“My mother used to say to me growing up, ‘Only witches are born with teeth. So beware of what will befall with you.’”
It was a bit of Shakespearean teasing directed at young Kate Mulgrew, the infant born to a gregarious Irish Catholic couple in rural Iowa with a full set of baby teeth, and who would grow to weather a series of brutal life tests on her journey to being known as a beloved actress: the gumptious Mary Ryan in Ryan’s Hope, the steely Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, and, now, the indomitable Galina “Red” Reznikov in Orange Is the New Black.
“I think people who are born with teeth are also born with their destiny in front of them,” Mulgrew tells The Daily Beast. “I think it’s a harbinger of a life that is going to be unexpected and, largely, very mysterious.”
Reading Mulgrew’s oftentimes dark destiny unfold before her, and the ferociousness with which she confronted it, it’s evident that her recently released memoir, Born With Teeth, is perfectly titled. The way Mulgrew, now just weeks away from her 60th birthday, entered this world is perfectly metaphorical to the way she’s lived her life on it.
It’s a life among unconventional Irish Catholics who knew, as she writes, “how to drink, how to dance, how to talk, and how to stir up the devil,” and which saw her two younger sisters die at the hand of injustice, at woefully young ages.
It’s a life that took her to New York to study under the tutelage of Stella Adler, who instructed her to white-knuckle her pain and grievances for the purpose of her work: “Use it.” She would. In her time as a fast-rising actress in the city, she was raped at knifepoint. On a separate occasion, while starring on Ryan’s Hope, she would become pregnant and give the baby up for adoption.
She would spend the next two decades haunted by the decision. Her exhaustive quest to track down the girl she gave up would be one of her life’s defining purposes, and Born With Teeth, a memoir written with unexpected vivaciousness, literary elegance, and breathtaking honesty, is framed by the search—all the way up to their remarkable and unlikely reunion 22 years later.
“If I looked into a crystal ball at 16 and seen what would befall me, I would’ve said, ‘Oh you’re kidding,’” Then, with a hearty Irish laugh, “‘I’m going to go jump off the G.W. Bridge.’”
But for all of the headlines that the harrowing moments that punctuated her life have made, and for the extraordinary tale of reunion between mother and daughter, Born With Teeth is a work that celebrates a life filled with love, family, opportunity, and a commitment to craft. “Darkness will fall, and the dawn will come again,” Mulgrew says. “This is the way of life.”
There’s certain poetry about the timing of Born With Teeth’s release, in an undeniable dawn of Mulgrew’s life.
It’s been 18 years since Danielle, the name her daughter would take from her adoptive parents, walked through the doors of a Cambridge hotel to meet her for the first time. In that same week, Mulgrew would reunite with the man she calls the true love of her life, Tim Hagan, who had left Mulgrew five years prior. She’s on the cusp of becoming a sexagenarian, and playing one of the richest roles in her career on one of television’s most celebrated and most popular series, Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black.
The wisdom of time and perspective adds clarity to a fully lived life that befits the penning or memoir. A bit of personal and professional bliss helps, too. But Mulgrew also hails from an Irish Catholic family plagued by the affliction of those roots: a mandate to keep family secrets and dirty laundry held close to the vest, even if Mulgrew has found compassion and liberation in revealing them.
“I had to wait until my parents had died,” Mulgrew says when asked why she wrote Born With Teeth now. “And I had to wait for enough time to have passed between my daughter and myself.” But, as with most things in Mulgrew’s life, there’s instinct and the echo of Stella Adler’s words. It is time. Use it.
“There’s a bell inside that rings, a very distinct silver bell that rings signaling now is the time,” she says. “Don’t wait any longer. Because if you wait it won’t be as vivid or deeply felt or deeply realized as it is right now.”
Few turns of phrase are more apt to describe Born With Teeth than “deeply felt” and “deeply realized.”
It’s no gaudy tell-all, or rose-tinted “oh, the things I’ve seen” celebrity tome. It’s deeply personal, and shockingly revealing. The pregnancy. The rape. Losing her younger sisters Maggie and Tess; Maggie to an infant death and Tess to a tortured battle with cancer. Gleaning the signs that her dear mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
An author of her own memoir is in charge of what she reveals. Mulgrew holds nothing back.
“It’s all there,” she says. “It all matters.”
“Life’s so brief,” she goes on. “We’re, at every juncture, staring mortality in the face. It’s the very least we can do if we think it will be of any interest or value, to share the past. And although mine’s been crooked, it’s also been splendid. It’s taught me to be vulnerable and humble, to write this book.”
Not that the nine months spent in isolation to pen it were easy. There were times of recollection that required fleeing to the nearby beach, to walk and to cry. To swim through the emotions in order to get to the words. Reliving the anguish was at times clarifying, with even Mulgrew unaware of the impact of certain things on her life until she revisited them in all their vividness.
“Things like losing my sister Tessie was more harrowing than the rape,” she says. “And cost me a great deal more. That wasn’t personal. I didn’t know that guy. I don’t want to kill him. That poor guy was desperate. But my sister I loved.”
It’s an enlightened point of view, and one that a person like Mulgrew, at times, has to be convinced is rare and remarkable. “I have never really dwelled in business for a second longer than absolutely necessary,” she says. “What’s the point?”
Bitterness might not be dwelled on. But regret is.
Ryan’s Hope was at its most popular when Mulgrew discovered she was pregnant. Her decision to put her child up for adoption was a tortured one, but it was the one she knew would be inevitable. She gave birth to her child, broke hospital rules to sneak to the nursery to gaze at it but once, and was forced to return the set of Ryan’s Hope just a few days later.
Not a word of her unwed pregnancy or the adoption was whispered in the press—though, Mulgrew says, they undoubtedly knew. “Discreet and generous” is how Mulgrew describes the media when she was 20 years old and pregnant. “I don’t think that could’ve happened today.”
Mulgrew always knew that when she returned to work her character would be raising and loving a fictional baby. Writing the pregnancy into the soap opera “saved my life,” Mulgrew says. On her first day back on set, Mulgrew had to hold a stunt baby and deliver a monologue about how she would adore and love the child until the day she died.
It was her finest moment to that date on the show. “That’s when I learned how good an actress I really am,” she says. “Because I just wanted to disappear.”
“I call the chapter ‘Ransom,’ because that was the price I paid,” she says of the experience. “I could not have foreseen how harrowing that day was going to be for me. But I survived it.”
Over the next two decades, Mulgrew would hire a private detective to find her daughter. She was on the set of Star Trek: Voyager, minutes away from being called to set, when she received a phone call from someone connecting her with her Danielle. She, for the first time, told a production assistant not to bother her, resigned that she would be late to set and steeling for the conversation she had waited 22 years to have.
The conversation was short. They would make a date to meet that weekend in Cambridge, near the Boston town where Danielle grew up. Later that weekend, Danielle’s adoptive parents would join them for breakfast. Eighteen years later, Mulgrew’s voice blushes as she describes the relationship she’s maintained with her daughter. “I love her very much, and she loves me.”
Mulgrew has two sons as well, and her adoration of them abounds from the pages of Born With Teeth. But it’s the search for Danielle that pulses through the book, and the conclusion of which provides the memoir’s satisfactory ending in the year 1999.
“My character was largely defined by the decision [to give Danielle up for adoption],” Mulgrew says. “By the attendant grief and regret, and then by what I was determined to do about that. I realized I was not going to be able to contain the size of that emotion without finding my daughter. So it was almost instant that I set myself on that path. It took 22 years to find her, but I did.”
Read some of the advanced press, and you’ll find a fixation on the Orange Is the New Black actress’s surprisingly tumultuous life. You’ll find headlines about the rape, and about the pain of her adoption. You’ll find marveling over the difficulty—their words—about the life she’s led, and a coronation of Mulgrew as a survivor for having come out on the other side of it all.
“That’s not true at all,” Mulgrew says, insistent. “I’m a liver, not a survivor.” An urgency takes over her voice at this point. “I would appreciate it if you would quote that, because I don’t belong there. It’s not for me.” Then, with vigor: “I have loved my life, Kevin.”
It’s been 40 years since Kate Mulgrew broke out as the star of Ryan’s Hope. Twenty have passed since she made her entrance as the first female captain of a Star Trek franchise. And Orange Is the New Black has ingratiated her to a new generation of rabid fans. Now, she’s baring her teeth.
“People have known the actress,” she says. “Now they know me. Above all, that’s what I wanted. I wished to be known.”