Eileen Cronin was only 3 years old when she realized that, unlike her siblings, she had no legs. During her early years, her religious mother explained to her that this circumstance was God’s will — that he had chosen her “to carry the cross,” and for that reason, her condition was not hers to question. It wasn’t until her fifth-grade instructor, Sister Luke, abruptly and cruelly announced in front of her entire class that she was in fact a victim of thalidomide poisoning that Cronin understood the cause of her missing limbs.
Developed in Germany, thalidomide was prescribed for expecting mothers in the late 1950s and early ’60s to combat insomnia and morning sickness. A stewardess provided the drug to Cronin’s pregnant mother to ease her queasiness during a flight to Germany. Thalidomide was later determined to be the cause of severe birth defects, including malformed or absent appendages, in thousands of newborns. These tragic results ultimately led to stricter drug testing and approval measures.
Cronin’s compelling memoir, “Mermaid,” chronicles her complex journey and acceptance of her disability, from the moment she realized that she did not have “two legs and a bunch of toes” like the rest of her large family, to her life today as a practicing clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. She shares her painful experiences and yet, in beautiful prose, delivers a tale of optimism.
Her parents cared for her as a child but displayed little affection and kept many secrets. After the birth of her 11th child (Cronin was the seventh), her mother battled mental illness for decades and had multiple breakdowns. She refused to have a frank discussion about the cause of Eileen’s disability, even when her daughter asked about having children of her own. “I yearned for a mother who would contemplate darkness,” she writes, one who would “have a substantive talk about my legs and what that meant for my life.” Her father, unable to deal with the emotional pain of his family’s suffering, walked out on the family for several years during Cronin’s youth. Even on his deathbed, he never once uttered the words “I love you.”
The majority of her youth was spent trying to blend in. Like many other young girls, Eileen dreamed of becoming a ballerina. However, she quickly learned to conceal that dream after observing how others responded when she mentioned it. “Once I saw my grandmother’s impenetrable face go slack,” she writes, “I added, ‘or a missionary nun in Africa.’ ” This was indicative of how Cronin viewed life — she refused to conform to others’ expectations. While others saw her dreams as far-fetched, to her they were as real as any other child’s.
However, sometimes she defensively undermined her aspirations, goals and even relationships. “I would destroy my own dreams before I’d allow anyone else to destroy them,” she writes.
When she “squiddled” around her Cincinnati home before being fitted with prosthetics, people would view her “with horror, or worse, sorrow. Many looked away, which made me want to be invisible.” She admits to envying the beloved March of Dimes poster kids because, despite their disabilities, they were children everyone loved and embraced.
Gradually, she discovered that she could accept and cope with her disability. In grade school, she learned to deal with taunting bullies by whacking them with her lunchbox. 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. “I moved without a single compromise because I was liberated from my legs,” she says. “Without them I became an elusive mermaid, the Venus de Milo spit from the ruins, or a comet firing across the endless sky.”
She pondered agonizing questions about her life. Once, her boyfriend informed her that her name had been brought up in a classroom discussion on euthanasia. “I hadn’t had the nerve to ask what the class had decided about my life,” she recalls. “At a time such as this I hated to imagine how I would vote on my life, given the choice.” Cronin also wondered what sexuality and possibly motherhood meant for her. Besides her physical hardship, she experienced tragic loss, including the death of her 21-year-old brother, Frankie, with whom she was very close. Immense emotional distress caused her to turn to alcohol, and once, under the influence, she swallowed pills in a suicide attempt.
Her grit, grace and optimism are a lesson to anyone confronted by a severe challenge. She approached awkward situations with humor and poise rather than humiliation. Once, she had one of her limbs tossed across the dance floor during a fraternity dance — an embarrassment she stared down with strength: “A wooden leg would make a nice fraternity souvenir,” she quips. Another time she nearly lost her a prosthesis on a roller coaster ride. “Indignity, I was finding, could be worn as a cloak of fame,” she writes.
When she was a junior in college she received an invitation to join the Disabled Students’ Union, but she immediately shredded it because she refused to label herself as “handicapped” or “disabled.” But over time “the paranoia this flyer stirred up signaled a problem that dogged me for days, then weeks, until I did something about it.” It motivated her to face her disability head on and eventually work in health care to help others understand and cope with their afflictions.
In the face of extraordinary adversity, Cronin’s strength, tenacity and wry humor led her to a full, successful life. Her poignant memoir is filled with tribulations, moving moments and, ultimately, the triumph of her undaunted spirit.
A Memoir of Resilience
By Eileen Cronin
Norton. 336 pp. $26.95