Catherine Gildiner is the New York Times bestselling author of the internationally acclaimed memoir, Too Close to the Falls. Her latest work, good morning, monster, grows out of her 25-year practice as a clinical psychologist in Canada and focuses on the lives of five of her most memorable patients. The author of three memoirs, one novel and her latest work, she generously donates all of her speaking fees to the Canadian Cancer Society.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was delighted to visit with Catherine Gildiner at her home in Toronto for this Conversation about her life and her work.


STAY THIRSTY: In your latest book, good morning, monster, you chronicle stories of five patients as they progress toward emotional recovery from traumatic early-life experiences. What was your purpose in writing this book and what goals were you looking to achieve?


CATHERINE GILDINER: The first kernel of thought I had about this book was twenty years ago when I was at a high school reunion. Our class stood to salute a war veteran who received the Purple Heart from the President. In all the speeches, people discussed his bravery and ultimate heroism.


During these speeches I could not help but think of my own patients in my psychotherapy practice and knew I’d seen more bravery than General Patton ever dreamed of. While most heroic acts are time limited, the patients I talked about in my book were prisoners of war. They were held captive by parents that were enemy forces. In some situations, getting up every morning, and surviving is a heroic event.


Secondly, once one of my patients, Alana, said that she was such a “screw up” for not making more of herself. For some reason this galvanized me. She had no idea what a hero she had been for maintaining her sanity! She’d been raised by a father who was a member of the Ted Bundy Fan Club and sexually abused her from the age of four until thirteen when she was taken by Children’s Aid. Sexual abuse was the least of his tortures. Yet she grew up and prospered. I told her that if we lined up people in a room who had been through what she’d been through most would be addicted to something or mentally ill in a locked facility. I went home that night, thirty years ago, and wrote the first chapter of this book on psychological heroism.


The last reason I wrote the book is that often when I meet people and they find out that I am a psychologist, the first question they ask is “How does therapy work?” I decided when writing my cases, I would also include psychological theories and try and explain the nuts and bolts of therapy in each case.

STAY THIRSTY: You have described your early life as one of extremes that in many ways were shaped by the turbulence of the late 1960s. Looking back at your high school and college self, what do you regret doing and how did that shape your becoming a therapist?


CATHERINE GILDINER: I was arrested in high school for damaging property – painting black lawn jockeys white. I was arrested in College by the FBI for involvement with the black panthers. I regret none of it. I only wish I had done more.


However, I don’t think that shaped me into becoming a psychologist. That happened much earlier when I was in preschool. In 1953, I was declared “Too busy, too bossy and too Irish” by the pediatrician and the Catholic school. Fortunately, the term hyperactivity had not been invented. The doctor said I had to work so I would get tired out. At the age of four, I began delivering drugs from my father’s drug store with a Black delivery-car driver from dawn until dusk. (I wrote about our exploits in my first memoir, Too Close to the Falls.)


I had an unusual childhood in that I was in the home of all kinds of people from the owner of DuPont Nylon to the local prostitute. (Antibiotics are egalitarian!) I was immediately curious about individual differences in race, class and occupation. I saw a great deal of human differences and was determined by the age of seven to find out “What makes a person tick.”



STAY THIRSTY: Have you suffered rejection in your life and what motivated you to emphasize inspiration rather than anger?


CATHERINE GILDINER: I have never suffered any meaningful rejection in my life. I was an only child of older supporting parents who worked around my eccentricities. I believe I was born a Type A personality and always wanted to be inspired. Hope is my addiction! For example, when I was nine, I read all the copies of The Diary of Anne Frank hoping to find one with an ending where Anne did not die. I was sure it must be in another edition.



STAY THIRSTY: Do you regularly engage in self-evaluation and if so, what does your report card say?


CATHERINE GILDINER: I try to be introspective. I have succeeded in my career and marriage, but I still suffer from the same issues I had at age two. I can be too goal oriented and mow over others that are too slow on the path. Anger has always been my first defense and I work hard now at trying to realize what is under my anger. I try to remind myself that anger is just a defense for a real feeling like shame, or other raw emotions that we fear make us unlovable.

Catherine Gildiner

STAY THIRSTY: You have written about Darwin's influence on Freud. How has the thinking of these two men influenced you? How has it impacted your patients and especially the five patients who are the subject of your book?


CATHERINE GILDINER: These two geniuses have influenced my enormously. I feel the greatest thing I did in my life was reading all their works. Aside from Darwin’s Origin of Species, he also wrote The Descent of Man which described how we evolved with instincts for survival and sex. Freud read Darwin and ran with it. He combined the psychological with Darwin’s biological. Freud realized we had to suppress our instincts in a civilized society. (We can’t go around killing people or having sex willy-nilly.) So then Freud discovered and labelled the defenses. His whole theory is about how we balance our instincts.


When I have patients, I always try a Freudian approach because it works. If I can get the patients’ unconscious thoughts into their conscious mind, so they are no longer being ruled by them, the battle is half won.



STAY THIRSTY: What role has love from others and self-love played in your life?


CATHERINE GILDINER: I am lucky I have been loved by both my parents. I was an only child so who else were they going to love. I have had a loving husband for fifty years. (He says it feels like seventy!) People say I have a lot of self-confidence and I believe that comes from those who have loved me. When I wanted to leave private practice in psychotherapy at the age of fifty, people told me it was too late in life to change. That was six books ago!



STAY THIRSTY: How have you overcome fear and sought change? How has your life experience helped others?


CATHERINE GILDINER: I am not a fearful person in general. However, we all have things that seem like huge hurtles that we have no idea how to get over. There are things I have done wrong, for example, I have not always been a perfect parent, so I decided to look at that in the light of Cognitive behavioral Therapy. I bought a book called Mind over Matter. It is a workbook where you write what you want to change and then you fill in how you want to do it. I find when something causes fear, it is best to break it down into small units and go one step at a time.



STAY THIRSTY: If there was one thing you wished you had done in your life, what would it have been?


CATHERINE GILDINER: I’m stumped. I usually do what I want to do. Well, now that I think about it, I wish I had been kinder to my parents. I had no idea they would die young. Once they were ill, I wish I had spent more time with them. I was young at the time, but no one can ever give you back that time. It should have been a greater priority.


(Catherine Gildiner photo credit: Nigel Dickson)



Catherine Gildiner

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.