Mermaid - A Memoir of Resilience by Eileen Cronin
Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience is the touching tale of Eileen Cronin, who grew up in Cincinnati during the 60s and 70s - a time when television was still new and children used their imagination to create fun and games.
Her family, with its eleven athletic and engaging children, lived in a neighbourhood packed with other large Catholic families. As Eileen was a middle child, she learned quickly that she needed to compete for a place in the crowd. No mean feat when your legs stop at the knee.
Midway through the book she recalls an older sister's story of the day their father introduced newborn Eileen to her older siblings. Unwrapping the blanket and seeing that their new sister had no lower legs, they told him to "take it back."
Despite this, her boisterous Catholic family accepted her situation as 'God's will' - that Eileen had been chosen to 'carry the cross' and therefore not to question her condition. They never treated her as though she were any different, as she "squiddled" (a term used by one of her sisters to describe Eileen's half crawling, half running) through their home.
That all changed when she entered school. She wore prosthetic legs but discovered that she would have to fight to win other people's acceptance, often handling classmates's playground taunts with a smack from her lunchbox, with thanks to her brother's coaching!
As Eileen got older, she heard rumours about the drug thalidomide and that possibly her mother had taken it while pregnant with her. Since her mother battled mental illness and had many nervous breakdowns, it was years before the truth finally emerged.
In an interview for Cincinnati Magazine, Eileen mentions how her mother confirmed her suspicions that thalidomide had been taken during pregnancy only when 'Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience' was being published:
"[When] I told her my book would be published, her first words to me were, 'Oh my God, those thalidomide people are going to be so happy'. And I went, 'huh? You've got to be kidding me, lady! Why didn't you tell me before?'"
In high school, she experienced teenage hurdles, heartaches and self-discoveries. She fell in love and fell out of love. She smoked cigarettes and went skinny-dipping with girlfriends. She felt happiest and free when swimming without her prostheses, imagining herself to be an elusive mermaid.
"I moved without a single compromise because I was liberated from my legs," she told Cincinnati magazine. "Without them I became an elusive mermaid, the Venus de Milo spit from the ruins, or a comet firing across the endless sky."
In later years, as her mother had increasing breakdowns and denied having taken the drug thalidomide, Cronin felt apart from her family. After the death of a close brother, she turned to alcohol.
Eventually, however, she found the strength to set out on her own, volunteering at hospitals and earning a PhD in clinical psychology so that she could help people who may be battling with the same internal conflicts as she had battled.
Eileen Cronin has written short stories and draft novels, several of which were published in literary magazines. Her novels-in-progress were finalists in the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society's competitions. She won the Washington Writing Prize in short fiction. Finally she returned to personal essays, one of which became a notable essay in Best American Essays.
This charming book reflects with humour and grace on the challenges faced by a young girl, who just wanted to be like every other girl in the 70s, and her journey through family feuds, romance and self discovery. Her poignant memoir is filled with tribulations, moving moments and, ultimately, the triumph of her undaunted spirit. The book is currently being translated into Korean, Chinese and Spanish.
For a taster of this beautiful book, watch Eileen Cronin reading the first chapter of Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience at Vroman's Bookstore.
Tags: Thalidomide Cincinnati dysmelia memoir childhood LimbDifference Article