Synopses & Reviews
In her sharply observed and ultimately redemptive memoir, Catherine McCall paints a vivid and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of growing up in a complicated Southern family, whose perfect façade hides crippling imperfections.
There are two parents, three children, and five ghosts in the McCall family. With their preppie clothes and country-club smiles, the McCalls look like all the other East End Louisville families. No one knows there are problems, that an internal gash the size of the Ohio river is flooding the family. All Cathy and her siblings can do is promise to stick together no matter what—and swim.
But even though they are fast, the McCall kids cant outdistance their fathers destructive habits and their mothers worry. As her family reaches a breaking point and an unexpected love blooms, thirteen-year-old Cathy finds she must keep secrets of her own. Though the love in this family is strong, Cathy must discover if its tenacious enough to withstand the truth.
Candid, captivating, and infused with compassion, Lifeguarding affirms the flexible strength of love itself; how family bonds must often bend to the point of breaking . . . and beyond.
An engrossing memoir that reads like a coming-of-age novel, "Lifeguarding" is a beautifully crafted, candid memoir of growing up within a seemingly perfect country-club family in the South whose flawless public facade hid the currents of alcoholism, mental illness, and family secrets that threatened to destroy them--but ultimately made them, and Catherine McCall, stronger.
About the Author
A graduate of Emory University and its medical school, Catherine McCall received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She has done regular commentary for regional public radio, and her writing has been published in the New York Times, Louisville Courier-Journal, Wilmington Star-News, and the North Carolina Literary Review. In addition to writing, she is a psychiatrist in private practice. McCall lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. Visit her at CatherineMcCall.com.
Reading Group Guide
1. The book opens on page vii with this short quotation from Isak Dinesen: “The cure for anything is saltwater-sweat, tears or the sea.” How does this quote represent Catherine McCalls story?
2. What are some of the water metaphors the author employs throughout the book? What did they mean to you?
3. How is the title, Lifeguarding, a metaphor for the story? How do the excerpts from the American Red Cross lifeguarding manual the author uses to begin each chapter help explain the books events and themes? What insight do they provide into the main characters?
4. What was your opinion of Catherines mother and father? Did your feelings about them change as you read the book?
5. “We have to stick together-were all weve got.” The author repeats this line throughout the book, as a way to illustrate ways her family stayed intact in the face of severe problems. Did you think that it might have been better if the family broke apart? Why or why not?
6. “People have distinctive gaits, too, if you listen long enough. Dads was the heaviest, shuffling and hard. Moms was a quick, staccato step, muted machine gun fire, the sound of motion itself. Annes gait was the quietest, a Cherokee Indian tracking a fox in the woods. Hers was the hardest to follow. Curties feet thudded in a predictable pattern, sometimes fast in a run, other times slow, always in the same rhythm of determination. And mine? I never thought to listen to my own footsteps.” [pages 12—13] This is one example where Catherine demonstrates how she put others needs before her own. What are other examples? How was this ultimately harmful to Catherine and to the others in her family?
7. Catherine discusses swimming as a childhood refuge from her intense unhappiness. What are the other family members ways of coping with their unhealthy household?
8. During an altercation with her sister Anne, Catherine stands up for herself for the first time: “My feet refused movement. For the first time in my life I was aware of being uniquely alive, of being a separate person, of being a ‘me. ‘No. My voice jiggled a little. ‘I-dont have to do everything you say. ” [page 49] Why do you think Catherine found assertiveness so difficult?
9. “Mom wasnt a bomb like Dad, she was more of a taut balloon; one wrong edge and smack! she might explode, then disappear.” Discuss the similarities and differences between Catherines parents. What do you think is the attraction between them? What kept them together for so long?
10. “For awhile, I assumed everyone was like that, that it was normal to want so desperately to get to the future, to be on your own, where freedom was freedom and no further definition was needed.” [page 57] To what extent do you think Catherines idea of independence is shaped by her desire to escape her situation and be “free”?
11. “When you keep moving you notice less.” [page 57] Discuss how this statement is true for Catherine and the members of her family.
12. When Catherine finally admits to her family that shes gay, shes somewhat shocked at their individual reactions. Were their reactions surprising to you in any way? If so, how? If not, why?
13. “Up until that point, and a year beyond it really, Id thought every family problem was Dads fault.” [page 121] Did you also think that the issues the McCall family dealt with were solely because of Curts alcoholism? Why or why not?
14. How do you think the “ghosts” Catherine refers to-those of her dead grandparents and uncle-affected her parents? The rest of the family?
In Lifeguarding, readers will find the issues Catherine McCall and the rest of her family struggled with, and their individual and collective methods for coping, are ones common to countless families today. The power (and pain) of family dynamics, alcoholism, homosexuality, denial and acceptance, coming to terms with the past-these and many other profound topics infuse the story McCall tells, and these questions are to help guide your reading groups discussion of this affecting memoir.