Born with Teeth

A Memoir


By Kate Mulgrew

Read by Kate Mulgrew

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Raised by unconventional Irish Catholics who knew “how to drink, how to dance, how to talk, and how to stir up the devil,” Kate Mulgrew grew up with poetry and drama in her bones. But in her mother, a would-be artist burdened by the endless arrival of new babies, young Kate saw the consequences of a dream deferred.

Determined to pursue her own no matter the cost, at 18 she left her small Midwestern town for New York, where, studying with the legendary Stella Adler, she learned the lesson that would define her as an actress: “Use it,” Adler told her. Whatever disappointment, pain, or anger life throws in your path, channel it into the work.

It was a lesson she would need. At twenty-two, just as her career was taking off, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Having already signed the adoption papers, she was allowed only a fleeting glimpse of her child. As her star continued to rise, her life became increasingly demanding and fulfilling, a whirlwind of passionate love affairs, life-saving friendships, and bone-crunching work. Through it all, Mulgrew remained haunted by the loss of her daughter, until, two decades later, she found the courage to face the past and step into the most challenging role of her life, both on and off screen.

We know Kate Mulgrew for the strong women she’s played — Captain Janeway on Star Trek ; the tough-as-nails “Red” on Orange is the New Black. Now, we meet the most inspiring and memorable character of all: herself. By turns irreverent and soulful, laugh-out-loud funny and heart-piercingly sad, Born with Teeth is the breathtaking memoir of a woman who dares to live life to the fullest, on her own terms.


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Title Page Derby Grange, circa 1960
Here Mother and me, Langworthy Avenue, 1957
Here Family photo, Derby Grange, 1966. From left to right: Laura, Dad, Tom, Mother, Sam, Joe, Tessie, Pringle, me, and Jenny
Here Tessie, 1966
Here Jenny and me
Here Ryan's Hope, first year, 1975. From left to right: me, Malcolm Groome, Helen Gallagher, Bernard Barrow, Michael Hawkins, Ilene Kristen (Courtesy of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.)
Here Publicity photo for Love Spell, me with Richard Burton, 1976 (Courtesy of Claire Labine)
Here In the kitchen at Derby Grange, 1976
Here Beth
Here Mrs. Columbo (Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC)
Here Mother and me in Venice
Here Roberto and me
Here Pierce Brosnan and me in The Manions of America (Courtesy of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.)
Here Cast of Another Part of the Forest at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. From left to right: John Kellogg, Kim Hunter, Keith Carradine, me, John Procaccino (Photograph by Greg Gilbert)
Here Another Part of the Forest, Seattle Repertory Theatre (Photograph by Greg Gilbert)
Here Robert Egan
Here My wedding day
Here The Misanthrope at the Seattle Repertory Theatre with Daniel Davis (Photograph by Chris Bennion)
Here Montana Avenue. Lucy, Alec in my arms, and Ian attending to the apples
Here Tim Hagan and me in the Thomas Ashe Pub, Ireland
Here The Atlantic, off Dingle Bay, with the boys
Here Sailing
Here Publicity Begins for Voyager (Courtesy of CBS Television Studios)
Here Captain Janeway (Courtesy of CBS Television Studios)
Here My boys
Here Incarnation Children's Center Gala (Courtesy of Marion Curtis/Getty Images)
Here Mother and me
Here I meet my daughter, Danielle, 1997
Here Happiness

Langworthy Avenue

I started out in a green house with a red door in a small town, where mysteries abounded. Immediately after issuing me into the world, my mother took me to this house and put me in a shoebox, which she placed on the dining room table so that one and all might come and gaze upon my perfect miniature beauty. Hands like starfish, to hear her tell it, grave but ravishing cornflower-blue eyes, and, most remarkable of all, a set of baby teeth. Two pearls on top and two, nonpareil, on the bottom. Shakespeare, my mother said, would have a field day. The neighborhood ladies were not impressed and stood there in silent judgment with arms crossed over pregnant stomachs. It wasn't good form to crow about your child's beauty, especially considering the vast numbers of children that populated those Irish-German households. My mother, however, was undaunted and maintained her frantic vigil until she convinced herself that I, her first daughter, was growing even tinier than I had been at birth. Alarmed, she rushed me to the hospital and demanded that I be incubated. Dr. Sharp, her obstetrician, shook his head but to no avail. And so it was that in that strange aquarium of light and warmth, my mother's face pressed against the glass, I developed a constitution that could only ever be described as able and hardy.

My father observed my growing appetite for solid food with ill-concealed contempt. "Jesus. H. Christ," he would mutter as I shoved yet another fistful of banana pudding into my mouth, "I'm going to the Lux Club for a belt." Of course, the Lux Club at happy hour was thick with young Catholic fathers looking for a quick reprieve before heading home to their harried wives and hordes of screaming children. These strapping Irish boys would then stumble home to find the madhouse magically transformed into an oasis of quiet, children tucked in, dishes done, the lovely young wife lying achingly still in the bed. He might whisper "Shhh" if she started to turn and then, oh so quickly, the nightgown was up over her thighs and the deed was done in a lightning flash so that neither he nor she could ever remember with nostalgia the actual moment in which any of their children was conceived.

My father was not surprised when Dr. Sharp visited and announced that I would need a special crib, one with bars on all sides as well as over the top because would you believe it, said the good doctor, but this kid has no sense of pain. Mother was delighted by the novelty of this condition and stood stoically by as my baby teeth were pulled, quickly and without incident, so as to prevent my eating them. I was too young to wink with intention, but I like to think I caught my father's eye as he pulled on his overcoat and invoked yet again the name of his secret friend, Jesus. H. Christ.

Babies appeared with maddening regularity. The bassinette, to my horror, was constantly emptied of one baby and filled with another. This was a sleight of hand I simply could not grasp, and yet I was told sternly that this was my younger brother Joe and to always rely on my older brother, Tom, and to hold this newest one gently and quietly because she was just an infant and her name was Maggie. I was given a bottle and told to feed this baby while the other kids went streaking out the front door to the Odd Lot across the street, where all the neighborhood children were at play. Screams of pleasure and abandon pierced the living room where I sat in an armchair holding my baby sister, who seemed to me quite leaden, swathed, as she was, in thick cotton blankets. My resentment blossomed into rage when it dawned on me that I was not to be allowed my freedom that afternoon, that I was, in fact, being held prisoner by this lump of obligation called a sister and that not only had my siblings abandoned me but my mother had, as well.

With growing fury, I rose and carried the baby into the kitchen, where I placed her on the countertop. I then took the bottle, unscrewed the lid, and poured the milk into the sink. At four years of age, I was sturdy and capable, or so my mother clearly thought, besetting me with duties far beyond my ken. My mother would pay for this injustice, and she would come to appreciate that I not only needed but deserved to play with the other kids, at dusk, in the Odd Lot. With hatred and precision I turned the faucet on, and when the water ran cold, I filled the bottle up. I gathered Maggie and the bottle in my arms and trudged back to the armchair, where, without hesitation, I fed my little sister the bottle of ice-cold water that would kill her.

When my mother at last came home and retrieved her baby, I struggled to tell her that it was I who had dealt the deathblow, which was why Maggie now lay in her crib silent and inert. I desperately wanted to confess to this homicide and clear my conscience, but my mother would have none of it and shooed me out the door to join my friends in what was left of the day's play.

The next morning, I crept into the nursery and on tiptoe peered closely at my sister. Maggie gazed at me with mild eyes and gurgled as only very sentient babies do. At that moment, I heard peals of laughter emanating from the basement and raced out of the room and down the stairs. The sound of my mother's laughter was the sound I lived for, because it was absolute, and good. I found her doubled over, clutching her sides, tears streaming down her cheeks as she pointed helplessly at the walls. Months before, my mother had painted the walls of the basement with murals depicting popular fairy tales and nursery rhymes: "The Three Little Pigs," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and, of course, "Sleeping Beauty." The murals were very clever because my mother had been an artist before she had married my father and become an indentured servant, however glorified.

"Look, Kitten, look!" she cried, pulling me by the hand until I was just inches from the Three Little Pigs. Only then did I realize that a P-51 Mustang bomber had been painted to indicate the imminent annihilation of not only the Three Little Pigs, but when I looked to the opposite wall I saw that Little Red Riding Hood had a missile suspended directly over her head and that Jack was clinging with particular fervor to the beanstalk as bomber after bomber dove from beneath my mother's fluffy clouds, threatening to destroy the idyllic landscape. Some wicked-looking soldiers had been painted peering out from behind a barn, one of whom, wearing a helmet, held a rifle to the little lamb's head, and yet another leered at Little Red Riding Hood, all of which seemed to delight my mother and kept her, as she herself would say, in veritable stitches.

When my father came home after his daily nip at the Lux Club, my mother gave him the cold shoulder and said, "Boy, are you in trouble." He grinned sheepishly, which I thought an inappropriate response to my mother's obvious displeasure. We were put to bed early that night, but when I was sure my brothers and sister were fast asleep I stole out of my little bed and worked my way stealthily down the stairs. I discovered my parents in the basement, their shapes only partly visible in the dimly lit room, but it was clear that they were holding on to each other and that their faces were very close together and that my father was grinning, and my mother was laughing until suddenly, and for no reason at all, they pressed their faces together and stayed like that for a long, long time.

Desire and disillusion created the chiaroscuro of my parents' early marriage. Just a year earlier my mother had danced with Jack Kennedy at the Inaugural Ball and, despite her advanced pregnancy, the president had pulled her close and, smiling, whispered in her ear, "You missed your chance, Jik."

But Catholic girls from good families don't miss chances; they dodge bullets and slowly relinquish their dreams. They go to Mass and wait for a miracle and aren't terribly surprised when it arrives in the shape of a handsome young man with modest ambition, dry wit, and honorable intentions. In gratitude for this miracle, the young woman will curb her passions with a sharp discipline, she will pack her bags with nothing of the trousseau she had been promised, she will leave a world of fortune and entitlement, and she will travel a very long way to a remote city in Iowa, where she will be met at the train by her mother-in-law, an elegant woman dressed in a chartreuse silk suit, who will extend her hand and say, "I would prefer it if you called me Mrs. Mulgrew."

In Dubuque, Iowa, the green house with the red door was unconventional. Inside lived a woman who came from the East, a striking young woman with auburn hair, freckles, and a ready laugh, who was often seen in the company of her very good-looking and charming husband, and though they were christened Joan Virginia and Thomas James, they were known as Jiki and Ace, and they knew how to drink, how to dance, how to talk, and how to stir up the devil.

My father, intense and tightly wound, was a presence strongly felt. He wanted things to happen, and he desperately wanted things to happen that would please his prize of a wife. Above all, he wanted her to love him. He opened the front door at seven p.m. one Friday night to find all four of us children stark naked and screaming with delight as we jumped, one by one, down the laundry chute, bottoms splintered and foreheads bruised as we crash-landed onto an ever-growing pile of dirty clothes. In the adjoining room, he watched quietly as my mother mixed her paints and regarded her canvas with complete concentration, oblivious to the chaos surrounding her.

"How about a drink, Jik?" he asked, and she turned, slightly exasperated, and said, "Sounds like heaven."

We were left with the neighbor girl then, Kathleen McGrane, a formidable creature who came from a family of giants. Everyone knows that giants enjoy tormenting Lilliputians, but my parents were deaf to our pleas as they bundled themselves into heavy coats and drove away, not once looking back. They drove far into the countryside on a frostbitten winter's night until they found an isolated tavern, a neon sign beckoning in the darkness. The door swung open, and the place greeted them in silence, these good-looking, high-spirited travelers from town. These people were country folk, and they didn't like anything too fancy, too smart, or too different. My parents were decidedly different, and this was instantly acknowledged when my mother, instead of sliding properly into a booth, slipped onto a barstool and, turning to the fellow next to her, said, "What are you drinking to cut the ice?"

The fellow at first blushed, then, startled by his own insecurity, grew suddenly bold and ordered the bartender to get the "little lady" a drink, which she immediately accepted, and when she raised her glass to clink with his, the man threw back his head and laughed. In very short order, there were many drinks and many clinks and the jukebox lit up and the countryman wanted my mother to dance and so she did but she didn't like his style, which was rough and overreaching, and that was when she called out for my father to save her, but when my father, laughing, intervened, the rough man turned purple and, before there was even a second's grace, fists were flying, chairs were overturned, and it was a real down-and-dirty, place-your-bets bar fight. My father was the victor and my little mother, cheeks blazing and blood racing, bundled him into the car and took the wheel, peeling out of that parking lot like there was no tomorrow.

Once home, my mother ministered to my father's wounds, medication in the form of many whiskeys was taken and so too, in the end, was the nurse, who found my father's black eye and bloody nose absolutely irresistible.

On a Sunday morning two weeks later, the house was curiously still. My father lay in bed much later than usual. I was in the kitchen doing what I did best, foraging for food. The boys were outside raising hell and my mother seemed to be hiding. I did not find her in the basement, at her painting, or in the backyard at the clothesline or in the living room, reading her book. I slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor, thinking I might discover her stealing a quiet moment for a bath, but the bathroom was empty. Suddenly, I heard a soft noise, one with which I was unfamiliar but that nonetheless sent a chill through me and made me stand very, very still, as if frozen in place. From where I stood, I could see into my parents' bedroom, and in the half-light I could make out my mother's form, bending over Maggie's crib. But my mother was not touching the baby; instead she had one hand over her mouth and the other extended above her, as if reaching for someone. I heard a mangled groan and saw my father as he approached my mother, who suddenly turned and looked at him as if she didn't know him, frantically waving her arm at him as if warning him to stay away. That's when I saw the most confusing thing of all: my father stepped quickly to my mother and, pinning her arms to her sides, turned her away from the crib and, bending down, put his free hand on my little sister's neck. His head dropped for a moment, and then he straightened, gathered my mother in his arms, and carried her out of the room.

Maggie disappeared from the house and we were told nothing. Little children could not grasp the notion of death. Nevertheless, at the age of four I felt my mother's growing distance and I became her constant shadow, sometimes even demanding that she put me in her lap, and so she would, whereupon I would take her hand and place it deliberately over my own so that I could play with her slender wristwatch and imagine that I was, if only for a moment, in charge of my mother's happiness. The crib was removed from the master bedroom, and all of Maggie's clothing was stored in a bin, which my father sealed and put away in the attic. A week later, he came across my mother in the laundry room, where she had long ago organized individual cubbies in which to place each child's clothes. Each cubby had a name colorfully painted on it, to identify the owner. My father watched as my mother, leaning over a bin, extracted one article of clothing after another, which she carefully folded and refolded and then placed in the cubby painted with the name MAGGIE.

She looked at him, smiled, and went back to her work.

Some weeks later, my father and my grandmother decided to send my mother on a cruise. My father bought my mother new dresses and a new coat, not only to accommodate her fifth pregnancy but because she had become so thin, having subsisted for weeks on a diet of cigarettes and coffee. I can't remember whether she kissed me good-bye or not, but it didn't matter because I knew I would be spending many days alone in my room, watching the other kids playing in the Odd Lot, secure in the knowledge that it was I, and I alone, who had killed my sister Maggie that fateful day when I had forced the ice water into her lungs.

I had tried to tell my mother, but she wouldn't listen. And now it was too late.

Derby Grange

To atone for his sins, and the regularity with which he committed them, my father drove into the countryside one Sunday afternoon when I was six years old and did something marvelous. He bought a house. Certainly, it was a gift for his wife, who had tired of town life and longed for solitude, surrounded, as she was, by an ever-deepening pool of offspring. To add to the first three, my father had committed two new sins, whom they called Laura and Tessie and who had arrived so quickly and unceremoniously it was as if they were pulled out of a hat. Perhaps that was my father's intention: a magic trick so dazzling that my mother would be forced to shake off her sadness and leave the memory of Maggie behind.

As it turned out, we left everything we'd known behind and traveled what seemed great distances, across highways, through valleys, and onto curious and foreign gravel roads until suddenly we came upon a place so vast and beautiful as to appear unreal. We were very little—Tom, Joe, Laura, Tess, and me—but even very small children know paradise when they see it, and this was paradise. The driveway led up to a big brick house with a wide front porch that opened onto a sweeping lawn studded with magnificent trees. There were cornfields to the right as far as the eye could see and, to the left, a shadowy glen that we would learn turned into a secret timberland, and beyond that timberland, a ribbon of creek wound its way over hills and through valleys of untamed farmland.

The house had been built in the 1850s, Italianate in design, with high ceilings and clean, stately lines. It contained surprises of every kind, awe-inspiring novelties such as a maid's room and a stairway for servants, wooden shutters that closed over floor-to-ceiling windows, a basement cool and deep, full of dark corners and secret caves.

Upstairs, there were five bedrooms and a long, curved stairway with a smooth mahogany banister that served as the main artery to the downstairs, in which every room had a distinct purpose. The "good" living room eventually evolved into a formal living room, but in the beginning it is where we all slept, camp-style, in sleeping bags on the floor. There was a comfortable middle room that we dubbed the "TV room" because the single television set we owned but were never allowed to watch was put in there to serve as a reminder of a dream that might come true if only we behaved like perfect children, along with the stereo set, all of Mother's books, a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and my father's prize photograph of a Sioux Indian chief who had swallowed a bumblebee. The dining room, airy and graceful, had windows on all sides, and almost every room boasted a fireplace, which, to us, was unspeakably thrilling. The main kitchen led into the summer kitchen, which was tenuously attached to the house, and then, beyond the back door and very close to the big house, was another, smaller house, which we immediately christened the Ghost House, and beyond this a chicken coop, an apple orchard, and a red barn with a silo.

This modest estate was called Derby Grange. My father had stumbled across the place on one of his Sunday drives, had been invited in for a drink, and left four hours and twenty-one thousand dollars later the proud owner of not only the house but also the forty acres of land that surrounded it. Because of this unexpected and astounding gift, I instantly and unconditionally forgave my father all of his sins and, in fact, decided that it was the one place on earth capacious and beautiful enough to accommodate all of my siblings, despite their shortcomings.

During the day Tom, Joe, and I attended the one-room schoolhouse down the road called, appropriately, the Derby Grange School. In it, six grades of children matriculated in short rows consisting of no more than five chairs each. Ellen Birch, tall and peculiar, stared at us with unblinking black eyes from her lonely solo seat in the fifth grade. In the back, there was an outhouse, inglorious and filthy, and, for recess, a small yard with a swing set. A dirt ditch marked the school boundary. Mrs. Hartley was the teacher for all six grades, a jolly woman whom my brother Tom wooed with large jars of mayonnaise spiked with ketchup. He got straight As. I, however, did not, because next to me sat the infamous Peggy Hickey, who was forever whispering nonsense in my ear but who nonetheless brought a lunch box to school so full of delightful things that I couldn't help but respond to her incessant questions and even managed to overlook the fact that she allegedly wore a diaper instead of underpants, so desperate was I for a nibble of anything that resembled real food.

At home, my little mother went about the business of making Derby Grange her own, but maybe because she herself was so petite and because she smoked incessantly and drank endless cups of coffee, dinner was always a disappointment. The fanfare that preceded the event, however, was executed with élan every night.

If it was chicken and rice, we were going to Seville! If it was overcooked meatloaf and undersized mashed potatoes, it nonetheless came from a Craig Claiborne recipe, so pretend you're eating at the 21 Club in New York! And if it was fish sticks, tepid brown pellets served on a cookie sheet every Friday night, she'd sigh and say, "I didn't make the rules." So much anticipation, and so little actual food. We never saw bread or fruit or sweets of any kind, and one small chicken divided among five starving children did not the trick do. We were always hungry, so much so that Mother tempered our appetites with criticism. "Joe, you look like a tiny truck driver hunched over the wheel—sit up!" "Kitten, keep eating like that and you'll blow up like a balloon!" "Laura, for God's sake get out from under the table—what are you doing down there? Very odd child." And then, infuriatingly, "Tom, would you like to take Mrs. Hartley another jar of mayonnaise? She loves your secret concoction, doesn't she?" Followed by complicit chuckles between mother and son and accompanied by the sound of five little mouths voraciously sucking on chicken wings the size of paper clips.

We discovered other ways to subdue our hunger. My mother was never one for conventional boundaries, and so we were free to do as we liked every day after school and on weekends. We hiked for miles, we swam in Gronau's Creek, we played every conceivable kind of game our imaginations could contrive, such as seeing who could hold on longest to the electric cattle fence at Breitbachs' farm, who could jump from the hayloft into Willie Breitbach's arms without looking, who could spear the most frogs and, encouraged by my brother Tom the great wordsmith, take them home to Mother and say, "Look, Mom, a whole jar of little bastards!" We had fights with cow pies and fights with snowballs and fights to the finish. We had contests to see who could hold their breath long enough to faint, at which point we would run over and pummel the semiconscious person's chest, shouting, "Live, you must live!"

We organized freak shows over which my brother Tom presided, calling us into the neighbor kid's bedroom to observe, for only a nickel, the little guy's minute erection. We were often gone for hours, and when we would finally return home, exhausted, thirsty, and complaining of starvation, my mother would glance up from her book and say, "You should be grateful. You were born in wedlock, you're an American citizen, and you live on dry land. Now go back outside and play."

In the early years of their marriage, my father was infatuated with my mother and upon occasion was inspired to wax lyrical about his love for her. In the dead of night, we would all be awakened, hurried into winter coats and boots, and made to stand outside in the front yard in a straight line, where Dad, pointing toward Mother's bedroom window, would begin his testimonial. "In that room lies an extraordinary woman, a remarkable woman, a beautiful woman. She is the woman I love. And she is your mother." We needed to bear witness to his devotion until the bitter end, at which time, white with cold, we were sent off to our beds with a fond if brusque dismissal, leaving our father still standing there, face upturned toward her light.

One afternoon, while my father was at work, I heard my mother's voice from upstairs, calling to me: "Katy Kitten Kat Mulgrew, get up these stairs, quickly!" I ran up the stairs and saw my mother standing in the bathroom just off the landing. She beckoned me to come in and indicated that I should close the door behind me. Then, pointing to the toilet basin, she said: "I need you to bear witness." The bright crimson toilet bowl was full of strange clumps of dark brown debris. Mother stood over the basin and, making the Sign of the Cross, said, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." She flushed the toilet. "I'm going to lie down for a minute, Kitten," my mother said, "I'm having a sinking spell."

Soon enough, however, another little face peered out from within the bassinette. My parents named him Sam, and he was a quiet baby, towheaded and serious. We older kids never paid much attention to who was in the bassinette, since obviously such a creature could make little if any contribution to the tribal elders, an elite group consisting of Tom and me with the occasional bone thrown to Joe, whose volatility often had us elders on tenterhooks.


On Sale
Apr 14, 2015
Hachette Audio

Kate Mulgrew

About the Author

Kate Mulgrew is an American actress noted for her roles as Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, Mary Ryan on Ryan’s Hope, and, most recently, Galina “Red” Reznikov on Orange Is the New Black. She has performed in numerous television shows, theater productions, and movies. She is the winner of a Golden Satellite Award, a Saturn Award, and an Obie Award and has been nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy.

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