Catherine Gildiner, GOOD MORNING, MONSTER

Catherine Gildiner, GOOD MORNING, MONSTER

Zibby Owens: Catherine Gildiner is the author of Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery. Catherine was a clinical psychologist in private practice for twenty-five years. Her best-selling memoir, Too Close to the Falls, was published to international acclaim. She currently lives in Toronto.

Welcome, Dr. Gildiner. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dr. Catherine Gildiner: Thank you for inviting me.

Zibby: Good Morning, Monster, this book captivated me, interested me, horrified me. Wow. I’m particularly interested in Laura and Madeline. I can’t stop thinking about their stories and all the stuff they went through as kids. I have so many questions. First of all, can you just tell listeners what your book, Good Morning, Monster, is really about? What inspired you to write this?

Catherine: Good Morning, Monster is following five patients who’ve had a really traumatic life. I got sick of reading all these sad cases all the time about how people just bottomed out. I thought, wow, I’ve had people who’ve lived through absolute hell and they’ve managed to cling and maintain their sanity. I wanted to write about psychological heroes. Heroes are always these action figures. I wanted to write about how these people — to be a hero, you have to fight against something that’s much bigger than you. Otherwise, you’re not a hero. These people managed to do that. They managed to come out with their sanity. I wanted to say, you know what, this is heroic. I think it was when Alana said to me one day, “I’m such a screwup,” and I wanted to say — she said, “I taught this guy computer science. Now everyone knows him, but I’m the one that taught him.” I said, “You know what? He had two parents who sent him to Harvard. He had all these opportunities. If you lined up everybody who had been treated the way you’ve been treated, they’d be in back rooms of mental hospitals. You aren’t seeing people that have been treated the way you have. You would see that you’re a real hero.” I wanted them to see. People compare themselves to other people who’ve had advantages or normal parents. They say, “What’s wrong with me?” I wanted people to see a lot can go wrong and you can still pull it out.

Zibby: Wow. This is not your first book. In fact, you talk in this book about how you left your practice for a while, you wrote, and then were dragged back in by a very persuasive Duncan. You couldn’t take no for an answer. Tell me about the intersection in your life between therapy and writing. What made you stop therapy for a while, start writing, and now meld the two like this?

Catherine: I joke that at age fifty I ran out of empathy. I had just worked too hard. I also wrote a column for Chatelaine, which is kind of like Redbook or Good Housekeeping in the US. I wrote it in Canada. It’s giving unwanted advice to people that haven’t asked for it. I wrote that for fifteen years. People said, “You have a turn of phrase. You should do this or that or the other thing.” Then I was at a dinner party once and someone said, “I was sixteen years old and I was so terrified to go to camp,” and blah, blah, blah. I thought, wow. I said, “Didn’t your parents ever have you get a job?” They said no. She said, “Never, because they liked me to take courses in the summer.” I said, “I don’t understand that because I worked full time for the age of four.” Then people said, “Oh, my god. You should write that up.” So I wrote my first memoir. I was shocked. It was on the best-seller list for a hundred and fifty weeks or something. Then I wrote the second and the third. Then my life ended at twenty-five when I married, so I didn’t write any more. Life is over when you have children and marry, as the title of your blog says.

Then I wrote a novel about my PhD because I was interested in the philosophy of science on Darwin’s influence on Freud. I think I was so burned out from being a therapist that after twenty-five years I started thinking about all these people. They kept coming into my mind. I was walking down the street one day with a friend. There was a guy, a very sad man, lying on a grate trying to get warm, homeless. She said, “Look at him. He’s able-bodied. He’s twenty-five years old. Why can’t he walk in and ask somebody for a job?” I just thought, you have no idea what this person has gone through. If they didn’t have arms and legs, you’d feel sorry for them. You don’t see what’s going on in somebody who’s had a horribly difficult life. If you could see their brain or you could see all their memories, you’d say, oh, that poor thing, but people don’t. I thought, I am going to write that book. People like Alana kept coming back to my mind, so I wanted to write it. I needed a long break before I wrote.

Zibby: How did you pick these patients? I know you said some are composites and you didn’t use real names. How did you come up with these five for Good Morning, Monster?

Catherine: It’s really ridiculous. I’m a quantitative person, so what I did was I said, I have to go over every patient that I’ve had. First of all, I sat down and made a list of these five when I thought of writing the book. Then I went and went over every file, said, maybe I should do this. Maybe the demographic would be better if I did that. I went through all this stuff. Then I just did the first five that were still in my heart. I went through all the marketing stuff and all that. I thought, it doesn’t matter. If I don’t write about people that are still in my psyche after twenty-five years, it’s not going to work. Those were the five people that I came up with.

Zibby: I thought it was really interesting that you said that good therapy, there has to be some sort of connection. You can’t not like your patient. Like is the wrong word, but you have to feel that bond with them in some way to go through it. Tell me a little more about that.

Catherine: When I say you have to like your patient, you have to bond in some way to that patient. For a number of years, I worked in a psychiatric hospital in forensic. Those are psychiatric problems, but also criminals. Even if they said, I killed my mother, I couldn’t take another second of my stepmother, I had to sort of empathize with that. I had to say, oh, okay. I had to see it totally from his perspective. Sometimes you can’t see other people’s perspective. For example, I don’t see obsessive compulsives because I just don’t relate. They obsessively talk about the same thing. I try to not to see people where there’s something a little bit wrong with their brain. With obsessives, they usually are born that way. I would much rather see somebody who is perfectly okay and then just got off the path. Then I like to work together to bring them back. There are people that you just don’t click with. Actually, I was saying this the other day. Sorry, they cut the grass today and I think they put napalm on it or something. It’s killing me. What my editor pointed out, which is silly because I’m a psychologist and I should’ve seen this myself, is that every single one of those women in the book were raised by their father. I was too. I thought, oh, my gosh. I didn’t see that, ever. I thought, how could I not have seen that? It’s true of all the women. The mothers are distant figures or troubled figures. The father is the major parent. I think unconsciously, I related to that.

Zibby: I feel like this book is also one of those truth is stranger than fiction examples. If you had made this up, it would’ve been too farfetched that, for instance, that a father could leave his three kids in a cabin in the woods and have a nine-year-old take care of them and even that a couple could go off to Russia and leave their eleven-year-old daughter alone in the house for months. Some of these things, I’m like, could this really happen? Yet it did, and you have to deal with the aftermath. I thought another really interesting part of this story was that some of the things that seem so obvious to us as, not to call myself normal in any way, but as a regular reader of this could obviously see huge holes in the parenting and the detriment done. Yet the patients themselves saw it as just life. They didn’t know any different.

Catherine: Absolutely. Look at Laura. When the father left her, she said, “What is the problem? I was already eight years old. I could handle that.” I had to spend a lot of time explaining what an eight-year-old could do. I took her to see eight-year-olds.

Zibby: That was so great. I loved that.

Catherine: She saw all of them. She’s kind of funny in her own way, amusing I mean. When we got in the car, I said, “Well…?” She said, “They were immature.” It took her a long time. The father was like, “I need you to be an adult.” She said, “Okay. If you love me, I’ll be an adult.” That was their deal. He never criticized her, but she had to be the adult. Her childhood wasn’t that hard. What was hard was when she was an adult and she began looking for men to be with. She always picked people that she had to take care of because she was bonded to that behavior. She misunderstood bonding for love.

Zibby: I feel like you’re so good, obviously, at seeing all these patterns that the patients themselves can’t even see, even Madeline in terms of how she staffed her company, that you can recreate — which is something I had never really thought about before. You hear about people marrying spouses that have some of the characteristics of their parents that they’re still sort of wrestling with. It hadn’t occurred to me that people do this in the workplace, that you could have people work for you who have the same thing. Tell me a little about that.

Catherine: That was something that Madeline and I worked on all the time. She always made the point that they — she was in a very specialized field. She said, “He’s the only person in the world that can do this.” I would say, “That’s ridiculous. He’s rude all the time.” If he would see me, he’d say, “Oh, are you here again?” This is ridiculous behavior. She said, “No, we all have to put up with it.” I said, “No, you had to put up with your mother because you didn’t have a choice. Yes, he is the only Hungarian that can understand fourteenth century religious iconography, but I’m sure there are others.” She surrounded herself with incredibly difficult clients like people that were in the mafia in other countries, etc. It was just awful. Who has millions and millions of dollars? Some very good people and some people that are bad. They would then not pay their bill. I left all of that out because I didn’t want to be killed myself. She recreated her family.

Zibby: Her family, the insanity that happened with her biological mother, and then Kathy, who her father ends up with next, it’s unthinkable that her stepmother would essentially break all of the antiques in her childhood home, not let her back in, and that this went on.

Catherine: And that the father would tolerate it.

Zibby: Yeah, that it just kept going on. He’s like, “Sorry.”

Catherine: That’s when she had her huge collapse, was after that antique thing. Then I think he felt so guilty that he actually followed me to a coffee shop every day and said, “Please be her therapist.” I said, “I’m retired.” He’s a successful businessman. He wore me down. I finally said, “Okay, I will do it.” I wanted to include Madeline because people think people that have a lot of wealth are happy and that money really makes you happy. It’s so trite. What they don’t realize is that very often — he was from a very independently wealthy family, goes back generations in Canada. His name is a very common name in the newspapers and everything. There were gold-diggers after him. It’s an old-fashioned term. This in the thirties. This is before women had a chance to be what they wanted to be. Your only chance in life was, marry this wealthy guy.

Her mother sent her to the Hamptons and said, “Don’t come home unless you’re engaged to him.” You can say, why would you marry someone so awful? She put on a really good act for about four or five months. Then she recognized that he wasn’t the type to get a divorce. “We don’t divorce in our family,” that sort of thing. Also, wealth covers a lot of pathology. The editor pointed this out to me. That’s when I included it in the book. Laura was abandoned in a tiny cabin, but Madeline was abandoned too. Her parents went to Russia. Then the alarms went off, the alarm from a storm. The police came. The police were terrified of the family because they lived in a huge estate. They said, “I guess you’ll be okay.” If they lived in a housing project, they would’ve immediately called CAS and gotten help for her. They were insulated by this wealth. Then neurosis didn’t appear as neurosis.

Zibby: It’s so interesting, oh, my gosh. I couldn’t believe that whole scene and that the neighbor had to get her housekeeper’s daughter to come visit.

Catherine: That housekeeper’s daughter is still with her.

Zibby: No way. Wow.

Catherine: She’s made several moves with her. That is an interesting bond.

Zibby: It was also funny to me that you admitted several times, mistakes that you felt like you had made in your treatment. I guess you know that therapists must make mistakes, but I had never really thought through how much that would stay with you or what you would view as a mistake and why. Tell me about some of that and the regret of some of the ways you’ve handled things versus all the great things.

Catherine: When I wrote the book, I wanted to show how much I had grown as a therapist. When you first start out, you don’t know anything. You know everything in books. You can get straight A’s and feel really competent. My first patient was Laura who walked in and said, “I’m not giving a history. Forget it. Those are the village idiots. I’m not giving a history.” I thought, oh, my god, this isn’t like school at all. Every single case I saw, you’d say, I’m collecting a history. Even if they were psychotic and said they were the Virgin Mary, they gave a history. I thought, I’m the one that has to make this happen during the hour that it’s happening. It’s only fifty percent academic. The rest of it is finding a way to deal with people’s defenses. I thought the whole thing would be, I’m going to show how I learned with each case. Then by the end, I’ll be a pretty good therapist. The opposite happened. I made the majority of mistakes in my last case, which was the Madeline case. I just couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong.

Then I realized everybody has transference. Duncan was like my dad, starch shirt, vest every day, tie. He ran a business as well. She was an only child. They never ate at home. We never ate at home. Sometimes the mother would be so bad that both the father and the daughter would run into each other in the basement and they would eat Cheerio’s together. My mother wasn’t bad at all, but I recognized all of these things that were similar. I never held him responsible. I’d say, well, he can’t do it. I guess he just can’t get his second wife to — I never really laid into him about that. He brought me into this chaotic scene of flying to New York with all of these distractions all around me. I shouldn’t have allowed any of that. Then when I went and examined it, I realized he was like my dad. My dad had a brain tumor and lost his mind at forty-five or fifty. He was my father before everything fell apart. I was protecting him. One time, somebody was looking at the paper and they looked at the picture of Duncan and said, “Gee, that looks like your dad.” It wasn’t just me that thought that. I did finally go and get my own therapy and said, “What’s going on here?” He said, “It’s so obvious. It’s psych 101. Father attachment.” You have to be really careful of making those kinds of mistakes.

For the Danny thing, Danny is — I don’t know if you know that in — you probably do. In the US, everything is a black-white race problem. That’s the big problem. In Canada, it’s native-white issues. That’s the news every night. We have way more natives. There’s been a huge amount of residential schools where everybody hasn’t been parented. That is sort of Canada’s national problem, Canada’s national disgrace. With Danny, the hard part for me was actually learning everything that I had to know about native culture, not that I learned everything. I had to then really hit the wall and not let my ego get the better of me and say, you know what, I can’t cure him. I can take him to a certain spot. Then he has to go to a healer. He has to go and deal with all of this stuff with natives. I had to say, “This is as far as I can take you.” I don’t think I would’ve taken him anywhere if I hadn’t had help from a native psychiatrist at Harvard who really helped me. I’d say, “Why won’t he talk?” He said, “He’s getting to know you.” I thought, really? Two months and this guy has not said a thing. I joked about it five years later when we were a lot closer. I said, “Yeah, like not talking for months.” He said, “That didn’t bother me.” He said just what the guy told me. He said, “I was getting to know you. I wasn’t going to talk to somebody until I knew them.” I said, “How did you know me without talking to me?” He said, “That’s just one way to know people.”

Zibby: Wow. That’s crazy. It’s amazing, the way you’ve been able to get at all these people and get them past their circumstances and get them out of their own heads and get them to see. It’s really like magic. What do you think it is about the people who have become heroes in your practice, and even sometimes in their own families, the other people, like in the case of Laura with her younger brother and sister whose lives did not follow her same trajectory? What is it that makes somebody able to withstand horrific circumstances whereas somebody in the same family might not? There’s probably not an answer to this.

Catherine: Look at Laura. Her brother and sister really didn’t do well. They did what you would expect from a life like that. Remember, her father, even though he was neglectful, he was always singing her praises. When she worked on the chip truck with him, he always praised her. He was like, “I knew you’d take care of things.” “You’re my number-one man,” he always said. She was loved in a conditional way, like, if you do this for me. She thought he was kind of exciting and that that’s what a man was. She thought, what is the big problem here? Why is everybody all upset about him? It wasn’t as though he ever put her down. I think he did once when he was in jail and she wore jeans that he didn’t like. I said, “Wow, your father criticized you one time in your whole life?” He didn’t like the other two kids because they didn’t have guts. She was born with a type A personality. He needed that. He reinforced that for his own needs. Her ego was built. It looks like she was neglected, and she was, but neglect is just one thing. Look at Danny, the next case. What about Danny? First five years were fine. Father was fine. Mother was fine. They lived in a happy home. They were hunters and gatherers. They lived out in the woods. They were a functioning unit. There was no alcoholism. They were a perfectly happy unit until he was taken, put in residential school, sexually abused. Parents lost their way of living. They said they couldn’t live out in the woods anymore. They had to come into a reserve. Then there was no job he could do because he was a hunter. Then he became an alcoholic. Everything fell apart. The first five years, everything worked.

When you look at someone like Madeline, Madeline really saw the father, she finally recognized in the end that he loved her. He had some sort of weakness with psychopathic women. That was his weakness. He couldn’t stand up to them. It’s shocking that he would have a second one after the hell of the first one. Then saying, okay, that’s his weakness. Can I forgive him? That was part of her issue. With the mother, I said, “It’s not important to forgive your mother. What’s important is to see that she was a very damaged person. She was so damaged, she couldn’t love anyone.” She said, “Then why is she so mean to me? I could live with not being loved.” She went to private school. She was on the tennis team and on the debating team. She’s gorgeous. She just couldn’t be perfect enough. I said, “You know what it’s like to be a mother and not be able to do the job?” You’re watching all these other mothers, which she called mother hens and overprotective when they were really just being mothers. Naturally, you become hostile to this child who has needs and you have no idea how to fulfil them.

Zibby: You had one quote. I don’t know if I can find it or not. You said something about how at one point you realized that you can stop being angry and upset with your mother and just feel sorry for your mother. That transition is such a key point in the therapy too.

Catherine: Yes, absolutely. It’s because your mother no longer has power over you. When you say, she’s just a sad case — it used to be like when she would do this stuff of going to Florida to visit her and the mother would forget to pick her up, all that kind of stuff. She just stopped doing it. She just said, “I don’t have to do that anymore.” Then she started going out with a very nice person, a nice man who was kind and good. She married a very wealthy guy who she thought would be just like the dad, and he wasn’t. She married her mother. He turned out to be awful. Toward the end of the therapy, she finally realized, oh, I can love this nice person. I didn’t realize that I could love him. I thought I just could be friends with him.

Zibby: The way that you told these stories was so great. Each on was un-put-down-able in its own right, the unexpected twists and turns that actually happened and then the way you handled it. It was so interesting. Tell me a little more about the writing of it, the way that you crafted the stories. Did you use all your notes? How did you make them into these great standalone stories?

Catherine: I went back and looked at my notes. I thought they would be completely organized. I thought, fantastic, I’ll just put these notes in a book form and it’ll be perfect. I hadn’t said anything. It said things like, “Very upset.” I just thought, these notes aren’t helpful at all. Then once in a while I would look at the notes and say, oh, my god, I forgot that the father killed the cat. I forgot that. I repressed some of the awful stuff. The conversations had to come back to me. That’s why you have to be kind of attached and bonded to those patients to remember those things. When you see somebody for five years, you can pretty well predict what they would say in different situations.

Zibby: You must have enough stories to fill a hundred more books. Are you going to write any more books? What’s your plan?

Catherine: My plan now is I’m writing — I grew up in a house in Lewiston, New York, which is on the Niagara River connecting to Canada. I grew up in the New York side. My family’s home was involved in the Underground Railroad. Then the house next door has seven basements that go down to the river. I’m writing from the white abolitionist point of view. I hope that works in this time. I’m doing that now. The publisher wants me to write a book like Good Morning, Monster but with more cases and lighter.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Catherine: Write. I have people all the time saying to me, “What’s a good topic? What’s hot today?” You go into your heart and just write for two hours a day, at least. If you have another job, just write for two hours a day. Everybody starts writing when they have another job. They have to support themselves, usually. I wrote for two hours before I went into my office. Just write and don’t worry about any of it. Don’t reread it. Don’t do anything. Just let stream of consciousness take you. Then go back and you can read it. Don’t stop yourself at the end of each sentence and do all that. The most important stuff comes from your unconscious. Most of it pours out. That’s the only thing that we all have in common. We all have a collective unconscious somewhere, so says Jung, so says Freud. Why would people relate to a memoir of my four-year-old delivery girl delivering stuff with a black delivery car driver? Who cares? Only because the thoughts I had are the same thoughts they had when they were four. Just get all of that out. Don’t try to polish it. Then later, come back. I find a lot of people, they write two pages and then for four weeks they try to make it perfect. By then, you’ve lost it. You’ve lost all of your creative juices.

Zibby: That’s great advice. Awesome. Thank you so much, Dr. Gildiner. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for sharing your treatment stories with these incredible patients and for showing us what heroes really can look like. Thank you.

Catherine: Thank you. Thank you very much. Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Catherine Gildiner, GOOD MORNING, MONSTER