“A family is a landscape of its own, as granted as the earth and trees. Each person, each event becomes environment, familiar, dear, and scary,” writes Irene O’Garden in her new memoir, Risking the Rapids: How My Wilderness Adventure Healed My Childhood (Mango Publishing). The award-winning author takes us on her family river rafting trip through the wilds of Montana, in the hopes of healing from her challenging past. Impelled on this journey at age sixty-two by the unexpected death of one of her six siblings, O’Garden weaves the story of her troubled childhood with the chronicle of her harrowing eight-day voyage on her way to finding forgiveness and peaceful waters.
As a child growing up in a repressive Midwest Irish-Catholic home, O’Garden was wracked by insecurity. The need for attention from her alcoholic mother and her rarely available father, struggles with a bullying brother, and an eating disorder plagued her.
When I met the author in February at her book launch at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, I immediately saw in her a kindred spirit. Both of us were boomers, raised in strict Catholic households, and products of parochial schools who came of age in the turbulent ‘60s. We met up again in March at a spoken-word event held at New York’s City Winery, where she read one of her essays as part of a pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Amidst a raucous audience toasting with clanging wine and beer glasses, O’Garden and I managed to find a semi-quiet table to discuss, over cups of chamomile tea, how the river excursion was a metaphor for family life.
The Rumpus: Why did you choose the double-linear structure of the book, switching back and forth between distant past and the recent raft trip?
Irene O’Garden: I think each one shines light on the other. The wilderness trip was a living metaphor for growing up in my family. Everyone is living this river of life and all this stuff keeps coming at us. All we can do is respond to it. We go back to Zen and being in the moment. What can I do here? How can I help my brother back into the raft? Or if my sister is suffering something as I’m growing up, how can I help her? It was not possible for me to finish this book until I took that wilderness trip. There were sections that I started many years ago, but until I had a working, dramatic metaphor for what it was, it would have not been as illuminating.
Rumpus: Was it difficult, over the course of the book, to switch from a child’s voice to an adult’s?
O’Garden: That was easy. Because that child has wanted to talk for so long. And she wanted to talk in exactly the way that’s natural to her. And I was so happy to give her her say. She is actually the oldest part of this book. In the late ‘70s I began to write a little something about that child and how she saw the world.
Rumpus: You write about your pain during childhood, your distant mother and bullying brother. How did you deal with that?
O’Garden: Because I had to defend myself, one constant source of comfort in the house was food. So I learned how to bake and to pile a plate of cookies to look as if the three I just took weren’t missing. Stealing food, eating whenever I could, and fantasizing about both became a source of comfort.
It took me many years to get to the bottom of my compulsive overeating. At two hundred pounds, part of it was, “Ah, I’m being noticed,” and then the other part was “Oh, hell. I’m being noticed.” I’m being called “Fatso,” I’m being bullied by the neighborhood kids. It was so double-edged.
As an adult I began to realize I could learn to eat properly and exercise. Now when stress occurs, exercise and excellent nutrition are fabulous ways to handle it.
It certainly took a lot of therapy. I’m a big believer in therapy. It’s easy to say, “Go out there and just eat right.” But, boy, if you don’t know what the source of the pain is, it may be hard to give up the food.
I also went to nature. Mine was a noisy household, so the quiet of nature was healing for me as a child, and continues to be as an adult.
Writing was also very helpful to me, in terms of inner exploration. This latest memoir started as Family CSI—let me examine the crime and see if I can figure out who’s responsible. That helped me to realize, “Wait a second, I’m not the only person who suffered. My siblings hurt, too!” Then I began to write a larger piece about it. The finishing touch on my healing was completing this book.
Rumpus: You were raised Catholic. Does religion or spirituality still play a part in your life?
O’Garden: Religion does not, and spirituality sounds more formal than what I feel. But it’s very much alive in me and in the way I perceive the world. I have reverence for the world. But it’s so notwhat I grew up with. It’s much more about the creative power that we all have—how we can create the realities we want.
Whether or not that philosophy is true has ceased to matter to me. But choosing to believe that I create my own reality, that my impulses are good, that I am a good being, and that I’m meant to be here required a lot of unlearning from what Catholicism taught me. Behaving as if it is so, however, has made me happier and healthier than did those limiting childhood beliefs.
Rumpus: Why do you think your mother was so hard on you especially?
O’Garden: I was just not her type of person. I was spontaneous, more so than other family members. I was forthright in a way that she was taught not to be. I kind of wanted to be a lady, but it was so boring to me.
I was a messy child—we were all pretty messy, but I was a creative child, and I made creative messes. I was a noisy middle child trying to get attention. I was fat, which was totally embarrassing to her. This was partly, I’m sure, my way of getting at her: “All right, I’ll make it so you can’t ignore me.”
Rumpus: Was it difficult to write about the painful demise of your mother from alcoholism and dementia and your sister Kako’s Alzheimer’s?
O’Garden: I think it was very helpful. It helps to talk to other people about it if they are experiencing the same things in their lives. It was important to communicate with my sister Ro as my mother was going through her experiences. And definitely writing about it was beneficial.
Rumpus: Could you explain your poignant expression, the Zen of Alzheimer’s?
O’Garden: It is simply that when a loved one has Alzheimer’s you must be in the present moment. We cannot expect a conversation about the past, or one about the future. It was something I was thrilled to discover and recommend to anyone who’s dealing with dementia. Maybe they want to talk about being in school and when are they going to get out. So you talk to them in those terms: “Well, I don’t know that the bell has rung yet.” Because that’s the challenge—you have to be in the present moment.
In the earlier stages of my sister’s dementia I brought an iPad that had family pictures on it. I thought, “Let me show her those pictures and see if she understands them.” I looked up poems from her childhood and read her nonsense poems that she loved.
I have an app on my iPad called Monet. She looked at pictures of flowers and beautiful Monet landscapes. Then she touched a yellow flower on the screen and it zoomed in so the flower became really big. All of a sudden she had agency, something that Alzheimer’s people do not often feel they have: they can make something happen. I next opened up a drawing program, which allowed her to draw with her finger over the screen. Instantly we were together, we were in the present moment, we were sharing something.
Rumpus: Why did your family choose to do a rafting trip together?
O’Garden: It was described as a “float trip.” I would not have gone on a rafting trip. I’m not the kind of person who needs to get her adrenaline going. My younger brother Jim has gone out to the Bob Marshall Wilderness for about forty-five years straight. It is balm to his soul. His sons have joined him. Ro and her son had gone with him before. When we were at my older brother’s memorial service we talked about going to the backcountry together that year. I thought, “Am I ever going to ask that of myself? I’m never really going to know my brother until I see him in the backcountry, because this is his favorite thing in the world.” At a memorial service you are remembering not just the dear departed; you are also remembering that ticking clock.
To their credit, the Montanans thought it was going to be much less intense than it was. The snow had been heavier than anybody expected. That’s the wilderness for you. You don’t know any of it. You make your best calculations, but…
Rumpus: How did you get started as a writer?
O’Garden: I always wrote as a child and as an angst-filled teenager. There was a lull in that when I was trying to become an actress. But the women’s roles that I was looking at weren’t that great. I wanted to write my own stuff. I spent some time at an artists’ colony, and while I was there I began writing my first memoir, Fat Girl. That just poured out, and it was a very emotional experience for me. I thought, “Oh, isn’t that the stuff you make art out of?” So I began to look at it more as a piece to craft and a story to tell.
Rumpus: As an accomplished poet, did you intentionally make Risking the Rapids poetic?
O’Garden: Yes, it’s quite deliberate. But it’s not because I’m looking for, “Oh, let’s make this sound poetic.” It comes as a result of my love of sound in language and of my desire to really choose the best word for what I’m feeling. It’s a constant translation of my emotional response to the situation, or my visual or sensual response.
Rumpus: What advice would you pass on to a struggling writer working on a book, or to someone who’s rafting a river, for that matter?
O’Garden: I think the most important thing to do is to trust yourself, or pretend to trust yourself and see what happens. Trust your impulses and that you are a good being. Trust that if you want to write that much it will find a way out of you. And then go for it.
Do the tiniest thing in support of the person you want to become, and then do something else and then do another. I won’t pretend it’s not frustrating. Just keep in touch with that part of you that wants to create, and give it continuous opportunities to do so.
Photograph of Irene O’Garden © Mark Lacko. Second photograph © Ro O’Brien.