I was going to write a regular review of Kate Mulgrew’s Born with Teeth: A Memoir, but then I read it, and a simple review is not enough to express how I feel. This will be the most personal post I’ve ever written and I’m very nervous about it, but it feels like the right thing to do.
If you know me or are a regular reader of my blog, then you know I have been a fan of Kate and her work since I was 8 years old when I saw my first episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in which she played Captain Kathryn Janeway. I’m 27 now and my admiration and appreciation for her has grown exponentially over the years. She is an exceptionally talented actress; a wonderful orator; incredibly gracious towards her fans (I speak from experience); and a true joy to watch in any role she plays.
She is also, as it turns out, a beautifully gifted writer. Her lyrical eloquence weaves a tale so vivid and engaging that I could see it all playing out in my mind as if it were a movie. Kate lays out in unapologetic honesty a life filled with adventure, grief, trauma, and, above all, a tremendous passion for her work and her family. As she shares the intimate details of the pain of giving up her daughter for adoption, surviving a rape, losing two sisters and the kind of heartbreak only true love can bring, we are also treated to riveting stories of romance, travel and the drama of stage and screen. Kate is an astute observer of human nature and she uses this skill to craft dynamic and colourful depictions of the variety of interesting people she has encountered throughout her fascinating life.
Being the massive Star Trek fan that I am, the chapters about Kate’s time on Voyager were a real treat and I’m certainly delighted that she included them, but even if they hadn’t been there I would still have absolutely loved the book. At times intensely passionate and at others desperately sad, this was a memoir that had me completely hooked from beginning to end and left me with a profound sense of gratitude towards, and a greater understanding of, a woman I have admired for most of my life.
I love and look up to Kate for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but there is one other reason that I have never spoken of because it was too painful and I didn’t think I was strong enough to give voice to it. But then I read Kate’s memoir, and the courage and bravery of her words gave me the confidence to find my own, and reminded me that there are some things which should not be kept hidden.
I grew up with a severely autistic younger brother whose inability to speak and frequent violent outbursts made for a very frightening and isolating environment in which to grow up. In their struggle to cope my parents inadvertently placed a tremendous burden of responsibility on me at a time when I was far too young to deal with it. I operated under the misguided belief that if I told them how terrified I was of my brother, how often he attacked me and how much I wished I could just go out and play with my friends, that my family would fall apart. I’m from a rural area in Scotland where there are few resources for special needs children, and with such little support our lives became subject entirely to my brother’s needs.
Eventually, the situation became untenable and my brother was moved to a specialist residential care facility where he could have the quality of life that we could not provide. By then I had become terribly withdrawn, fearful and anxious and struggled to relate to my family and friends. I was already a huge fan of Star Trek: Voyager and Captain Janeway was my favourite character. To help with my anxiety I took a Janeway action figure to school with me. It made me feel protected and gave me courage to get through the day; a tangible reminder of the strength and fortitude of the character herself.
This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!
A few years later I started to develop health problems. It’s a long and complicated story but, in a nutshell, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease left me with permanent damage to my digestive system and significant problems with my nervous system. When it all began the physical pain only added to the emotional pain I had been feeling for years and eventually it all got too much. One night, while I was watching an episode of Voyager, as I often did to make myself feel better, I was sitting with a pile of prescription medications and my mind started to wander.
What would happen if I took them all at once? Would I have time to sneak into my parents’ drinks cabinet and knock back a few bottles as well before they found me?
I have heard many people refer to suicide as a selfish act. It’s not. It’s an act of pure desperation. You don’t think about the devastating impact it will have on the people who love you. All you can think about is making it stop, about silencing the storm inside you, because how can life be worth living if every day, every second, feels like this? How can you possibly be of any use to anyone? There is no hope in that moment that it will ever get better, there is only the crippling fear and pain which has brought you there.
I took the first few pills. I don’t remember what they were, little pink, innocuous looking things, and just as I was about to reach for more, I heard a powerful and authoritative voice projecting from the television:
“In command school, they taught us to always remember that manoeuvring a starship is a very delicate process, but over the years, I’ve learned that, sometimes, you just have to punch your way through.”
It was Kate Mulgrew speaking as Captain Janeway, and in that moment of sheer hopelessness that line was like a bolt of lightning illuminating a very long and dark night. In this episode, (‘Parallax’, the second episode of Season One), Voyager is trapped in the event horizon of a quantum singularity. Their only escape route is closing fast and the situation looks hopeless. As I continued to watch the scene unfold, Voyager’s struggle suddenly became a metaphor for my own. My hand remained suspended over the pills as I watched Janeway urge her helmsman to “keep it together” as the ship was rocked by turbulence and structural damage.
When Voyager burst triumphantly from the quantum singularity, a surge of hope rushed through me as I began to believe for the first time that maybe I could escape too. I spoke to my parents and within a week my doctor had diagnosed me with clinical depression and OCD and I soon began treatment at a centre specialising in adolescent mental health.
As well as supporting me through my recovery, the psychologists there helped me to realise that creativity was the means by which I could find my way back to myself. I discovered that I could write poetry, and over the months that followed I crafted a path for myself made out of words and metaphors that personified my depression into a force I could fight. When I came to the end of my treatment, the lead psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help the other patients, which I very happily agreed to.
Now, 12 years later, I have a job in the industry I love (publishing), two university degrees, and, most importantly, wonderful relationships with my hugely supportive family and friends. I write as often as I can and also run an online support group for siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome, in an effort to provide the kind of help I so desperately needed when I was young.
In 2012 I had the incredible experience of meeting Kate at a Star Trek convention in London. Living in Scotland and finding travel quite a challenge I had assumed that I would never get the chance to meet her, so when I did it was like a dream and I still feel so happy whenever I think about it. My mother kindly made the trip to London with me to give me support and said that she had never seen me as happy as I was after I met Kate, who was as kind, gracious and generous in person as I had always imagined her to be.
Whenever I find myself dealing with difficult emotions, trying to adjust to the side effects of a new medication or struggling with the physical pain and fatigue that are my constant companions, I see Kate as Janeway standing on the bridge of Voyager, telling her crew that sometimes you just have to punch your way through. And I do.
Kate now stars as Galina “Red” Reznikov on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and she’s absolutely terrific, as is the show itself. You can read my review of the book the show is based on here.
The following are links to some great interviews and reviews of Born with Teeth. Read it. Seriously.
The Washington Post
The Mary Sue
One last thing, a shout out to my dear friend Stefani, who very kindly sent me Kate’s book across the Atlantic from Mississippi to Scotland. She has an awesome blog over at Caught Read Handed that I would encourage you to check out if you love books and nerdy things!