A prison chef, a shrewd detective and a spaceship captain — these are just three of actor Kate Mulgrew’s defining roles during her decades-long career. While fans of Star Trek Voyager and Orange i\Is the New Black may be first to recognize her, Mulgrew’s first book — a bold, lightning-paced memoir — catapults all into her fiercely lived off-screen life. Her intrepid revelation that she gave up her first child for adoption just as her career took off with a starring role on the daytime soap Ryan’s Hope further injects the narrative with the momentum of a captivating mystery.
From the start, Mulgrew’s voice jumps off the page, her prose bold, informal and at times effervescent as she cracks open her eccentric and ebullient world. Mulgrew’s original role was as the oldest daughter of eight children in an unconventional Irish-Catholic family, where “[b]abies appeared with maddening regularity.”
Mulgrew introduces her mother, Jiki, as central to her worldview. An artist and close friend of Jane Kennedy, her mother drank and danced regularly with Mulgrew’s father, “Ace,” but in her daughter’s eyes was “an indentured servant, however glorified.”
The narrative generally moves in a linear way, soon turning to Mulgrew’s entry into acting and her early training with Stella Adler. She discusses how she approaches stage and screen work and the tension between those mediums. There are brief but interesting star encounters, from Kevin Spacey to Armand Assante, and an inside view of castings and television studios. And there are dramatic recountings of Mulgrew’s numerous infatuations and love affairs, each revealing her boundless resiliency and willingness to lay bare brutal truths with the kind of “brazen honesty” that sets her apart.
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But the palpable tension between Mulgrew’s work as an actor and responsibilities as a mother best defines the memoir. In an intriguing portrait of modern women’s lives, a line is drawn from Jiki’s humorous balance of perpetual motherhood with her painting and desire to be away from it all to Mulgrew’s failed attempts to “forge an alliance” between the demands of acting and raising two boys, while also grieving and searching for the daughter she gave up. Jiki struggles with putting motherhood first, but Mulgrew struggles with putting career first and how societal gender roles reinforce this emotional tug-of-war.
“If I were a man. … none of this would be in question,” Mulgrew writes. “My children would respect me, my wife would honor me, and everyone would exalt the work.”
Born With Teeth jumps spectacularly from tale to trial, each approached with abandon and honesty. Reading it feels like joining a friend on a spontaneous adventure that extends to another day, another party, another trip, leaving you breathless and unable to do anything but follow. Only when the narrative ends with lamentable abruptness does the book disappoint — proof of the richness and verve embodied within Mulgrew’s inimitable story.
Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.