Kate Mulgrew: The Child I Gave Up
The 'Orange Is the New Black' actress faces her past — and lets go of a burden of shame
En español | I have long known who I am, on that frightening level of: What are you going to do when you walk the plank? I found out young.
When I was 18, I left Dubuque, Iowa — and my large Catholic family — to study acting with Stella Adler in New York. Soon after, I took the lead role of Mary Ryan on Ryan's Hope. I became one of the most-watched actresses on daytime television. And then I found out I was pregnant.
I was single, alone and flooded with terror. But I knew I would have that baby.
The father of the baby suggested I have an abortion. My mother was neither physically nor mentally able to help me. So I decided to give my baby up for adoption. It was a choice, the only one I could make.
It was unusual, in 1977, to be on national television while single and pregnant. My agent and many of my friends thought I was making a huge mistake. I offered to quit, but instead, the show's creator, Claire Labine, wrote my pregnancy into the show.
Three days after I gave birth to my baby and gave her up for adoption with Catholic Charities, I was back on the set — filming a scene in which my character brings her baby home from the hospital. They handed me this stunt infant and gave me this beautiful monologue.
Millions of people watched that day. I almost faltered. I remember thinking, "If you cry, you will not stop. So you must not."
The renunciation of a daughter is not a common thing. It shaped me, absolutely. Shortly after the adoption, I began searching for her in earnest. I even hired a private investigator.
Through the years, early in relationships, I would sometimes tell people about my daughter. Men, I felt, would find this too much, too hard, too unattractive. I would throw myself on that spear to gauge their capacity for understanding. The first man who wanted to explore this with me was Tim Hagan, who later became my husband. He leaned in across the fire and said, "My God, how that must have cost you. How did you get through it?"
Then, in 1998, by chance, I ran into the nun who supervised the adoption. For 20 years, Catholic Charities had refused to give me any information about my daughter. Sister Una finally relented and sent the adoption registry forms to both my daughter and myself.
We sent our forms back in the same week. I was on the set of Star Trek: Voyager when my daughter called me. I immediately flew to meet her and her family.
At that time, my daughter, Danielle, was a junior at the University of Iowa. Later, I found out that she had started searching for me the year before. She wrote me a letter and sent it to Catholic Charities. I never received that letter.
Today, I see Danielle as often as I see my sons, and we have grown very close. She also has a close and loving relationship with my sons, Ian and Alec, her two half brothers. Her adoptive mother died a year ago. Her father is generous, infinitely kind and as solid as a rock.
My daughter's capacity for forgiveness is something I have never seen before in my life. That sense of abandonment was excruciating in her life. There is not enough time to make up for it, only enough time to love. We cried a lot. All we can do is move forward. So we do. When I told her I was writing a memoir that would include her, she was thrilled.
I wrote Born With Teeth with the view of honoring the love with the truth. I couldn't have written the book 10 years ago, when my parents were still alive. I'm writing about the people I love the best in the world.
So, yes, I had fears about telling my story, fears about the judgment of it. I felt shame, and I had a huge degree of inexpressible regret. Specifically, I would have tried harder to keep my daughter. I was young and so wanted my life as an actress. There is no dancing around that. As my friend Beth (to whom the book is dedicated) told me then, it's all about what is best for the baby. But I had no idea of the cost.
Something changed when I took the part of Galina "Red" Reznikov in Orange Is the New Black in 2013. It unlatched the gate. I divested myself of vanity to play this middle-aged peasant woman, a fierce and proud Russian. I tapped into the flip side of Red's ferocity, that great vulnerability. I was finally ready. It was time to tell my story, simply because it had been scored on my heart for so long and now longed to be delivered up.
Going back through those memories changed the way I felt. There was a palpable lifting of anxiety, of something that was aching. It has given way to a new sense of freedom. Writing lifted whatever remnants were left of that torture, which I felt every day of my life. Writing this book, I finally felt disentangled.
Of course, I also wrote about my seven years on Star Trek: Voyager as Captain Kathryn Janeway. I have no illusions. It will be the headline in my obituary, even if I write 10 books. If I married the pope, the headline would read "Captain Janeway Marries the Pope."
Kate Mulgrew, 59, lives in New York. Her book, Born With Teeth: A Memoir, will be released on April 14.
— As told to Jo Beth McDaniel