Kate Mulgrew’s fan base is varied and widespread. From her start as Mary Ryan, the lead role on the popular soap opera “Ryan's Hope” to the groundbreaking first female starship captain on “Star Trek: Voyager” to her acclaimed performance as Galina "Red" Reznikov on Netflix's smash hit “Orange is the New Black,” Mulgrew brings a formidable presence and deep passion to all her projects. Her 2016 book, Born With Teeth, allowed her to add "New York Times bestselling author" to her resume.
Her latest book, released on May 21, is titled How to Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir. In this profoundly honest and examined memoir about returning to Iowa to care for her ailing parents, Mulgrew takes readers on an unexpected journey of loss, betrayal and the transcendent nature of a daughter’s love for her parents.
When Mulgrew was around 48 years old, she learned that her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which her mother endured in the last nine years of her life and died at 78 years old. Since then Mulgrew has become an active member of the Alzheimer’s Association, speaking candidly about the devastating effects of the disease and how vital it is for funds to be raised and for a cure to be found.
Through her relationship with Bennett Zier, vice president of Entercom, Mulgrew visits the Coastal Virginia region on occasion and finished writing her newest book in Sandbridge. Mulgrew met with Coastal Virginia Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Angela Blue to discuss the emotional journey of writing her book, becoming an advocate for Alzheimer’s awareness, wrapping up the final season of “Orange is the New Black” and what’s next on the horizon for her—as well as some of her favorite spots to visit in Coastal Virginia.
Coastal Virginia Magazine: So, the newest thing for you is your book coming out about caring for your parents.
Kate Mulgrew: It’s not so much about caring for my parents as it is about how they died and how that affected both me and my other siblings and how it has resonated in the years that have transpired since. Death is a funny thing. You think at the time one thing, but in retrospect, you understand that it was a far deeper experience. I learned a lot about myself and my parents watching them die—my father quickly with cancer and my mother over a nine-year period of Alzheimer’s disease, which was excruciating. It was sort of like an emotional archeological dig.
CoVa Mag: The title—How to Forget—tell us about that. Is there some kind of double meaning there?
KM: It’s not a double meaning. I know what you mean, yes. It’s subtle. Actually, my son helped me with this, my older son, Ian. How to Forget. Alzheimer’s teaches you how to forget because you lose your mind; you lose your memory. In my father’s case, it is how to forget what it was in his lifetime that did not measure up to the life he had hoped to have. So, it’s how we help ourselves forget. In my father’s case, he drank. In my mother’s case, it was clinical. In my father’s case, it was emotional.
CoVa Mag: In a different interview, you described it as the single most devastating journey of your life. People who have experienced Alzheimer’s would probably feel the same. Will readers be able to connect with that part of it in the book?
KM: There isn’t a woman alive who loves her mother as I loved mine who will not connect with this. It’s the story of a love affair between a mother and her daughter, and I never got to say goodbye because she never got to say goodbye. Nobody got to say goodbye. She lost herself. It’s the cruelest and most pernicious way to go. She asked me to help her die while she still had sufficient marbles to make such a request. When I went to L.A. and found a doctor (who happened to be a friend of mine) I said, “Is this true? Is there a cocktail?” and she said, “Yes, there is a cocktail. It’s very, very difficult to process. And anyway,” she said, “By the time you’ve done it she will have forgotten that she ever asked you.” And indeed, she never asked again. That’s how quickly it moves—Alzheimer’s.
CoVa Mag: It's difficult to imagine what that would be like, having a parent ask something like that.
KM: I hope you never have to experience it. It’s literally as if you were watching me talking to you and one by one, the lights go off. And the person that you love most of anyone in the world. My love for my mother was great, and a lot of oldest daughters have this. We are inordinately close to our mothers. I’m one of eight children. I was her confidant. I was a surrogate mother. I kept her secrets. I did all of that stuff. The loss of that was exemplified in the writing of the book. Most people aren’t moved to write a book in order to wash it clean, but I was.
CoVa Mag: When did you decide that you would write the book?
KM: I went to Ireland and I thought maybe that it would be a different book about four years ago. I thought maybe I’d write about something else. And it just kept coming back. And then I realized I need to do both of my parents, in juxtaposition with one another, on the page, in order to see what it was that defined them, their marriage, their respective problems, their crucibles and then finally their deaths. And that’s what came. And it came out of a real loneliness. I was feeling an intense loneliness. Not an orphan’s loneliness. We all lose our parents. Something deeper than that, something harsher. I needed to get to the source of it. What had I in fact lost? Who were they? They’re one thing when you’re with them. They’re quite another when they’re dead. I started thinking long and hard about who in fact they were. They shaped me—how, why? And that’s what I did.
CoVa Mag: What’s something unexpected that you learned along the way?
KM: That’s a very good question. The whole thing was unbidden. You should keep that word and write that word down. The book was unbidden. So, my subconscious was kicking up dust. My subconscious was beckoning me to go further. That’s why I call it an archeological dig. I didn’t want to. It was hard and as I said, occasionally, terrifyingly lonely. To go back, I had to pull out little Katie. She did not want to come. So, she came kicking and screaming. … I loved them in a very unusual way. I was defined by them, but they too were defined by their experience, surrounded by death and sickness. Two of my sisters died. One of them of a brain tumor, which took a very long time. Knocked the stuffing out of both of them. And then he took increasingly to the drink and she into the arms of a priest. The whole thing got crazy.
CoVa Mag: It kind of felt like something that you had to get out, but you also said it wasn’t cathartic writing it.
KM: The writing itself was deeply satisfying. I find this process satisfying. I’m an actress by trade, which is a very exposing thing to do. This is more hidden. Very private. Isolated, which I love. The process I love. But getting there was very hard. A lot of crying. Not about what I was writing about, but once again, pulling the truth out. That’s hard.
CoVa Mag: You spent some time in Sandbridge while you were writing.
KM: I finished it in Sandbridge, but I wrote the bulk of it in Ireland. I wrote almost all of [Born with Teeth] in Sandbridge. The ocean’s very good. It’s a beautiful canvas for me. It’s endless, infinite. Anybody would say this to you. A lot of writers seek the ocean. The very sound of it, it’s not metronomic but calming and at the same time batters, stirs up the unconscious sometimes, just gets you going. If you get stuck you can go out and walk and talk to seagulls, look at the dolphins, understand the absolute insignificance of it. It’s liberating. We are very insignificant. That’s what this book taught me, and that’s what the ocean teaches me. And as I get older, I see it very clearly, I am nothing—but enough so that I am desirous of leaving a kind of legacy. I want my grandchildren to know who my parents were. I want them to understand me. I want an elucidation of facts that were carefully sort of painted over. I want my memories to be honored. It’s the least we could do. Having said that I’m absolutely nothing, it is at the same time an exercise of ego, so let’s not pretend otherwise, because it is quite a discipline to write a book. My ego gave me energy to do it. By the time I was finished I thought, wow, I don’t think I did it. I’m going to do it the next time.
CoVa Mag: That’s true, when we’re gone all we have left are the memories that people can tell about us.
KM: That’s all. And who we love. That’s completely defined me. The family was very, very different. Very unconventional. It has stayed with me, and I am now 63 years old. So, this is my way of trying to release it, but I didn’t. It wasn’t cathartic, let me put it to you that way. It wasn’t. Writing is not cathartic. And I think any writer would say that to you. It’s dangerous, in fact, to start taking that stuff up. Their whole conflict is inherent in this kind of a memoir, and yet I still had to do it. I would like to go on creatively. It’s opened me up as an actress. That’s the biggest shock. I thought I was finished with that. Somebody once said to me, “Watch out when you write.” Indeed, watch out. I was about to put this acting thing to bed. Forty-four years? You know, enough, enough, enough. And I’m now doing a role—I haven’t been this excited since I was 22 years old. Haven’t felt this good about it. It’s affecting all of my creative levels, pushing all of my creative buttons.
CoVa Mag: What’s the new role?
KM: I’m playing a psychopath on “Mr. Mercedes” with Brendan Gleeson. If you saw me, you would say, “I can’t believe I had lunch with that woman.” I am having the time of my life. It’s so freeing. I always play good girls. Turns out, I know a lot about darkness. In the book I know a lot about darkness. Once you tap into that, watch out. It’s dark to be human. We’re gonna die, and what we do on the road to death is extremely interesting to me. I watched my parents play it out. She, in the last nine years of her life, had no choice, but he did. It’s fascinating to me how they chose to live.
CoVa Mag: You’ve been very involved in the Alzheimer’s Association because of your mother. Do you think Alzheimer’s is something that’s underpublicized?
KM: Well, it’s not sexy. In the fundraising world, it’s the least sexy of all the diseases. It’s completely about old age and dementia, and we don’t want to face that. We’re cowards. We all want to think we’re going to go out with our marbles, dancing the two-step somewhere at some bar. That’s not the way it goes. It’s very hard to raise funds for this. Also, you’ve got conflicting science from all over the world. There is no cure because no consolidated group of scientists can come to an agreement about this. Every time we get close in a clinical trial, somebody dies and everybody has to start all over again. Certainly by 2050 the statistics will be 1 in 3 if not more.
CoVa Mag: That’s incredibly scary.
KM: I don’t mind dementia, and I don’t mind madness, and I don’t mind eccentricity either. It’s only an organ. What I do mind … I know—but I do not approve—and I am not resigned to the absolute shutting down in this slow, excruciating manner of cognition. It is the worst kind of torture. For a very long stretch when you have Alzheimer’s, you’re living in the thicket of terror. All the lights finally go out and you’re free. But until then, you’re still in the thicket. Your body becomes calcified, rigidified. You can’t move, you can’t pee, you can’t poop. And then even though your brain is shut down, you still stay alive for another month. She didn’t have a thing to eat for a month. Not the way to go. But, I’m guessing one or two of us in my family will go that way. We’ll be carrying the maternal gene. I have not had myself tested for it because I am a great coward, and I do not want to know if I am carrying the APOE gene.
CoVa Mag: Do you think that there are any misconceptions about Alzheimer’s that people should be aware of?
KM: Yeah. That it’s fluffy. There is no cure for this disease. That must be stated clearly. We need to raise funds. That’s a harsh reality. If somebody really cares about what’s happening to their mother or their grandmother or their father or their uncle, give money, and make sure that that person has a caregiver that isn’t you. Because you can’t take it. And this is the greatest horror. It’s creating such a broad sweep that affects poverty, affects the working class. Very few people are in my position. I had full-time, live-in care for my mother and my father. I had beautiful care. But most daughters are looking after their mother while she’s also got the job at the convenience store or the bank or the restaurant and she’s coming home, ready to rip her hair out. She’s probably got three or four kids. That’s where we need to put the money. Somebody who’s capable who’s a nurse who can go in and relieve her—we don’t provide that. Society is afraid of this. And most men do not want to admit it exists in their family. Most husbands do not want to admit their wives have it. Most sons do not want to admit their mothers have it. My father was adamant in his resistance.
CoVa Mag: How did you deal with that dynamic of having to change roles with your parents, having to make those important decisions for them?
KM: I’m not so sure I changed that dynamic. I’m not sure I hadn’t been doing that since I was 8 years old. I was my mother’s friend. My mother told me stuff by the time I was 12 that most girls don’t learn until they’re 50. She was absolutely giving it to me and my father too. I was prepared. But I don’t think I had very much of a childhood. That’s what the book revealed to me. And that’s so sad. Because who are we if we’re not children? If I can’t pull her out, what happened to her?
CoVa Mag: Do you have any advice on how to help parents maintain their dignity while all of this is happening?
KM: What kind of a question is that … when you’re losing your mind? Nothing can do that. Get a caregiver in there who will dignify the process. Who will bathe that person with grace and kindness. Who will honor the modesty of that person. Who will feed that person and groom that person. Who will make that person comfortable as that person is losing his or her mind. Don’t start getting tired and resentful and frantic. You’re just going to really heighten that anxiety. Go to your local chapter and demand your rights, which is some ancillary care, some supplemental care. These young women think they can do it themselves. They can’t. That’s where we really need to get active.
CoVa Mag: Your fan base is pretty varied. Can you get a sense when someone approaches you, what they know you for?
KM: Yes, I know exactly the kind of fan. Maybe that’s why I like living in New York. On the totem pole of fame in New York, I’m pretty much in the middle.
CoVa Mag: When you first started “Orange is the New Black,” did you imagine it having the kind of impact that it would?
KM: We all had to audition. Nobody was offered the part. They gave me just a little, tiny paragraph, and they said the character’s name was Galina Reznikov of Russian decent. She’s assimilated into the American culture, and she’s going to be the cook. And there was just like this little monologue. They said don’t give us a lot of Russian stuff. We’re not looking for that. But when I opened my mouth (breaks into Red’s Russian accent), that’s what came out. She came out like that. Fully formed—just like that. I never practiced it; she just flew out. And that’s how you know that they’re born, they’re there. And they said, there she is! That happens when you fall in love. Kismet.
CoVa Mag: Toward the middle of OITNB, it sparked some conversation and maybe opened some eyes to issues in the prison system not expected from that show.
KM: It got political fast. Jenji Kohan is a smart, smart woman. She is the creator and I think she’s a genius. She didn’t just want to amuse herself. She wanted to play with big themes, and she did. Bureaucracy in the prison system. Black Lives Matter in the prison system. #MeToo in the prison system. She took rape—Pennsatucky—and examined it prismatically. It was so deep. It was so real. You and I would take an issue like rape and give it a full-frontal stab. But in fact, Pennsatucky, in the end, fell in love with him. Nothing is just black and white. Neither is #MeToo. Neither is Black Lives Matter.
CoVa Mag: What do you think you’ll miss about playing that role?
KM: Probably having something to look forward to. I always had something to look forward to in Red. But seven years is long enough. I made a couple of really great friends. It was a challenging atmosphere, all those young women.
CoVa Mag: Is there anyone in particular on the show that you really connected with?
KM: I love Taylor Schilling, and I’m always going to love her. And I love Natasha Lyonne, and I’m always going to love her. It was a sea of women. A veritable sea.
CoVa Mag: You come to visit Coastal Virginia fairly often. Do you have any activities that you enjoy while you’re here or restaurants you like to eat at?
KM: I love Sandbridge. I love Il Giardino. The climate is temperate. Everything is available here, and everything is convenient and easy here. The nearness of the water certainly doesn’t hurt. I like Zushi and I like the PlantBar. It’s a nice escape for me to come here. It’s a very pleasant way of life down here.