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Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience

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From Oprah's Best Memoirs of 2014: http://www.oprah.com/book/Best-Memoir...

At the age of three, Eileen Cronin first realized that only she did not have legs. Her boisterous Catholic family accepted her situation as God's will, treating her no differently than her ten siblings, as she squiddled through their 1960s Cincinnati home. But starting school, even wearing prosthetics, Cronin had to brave bullying and embarrassing questions. Thanks to her older brother's coaching, she handled a classmate's playground taunts with a smack from her lunchbox. As a teen, thrilled when boys asked her out, she was confused about what sexuality meant for her. She felt most comfortable and happiest relaxing and skinny dipping with her girlfriends, imagining herself an elusive mermaid. The cause of her disability remained taboo, however, even as she looked toward the future and the possibility of her own family. In later years, as her mother battled mental illness and denied having taken the drug thalidomide, known to cause birth defects, 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.

Reflecting with humor and grace on her youth, search for love, and quest for answers, Cronin spins a shimmering story of self-discovery and transformation.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published January 20, 2014

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About the author

Eileen Cronin

7 books47 followers
Eileen Cronin is the author of Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience, WW Norton, one of Oprah's Best Memoirs of 2014:
And in Pop Sugar's Must Reads of 2014.

Mermaid was featured in The Daily Beast, and was on Page One in Poets & Writers. If you read Mermaid, please consider reviewing it, or vote on these lists:https://www.goodreads.com/list/book/1...

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5 stars
178 (28%)
4 stars
215 (34%)
3 stars
183 (29%)
2 stars
40 (6%)
1 star
13 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 79 reviews
Profile Image for Andy.
2 reviews
March 25, 2014
Terrific book - but then I'm in it.
1 review
April 4, 2014
To read Eileen Cronin's devastatingly human memoir is to be plunged into a seemingly bottomless well of very deep emotions: burning shock, fierce longing, everyday desire, well-founded rage, and a monumental yearning to be seen as one actually is. Many of the scenes here are of nightmare-level intensity, ranging from the perspectives of a mobility-limited small child wiggling at her mentally ill mother's feet, desperate for love and attention, to the buddingly lovely adolescent making out in the back of a van, terrified of what her disability might mean for her future sex life, to the tried-by-fire adult constantly battling a familial judgment that any attempt to understand the source of her disability could only spring from an ill-tempered desire to stir up trouble. Yet there's surprisingly little about pain in this jaw-dropping story of a smart, tough little girl's fighting to grow up sane -- and, at some junctures, to grow up at all -- in a family seemingly determined to ignore the facts and blame, if not actually abuse, the victim of intense denial.

Written with engaging simplicity, this searing tale of misguided tough love and misinformed judgments relies upon vividly-drawn incidents for its effects, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. We're not told that these kids had little rational adult supervision, for instance -- we're merely given glimpses of it when the older kids habitually compete to see who can toss Mary Eileen highest in the air with their feet, immediately adjacent to a brick fireplace. The text does not announce how insensitive Mary Eileen's teachers are; we simply see a nun bow to a stunned child, telling the girl that God has chosen her to carry the full weight of Christ's burdens. Nor are we lectured about how bullying makes children's lives miserable: we are dragged along as girls jealous of Mary Eileen's academic achievements throw her down several flights of stairs, one after the other, while not a single adult apparently notices.

If the battling boys from the Lord of the Flies had stumbled into this world, its challenges would have made them turn pale. Yet our young narrator grits her teeth, straps on her legs, and keeps soldiering on, determined that no one will see her cry.

This lack of narrative judgment is refreshing in a personal memoir, which so often veer toward anecdotal-style generalizations and sweeping condemnations. It's also refreshing to read a memoir about dealing with immense physical challenges that does not whitewash the issues or pretend that kith, kin, or even bystanders were invariably supportive of a condition not very well understood at the time. Here, the family's resentment at what they interpret as God's cruel decision to place a less-than-physically perfect child in their midst is palpable from minute to minute.

All of which is why Mermaid is one heck of a good memoir about growing up with a mentally ill parent. The denial in this household is not limited to the narrator's being born without legs from the knees down: some of her siblings remain so determined to look away from their mother's frequent stints in mental care facilities that when Mary Eileen mentions such a stay at school, one of her sisters holds her down until she calls herself insane:

"Now, as my fingers tingled to a numb state from her knees jammed into my upper arms, I shouted in a convincingly crazy voice, 'I'm LOONEY! OKAY? I'll say anything. Just leave me alone.'"

Such is the level of familial myth-making and internalized embarrassment that for much of the book -- which is to say: pretty much all of its heroine's adolescence -- everyone at home and at school calls her Tunes, short for Looney Tunes. Rarely has a scapegoat been so well-labeled, or so lastingly: even her boyfriends call her Tunes. She encourages it; chillingly, the nickname seems to strike her as affectionate.

That level of loyalty and blistering desire for normalcy will strike a chord with anyone who is now or ever has been an adolescent girl, I suspect. One of the many delightful surprises of this memoir is how good a coming-of-age story it is: learning to come to terms with one's own body and fears of how it might respond (or not) to sex are, after all, universal experiences. I would love to see this book widely read by teenagers.

Fair warning to teen readers -- and, indeed, to those under 50 -- though: this story firmly enough grounded in Baby Boomer sensibilities and 1960s-1970s cultural references that you may occasionally want to look something up. As a Gen Xer, I had never heard of Bridget Loves Bernie, for example, or the Goldie Hawn film Butterflies are Free.

That's an immensely minor quibble, however, in a piece of storytelling of great overall power. Images from this book will haunt you like memories.
Profile Image for Robby Hamlin.
Author 1 book55 followers
December 26, 2015
This is an amazing book on many levels. Since I am not experienced in reviewing the books I read, I can only say what it meant to me. I chose to read it when I noticed its overall subject, living with a disability. A few years back and turning 65, I decided I would try to write a memoir about my partially disabling condition. It was not because of a birth defect, rather a sudden occurrence when I was 21, a car crash. It seems like so much happened in so short a after that - and I remember it so well - but if I never write it down I would feel like it was just so much water under the bridge. It was no stretch for me to relate to the author despite our situations being completely different, right down to gender.

I was old enough at 14 or 15 to understand when thalidomide was found to cause severe birth defects, but the subject soon faded from memory. Over a half century later, reading Mermaid - A Memoir of Resilience has definitely effected me in both an emotional and a real sense. Chapter after chapter, I found the writing style so captivating that I just wanted to continue on, not having any idea how it would all turn out. That the author so naturally weaves the many tiny details of the currency of her days into the narrative is her special gift.

Yes, the desire I had to read this book was self-serving, as I hoped to learn a little that could help me write on about the changes I have experienced. The book has so much value packed into it, not the least of which is inspiration, but I thank the author because she spoke to me.
Profile Image for Paul.
815 reviews44 followers
December 15, 2015
This is a tortuous book to read. The author is born disabled, lacking her forelegs and having one hand that was webbed at birth and surgically separated when she was an infant, but which she still refers to as "my claw hand." The most prominent aspect of the book to me was her nasty family of 12 devout, conservative Roman Catholics who openly called her "Looney" instead of Eileen.

She admits to being a fiercely independent child, but it still seems like her family ostracizes and marginalizes her, not for her handicap, but for her difficult personality. To me, this is an unconscionable way to treat her. She is continually asking her mother if she took Thalidomide during her pregnancy with her, and her mother angrily denies it. It's not until the very end of the book that her mother admits that she had taken it, which is long after the author has studied the effects of Thalidomide and worries whether her disability was because of that or because of a genetic deviation. Clearly, the author is concerned about having a child herself until she finds out.

The way her family, including her parents, treat her--going on vacations and not taking her--made me angry as a reader. At the same time, she seems to sabotage herself by breaking up with men who truly seem to love her and becoming what appears to be an anorexic and an alcoholic.

This book is hard to follow much of the time. I was never clear on the personalities of all but two of her siblings, her eldest sister Bridget, who acts as an assistant mother, and her brother Frank, to whom she is closest and who later dies in a car accident. The other siblings are brought up so randomly that their personalities never get distinguished from each other.

Her mother goes into a psychotic break (one of three she will have in her lifetime), and the author never tells us whether the mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic or bi-polar. The reader has to infer it's the latter by the fact that she is prescribed lithium. She rescues a woman beset by thugs as she waits for a bus, and doesn't tell the reader that the woman was black until three pages later, because it figured in why the attackers left her alone after the author embraced her. Visualizing her stories as she tells them is very difficult because of this. She has unprotected sex during her period and then writes about the possibility of getting pregnant during that time without actually telling the reader that she WAS pregnant.

Her descriptions of her schoolgirl embarrassment at having two artificial legs and having to ride on the "retarded bus" to school are winsome and heartfelt and the best parts of the book. Otherwise, her continuous references to popular culture, such as Yoda and The Jetsons, give a cliched quality to her writing. Finally, she frequently mistakes "nauseous"--causing nausea--with "nauseated"-- experiencing nausea. People stand behind podiums instead of lecterns. Several other misnomers like this cut into her credibility as a writer.

All told, Cronin has to explain the arduousness of life without two lower limbs but doesn't make herself a sympathetic character. Since her family members are even less sympathetic, it's hard to root for anyone in the book.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
118 reviews5 followers
December 16, 2014
I found the writing here to be odd. Sometimes there were long descriptions of events the author obviously felt were crucial to understand her life story, but they were written in such a way that they were very hard to follow, or hard to figure out. It felt sometimes like we were being asked to read between the lines without enough information. The book is really less about the author's disability than about her family, a huge Catholic family with a lot of issues. There is also ENDLESS talk about drinking, which seems to be the family's favorite past-time, although it proves very destructive to them. Even with all this, there were bits and pieces of Eileen's life that were fascinating to read about, and the role of family secrets in a life is a theme that resounds here in a deep way.
Profile Image for Mimi.
348 reviews5 followers
February 6, 2014
Because her mom took thalidomide during her pregnancy, Eileen Cronin was born without legs. She was born into a Catholic family with 10 siblings. None of the other children had any disabilities. Growing up, Eileen was always told that it was God's will that she had this disability. Growing up was difficult for Eileen. She battled bullying and embarrassment. As she got older, she heard rumors about the drug thalidomide and that possibly her mother had taken it while pregnant with her. Since her mom suffered several nervous breakdowns, it was years before Cronin finally found out for certain that her mom had taken thalidomide. Eileen has overcome many obstacles and has led a very rich life.
1 review
January 16, 2014
Mermaid evokes so many powerful emotions. It's a truthful look at growing up in a family of eleven.
We watch Eileen grow up in the story and see her tenacity as a little girl born without legs to a family of competitive, athletes and ballerinas. She describes her own flaws as well as her family's with a layer of compassion. The story begins as we watch her first "squiddle" and then literally and figuratively she grows into a beautiful mermaid by taking her pen to paper and ultimately finding her voice. I feel blessed she chose to share her story and definitely recommend this book. I cannot wait to read more by this breakthrough writer.
Profile Image for Len Joy.
Author 10 books34 followers
February 24, 2014
This is a great story. If it were told by a less skillful writer, it would be easy for the reader to be overwhelmed by the material. Cronin paints revealing, but compassionate portraits of the people who have touched her life: mother, father, siblings, boyfriends, caregivers, extended family. She has a huge cast and a LOT of challenges, but the story never bogs down. Very well-written, great pacing and emotionally gripping. Highly recommend it.
1 review1 follower
December 25, 2013
I was privileged to receive an advanced copy of Mermaid. It is an utterly engaging story about a young woman growing up in a Catholic family with 10 siblings, finding her way in the world, and oh yeah, she has no legs! I found it funny, poignant, and heart breaking. The memoir reads like a novel and I couldn’t put it down. This book is definitely 5 stars!
Profile Image for Anne.
1 review4 followers
April 19, 2014
I literally can't put this book down. Eileen is a master at crafting language that will transport you into the world of her upbringing, ranging from indifference to her plight, to ridicule and bullying. It takes an extraordinary character to rise above her childhood, and she has just this sort of spirit
1 review
January 17, 2014
I loved this book! Eileen Cronin is a gifted storyteller. She uses humor and warmth to share the challenges and happy times of her youth. The book flows seamlessly chapter to chapter to engage and entertain you as you see life through Eileen's eye's.
Profile Image for Rachael.
54 reviews
February 26, 2014
An unflinchingly, honest, heartbreaking and often heartwarming memoir documenting everything from family, religion, attitudes towards disability and the search for love. Worthy of 5 stars and a great read.

(I received my edition of Mermaid through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway).
Profile Image for Andrea Forro.
3 reviews
March 10, 2014
Well written, engaging....draws you right into this damaged, hilarious Irish family. Loved it!
Profile Image for HeavyReader.
2,247 reviews14 followers
February 27, 2014
I won this book through First Reads! Yippee!

I finished reading it last night and will add a review soon.

The author of this book was born without legs. This is not her biggest problem. Her biggest problem seems to be growing up in a huge Catholic family in Cincinnati in the 1960s and '70s. She was born sixth of eleven kids. Two of her older sisters terrorized her physically and psychologically throughout her childhood (and into adulthood as well). Her mom suffered physically from complications from having all those kids and had a couple of nervous breakdowns too, which landed her in psychiatric wards. Her dad left her mom when the youngest three kids were babies.

No one talked to Cronin about her disability. They family chalked it up to being "God's will." (When Cronin was a small child, she asked her mother why she was born without legs. Her mom answered, "You don't have legs,...because baby Jesus chose you to carry the cross!" Fucked up!)

It's hardly surprising the Cronin grew up to be a young woman who drank too much, didn't know how to stand up for herself, and married a man she was no longer compatible with.

But as the title says, this is a memoir of resilience. Cronin perseveres. She gets an education. She establishes a career. She finds love. She becomes an advocate for others with disabilities. She begins to speak out about her life, her family, her disability. She becomes a mother. She quits worrying about what her family thinks. She keeps asking questions until she gets real answers about why she was born without legs. She gets happy.

This book was sometimes hard to read, not just because of the difficult subject matter. Some of the sentences were strangely structured; even after reading them a few times, I still wasn't exactly sure what the author meant. It just wasn't one of those books that kept me up half the night, unable to put it down. It seemed to be lacking some sort of spark.

But, I'm glad to know that Cronin didn't just survive, but learned how to thrive, despite her physical disability, despite her family problems. I'm glad she got her life story published, and I wish her much success.

103 reviews
October 26, 2014
I had a hard time putting this book down. The author does a great job mixing humor, conflict, sadness, loss, rivalry, and abandonment into a very interesting story. At the core was her experience as a child with a serious birth defect. I have to admit that I wondered at her difficulty with all of her relationships (one sympathizes with her family as they cope with her insecurities), but it's hard to know how one would be growing up so physically different from one's peers. I greatly admire her fearlessness in many areas of life! I was sad to read about how badly she wanted her father to say "I love you", when he writes her a letter expressing his love. Yet because he included her brothers and sisters in the expression of love, she was overwhelmingly disappointed. I did not grow up in a large family, so that may be why I didn't understand. There is a lot of tension between the author and her mother over her mother's possible use of thalidomide, a drug tied to serious birth defects. This tension forced her to distance herself from her mother and most of her siblings for many years. Ultimately, though, this is a book about resilience (title!) and is a wonderful read.
Profile Image for Miko Lee.
1,333 reviews9 followers
September 19, 2015
Mixed feelings about this memoir of growing up in Midwestern Irish Catholic family. Eileen is the middle of her ten siblings, born without legs she finds multiple ways to succeed. She felt most free when swimming without her artificial legs hence the title.

The entire book feels a bit like an assignment from a therapist as a means to deconstruct and then come to turns with a big complicated family.

I'm sorry to say that I just didn't feel her storytelling technique. At one point she mentions she tried to kill herself. And I thought Huh? I must have missed something through speed reading. So I checked back and reread and found that it really is just kind of thrown in there.

Seems like she had interesting stories and a challenging family situation and could have used a good co writer.
Profile Image for Libby.
168 reviews3 followers
June 12, 2014
Eileen Cronin admirably describes in juicy and vivid detail her coming of age in a large and boisterous Irish Catholic family in Cincinnati. Born without legs because of her mother's possibly taking thalidomide early in her pregnancy with Eileen (which mystery resonates through her entire tale until it is resolved in the end), she strives to find her place in the family--which means rebelling--and in the world. Reading this book was like being on a roller-coaster ride: exciting and not sure what you'll find after the next curve. However, you'll root for her and vicariously share her experiences, and appreciate the happy ending at the end of this wild ride.
63 reviews
September 25, 2020
I lowered my rating to a 4 star because I'm afraid I was too swayed with all of the Cincy references that I shared with the author. Although she's a few years younger than me it was so great to read about her early years growing up around the same time and city as me. The silence of the parents about the circumstances of her disability was so normal for so many issues during that time and it probably doesn't seem plausible for today's generation. I applaud what I think is a truthful accounting of her life and resilience in overcoming so many obstacles in her life.
Profile Image for Melissa.
469 reviews10 followers
June 6, 2014
This is one of those books that I found myself picking up to read every time I had a free minute. Eileen's life experiences are very unique to her, but I found myself identifying with her over and over again. She doesn't make herself the martyr, but writes a very honest and intimate story of her life.
Profile Image for Carol Malnati.
8 reviews1 follower
March 9, 2014
This is a great memoir, one of the best I've read. Story of a young girl growing up in large (11 kids!!) Catholic family....girl is possibly a Thalidomide baby, born with no legs. Sometimes heartbreaking, but mostly amazing how strong she is. I found it hard to put down.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
208 reviews1 follower
April 26, 2014
I really liked this book- It illustrates the complex dynamic in any large family, even apart from the issues of one of its members being disabled. Given that, I can't help but feel resentment toward the narrator's mother and family at large for withholding the truth from her for so long.
Profile Image for Sara.
481 reviews6 followers
May 4, 2014
HIghly recommend. An unflinching look at a wild family life from a resilient gal who was born with no legs. Just sails along telling the story, very well crafted memoir writing.
5 reviews
November 4, 2019
Terrific. Extremely compelling and thought provoking about growing up and navigating life with a congenital disability
Profile Image for Rachel Pruchno.
Author 6 books9 followers
May 10, 2014
Incredibly strong start. Beautiful writing, captivating. Falls flat by page 30.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 79 reviews

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