A Mother's Love and the Audacity to Cope

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By: 
Matt Geiger
Katherine and Ben will hold a Q&A and book reading/signing on April 24 at the Middleton Public Library, starting at 7 p.m.

Local Author Katherine Perreth Pens Book About The Many Highs And Lows That Followed Her Son Ben's Brain Hemorrhage

Middleton Times-Tribune: First things first - How did you come up with the book’s title?        

Katherine Perreth: Some folks misread the title, and thus believe the book to be about hope. For me, Making Lemonade With Ben: The Audacity To Cope is about what happens after hope has evaporated, poof! What do you do then? But MLWB is much more than chapter and verse on what happened to my firstborn, Ben, after I found him in a coma. It’s what happened to the entire family.

MTT: That’s a lot of ground to cover. Where does the narrative take you?

KP: MLWB alternates between two realities: 1996-2010, the years Ben sustained most of the repeated trauma stemming from a brain hemorrhage when he was a second-grader at Elm Lawn, and the fall of 2011, when the Madison Children’s Museum selected him to represent the community while MCM received their national medal in Washington D.C. MLWB is a Cinderella story with multiple love story threads, overlaid with humor of all shades: black, white and grey. It also includes bits and bobs from our three years living in Japan, and is a comprehensive snapshot of my life, merging my Middleton childhood with my Middleton adulthood, wrapping up my life’s loose ends. I find that extremely gratifying, just like finishing laundry.

MTT: This is a really personal story. About Ben, about your family and friends, but most of all about you. It’s a serious topic, but there are also light moments. How did you end up with this particular mix?

KP: MLWB morphed into an amateur psychological study on my kids and husband, which, unbelievably, they have approved – I threatened to stop cooking nightly dinners if they didn’t – but mostly it’s a candid look at me, as Ben’s mom. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual impact Ben’s life has had on me, and how I’ve managed to survive, oftentimes despite myself. The most terrifying part for me now is that I’ve done such a marvelous job accurately portraying myself, leaving me feeling as if I were Lady Godiva, minus the hair. MLWB is real, inhaling my brand of quirky and exhaling heartache. While I’m dead serious on some subjects in the book, notably my suicidal tendencies, depression, psychotherapy, and mental illness, and how we can intentionally support our struggling citizens, you’d be hard pressed to go many paragraphs without finding humor. After all, it’s been high on my family’s list of coping strategies. I also feel that humor makes us stop and think. One intention is for the reader to ponder: What percentage of her jokes are serious stuff wearing a wittily wicked smile, and why?

MTT: You are a prolific writer by nature. When you decided to write an actual book, what was your goal?

KP: I had multiple goals for MLWB, many only my subconscious understood at first, but the obvious one was for Ben to hold a document he could read for the rest of his life, to help him understand what has happened to him. He is absolutely enamored of the book, and talks it up everywhere he goes. Ben embodies Yeats’ sentiment, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”

Additionally, from the start Ben has driven the bus on the inclusion of his mental health challenges. Both of us suffered ramifications from his significant physical health events. We feel strongly about helping to remove stigma from mental illness, and we’re partnering with the local branch of NAMI to do so. We’d also like to encourage communities worldwide to embrace and develop mental health Clubhouse Models for recovery and treatment, like Madison’s Yahara House. We hope speaking our reality helps those who may be suffering alone, as well as helps other people to better understand those with mental illness. Really, how can you best help someone you love if you don’t understand?

Of course, the book also addresses Ben’s disabilities and what it is like as a family to have one member with significant special needs. Half of my candor is a personal desire to be heard and understood. For me, that’s the beginning of true help. MLWB is all about validation, and trading our seventeen years of coping for hoping. The other half stems from the fact I’m a social worker by heart and by UW-Madison degree. By reaching out with my words, I aim to change the world for the better.

MTT: Are you glad, in retrospect, that you opted to be so honest with your readers?

KP: When I was a kid at Elm Lawn in the 1960s, in the building that now houses the DAC, I got called into the principal’s office. For being Trouble. Yeah, capital T. I don’t remember what I did, but it only took one look at the paddle hanging on the wall behind my principal’s shoulder to cure me. It was the size of my head. I learned quickly that to survive without punishment I’d need to be more creative in covering up being Trouble. I think, in MLWB, I may have failed in that endeavor. I didn’t have to write in such a way that allows the reader to sit at our dinner table, take a peek into my marriage, and hang out with me in my head, but I chose to. And I’m so glad I did. Unexpectedly, the end product has put my broken heart back together, and perhaps, in a tiny way, the book can help assuage the broken hearts of others, as well.

MTT: Name one of the biggest obstacles you had to overcome to get Making Lemonade With Ben finished?

KP: The problem for me, from the start of writing MLWB, was one of my family’s privacy. If Mom wants to mouth off, well, that’s just Mom. But how would it reflect on the innocent bystanders in my life, aka, Ben, Sam and Sarah, and my husband, Dan? So, in my first drafts, each of my family members was not identified by name. It became an exercise in futility, though, because in so many other ways we’re easily identifiable. There is only one Ben Perreth, and I imagine those who know Ben will agree with me that I’m not even sure there was a mold to break after his creation. If possible, he’s more than one of a kind, one of those larger-than-life people, and I couldn’t hide his identity, it wouldn’t make sense. His D.C. trip with the Madison Children’s Museum was already front-page-news. In addition, other than the lone guy in Germany who wanted to friend me on Facebook, we are the only Perreth family on the planet. Or at least in the US, barring, of course, my in-laws. If MLWB takes off, I think they’re planning on going into hiding. If the book really takes off, I’ll buy all the Perreths a private Caribbean island like Johnny Depp’s. Oh! I should mention for my prospective female readers, my encounter with Johnny at 4 a.m. makes a cameo in MLWB, as well.

MTT: So did your family get to edit the story before it went public?

KP: I gave my kids censorship options: Trust me, I’m your mother; read the entire manuscript; or read only the sections in which you feature. Ben read it all, of course, and offered insights, commentary and clarifications, making MLWB so much richer. Sam and Sarah chose to read only their appearances, and I couldn’t believe they let them all through. What they don’t know, and I know it’s safe to say this now because they aren’t going to read this interview either, is that although their parsed parts may be okay in their minds, put together with the rest of what I’m saying, Whoa Nellie. Still, there isn’t anything in there that they didn’t live through with their mother.

The real hero of MLWB, Dan, my husband of 27 years, 31 if you count dating (the years when he could easily have excused himself from the presence of my fiery life) was tremendously helpful. When I wanted to yank this or that section because I felt too vulnerable, he talked me out of it every time. The notebook he’d kept during Ben’s coma proved invaluable in bringing his voice into the story as well – and, sometimes, also corrected my memory. I took Dan’s advice on everything except for the chapter entitled “A Woman Is A Woman.” He asked if I could at least blow up some shoes.

MTT: What needs to happen in order for you to view this book as a success?

KP: It already is a success; it’s out of me, I’ve said what I needed to say. That’s the chocolate cake. The whipped cream on top is dreaming big, promoting multiple global grandiose goals to remove stigma from mental illness while increasing support. I truly believe that if our streets sprouted as many places like Yahara House, as they do McDonald’s and Starbucks, our planet would fare much better. And yet, are my goals purely altruistic? Sure, achieving them would provide personal intense joy, but deep down I am attempting to wangle an invitation to tea with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. My cherry on top isn’t as farfetched as it seems, because she holds annual Garden Parties for thousands of commoners, you know.

MTT: Can you sit back and assess the book on its own merits yet?

KP: People are doing that for me, which is such a profound relief. So far, comments in person, on the MLWB Facebook page, and on my website, katherineperreth.com, have all been overwhelmingly positive. If you can call crying positive. I have been told the book is to blame for a lot of tears, one woman cried her way home on her bus commute, and for lost sleep, a number of women have stayed up past their bedtimes, unable to put it down. But it’s also caused a tremendous amount of laughter. Whether crying or laughing, people have credited my writing style with making them feel like they’ve been right there with me all along. This is incredibly satisfying. I feel like I’ve done my job.

People ask if I’m going to have book signings. And if I’ll read from MLWB. Yes and no. But Ben will be helping me with that, he’s a natural speaker. There might be one or two partial sentences I could read without crying, but I’d still probably want to take a red pen to some of them. MLWB is not perfect, which on my firstborn level really bugs me. But I believe my 1979 Middleton High School writing teacher, Ms. Maribeth Mohan, would be proud. I think she’d give me a gold star. This, as my K-12 teachers well knew, is all I’ve ever aimed for.

The paperback book is available for purchase directly from the author or online at www.createspace.com/3896776 or through amazon.com.

E-reader versions are available from smashwords.com.

Katherine and Ben will be holding their first Q&A discussion and book reading/signing, together on April 24, at the Middleton Public Library, starting at 7 p.m.

 

 

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