Book Review: Mermaid (Eileen Cronin)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
"I was almost four when it first occurred to me that no one else was missing legs." This sentence opens chapter one of Eileen Cronin's memoir Mermaid and sets the tone for the entire book. There is a case to be made for the view that the context of experience sets the stage for a person's attitude towards their disability, and Mermaid definitely makes that case.
Cronin was born into an Irish Catholic family living in Cincinnati, one of the middle children in an eventually eleven. Until she received artificial legs just prior to beginning school, she got around the house and neighborhood by what her family labeled "squiddling." This involved moving around on the stumps of her legs, a method with obvious limitations but it also conferred a particular advantage on her as well. Because she was low to the ground, Cronin could get away unnoticed, hiding beneath tables or behind furniture and overhearing conversations between her mother and older siblings about the family that she was not supposed to be privy to. This ability to view her physical impairment within the larger formative context of the total family dynamic characterizes Mermaid, throughout the entire book. As important to Eileen Cronin's growth as the lack of legs were the emotional tug of war between her mother's willful personality and Eileen's own, and her mother's increasing psychiatric problems.
Never the less, as fashionable as it has become to diminish the importance of individual life narrative in favor of writing that portrays disability as a social construction, Mermaid has much say about disability through the way that Cronin is able to make her own experience come alive for the reader through the use of skillful storytelling and a focus on detail. Take for example, the scene at a college dance with which Cronin opens her novel:
I clap for my partner, mesmerized by his John Travolta hips. No man in Cincinnati
moves his pelvis like that. He takes my hands in his and gives me an easy twirl. I'm light as a spirit, ready to
While most of the scenes in Mermaid are visually less dramatic, they often in their mundaneness have longer ranged consequences and attitudes about disability. The scene where Cronin is given her first prosthetic legs takes place in "The Hanger" a workshop filled with the smells of oil and industrial machinery. The very physicality of what would now be considered a very primitive mode of being fit for artificial limbs is itself fascinating and, like Cronin and her mother, the reader may be taken by surprise at the fact that, since she had merely squiddled all of her life, the four-year- old Eileen had no real idea how to walk. Her mother is impatient with the whole process because as she says, she has a roast in the oven and three kids to pick up. When frustrated at not being able to coordinate her new legs, Eileen asks, "But why was I born without legs? What happened to me?", her mother responds with the answer that generations of children with disabilities, especially those in Catholic families, received. "'You don't have legs,' she answered, "because Baby Jesus chose you to carry the cross." It is an answer that many people with disabilities even today are saddled with: one that lodges responsibility in the individual and militates against asking for help or requiring society to make any changes. The natural recourse, when handed such philosophy, is to view disability as something that must be overcome. The question Eileen asks her mother and the response she gets, also sets up one of the major themes and power struggles in the book.
Shortly after this episode, Cronin begins school and the family is able to finagle the nuns into carting her to school, but when she changes schools to attend St. Vivian's in second grade, the school is too far to walk to and her mother, pregnant with her eleventh child, resolutely refuses to drive Eileen to school. The solution is that Eileen is signed up to ride on a van that carries adults to a sheltered workshop, a vehicle known by all of the kids in school as "The retarded bus." It is situation recognizable by many children with physical disabilities.After a year of riding the bus Cronin asks her mother once again to drive her and gets the same answer:
My lower lip would pucker, "But Mom! Everyone makes fun of that bus. The people who ride it are
retarded." I say this last word with a whisper.
Her mother eventually puts a lid on the conversation. "Now listen to me, I never took a kid to school in my life. God help me, I'm not doing it. Then answer is no. N-O. No!" Her father also makes it clear tha t he will drive her. Her defiant response is to announce that she will walk to school this year. A walk that involves climbing an overpass. Naturally Cronin arrives at school exhausted, in physical pain and late. When she walks into the room and tries to give the nuns her explanation, the response she gets is, "Does that make you special?
As difficult as these situations were, perhaps the cruelest book's cruelest episode had nothing directly to do with disability. According to Cronin, the priorities of the Cincinnati parochial schools were athletics, religion and math, in that order. After doing dismally in school during her middle school years, Eileen decided to begin studying in eighth grade and passed the exam for the more prestigious high school. A group of the popular girls, who had not passed the exam, spotted her at the top of the stair on the school's third floor and, mocking her for being accepted to a "stuck up," school tossed her through the air down the landing. When she got up, they swarmed her again and tossed her down another flight. As Cronin puts it, after having fallen so many times with her prosthetic legs, she at least knew how to prepare to land.
Throughout the book, two linked themes run. The first is the difficulty Cronin's mother had in coping with the life that her Irish Catholic background had foist upon her with its resulting episodes of stays in the psychiatric unit of the hospital and all of its ramifications for the family. The second was her mother's steadfast denial of the fact that she had taken thalidomide, resulting in Eileen's being born missing both legs and some of the fingers on her left hand. In a day before genetic testing was available, Eileen was driven by a concern that she carried genes that could result in her children with birth defects. This colored all of her relationships with men, including a reluctance to marry, making her an anomaly in a family where the goal of all of the women was to marry Catholic men with a good professions and produce large families.
Despite the centrality of disability to Eileen Cronin's story, it would be wrong to pitch it as a narrative of overcoming. It is much more akin to a bildungsroman. As much as anything, it is the story of how she became a writer. As a writer who now mentors other writers, Cronin notes that she has read far too many stories in which people with disabilities are portrayed as flat characters, and that, for a long time, she put off having her story published out of concern that it might be labeled an "inspirational memoir." As a result, her work pushes to reveal the emotional complexity of fully formed characters. In giving advice to writers for how to counter flat, stereotypic or inspirational characters Cronin says, "First, the piece needs to both capture and see beyond the limited imagination of the bigot. Second, it has to transform the limiting anger of the witness into some kind of energy or momentum that makes sense in the story being told."*
Mermaid accomplishes that and much more. Readers who are looking for tirades against the medical profession won't find them in this novel. Illness was not a part of Cronin's childhood and, if she made a trip to the doctors other than for adjustment to her prosthetic legs, it was not a part of the story that she wanted to tell. While Cronin portrays herself as opinionated, her memoir is never didactic or a thin veil for polemic. Instead, she relies on craft, a well-told tale and believable characters to make her claims.
Together with poetry, life narrative is the genre which has produced the greatest amount of writing for disability literature and is probably the most successful. It is no wonder. Nothing converts a reader more than being able to live for a while in another person's mind. Odd as it may seem to outsiders, diversity is the watchword of the disability community. Efforts to shoehorn conceptions of disability into a particular paradigm start to crumble when viewed through the eyes of the individuals who actually live it. Joining the ranks of works like Stephen Kuuisisto's Planet of the Blind, Kenny Fries' Body, Remember, Anne Finger's Past Due, and Harilyn Rousso's Don't Call Me Inspirational, Eileen Cronin's Mermaid forms a core of books that reveal the reality behind the posters and stereotypic images that enrich the lives of readers, disabled or not.
*Cited from the interview with Eileen Cronin and T. K. Dalton in this issue of Wordgathering.