When Kate Mulgrew was growing up in Iowa, she dreamed of becoming a writer. Then, one day, her mother suggested she would be a much better actress and even tucked a collection of Shakespeare plays under her daughter’s pillow that night to reinforce the point.
That decided things. “Roles were delegated and meant to be honored,” recalls Mulgrew, who is known for her portrayal of Capt. Kathryn Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager” and more recently as Galina “Red” Reznikov on “Orange Is the New Black.”
But Mulgrew never gave up her affection for the written word, keeping a journal and composing long letters to friends. In recent years, she’s returned to her original passion, embarking on a second career as a literary memoirist. Mulgrew’s bestselling 2015 debut, “Born With Teeth,” won critical praise for her vivid, lyrical portrayal of growing up in a quirky, unconventional Irish Catholic family and her often tempestuous off-screen life, including her search for the daughter she gave up for adoption as a young actress.
Mulgrew’s new book, “How to Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir,” again delves into her family’s past, but from a different focus. She reconstructs the lives of her parents, Thomas and Joan Mulgrew, and explores their complex relationship as they struggled with the grief of losing two of their children, and then with the descent of Mulgrew’s mother into the abyss of Alzheimer’s disease and her father’s cancer diagnosis.
Mulgrew tells the story in a complex, time-shifting narrative, beginning with the discovery of her father’s brain tumor in 2004. She recounts her parents’ last moments, while frequently slipping into extended flashbacks.
Despite the book’s title, Mulgrew emphasizes that “How to Forget” isn’t an exercise in catharsis, but rather an attempt to gain insight into her parents and their influence on her, for both good and ill. “I came across something that [novelist] Lorrie Moore wrote — writing is a song of relief, alloyed with shame,” she says.
“I'm talking about the shame in the universal sense. When we do expose people we love who were not there to speak for themselves. Clearly, to me, these two people would not go gentle into that good night, and so I had to put them down that way. In a literary way, in an immortal way, I wanted to capture them for all time.”
It wasn’t a story she set out to tell when she took her computer to a lakeside house in the west of Ireland during a chilly, wet winter several years ago. She aimed to write a second book, but she had no clear idea in mind. “I did pages about one thing and another thing, having to do with my life,” she says. “But I kept circling back to my father.” She soon realized that she wanted to write about her mother as well.
Delving into her own memories and family lore, she mapped the path that led her parents from meeting in Chicago to marriage and raising a family in Iowa. She had another source of information as well — a cache of love letters her father had written to her mother during their courtship. “Interestingly, not a letter from her to him has survived, if in fact any were written,” Mulgrew says. “This is a one-way road that I had to travel, piecing together what that romance was like for him and her.”
What emerged was the story of a “nice Catholic boy from Dubuque” who was transfixed when he crossed paths with a sophisticated young woman from New Jersey, who eventually gave in to his determined wooing. “He was not a part of her dream,” Mulgrew says. “She was going to go back East and marry well, and stay with her crowd.”
Her parents’ lives at Derby Grange, the family’s property in Dubuque, Iowa, eventually buckled under the strain of a pair of traumas — the deaths of their 3-month-old daughter Maggie, who died in her crib, and her sister, Tessie, from a brain tumor at age 14. Those devastating losses led to her father retreating into drinking and her artist mother becoming increasingly distant.
Mulgrew’s recollections also include acts of tenderness. When she was 14, her father drove her to Milwaukee for an audition for summer theater, which she failed. On the way back to Iowa, he consoled her by taking her to one of his secret haunts, a roadside supper club, and showed her how to deftly dip shrimp into cocktail sauce. “It was the one and only time he expressed sympathy for me in my career,” Mulgrew says. “He did it at a moment when he must have known how impressionable I was.”
Mulgrew also writes affectionately of her mother, who encouraged her to strive for excellence as an actress. She “stormed my little heart, and claimed ownership early in the game,” she says.
“The things I learned from these two people had everything to do with shaping my journey,” Mulgrew says. What she calls her “archaeological dig” into her family’s past brought painful moments to light, but “I found who they were, and their flaws were as important to who they were and to how their marriage was, and how they raised me, as their virtues.”
At age 64, Mulgrew says that although she still enjoys acting — including joining the cast of the AT&T Audience Network’s series “Mr. Mercedes” — she’s looking forward to doing more writing, including possibly a novel. But whatever project she tackles, she won’t hesitate to take on an emotionally trying subject.
“I wrote this book at great cost,” she says. “And I hope the next one is at greater cost. I think that’s the job of trying to write an honorable book.”
William Morrow, 352 pp., $27.99