UC alumna's brutally honest book chronicles her life without lower legs
by Elizabeth DePompei
Media contact: John Bach, 513-556-5224
Media contact: John Bach, 513-556-5224
Growing up in Cincinnati as one of 11 children, Eileen Cronin was known as the girl who was born without legs. But skinny-dipping after dark with her girlfriends, she became something else entirely.
“In a pool, I moved without a single compromise because I was liberated from my legs. Without them, I became an elusive mermaid, the Venus de Milo spit from the ruins or a comet firing across an endless sky.”
That is just one of many revealing moments in Cronin’s candid debut book, “Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience.” The 1982 University of Cincinnati graduate’s work made it onto Oprah’s list of “Memoirs Too Powerful to Put Down.”
Readers — especially in Cincinnati — seem to agree. Cronin, who now practices clinical psychology in Los Angeles, says her book is selling best in her hometown.
“My friends love it,” Cronin says. “I had no idea. I thought, ‘Oh my God, no one in Cincinnati is going to talk to me again.’”
The success of the book — regionally, nationally and even internationally — should not be a surprise. Not only is “Mermaid” an intimate portrait of an extraordinary life filled with trauma and triumph, it is also a love-hate tribute to Cincinnati, a place Cronin describes as a “city of contradiction.”
“There are things I just love about it,” Cronin says of the Queen City. She remembers being a student at UC and hanging out at Mecklenburg Gardens on East University Avenue or at an ice cream/coffee shop that served cocktails at night.
“It was way cool back in the day,” Cronin remembers. “I loved it.” But she admits she didn’t always feel so warmly about the city.
“At first, I hated it,” Cronin says. “I just really wanted to get away. I wanted to be on my own to test my chops and see if I could make it.”
From the outside, most people would probably say Cronin’s “chops” had already been tested. Born with legs that ended at the knee, Cronin was no stranger to adversity. As a young child, she had to “squiddle” from one place to another instead of walk. Later she would wear clunky prosthetics that resulted in what she refers to as “chewed-up flesh.” In the eighth grade, three of her classmates shoved her down two sets of staircases.
At home, Cronin was the seventh of 11 children — and she didn’t get any breaks for her disability. In fact, her family rarely discussed or acknowledged that she was any different from anyone else. In “Mermaid,” Cronin says the silence in her family was like growing up in a town where everybody keeps secrets from one person, and that one person was her.
It’s no wonder then that she would have preferred to go away for college. To cope with her hometown imprisonment, Cronin absorbed the European-inspired architecture on campus at UC so that she might “conjure the feeling of being far from home.”
Eventually, she found a new kind of home at UC, joining the Theta Phi Alpha sorority and escaping into the university’s creative writing program.
“The writing program totally changed me,” Cronin says of her time in UC's McMicken College of Arts & Sciences. “That was what helped me to move on and get out of Cincinnati and find what I wanted to do. And [writing is] always what I’ve continued to return to.”
In the book, Cronin recounts pitching an idea to Clifton Magazine, the university’s student-run magazine at the time. Her ambitious pitch was about ’60s architecture inspired by “The Jetsons” and how different the ’80s landscape had become.
“Well, they never liked my ideas,” Cronin remembers, laughing about getting stuck interviewing the Bearcat instead.
After graduating from UC with a bachelor’s in communications and creative writing, Cronin finally got her chance to test her chops the way she wanted to.
Inspired by her time volunteering at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Cronin decided to pursue a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. At 21 years old, she left Cincinnati behind — something women in her family didn’t do — and moved to Massachusetts to attend Boston University.
“When I think about it now, leaving home, living out there in a city where I didn’t know anyone and without any legs — that’s pretty awesome! I was so oblivious to my vulnerability.”
During her time in Boston, Cronin learned more about what she believed to be the cause of her disability. Over the years, she had heard about thalidomide, a sedative manufactured in Cincinnati and prescribed to pregnant women for symptoms like morning sickness and anxiety. By the early ’60s, just after Cronin was born, the drug was linked to severe birth defects and was taken off the market in the United States.
In her memoir, Cronin describes the day in fifth grade when a nun at her school made a startling announcement to the class. “Sister Luke explained to my whole class that my mother had confessed to taking a pill while she was pregnant with me, which caused my legs to shrivel up in the womb.”
That would be the first time she heard the word thalidomide. For most of Cronin’s life, her mother denied ever taking the drug, attributing Cronin’s disability to God’s will.
“It’s probably why I’m so candid about it,” Cronin said. “I think if we had talked about it in our family, this would have been dealt with.”
Before writing “Mermaid,” Cronin asked her mother about thalidomide, expecting the usual outrage and silence. But to her surprise, her mother admitted to taking the drug while pregnant with Cronin.
“I’ve come to find out that other people who were born with thalidomide-related injuries, their families didn’t talk about it, either,” Cronin said. “There just seemed to be this shameful factor related to it.”
Cronin says that if she had known about the cause of her disability earlier, she wouldn’t have worried so much about having children herself, afraid that she would pass on a genetic disability. By the time her mother admitted to taking thalidomide, Cronin had already given birth to a healthy girl.
“She didn’t really ever have to confess it; that’s the unfortunate part,” Cronin says. “It wasn’t a sin or a crime to me. She was a victim.”
Cronin dedicates “Mermaid” to her parents “who showed me how to love and persevere,” as well as to her husband, Andy, and their daughter, Ania. She wrote the memoir because so many people had suggested it throughout the years, and though she had strayed from her creative writing days at UC, she still had the itch to tell stories.
“You can’t not write if you’re a writer,” she insists. But putting her sometimes-painful story into words would prove difficult.
“I don’t think any part of it was easy,” she remembers. “It took a long time to write. There were parts that I had fun with. There were parts that were painful. There were parts that were both funny and painful. It was a whole exploration.”
The unusualness of her story — from skinny-dipping without legs to losing a prosthetic leg on the dance floor — proved helpful. “It didn’t take me long to say these [stories] stood out. I mean, not many people can say they rode a rollercoaster with their leg hanging out.”
Cronin, who lives in California with her family, is working on a novel about three families who are forced together after their teenagers become friends and “something bad happens.”
Earlier this year, she led a writer’s workshop at Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs. She visited Cincinnati and says she had a great time visiting her mother and other family members. She hopes to return next year for a book festival.
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel quite as at home as I do in Cincinnati,” Cronin says. “And I’ll never want to get the heck out of somewhere as much as Cincinnati!
“But that’s not Cincinnati, that’s just me.”
Elizabeth DePompei is a UC journalism student who served as a UC Magazine intern.