Memoir of a Survivor
By the time she reached her mid-teens, author and playwright Carole O'Malley Gaunt, 61, had already notched up more hard life lessons than most women twice her age. In her heart-wrenching new memoir, Hungry Hill the nickname of the Irish American enclave in Springfield, Massachusetts where she grew up she recounts a coming of age tale that will ring familiar to many readers: what happens to an individual when he or she finds themselves becoming the emotional center of their rapidly imploding family? She speaks to CAHIR O'DOHERTY.
In 1959, when she was 13, Carole O'Malley Gaunt's father asked her to stay at home and let the priest in, while he drove away to do errands with her seven brothers in the family car. He neglected to inform her that the priest was coming to administer Last Rites to her dying mother. This was, after all, a comfortable middle class Irish American home in the buttoned down era of the 1950s, when no one openly discussed thorny subjects like a mother's cancer or a father's burgeoning alcoholism.
For O'Malley Gaunt, what followed is a tale that is familiar to an unfortunate few the transformation that happens to a child who is forced by circumstances to spend her own youth parenting her brothers and even her own irresponsible father.
O'Malley Gaunt is a skilled writer as her new memoir Hungry Hill shows, and she tells her tale without a hint of self-pity. Instead she simply recounts events as they unfolded, and from that relatively safe distance we observe her life as it's completely upended by bereavement.
What's surprising and also surprisingly common is that at no stage is she ever given a choice. Few adults thought to even ask her if she was up to what fate and her father were suddenly asking of her.
Instead it is simply assumed that she will shoulder the burden thrust upon her: becoming the replacement caregiver to a large, boisterous, yet thoroughly non-communicative Irish American family. A trap had been set for her, and no one imagined she would do anything but fall into it.
"My mother's death was the event that changed our lives forever," says O'Malley Gaunt in an interview with the Irish Voice. "So I decided to start the book with that."
"My oldest brother was 15 and my youngest brother was two. As a teenager how I coped was to make it seem as if her death was a non-event. I did not want people to feel sorry for me. I did not want to look different - which, of course, I actually was."
What happened next was a textbook example of what so many damaged families do when confronted with a seemingly insurmountable loss - they embrace complete denial, they close the door on themselves, and for all their silence they somehow agree to pretend that the thing that is actually killing them did not occur.
Says O'Malley Gaunt, "After my mother died we went on trying to pretend that we were fine, that it hadn't made a difference. But I think we were just numb."
"The true realization of our loss didn't come until later, because when you're in denial you don't realize that you're missing something until later, when certain events occur in your life that reveal to you the scale of your loss."
For O'Malley Gaunt, who by her early thirties was already conscious of patterns of behavior that were similar to her late father's including her own growing dependence on alcohol to feel better the scale of her loss was revealed to her by things as simple as parenting her own children.
"Certain things came up as I parented my daughters. Something as simple as helping them choose a prom dress, say. I would recognize to myself that I didn't have that experience with my own parents. It's not that I articulated it to my children, they didn't need the guilt trip, but things kicked in for me and I began to understand what I had lost."
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