After the Falls
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It’s 1960 and twelveyearold Cathy McClure has just been thrown out of Catholic school foramong other transgressionsfilling the holy water font with vodka. In the hopes of giving Cathy a fresh start, her parents decide to leave their smalltown life in Lewiston, New Yorka town near Niagara Falls brought to life in Catherine Gildiner’s first memoir, Too Close to the Fallsbidding farewell to the family business, lifelong friends, and the only home Cathy’s ever known. Arriving in suburban Buffalo, Cathy’s sardonic mother dubs their new surroundings “Tinytown.” Life in a subdivision and a school filled with “pubescent cheddar” holds little appeal for a girl who began working at four and smoking at nine.
While adjusting to life in Buffalo, Cathy’s relationship with her father also experiences growing pains. His 1950sera ideal of how a young woman should behave often clashessometimes painfullywith Cathy’s increasingly complex, passionate notions of her own development. Gildiner recounts the infamous “Donnybrook” incident, a harbinger of turmoil to come, when Cathy’s father roughly intervenes upon catching her giddily flirting with an older boy on the steps of the church. It is the first time he has seen Cathy as more than his little girl, and the experience is traumatic for both of them. Her father admonishes her by saying, “Girls that chase boys come to a bad end. You looked like the kind of girl I don’t want for my daughter” (p. 24). His hurtful words begin a rift in their relationship that only grows with time.
Cathy struggles with her burgeoning womanhood. Popularity is paramount in high school and Cathy tries to be liked while also striving to be a smart aleck. She develops different personasneighborhood vandal, Howard Johnson’s hostess, FBI suspect, civil rights demonstratorwith plenty of confidence and a bit of false bravado.
As she gains her footing and turns her attentions to the twin pursuits of social equality and financial independence, Cathy begins to take on the real world in Buffalo and beyond. At the very moment she’s about to step outside the confines of Tinytown, however, tragedy strikes at home. Her father’s erratic behavior escalates into strange new territory and Cathy must step up to the task of caring both for him and her sheltered mother.
Against the backdrop of the tumultuous ’60sthe assassinations of John F. and Bobby Kennedy, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam WarCatherine Gildiner gives us a deeply personal, moving and often hilarious portrait of her life in her signature irresistible voice.
Catherine Gildiner has been in private practice in clinical psychology for nearly twenty years. She writes a monthly advice column for Chatelaine, a popular Canadian magazine, and contributes regularly to countless other Canadian newspapers and magazines. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three sons.
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 upyou listen.
When a parent acts as though you have shamed yourself the feeling is permanently engraved on your memory. I think I have the act of flirting and feeling of shame filed in the same neuron of my brain. Whenever men approached me, I shied away thinking that I had committed some untoward act to entice them. There are a few exceptions to that rule, but very few.
However pathetic this may seem, the taboo against flirting is still with me and I am in my sixties! Of course flirting is a rare event today. Yet once in a while some randy geriatric in Florida comes acourtin’. It brings back all of the old feelings from the Donnybrook episode and I think I have behaved as some Jezebel. I always shut the whole situation down as fast as possible.
I think that when you spend too much time with a parent it becomes much more difficult to separate. My father’s anger was inappropriate; however I didn’t know that at the time. I assumed since he had never been truly angry before, I must have done some really outrageously bad thing that not only humiliated myself, but also shamed the McClure name.
Freud is right in this case. The first sexual memory you have is a powerful one. Also we, as civilized humans, have a sexual instinct and most taboos in our society, particularly in the ’50s and early ’60s involved curbing sexual behavior. Later when I was doing a PhD in psychology and I read Civilization and Its Discontents, I was fascinated to read about how in order for civilization to work it needed sexual taboos.
Q. The rape of Veronica Nebozenko is horrifying to read aboutand it must have been much worse to witness. Did you ever consider telling your parents or any other adults about it at the time? How has your thinking about that incident changed in the intervening years?
It was much worse than I described it. One of my best editors told me she could not finish the chapter because it was so horrific so I took out some of the most graphic details. I wanted the reader to be as repulsed as I was while watching the scene. However, to the surprise of no one, I went overboard.
I never thought of telling my parents about this event for several reasons both practical and psychological. First, no one should ever be a snitch. Second, those boys would have done something really bad to me if they knew I told on them. Third, we were not supposed to be hiding in a closet while they had their meeting. We were told very clearly not to go downstairs. I was the one who wanted to see the “workings of the American male”always better left uninvestigated.
On a psychological level, as strange as this seems, I did not tell my parents because I did not want them, mostly my mother, to know that such things existed in the world. I thought it was my job to protect her from untoward events.
I also remained mute because I somehow felt psychologically complicit in the event. My father had recently told me that I was “not the kind of girl he wanted for a daughter” over the flirting episode. I somehow felt I had been as pathetic and wanton as Veronica. Our mutual shame bound me to silence.
My thinking on the incident has not changed much over the years. At the time I wondered how Veronica could fool herself into believing that those boys loved her. It puzzled me that she could be so na´ve. As an adult and a psychologist I see Veronica’s plight slightly differently. Her sense of self was so distorted that she did not believe anyone could love her other than in this degraded situation. I now know that we are all imperfect and see the world through our own past experiences. We are all simply trying to make it through life dragging our baggage with us. It can be an impossibly heavy load. I now don’t judge Veronica. I honestly pity her.
What has surprised me is the readers reaction to the Veronica chapter. Many readers, mostly younger than myself (which is most of the world), were shocked that those boys were not arrested for rape. These young readers believed, despite the fact that Veronica consented to that degradation, that those boys could be arrested for rape today. The women who shared these views mostly came of age after the feminist and the sexual revolution.
I really wanted to include this chapter for two reasons. I not only wanted to tell my story but the story of my era. When people read my memoir in future years I want them to know about some of the ugly byproducts of the era before sexual liberation. I believe a memoir also has to be a history, albeit from a personal point of view. What is interesting about The Diary of Samuel Pepys is not his personal thoughts but the window he opens on the seventeenth century.
Second, the episode occurs when I am thirteen years old just as I am about to embark on my own dating life. Of course it scarred me. If I hadn’t included the chapter no one reading the book would have
known why I refused to have anything to do with boys for the rest of my high school career or part of my college life. Whenever men asked me out or said something nice I was leery of their possible duplicity and insulted them to keep them at bay. (When I went to my high school reunion several men remembered the terrible things I said to them fifty years ago.) Readers deserve to know the motivation for the character’s behavior and if I’d cut out that chapter, then my behavior would have been inexplicable. Or stated another way, I don’t mind looking neurotic, but I prefer to be neurotic with cause.
Q. The Black Lawn Jockey Elimination Project was quite an ambitious enterprise for a young girl. Looking back, how do you feel about that early experiment in civil rights activism? One still occasionally sees black lawn jockeys todaydo you ever confront homeowners who display them?
When I first heard from Kip I didn’t know the truth about Vietnam. The word was not fully out on Vietnam and how bad it was or else I had chosen to focus on the race battle at home. I have never been a multitasker. I really need to put on horse blinkers and trot ahead with one project.
No matter how ridiculous the Lawn Jockey Elimination Project was, I still have fond memories of it. For me it meant that I was doing something for a cause I believed in. I was passionate about civil rights, yet was too young to go on any of the freedom marches and sitins down south that I saw constantly on the television. Of course it was idiotic to damage personal property, but even now, no matter how misguided it was, I am still pleased that I did it. I was just sorry that it never got the publicity it deserved for that was the point of the exercise. Often teenagers do silly things, but you have to look at the sentiment. The act was immature, but the sentiment was a positive one.
Last year I was whitewater canoeing on a river with a group of much younger women. The rapids were so strong we had to lift the canoe out of the water and hoist it up a steep rock cliff in northern Canada and portage the canoe through the forest. Eventually in the middle of a mosquitoinfested forest in the northern hinterlands, where there was no civilization for miles, we came upon a clearing and found a shack with only plastic wrap for windows and steps made out of driftwood. It was still used because it had dry firewood under a tarp and matches on the makeshift table. In front of the shack was a black lawn jockey holding a lantern. We all burst out laughing since my book had just come out.
I have done some research on black lawn jockeys and have found out that they sell for a lot of money and you can buy them on the Internet. One online site says that the jockeys were used in front of homes that were active in the Underground Railroad. If this is true, and I am still investigating that, then the statues have a far less ignominious past than I thought.
Q. Your awareness of the Vietnam War is channeled through the letters from Kip that you reprint here. How did his letters help to shape your thoughts about the war? Did you otherwise feel sheltered or isolated from Vietnam and the protests against it?
The press was confusing, with Walter Cronkite saying one thing and Jane Fonda another. However, when I heard how bad things were in Vietnam from Kip, someone that I cared about and whose opinion I trusted, I had to reevaluate the situation. Kip was the type to always make the best of things. He never complained or found fault with others. That was always my job. When he sent letters saying that he didn’t
know who the real enemy was and that America was not reporting what was really happening in Vietnam, my heart sank. I knew he would never have lied. I’d known him since the seventh grade.
Then other boys I’d known who’d gone off to Vietnam began to drift home from the war without arms or legs or with shrapnel in their eyes. When I went to the bar where we all hung out, I was shocked that boys I’d known as kids who were welladjusted and from “good families”families that I’d known for yearscame back shadows of their former selves. They were smoking way too much pot and seemed to be permanently jaded. I didn’t know what posttraumatic stress was then, but I knew that something was very wrong with a war that would chew soldiers up and return them in such a psychologically damaged state. To this day many of the boys I knew who went to Vietnam have never recovered their equilibrium.
I think my experience typified many other Americans who came of age in the sixties. We heard all the antiwar protests and then we saw and heard the corroborating evidence from those who had witnessed it firsthand.
Q. When you met and began a relationship with Laurie Coal it was unusual for a black man and white woman to be dating. What was your mother’s reaction? Did you experience any more overt racism or hostility than you reference in the book?
I never told my mother that I was dating a black man. She already had her hands full with my father. If he had been well, I would have brought Laurie home. As my father’s tumor progressed he lost the words for many categories and when my mother took him out to places where there were other races he really embarrassed her. Although my dad lost a huge chunk of his vocabulary he was always loud and friendly. At the cancer hospital he called blacks “Rochester” and Native Americans “Tonto.” He called all people who were bald “Yul Brynner.” I found this quite fascinating for it shows you the power of television and movies. Interestingly no one ever got angry at him in restaurants or the hospital when my dad addressed them as a Hollywood stereotype for they saw how open and friendly he was. One Native American who was also getting chemotherapy was very patient when my father greeted him as Tonto every week. He simply replied “Hi, Lone Ranger.” When anyone mentioned the word chemotherapy he would say “sure kemo sabe.” With all of my father’s linguistic gaffes and my mother’s trials I didn’t want to bring anything new into the mixand a large black male boyfriend would certainly be something new.
However, I never hid Laurie either. Sometimes my mother would say she heard from someone in her bridge club that I was seen in the convertible with a black guy; she seemed nonplussed by these sighting and simply said she hoped my civil rights work was progressing as planned. I would always assure her I was on top of it.
It was very unusual for a white woman to date a black man back then. When I now give talks to people under forty I realize that it is honestly hard for them to imagine the strength of the taboo.
Laurie and I loved hanging out in New York City for, although people always gawked at us, we were not shunned. New York always has a bit of everything. It was harder in Buffalo but we spent most of our time on the campus and in bars where some people were not always thrilled with the situation, but no one was ever confrontational and many people knew us.
The situation changed dramatically at school in southern Ohio. I had no idea when I went there that the geography of the state of Ohio took a dip in the southeast corner and the southern border states were West Virginia and Kentucky. Many of the students were from southern Ohio and states below it. These people were another kettle of fish entirely and I felt like I’d entered a time warp or a Faulkner novel. Since I had never heard
prejudice at home I was not prepared for it so I was undefended. If I had known how bad it was going to be I would have at least steeled myself.
Q. Looking back, how do you explain your blissful ignorance of Laurie’s other life? Do you think he was an exceptionally good liar, or that you were simply na´ve?
Over fortyfive years ago the black and white worlds were far more separate than they are now. There was very little crossover. Laurie and I also lived in different cities. I think he was a really good liar and I was very na´ve, a combination that feeds illusions.
If no one lies to you as a child in any serious way and your parents are always straight with you then you have no antenna for mendacity. It would never enter my mind that he was lying. No one I knew had been married, let alone had a child. It was the furthest thing from my reality at that age.
Also I never caught him in a lie. When you know someone for years and he is always where he says he will be, always writes when he says he will, and every deed he performs is above board, then you let your guard down. That’s what you are supposed to do in a relationship as far as I know. That’s how you build intimacy and trust. Clearly I did not see what I should have seen or questioned what I should have questioned. Life is a learning curve and that episode forced me to take a giant leap on that graph.
Q. You had not only to witness your father’s death alone, but actually sanction it by allowing the doctors to take him off life support. This must have been terribly difficult to do on your own, especially at such a young age. Did it feel unfair to you at the time? Does it now?
It was honestly not that difficult to handle his death. It was far easier than taking away his bank account and his car keys when I was such a young teenager and he could still walk and talk. Then, I actually had to take him on and deal with his wrath. He had no idea why I was so “cruel” to him. He couldn’t comprehend that he had a brain tumor.
My mother remained a devout Catholic and it was terribly hard for her to have to end a life. She was conflicted because the Catholic Church says only God decides when a life is over, yet she saw how much pain he was in and how he was no longer even able to breathe on his own. I, however, had left Catholicism at the communion rail when I was a preteen so I could be more pragmatic. I was relieved when she turned the situation over to me.
My father had lived for years with a brain tumor. He had no brain left. The doctors had no idea what was keeping him alive. He was covered in black and blue marks and collapsed veins from needles, had thrush, bedsores, painful shingles, and an impacted bowel. He weighed eightyeight pounds. He was suffering as each system failed, but still he soldiered on. I could stop the pain for him. I had a man in front of me who was dying a slow painful death. He didn’t know how to ask for morphine. I didn’t feel I had to take my orders from a pope who’d never met my dad and didn’t know anything about the years of excruciating pain that he had suffered.
In terms of my age, I never felt too young to deal with my dad’s death alone. I had worked in the drugstore from the age of four so I had been in the workforce for almost twenty years. I was used to making decisions and I had seen many dying people. That is what happens when you deliver medication. If you are groomed to take responsibility early, you do it without question or bewilderment.
Q. You clearly put a lot of energy into looking up and attempting to track down many of the people you write about, like Laurie and Flaps. How did you go about finding them? What surprised you most when you did?
I actually looked up everyone that I wrote about. Now with the Internet it is not that difficult. Almost everyone is somewhere on the net. I really enjoyed finding out what happened to people and I liked the detective work it took to trace them. Almost everyone was within six degrees of separation.
I was lucky with Flaps because he’d spent the rest of his life in the horseracing world, which is actually a small domain. One visit to the Buffalo riding academy was all I needed. The new manager of the stables told me he’d gone to a famous race track. I went there and although Flaps was dead they told me all about him; he’d been a legend as a horse trainer. I was thrilled to hear how well he’d done.
The most trouble I had was with Laurie Coal. I could not find him anywhere. He was an only child and his parents were dead. His cousin had also died; he’d been murdered in the ’60s. I was puzzled that he was not anywhere on the net. His football record still existed everywhere but none of the coaches were around anymore and none of the new ones knew what had happened to him. I didn’t know any of his teammates. I wrote to all the literary journals that had once published his work. I realized how old I had become when I researched the journals; I found most of them had been defunct for twenty or thirty years.
Stumped, I talked to a private detective from Kansas City who asked for Laurie’s vital statistics. I said he was a black male who would now be around the age of sixtyfive. The detective spoke in demographics and said “A black malestatistical probability that he died between the age of thirtytwo to thirtyeight. Check the death records.” Strangely, it had never once occurred to me to do that. Sure enough he was there. He’d died at the age of thirtysix. I got a hold of the autopsy and found he’d lived alone and wasn’t found for a few days. The immediate cause of death was a fall and subdural hemorrhage. Indirectly he died of alcoholism. He weighed only 136 pounds.
I was not surprised by what had happened to anyone that I looked up except for Laurie. He could have distinguished himself in so many areas. My mistake was presuming he’d been successful.
There’d been no indication that he would become an alcoholic. When I knew him he never had more than the occasional beer. One of our bonds was the love of Diet Coke. He had parents who had a good marriage: his father owned a successful business with several employees, and they were comfortably middle class. They had given Laurie every advantage. I was haunted by that autopsy report and must have read it fifty times. Life is so precarious. One wrong turn and it is so hard to find your way back home.
- 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 momentsas a literary device or as a spiritual visitation?
- 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?
- 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?
- As parents, Jim and Janet McClure take a rather unusual approachespecially for the timeto 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?
- 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 popculture image? How does it compare to your own impressions or experience of the era?
- Cathy’s teenage rebellion takes her on what she sees as a high roadvandalizing property in the name of civil rightsand a low onestealing 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?
- 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”)?
- Another surprise that fate had in store for young Cathy McClure was the truth about her first lovethe 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?
- 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?
- 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 Janethow do you view her behavior in the face of Jim’s illness?