If you’re new to the Kate Mulgrew fan club, you might first think of her as the strong-willed, irascible mother figure, Red, on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. If you’ve known Mulgrew for a while, then you probably fell in love with her as Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. And while acting has been Mulgrew’s life pursuit—a role delegated to her by her mother at a very young age—her first memoir, Born With Teeth, goes far deeper than the everyday life and struggles of an emerging actress.
A celebrity memoir might do well to focus mainly on life behind the scenes of the actor’s most famous productions: what fan wouldn’t enjoy hearing the inside scoop? And while Patrick Stewart, Mulgrew’s predecessor as captain in the Star Trek franchise, does have a brief appearance in the book, that’s about as far as Mulgrew goes with celebrity anecdotes. Born With Teeth does not begin at the helm of a Starfleet starship or even on the set of the daytime soap Ryan’s Hope, where Mulgrew got her big break. Instead, it starts in Iowa, among Mulgrew’s large Irish family, as she describes her “first conscious memory of who I was as a reasonable human being…my first struggle with morality.”
And so Mulgrew sets the tone off the bat, writing not necessarily as Mulgrew the actress, but choosing instead to reveal herself on a more intimate footing to her reader, seeking to portray the entirety of her person through “the episodes in my life that have not only informed me, but have shaped me and defined me—from the beginning to the age of about 47,” she says.
It’s clear from early on that the story of Mulgrew’s inner life will prove more rewarding than snippets of gossip and moments on set. She set off on a focused track toward success when her mother gave her—though only in grade school at this point—something to consider: “You can either be a mediocre poet or a great actress. Now, which do you think you’d rather be?” Mulgrew had just finished a poetry reading at school, fulfilling an aspiration of hers, but now was the time to start anew. “I pursued my life as an actress. But I think I’ve always longed to write,” she says. “I think I’ve always yearned to express myself in this way but lacked the confidence and lacked perhaps the articulation. Perhaps the timing was off.”
Mulgrew is coming up on her 60th birthday, though, and the timing now feels right: “events have conspired to lend themselves to the opening of a new gate and a new day, if you will. And I felt that it was time to write this story.” It’s clear that the storyteller in Mulgrew has always been alive, if not at the forefront of her consciousness. Throughout her life, she mentions she “wrote long, heartfelt, often searching letters to friends. And they assumed an importance, a literary importance, in my life. I wasn’t yet writing stories or didn’t have the guts yet to write stories, but I think I wrote them in letter form.” Along with “stacks of journals sky high,” she had been writing down and exploring the significant moments of her life on paper for a long time, developing a narrative voice that is intoxicatingly personable.
“This is a story known only to my family and to my closest friends. And now I’ve put it into the world, and so I’m scared but I’m ready. I’m not so scared that I didn’t write it, right? It needed to be written,” Mulgrew says, noting that “when some kind of art needs to be created, you can do everything you can to resist, but resistance is futile.” Mulgrew wrote for herself, bending to the desire to create, but as she modestly notes, “I thought perhaps it would have something to offer some people. Women in particular.” And oh, it does.
Mulgrew reveals her saddest moments: her sister’s long battle with a brain tumor, her mother’s emotional turmoil, the darkness that enveloped her after getting pregnant in her early 20s and giving the baby up for adoption, embarking on a decadeslong search for her daughter. She shies away from nothing, writing with the realization that “we have a lot of sadness in our lives, women, that we stow away…because we’re ashamed or we’re afraid. And that’s fine. That helps us to survive.”
But in revealing herself as an example—a woman with an innate strength who is both afraid and brave—her story can become a “kind of comfort or elucidation,” she hopes. “Girls get pregnant, you know, when they don’t expect to,” she states matter-of-factly. There is no reason to shy away from that truth. And Mulgrew is not afraid to bare all—to show her teeth.
It’s impossible not to see an actress’s artistry living in these pages, though, and it makes Mulgrew’s recounting of her most human moments all the more powerful. Take this moment, when she has just returned to the set of Ryan’s Hope very shortly after giving her daughter up for adoption. The writers had written her pregnancy into the show, and she was to deliver a monologue to her new child:
A monologue about love, a monologue about courage, a monologue about, above all else, loyalty, ending with the words: “I will never leave you, Ryan. We will never be separated. This is my solemn promise.”…My work done, I gathered myself, and walked toward the door.
Mulgrew is not in the business of dictating her life for her readers; she is reliving it, and this lends a vividness and immediacy to her narrative. “An actor studies human behavior, so all of these human beings whom I’ve recollected in my book and then regurgitated have been absorbed into my vivid memory as an actor,” she notes. “That probably helps me very much as a writer.”
Many of Mulgrew’s pivotal moments are explained not through hindsight or reflection but through dialogue, evoking the moment exactly how it lives in her memory. She recalls her first audition for Star Trek, an important day for many reasons: “ ‘I’d like to apologize to those of you watching this audition,’ I said into the camera, ‘it is not good work by any stretch of the imagination, but you see I’ve fallen in love and I can’t concentrate.’ ”
This unscripted moment is perfect for showing the melding of her personal and professional selves. Of course, we want to hear about the early days of Captain Janeway, but Mulgrew is inherent to that character. She is in love, she is a mother, she is a woman balancing a career that is about to explode with her responsibilities at home. She writes about this connection to her character: “When Mulgrew suffered, Janeway picked her up. And when Janeway felt like giving up, Mulgrew slapped her into shape. I was put to good use in every way, and this saved me.”
But just as she’s able to portray her connection to this iconic character, she also notes an important contrast. In a powerful line, she writes, “I played Captain Janeway in an era that had not resolved the conflicts surrounding mothers and work.” On screen, she achieved exactly the level of independence and respect a woman should receive, but real life was not as simple. “I tried to write how I went through it and survived it but without taking myself off the hook for one minute. I really missed my children; my children really missed me,” she says.
Throughout, Mulgrew is brazenly honest. She is a woman filled with passion. She falls in and out of love, she makes mistakes, she goes after what she wants and builds her career, and if that makes her controversial, then so be it. She reveals this all without shame, and while her tone may be familiar, the character behind it is a brave one.
“I think this is going to be sort of like taking the luge…they’re just going to pop me in to that little thing, and away I’m going to go. I think I’m going to talk about my life a lot,” she says of what it will be like once her story reaches the world.
And talk about it she will, as her story begs to be told. In the book, Mulgrew asks her mother—who always seemed to get it right—if she’s doing right in life: “ ‘I don’t know, Kitten,’ she said, zipping up her money belt, ‘but I’ll tell you one thing—if it were a book, I wouldn’t be able to put it down.’ ”
Chelsea Langford is the assistant editor at Kirkus Reviews.