Interview: Eileen Cronin, Author of Mermaid

Interview by Lara Lillibridge

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This interview has been edited for length.

About the Author:

Eileen Cronin’s Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience was translated into three foreign languages and was one of Magazine’s Best Memoirs of the Year. Cronin has published in The Washington Post and The Daily Beast, and she won the Washington Writers’ Award in short fiction. Cronin is a writing instructor at UCLA Extension and a UCLA psychologist. Find her on Twitter or at her website.

About the Book:

Book cover: Mermaid by Eileen CroninAt 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.

Watch the Mermaid book trailer (below) of Eileen Cronin reading an excerpt at Vroman’s in Pasadena, California. To learn more about Thalidomide, check out Thalidomide Story.



Lara Lillibridge: I loved your book. It’s interesting because it had been on my radar for a while, and then I interviewed JT Hill, and he brought you up, and then you showed up on the AWP mentor to mentor call, and I’m like, this is a sign that I need to read this book.

Eileen Cronin: Thank you very much for doing that.

LL: I want to talk about the title, Mermaid. You have this wonderful quote, let me look it up on my Kindle.

EC: Wendy Weil, my agent, who has since died, came up with the title.

LL: Really?

EC: Yeah. She said, your book is Mermaid. Because my first title was Because Baby Jesus Chose You to Carry the Cross!

 LL: Oh, my God. That’s a great title, though, actually. Very fitting.

EC: I thought that would be hilarious. But we’re not allowed to have a sense of humor. We’re disabled, it has to be sad. And then people would think it was Christian. So we can’t do that. It was very tongue-in-cheek.

LL: I found the quote, it says:

In a pool, I moved without a single compromise because I was liberated from my legs. Without them, I became an elusive mermaid, the Venus de Milo spit from the ruins or a comet firing across an endless sky.

Which is simply beautiful writing.

EC: It really was true that I saw myself as the Venus de Milo. Because I remember seeing the Venus de Milo, you know, in ruins and going, that’s me. I remember I had a boyfriend who called me that. And the comet across the sky is Ania, my daughter. My husband and I conceived her that night while watching the Hale-Bopp.

I also am a strong believer that we aren’t fixed in time mentally. Like we’re trying to be mindful and stay in the moment. But this is something my mother’s mental illness taught me. I’m not free of mental illness myself, I certainly have depression. More than anything I have PTSD, honestly. But there’s beauty in that because I do sometimes see forward, backward, everything all at once.

I think we all do that in these moments when you’re in pure joy, and free and liberated you can be in the future and in the past and in the present all at the same time.

LL: That’s beautiful.

EC: Yeah.

LL: So you said that you teach writing?

EC: Yes, at UCLA extension. I’ve been teaching weekend and one-day workshops and now a 10-week workshop on Crafting Survival Stories. They were very popular, obviously. I had the idea before the pandemic, but then they liked the idea when the pandemic came.

I think they liked it because it was a way of combining fiction and nonfiction, and really any genre. I have a film student in there, I have a novelist in there, I have a documentarian in there who’s trying to write a memoir, I have somebody else who’s writing memoir who normally wrote articles for Rolling Stone, and she’s an amazing writer.

So we’re bringing together different genres and looking at how we approach survival. We’re examining different dystopian novels, and some memoir, like I use Man’s Search for Meaning in the class.

LL: Great book.

EC: I also use two books by Ishiguro. I’m a huge fan.

LL: I’m not familiar.

EC: He won the Nobel Prize. But the reason he did is, I think, because he has a universal voice—he’s just amazing. He was born in Nagasaki after the bomb, and his family moved to England when he was six. He wrote Remains of the Day. No trace of any Asian influence in there at all. He very much was able to inhabit the British, European, and the American mindsets.

His first books took place in Japan and then Shanghai. The books that I used were Never Let Me Go, which was made into a movie that is phenomenal. You should see it. It’s a speculative dystopian futuristic story. And then the other one is The Buried Giant. That’s a historical fantasy using British history, it has a Gothic kind of thing going on. And he’s able to just move into so many different worlds.

I think love him because to me, that’s who I am. I was born out of this atomic bomb. And I had to fit in, I had to make myself see other people’s perspective—mine wasn’t going to be heard. So I eventually had to just own their perspective, then I had to discard their perspective because it didn’t include mine, then I had to fight for my perspective, I’ve had to do all those things.

The way Ishiguro handled it, I admire so much as a writer. I kind of wish that I could have done that more, to have been less encumbered by the sense of responsibility to the poor who are disabled.

But he talks about setting and how he can inhabit a whole new world. And it informs everything about that story for him. He’s a great master of English literature. And I think that he’s perfect for this class because I want to teach craft, but I also want to stay focused on survival. That’s what I love about teaching this class. And then I also teach a 10-week memoir class.

I think that what Ishiguro has taught me is that you go to these places, but you’ve got to remember who you are inside of that, and where your story is, and can’t get lost in the other stories, rather you interpret them through your own eyes. You have to put on that costume to go to that party. That to me is what fiction is.

LL: Tell me about your novel. What is it about?

EC: My novel is about two female cousins in a big Catholic family. One’s an insider cousin, and one’s an outsider cousin. It goes through their different perspectives—it’s about how they ultimately get back together.

LL: You came from a very large family—eleven children. And I think that is yet another unique part of your story.

EC: There are so many unique things about my story, but everyone who reads it says it’s shocking how much everything about my disability kind of recedes, all this stuff that was going on just kind of recedes and becomes normal. And that was my experience.

LL: One line that I loved so much, you wrote,

If I was ever going to be free of mental torment, I would have to recast my childhood memories, sort of like painting the same picture, but using different colors or composing new music to go with old lyrics.

EC: Did I write that?

LL: You wrote that! Isn’t that a beautiful sentence? But it’s a beautiful thought, too. And, you know, I don’t think that writing is therapy. You relive so much when you write a book that I wouldn’t exactly prescribe it to people, but I really liked your idea that that to get past our pain, we have to take ownership of it and do something new with it.

 So, I’m just curious about writing and your healing process.

Headshot: Eileen Cronin

EC: I really felt like that book did help me. I grieved all over again. Some reviewer said ‘but she never really grieved.’ I was like, ‘did you read the book?’

I absolutely grieved. I think I describe many dark moments in my book, but what I think that person wanted me to grieve was my legs and I never grieved my legs. I don’t grieve my legs. I probably never will grieve my legs. I’m aggrieved by our culture.

LL: I wanted to talk about language. Can you explain ableism to readers?

EC: I think that magazines like yours, and smaller literary magazines, especially if they cover a lot of memoir are open to disability, but in the broader media, disability is erased. This makes Americans erase us. Here is what Americans need to notice about the cost of ignoring us:

  • Before COVID, we represented 80% of our 500 million homeless.
  • In LA, where decisions are made about who gets to matter based on who is onscreen, there are 66,000 homeless.
  • We are 1/5 of America, but you don’t see us, you don’t hear from us, even as you toss your cigarette out the window while driving by one of us, who happens to be starving and homeless, BECAUSE of our disability.

In publishing, ableism is total exclusion, then a shift to minor inclusion, as long as we undress on the page and we don’t say anything about how many of us are dying before your eyes.

And it is costing Democrats dearly at the polls because Disabled voters are often voting against their own needs.

Why? Because we are excluded as an identity in the discussions of what is happening to the marginalized. Therefore, we cannot educate the one-half of our 59 million voters about what Conservatives are doing to kill us. This leaves millions of disabled voters stuck in a mindset that “The Church is going to save me.”

Ableism, like racism and sexism, is destroying millions of lives.

LL Wow. I would not have anticipated that.

EC: I talked to Dukakis about this. He comes to UCLA to teach every winter, and he also teaches political science at Harvard. I asked him last winter, do you know how many disabled people live in America? And he said, ‘I’ve no idea.’ I said 57, 59 million, and it’s growing. Do you know how many of them vote Democrat? And he said, ‘Well, I assume all or most.’ I said, ‘No, sir. Half of them voted for Trump.’

And he looked a little shocked. So how do you convince the rest of the party?

It’s like, you’ve invited disabled people to the party, and now they can get into the party, but you’re not going to talk to them the whole time. How does that feel? That’s ableism.

LL: Let me ask you also about just the word disability because I’ve seen on Twitter, people have different views on even using that word.

EC: Even as of six years ago, I talked about the word disabled in a disparaging way myself, because as of six years ago, no one writing about it was being published, it was shocking that Norton wanted to publish my book. To be honest, it was shocking that I got the agent I got, who happened to represent Alice Walker and Rita Mae Brown. Wendy Weil. I had no idea that she wasn’t taking clients, so I submitted to her. And she wrote back to me, like in ten minutes on New Year’s Eve, at four o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday. And by Monday, she was representing me.

We need to embrace this word and not be shamed into hiding because that has deadly consequences, as I’ve just pointed out.

LL: Was she the first agent you queried?

EC: This is so weird. In my twenties, I wrote that op-ed for the Washington Post, because I was so upset about another article about thalidomide that essentially talked about abortion as a good thing because we can get rid of babies like this. I am pro-choice, but I’m not in favor of journalists or doctors or Americans choosing who will live or die. It’s a woman’s choice.

So I wrote a Letter to the Editor. I got no response. I wrote a letter to the Ombudsman. And then I was asked to write this op-ed. It’s the one that landed me on CNN and asked me to describe my sex life.

LL: Nice.

EC: Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s why I stopped writing. And then I got a query a letter. I didn’t even realize this at the time. I was just a kid. I had no idea about agents or any of how that worked. And I got a letter from Amy Tan’s agent, Sandra Dijkstra, and I just tucked it away in a box.

When I was in my forties I decided, I’m old enough to handle this now. I’m married, I have a kid, I’ve got my Ph.D. I have my own support network, I did not have a support network when I published that first piece, I thought I did. But I had this very rigid Catholic family and what turned out to be at the time a rigid husband, and they were just interested in trying to make my essay into an argument against abortion. Period. That was disturbing since I never want to see disabled children brought into the world only to be given up to foster care. The disabled make up most of our foster care system because no one will adopt children with disabilities or mental illness.

That was when I went to grad school, got a divorce along the way, and rebuilt my life. So when I talk about privilege, I am privileged now, I am, but is it privileged to be a 28-year-old woman without legs in a country that denies preexisting conditions, when you’re supporting yourself and trying to buy a pair of legs, so you can keep working? Because you know, if you lose those legs, you’re not getting in the door. No one’s going to see a psychologist in a wheelchair with no legs. They aren’t. That’s the way our country works. We might all grow up if we were to see a psychologist without legs, but we cling to our numb brains.

I definitely spent many years with no privilege, and I did that in part by choice. I could have stayed dependent on others, but then where would I be?

And the only difference between me and the person you pass on the street without legs is the pair of legs I’m wearing. My education bought me those legs. There is no firewall for those who cannot rely on a brain or whose bodies “frighten” people.

What’s odd about this is that if we are so frightened by different bodies, how did we get so comfortable passing them on the street while they are also cold and starving?

LL: You wrote about privilege—you talked about writing being your one unconditional love, but that you felt you owed people who were not as lucky as you to advocate for them.

EC:  That is my pitfall.

LL: And yet, I would say memoir is advocacy. Right?

EC: I totally agree. But I have to say this is my pitfall. Had we never had the Trump era, I’d probably still be writing essays like I used to, working to conceal my anger, which many people did prior to Trump to fit in. But it kind of all came out, and I can’t put it back in the box now.

I write op-eds. Pieces about the lack of political power of the millions of disabled, such as the fact that the Democrats won the House in large part because of the ACA. It turned out that an increase of 8.5% of those millions of disabled voters came out.

Doug Jones won in Alabama because of the ACA, but Doug Jones lost in Alabama because Democrats refuse to talk to disabled voters, to call us by our names.

LL: Wow.

EC: There’s something going on in our country that has more to do with who am I going to be liked by, and what part of social media can I connect to in order to publish this thing then it is about truth.

LL: I think that people feel like there are not many disabled people, so they’re not important. There’s not enough of them to matter. And then there are the other people—you wrote about this in your book. You wrote about people that have an aversion and would not go up to the table if someone was in a wheelchair.

And you talked about that whole story with the Camus book and how your mother told you the story wrong about the suicide. Do you know what I’m referring to?

EC: Yeah, my mom. Because we didn’t use to talk about race, or we used to talk a lot more about disability as the other.

LL: But you talked about the protagonist ranting about “the blind, the crippled and the homeless,” and you wanted to say to your mother, what do you even think about this?

 And then you imagine her response would be, who said you’re different? Her denial was so complete, and that one paragraph, it had such a range of ablest responses from the absolute rage to the complete denial.

To fight against such a wide range of responses, it’s got to be exhausting, I can imagine just getting frustrated with the whole thing and giving up.

EC:   There’s this fear that if you let disabled people start writing, then that’s one more minority group that we’re letting in, and therefore, we don’t have as many jobs for white able-bodied people here at this newspaper.

Some of the newspapers that we consider ultra-left, when you look at their history, every single time, they’ve come up against a really oppressed group in our culture, which their on one level trying to defend, they shut them down, they shut their mouths, they look the other way. This is going way back, and sometimes they exploit them.

That’s the history of our news industry, yellow journalism, not writing about the Jewish refugees trying to come to our country during the Holocaust, not writing about the Black obituaries. And guess what? The thalidomide story that I lived. People didn’t even know that the pill was given out here. They refused to publish the truth about us for years after my book came out. Thankfully, I mentored an 8th grader in the National History Day contest and she won first place in the nation. That made the National Endowment for the Humanities aware of what was happening, so finally this paper published the report of the thalidomide survivors’ plight in America, but they published it in March of 2020 as COVID was descending on New York. They buried the story, in other words.

LL: So let’s get back to your book for a moment here. One of the things that I’m always interested in is how I always feel like there’s an expected narrative that people want from you. And then there’s your actual story. Your book, to me, is very much about growing up with a mentally ill mother and being one of eleven children. And yet, I feel as if people don’t see you as a fully rounded person. I’m not sure where the question is there.

EC: No, I know what you’re saying. The people who do get to write about us don’t have a disability. They don’t want to see us and they have an ulterior motive. Hollywood totally exploits it. There’s no outrage about that either.

The Witches came out, and Anne Hathaway plays a witch with three fingers. And in England, there is an outrage because they do care about disability, they talk about it as a diversity area.

This goes back to their history with Thalidomide. They really took care of the people that they injured with this drug. I mean, it was made by a German company, right? But they had socialized medicine so they were giving it out.

In England, they really ripped into Anne Hathaway. But you see much less coverage of that in the United States. Maybe LA Times talks about her apologizing. CNN talks about her apologizing online but not on their televised version, but nobody in the United States is talking about this the way the British people do.

And that kind of story being the only narrative about people like me is deadly to us.

LL: I’m not familiar with the movie at all. Or is it a TV show?

EC: It’s an HBO show that is based on a Roald Dahl book. But if you look at the Roald Dahl book, the character doesn’t have three fingers. To those of us with a Thalidomide injury that’s like blackface. That’s just horrible.

I’m sixty. And much of my writing career was taken from me, because of how many years I had to wait to get back to it because I was not going to be seen or heard. And even when I did get back to it, I still wasn’t really going to be seen or heard correctly.

I do think AWP has, in the last three years, been more and more embracing of the disabled community, and they’ve been especially kind to me, and I am to them. I’ve pointed out to them, the more you leave people out, the fewer members you have, why don’t you let me get you some disabled members who would be terrified to apply to the mentorship because they think that you’re not going to ever let them win any contests or do anything. And so we’ve had these tough conversations. But they listened.

LL: It’s funny, my very first AWP conference was in DC, and I think it was 2016. And this is before I was affiliated with Hippocampus Magazine, but I went to their off-site reading. And Sandra Gail Lambert was there. I don’t know if you know her.

EC: She’s a friend of mine.

LL: She read this piece called The Laundromat about being “so inspiring.”  And she’s just trying to do her laundry and people want to hug her and she bit somebody, which was awesome.

She’s an amazing writer. I think that her work is important on the disabled level, and like yours, both of your writing is also incredibly beautiful.

I have highlighted so many of your sentences that just show your love of language. I don’t know if you ever wrote poetry?

EC: I feel like it’s all been taken. I feel like so much of that part of my writing life was commandeered by the need to fight for visibility.

I was asked to write an essay for Wordgathering, which is a small disability literary magazine. I asked my husband to help me write it because the literary part I couldn’t cover, I could only cover the anger part. That’s not how it should be but I’m human. I’m overwhelmed by the refusal to include a disabled writer to a “diversity” reading or holding it on the second floor of a bar with no elevator.

Together we wrote a piece about Robert Frost. And this to me describes perfectly where I am fighting now to break free as a writer.

I am in the polar-opposite place as Robert Frost was because he, even though he was not a wealthy man, was very privileged. Frost was asked to write an introduction to another poet’s work, and he didn’t like the poet. He didn’t really want to write it, and he had to because it was his publisher asking. He wrote instead, it’s kind of funny. He wrote an essay.  And it doesn’t really even cover the guy’s book

LL: Doesn’t have anything to do with it?

EC:  No, not really. It’s “On Grief and Grievance.”

He said that grief is the stuff of poetry. That’s true. He said grievance belongs to the political. That’s a half-truth because not everyone has the luxury of writing grief because they are erased.

Frost was writing about how poetry is the business of grief. When you talk about my work as poetic, that’s me in touch with my grief. That’s me not having to fight to speak, that’s me not feeling like my tongue is cut out. That’s me feeling like I have an equal shot.

Anyway, getting back to grief and grievance, Frost says he’s not a fan of grievance, even though this is the 1930s, you know, the Great Depression. And there was a lot of reason for grievance, and people were writing about important social issues.

If you constantly have to fight, you have nothing left to give, and your art is taken from you.

I’m working on a novel now and it’s just taken me years but that is where I connect again to the poetry inside of me. I am trained as a poet. My husband has an MFA and PhD in poetry from Irvine. We are a literary family.

I began writing poetry in my teens, but I am a prose writer. I have a voice that leans more toward the poetic when I allow myself the luxury of writing for pleasure. I hope that many of those days are ahead for me, now that Trump is almost gone.

LL: And that’s what I meant with the expected narrative, who people want you to be versus who you really are.

EC: The person I am is not physically limited. I’m more active than most people in their forties and I’m 60. I hike, I swim, I do yoga, and I do at least one of these activities almost every day. I ride a bike.

But I look different, and I have a million assumptions about me to get past with other people.

LL: Let me ask you one last question. Because a lot of times, we interview people whose book has just come out, and you have the perspective of having survived a book coming out.

Now that it’s been a few years, how has it been with your family, either your immediate family or your family of origin?  What perspectives do you have now, a few years after having a book come out, that maybe someone who’s currently going through it doesn’t have?

EC: I’m not as angry at my family. I’m really sad for them. I really, really am. I’m mostly really sad for my mother. I think that’s not just about having published this book but having gone through the Trump years.

Both coincided for me and both have just shoved my face into something—the worst of my childhood came to life for me in these last four years. So there was a time when I was just spitting mad at my mother after I published my book, just outraged because she wouldn’t read it.

No one would read it except for my younger brother Joe, who’s Ted in the book, and my brother Stevie, who’s Frankie in the book, probably would have read it.

Some of the people I was closest to just kind of got absorbed into this movement that my family got into which was very much coinciding with the Trump stuff. It was just like, we denounce the book. We’re not reading the book, but we denounce it.

I say, either don’t read the book or do read and then denounce it.

LL: Right.

EC: When you write about other people, they’re allowed their point of view, they can write their own book and say what they want. According to some members of my family, my father never left. He was gone for two years, they said he never left. That’s the level of denial. But he did leave, he had an apartment for two years, he was looking at buying a new house.

LL: Yeah, you wrote that he almost bought a house.

EC:  I did not mention this in the book, but I don’t really care at this point. I think my dad had an affair. I don’t know that. That’s what I was told by somebody in my family. And it makes sense to me, but I really don’t know.

My parents met when they were fourteen and sixteen, which people did back then. But look how miserable so many of them were—they were just miserable to the end. I do happen to think my parents loved each other.

They so much on their plate. Partly they put it there. They did not have to have eleven kids. But my mom didn’t ask to have a mental illness, which I think is bipolar. I don’t think I named it in the book. I tried not to because, in many ways, she’s not always a likable character. And I hate when a mental illness or any disability is associated with someone not likable.

I wanted to ask you a question. The title Hippocampus, where did you come up with it? I get it. It’s like memory, the memory bank?

LL: Right.

EC: I love the title. But I just wonder who came up with it? And why?

LL: Donna Talarico is the founder. She’s run this magazine for a number of years. And you know, the hippocampus is shaped like a seahorse. So that’s the logo.

EC: It’s also the place in the brain that ties memory to the sensory experiences of smell and taste and all these things, which is what literature is. And it also kind of to me speaks to what I was talking about where we can be in one moment in many different points in time. It’s a great name.

LL: Yes, it is, thanks. And our writers’ conference is called Hippo Camp.

EC: When do you have it?

LL: It has been historically at the end of August in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s a wonderful conference. It’s smaller than something like AWP and friendlier.

EC: Kind of like Antioch Writers Workshop? I taught it that one a few summers ago.

LL: We obviously couldn’t have it this year. And who knows when it will be next year. So I can say historically, it’s been the end of August, and hopefully, we’ll be able to do in-person events again someday.

But I hope that one of the lessons from the pandemic they keep is how easy it is to provide accommodations. You know, I know so many people who have always been told, no, you can’t teach remotely. And now the whole world is remote. And I hope that they can keep some of that because the Zoom world has opened up opportunities for people in the disability community and for other people as well.

There are so many people that are benefiting from our increasingly virtual world, even though it does have its drawbacks.  I hope that they can keep some of that.

EC: I do, too. I don’t think it’s going to go away. I’m also familiar with how it’s being used in the substance abuse world. I think that has opened up a lot of opportunities for people who might have been shy about going physically in person.

Unfortunately, there is so much zoom-bombing going on that a lot of people got out of virtual spaces. They had to lock up the meetings and everything. So it’s, it’s harder now for people who are getting clean know how to find a meeting because they’re all password protected.

LL: That’s a very good point.

EC: So it is changing everything, but yes, it is making a lot of things more accessible.


Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge (she/they) is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent; Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising. Her essay collection: The Truth About Unringing Phones, releases March 2024 with Unsolicited Press.



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