I just had to hope that I wouldn’t have to make any difficult choices because I really, really wanted a baby. I’ll never know what I would have done if I’d found out that my baby had a birth defect.

How did your relationship with your mother change when you had your daughter?

It improved greatly and then it slipped for a while when I realized what level of closeness could exist between mother and daughter. Once I stopped placing any expectations on this relationship, our conversations took a lovely turn. They are not as frequent as some mother/daughter phone calls but there is beauty and kindness in the spaces between them.

How do you encourage your daughter to be accepting of people who are different?

I figured out that she’d learned that lesson by the third grade. She wanted an American Girl doll, and I assigned her chores and told her to save her earnings to buy her own doll. Her first purchase was a Kaya doll, the Native American girl from the 18th century. At the same time she saw a picture of a wheelchair for the “doll hospital” in the magazine. It was not even listed for sale, but the American Girl company sold it to her. At our house Kaya rode a wheelchair instead of a horse.

You once aspired to be a ballerina. Now that your daughter is pursuing that same dream, do you feel that your life has come full circle?

My daughter has so many interests academically and artistically that I’m eager to see what she makes of her dreams. But more importantly, she is about the kindest and most open-minded person I know. In all these ways she takes after my husband.

Do you have any advice for people with disabilities about dating?

Yes. Don’t believe anything you hear from a talk show guest about dating and disability.

Discussion Question

  1. Mermaid opens with a memorable scene of a teenaged Eileen and her friends at a spring-break party in Florida. Did this story surprise you? Why do you think the memoir opens this way? What about this scene prepares you for Eileen’s story?
  2. Within the first few chapters of Mermaid, we meet the Cronins: Joy, Dad, Frankie, Aunt Gert, and many of Eileen’s other siblings. Are they anything like your own family? Do your impressions of them change as Eileen’s story continues? What do you think Eileen’s attitude toward her family is during her childhood? How does that attitude change?
  3. How does Eileen react to her early realization that she is different from her brothers and sisters? Is her disability all that separates her from her family? Does she accept her mother’s explanation for her disability?
  4. Joy is an enigmatic character, even to Eileen, and as a child Eileen is voracious for details about her mother’s past. How do you think Joy’s troubled childhood contributes to the person she becomes? How would you characterize her philosophy of being a wife and mother? In what ways does Eileen grow to be like her mother, and in what ways is she different?
  5. Describe Eileen’s relationship with each of her parents. How does she relate to her mother and her father when she is a child? A teenager? An adult? What does she struggle with in her relationships with each of them?
  6. Eileen has romantic relationships with James, David, Tom, and Andy. How are each of these relationships different? What does Eileen learn from each of the men in her life? What does she learn about herself?
  7. From a young age, Eileen is frequently told she is beautiful, but she struggles to reconcile her attractiveness with her disability. How does her body image evolve over the course of Mermaid? What events make her feel most confident? How does her disability relate to her attitude toward sex and sexuality?
  8. Eileen writes: “Maybe family history is made only of the parts we remember or choose to believe. But what happens to the part we ignore? Does it vanish? Or is it announcing itself everywhere we go?” What do you think? What parts of your own family history are most significant to you? Do you think it is possible to ignore or overlook family history, or will it always find its way to the surface?
  9. Eileen begins truly to confront what it means to be disabled when she is in graduate school. Why do you think she starts to learn more about the medical causes and social effects of disability around this time? What effect does this information have on her? Why did she wait until she was an adult to explore these issues?
  10. “I wasn’t ready to get married,” Eileen writes, before marrying Tom. Why does she marry Tom anyway, despite believing that their marriage will not last? Have you ever made a decision that you knew was wrong for reasons that you thought were right?
  11. Which of Eileen’s siblings did you relate to most? What contributes to the rift Eileen sometimes feels between herself and her brothers and sisters? How does Eileen view her siblings, and how do you think they view her?
  12. Eileen’s family is very religious, but she is unsure about her own religious convictions. How do you see Eileen’s attitude toward the Church and toward religion evolve during Mermaid? How does her Catholic background shape who she is?
  13. What are the qualities Eileen looks for in female friends and role models as a child, adolescent, and adult?
  14. What, if anything, does this book show us about American culture in the sixties versus today?
  15. Do you or someone you know have a disability? What parts of Eileen’s story are most surprising? Most poignant? Most powerful? Did you learn anything you didn’t know about disability from Eileen’s story?

Watch Eileen Cronin Read from Mermaid

About Eileen Cronin

Eileen Cronin won the Washington Writing Prize in Short Fiction and had a notable essay in Best American Essays. A practicing psychologist, she is an assistant editor for Narrative and lives with her family in Los Angeles.

Books by Eileen Cronin

  1. Book CoverMermaid: A Memoir of Resilience

    “Extraordinarily courageous; [Cronin] chronicles her journey to fit in and thrive with bravery and wit.”—O, The Oprah MagazineMore