You might know Kate Mulgrew as Galina “Red” Reznikov on “Orange Is the New Black,” Capt. Kathryn Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager,” or perhaps as Sam Malone’s girlfriend-who-wasn’t-Diane-or-Rebecca on “Cheers.” For all her talent as an actor, however, Mulgrew’s true calling may be as a writer.
In her new memoir, “How to Forget,” Mulgrew shares a moving personal story that’s a scriptwriter’s (and actor’s) dream. It’s full of love and heartbreak — of affairs and deaths and lives undone — as melodramatic at times as “Ryan’s Hope,” the soap opera Mulgrew once starred in. That the book is autobiography makes its many shocking details all the more powerful. When Mulgrew was a teen, for instance, her mother confessed to her that she was having an affair with their priest — a relationship she ended only when Mulgrew’s 12-year-old sister was felled by a brain tumor.
Centered on the decline and deaths of Mulgrew’s parents over the course of two years, “How to Forget” has a sorrowful heart. But it’s rarely depressing. Kate Mulgrew the writer is as no-nonsense as her Starfleet captain alter ego. After learning that her father, at 83, has weeks to live, she says to him, over a pair of vodkas, “Well, this has been a hell of a day, hasn’t it?”
Told in two parts — one for each parent — “How to Forget,” is, never mind its title, about remembering. As her parents face the end of their lives, Mulgrew takes us back to their beginnings. In the commanding voice of a classically trained actress, she regales us with sharply told tales of family life on Derby Grange, a 40-acre estate in Dubuque, Iowa, that’s a kind of Midwestern Hyannis Port. There, Kate, the second of eight children, grew up in a boisterous Irish Catholic household — a place full of “good cheer, challenging repartee, spontaneous parties, song-and-dance, bonfires, bocce and even the occasional relay race,” as a local obituary later described it. But a shadow hung over the lighthearted shenanigans.
Mulgrew’s younger sister Maggie died in infancy. Her father, Tom Mulgrew, a handsome former Army lieutenant, drank too much. Her mother, Joan, an artist who’d once rubbed elbows with the Kennedys at the real Hyannis Port had, by her account, at least 18 miscarriages. Kate Mulgrew grew up attending her father’s drinking parties and helping her mother recover from her lost pregnancies: Her mother would pick up Kate early from school, whisk her away to the movies and then for greasy fast-food fried fish. “My mother at no time warned me to keep it a secret, as such a direct order would have been demeaning to both of us,” Mulgrew writes. “She’d had a miscarriage, she’d had a migraine, this was her reward for having overcome them both, and who better to share it with than her oldest daughter.” (In Mulgrew’s previous memoir, the excellent “Born With Teeth,” the actress recounts that her mother, after giving birth to her last child, placed on the mantel a jar that contained her ovaries, labeling it, “FROM WHENCE YOU SPRANG.”)
That “How to Forget” has been shelved in the “dysfunctional family” category is not surprising. But the book is not just a series of wild anecdotes from a therapist’s couch. It’s a story about how devotion and love persist despite those wild anecdotes. After her father is diagnosed with a brain tumor and refuses treatment, Mulgrew puts aside her complicated feelings for a man who never watched her on TV (it was turned on only for Notre Dame football games) and tends to him. “So,” Mulgrew writes, “he would choose stoicism and would not be going gentle, after all. This kindled in me a sentimental pride. ... Drunk or sober, he was what he was. Unchanging, and unchangeable, this character trait was potent, captivating and dangerous. ... I have loved you, I thought, ... but I have not known you. Fathers like you are not to be known, isn’t that why you are so loved? If we knew you, as we do our mothers, our criticism would be much harsher.”
Mulgrew knew her mother — perhaps too well, some might say. (“Of those I loved, I loved my mother more,” Mulgrew writes.) Joan Mulgrew called her daughter “Kitten;” Kate called her mother “Mums.” Their relationship blossomed through their shared secrets and later, girl time in New York, where Mums reconnected with her boarding school buddy Jean Kennedy Smith. Then one day, while Mulgrew was on the “Star Trek” set, a phone rang. “Kitten,” Mums said, “I think something’s wrong.” It was Alzheimer’s. Mums was in her 70s when the diagnosis was made, and from this point in the book, the tale becomes one of growing despair, as Mulgrew’s irreverent, mischievous mother slowly becomes a blank. She eventually forgets the names of all of her children, mistaking her youngest son for Jesus.
Mulgrew’s engrossing memoir benefits from her penchant for being what she calls “constitutionally hyperbolic.” We trust this does not also apply to her promise that she’s “incapable of lying.” Her flair for drama might lead some readers to wonder about her precise recall of conversations that happened years ago — always a question with the most vivid memoirs — but it makes for a captivating reading experience. You’ll never forget Derby Grange and the happy and heartbroken family that lived there.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.
A Daughter's Memoir
Morrow. 352 pp. $27.99