A Celt Lost in Jerusalem: Kate Mulgrew’s ‘Born With Teeth’

A Celt Lost in Jerusalem: Kate Mulgrew’s ‘Born With Teeth’

“This is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager,” were words that quite literally defined my childhood. The most stable period of said hood occurred towards the end of primary school when established morning ritual was an episode of Voyager before school at the breakfast table, the opening credits serving as the theme tune of the day. Janeway was probably my earliest idol and remains my ultimate source of comfort television that roots me firmly back in a sense of ancient self. Her fire, her courage, her grace: uncompromising, deeply intellectual, and utterly indomitable.

And by the angel, can this woman write.

As is breathtakingly evident in the first ten minutes of every convention talk she’s ever done, she’s a born storyteller. Her eloquence is bewitching, and so her memoir is quite simply a gorgeous and soul-soothing thing to get lost in for a few days. I was utterly under her spell. As is quoted from the Oprah Magazine on the front cover alongside that disarming black and white shot taken by one of her brothers on their farm in Iowa, she reveals herself “as a character more fascinating than any she’s played.” For her life has been incredible, as scorching and unforgiving as only that of a woman who has navigated the stages and screens of the late 20th century can be, reminiscent of the incomparable Carrie Fisher (*salutes*). She’s just the most exquisite raconteur, and from the first page you know you’re in the hands of a master wordsmith. She’s magnetic, generating this gravitational pull that burns as bright as a pulsar.

Her narrative begins ab ovo in Iowa where we are granted full immersion into the rural reality of her family’s lives. She loses two sisters here, one whose death she believed for many years to have been her own doing, the other a sorrow which plagues her for the rest of her life, “like a whisper, like a dream–she flew up the stairs and was gone”. Her mother reminds me of Ursula in One Hundred Years of Solitude, who had a “torrential” life, “the spirit of her invincible heart guided her through the shadows.” We learn that her mother knew JFK in some way, and danced with him at a ball, and are struck a blow to the solar plexus on the news of the assassination when the “ancient sadness” in her eyes paralyses the young Kate. This is set in stark juxtaposition with her hysterectomy on the next page, from which she returns brandishing the jar housing her ovaries with the whip-sharp and eye-twinkling label “From Whence You Sprang”.

Mulgrew made the pilgrimage to NYC when she was still in her teens, enrolling at the NYU Tisch School of Arts under the tutelage of the notorious Stella Adler, who nurtured actors from Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty to Robert De Niro and Melanie Griffiths. Stella’s pearls of wisdom are lovingly and reverently preserved on the page. On disappointment: “Use it. Williams was disappointed, Turgenev was disappointed, Odets was disappointed! Do you think you can understand what epic is without being disappointed?” On the great enterprise of a life in the arts: “Those eyes, the color of the sea, stormy and tough, turned a sudden cool blue, and once again she took my chin in her hand and said, ‘Darling, there are endless temptations, but only the work will lift you up. Never forget that.’”

NYC became her home, and her profound love for the city clearly runs deep, as deep as it can only run for a place one flees to oh-so-green and alone with dreams of paralysing magnitude. I will never again moan about my modest Camden digs after reading about the cupboard she rented while finding her feet, “I prepared to bathe by first dismantling the dining table, which was a plank of wood that rested on top of the bath-tub.” Respect!

She was a “Celt lost in Jerusalem”, a careening comet searing from project to project, her first big break on Ryan’s Hope, perhaps defined by the fact that after being pressured into giving her baby up for adoption she was forced to deliver a monologue to the stunt baby on the show reiterating how they would never be parted. I mean, Jesus. That’s the start of an incredible and aching narrative chronicling the twenty year separation from her daughter. From an impulsive and controlling romance with an Italian business mogul, to a short marriage with the father of her two boys, to the whirlwind discovery of the love of her life in the rain and sleet of deepest Dingle, the fire of her personal life is matched only by the unrelenting furnace that is her creative drive, which comes to a point in the seven year intrepid enterprise of Star Trek: Voyager! What a blistering exposé of the many faces of fame from one of the most lyrical and literary voices to have ever come out of the world of acting.

Mulgrew performed opposite the enigma of Hollywood royalty’s Richard Burton in the 1981 Lovespell film adaptation of Tristan and Isolde. One night, brash and brooding as ever, he ordered everyone else out of the pub and fixed her with implacable intensity, “‘This business will kill you. Strip you of your soul, steal your humanity, leave you a shell of what you once were. It’s no place for a real man’–he pointed to himself, head bowed–‘and it’s death to a good woman. Get the fuck out before it’s too late.’”

This book was pure joy distilled. She writes so bloody beautifully you forget you’re reading autobiography, her prose weaving this rich and affecting portrait of a cast of torrential women in 20th century rural and urban America that evokes the most poetic and poignant of literary fiction. Marquezian perfection is what it is. I can’t FREAKING wait to meet her. I’m so happy for her that she’s now playing Red in Orange is the New Black, another role of a lifetime, especially because apparently she spends the other half of the year living in a little cottage in Ireland writing her debut novel!!! Imagine! And I almost COLLAPSED when I was told she was literally in Waterstones Piccadilly a few weeks ago just having a browse, so EYES PEELED. But until then, Plan B is to start saving for a pilgrimage to the Vegas Star Trek convention…

To conclude, I leave you with her favourite Yeats poem, which, legend that she is, she leapt up to recite at a dinner party when the host fudged his words:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *