Lifeguarding: A Memoir of Secrets, Swimming, and the South


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 ...

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Lifeguarding: A Memoir of Secrets, Swimming, and the South

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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 can’t outdistance their father’s destructive habits and their mother’s 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 it’s 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A beautiful book in every way. Written with grace and gentle confidence . . . the sentences are captivating, the real-life characters surprise us with their turnabouts, and the ongoing metaphor of swimming in dangerous waters arises naturally from the landscape of a childhood spent swimming—and watching the unlucky innocent drown.” —Philip Gerard, author of Cape Fear Rising

“A wise and beautiful book. The writing is graceful, searching, and aware. I finished Lifeguarding feeling grateful and admiring of its power. Catherine McCall is a mandatory voice.” —Brad Land, author of Goat

“Lyrical, funny, and heartbreaking by turns, Lifeguarding is a light shined into a dark room. . . . This is the story of the American Every Family swallowing its own secrets.” —Sarah Messer, author of Red House

Lifeguarding is a tender and gentle exploration of one girl’s journey of healing . . . Serves to remind us that confronting our fears, that blind underwater struggle, is always worth the effort.” —Virginia Holman, author of Rescuing Patty Hearst

“There is, in every well-examined life, a turning point—a time when propriety yields to honesty and fear gives way to courage. This is Catherine McCall’s story, beautifully told, tenderly recollected.” —Beth Kephart, author of Ghosts in the Garden

“If you read only one book a year–here it is.” —Clyde Edgerton, author of Lunch at the Piccadilly

Publishers Weekly
In this powerful and surprising memoir, psychiatrist and first-time author McCall describes a Carson McCullers childhood, growing up in segregated 1960s Louisville in a house haunted by the ghosts of her grandparents, who all died suddenly and young. As is the case with most haunted houses, there are secrets. The McCalls were members of Kentucky society, but her father's alcoholism-less and less well-hidden-spins the family into financial turmoil and social ruin. McCall, her older sister, Anne, and younger brother, Curt, champion swimmers, never make the hoped-for Olympics. Anne must eschew her debutante ball and go to Duke on a scholarship. But it is McCall's secret-lesbianism-that threatens to derail the family altogether and makes her contemplate suicide more than once before she finds the strength to pull herself from the emotional undertow. In this immensely compelling and deeply moving memoir of love and redemption, McCall's tale evolves with lyric languor and builds to a stunning ending. (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400098187
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/11/2006
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet 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
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Lifeguard candidates are taught that their first concern is the safety of others. —American Red Cross Lifeguarding, p. 3

Coach stopped us in the middle of swim practice and told us to go sit on the bleachers. At first I thought he was planning to chew us out, which would've been out of character--a set of eight hundreds fly-free was more his style of communicating.

Swim practice was never stopped for any reason, other than lightning, and even then it had to be close enough for Coach to feel the current on the pier. Our team swam outdoors when the water was sixty-three degrees, in the first few weeks of May before the official summer opening of Lakeside, when rumor said they filled the quarry with river water from the Ohio. We swam when it was raining, when it was strangely blustery for August, and on red-alert pollution days, too, when the air was so thick, you could practically carry it in your hands. Today, plaques of ruffled clouds had turned the sky a light ash color but no thunder bowled by, no rain fell, there was no real sign of a summer storm at all.

The twelve lifeguards stood in their chairs and blew their whistles in unison to clear the quarry of all recreational swimmers. Everyone was looking toward the back part of the lake, except me. Without my glasses I couldn't see ten feet in front of my face. Water dripping from my head and bathing suit, I shuffled to the bleachers, wrapped the towel around my body to hide it, then slipped on my wire-rim glasses. At thirteen, I didn't like being round and curvy, hated that my breasts were getting so big, that I was chunky and the object of teasing from the boys. My older sister, Anne, was the pretty one in the family--slim, auburn haired, broad shouldered.

We all gaped across Granddaddy's pier, past the big raft, which was a large rectangle of metal painted aquamarine blue and anchored to the rocky bottom with thick cables. Kids would swim to it, use it as base in a game of catchers, jump off the sides in splash contests. Swimming underneath it was strictly forbidden, and at first we thought someone must've gotten trapped there.

"What's happening?" I whispered to my sister, already sort of knowing but not wanting to believe it.

"I don't know," she said, without taking her eyes off the deep water. "Something bad."

I pulled my towel tighter against the strange chill. I was glad to be sitting next to her. We have to stick together--we're all we've got. She wore her usual solemn expression, brown eyes flat, mouth turned down on the ends. Her freckles appeared darker, more like a tan in the shaded light.

The lifeguards and people who worked in the main office were standing on the small pier at the very back of the lake, near the area called the rocks. With no swimmers, the quarry seemed bigger than usual, its dark waters uncomfortably still and incomprehensibly placid. Two lifeguards kept diving under the water then resurfacing, but there was no evidence of the thrashing and fighting and yelling taught in lifesaving classes. When an ambulance drove up we nodded in speechless agreement that the silent siren wasn't a good sign, even though the red light was flashing.

No words fit when in the presence of death. A different current runs through the air, a fibrous, invisible stream that stops the mealy chatter of the living, exposes the silliness of who likes who and who doesn't--it pulls the life around it to a pause.

The crackling loudspeaker startled us.

"The lake is now closed. Please leave the premises immediately," said the woman's voice.

On the bleachers, we looked at each other briefly, faces stripped for a moment of their usual teenage facades. We weren't sure what we were supposed to do. The general rules didn't apply to our swim team; we often had practice when the lake was closed to regular members.

In the deep water, the lifeguards kept doing their textbook surface dives then coming up empty-handed. Coach was standing near the swim team lanes by the phone, talking to a couple of the older girls on the team.

"He said we can stay until our carpools get here, but on the bleachers, no walking over to get a closer look," said one of the girls to the rest of us. We had a clear enough view anyway, like the balcony seats of some Greek tragedy. No one joked, though. Unfolding tragedy is a magnet--we couldn't stop staring.

Then, without warning, the guards pulled a body out of the water, a blinding white, thin limp body; the boy's head was flaccid and bent. Our group gasped in unison, as if a movie was being filmed and we were the extras. Other than that one quick, escaping gasp, there was no sound at all.

They laid him on the pier and the paramedics knelt over him. I knew he was dead--only death could be that still. Some of the older girls started crying. Minutes passed with the men hunched over the body, the orange-cushioned stretcher on the gurney beside them unstrapped and ready. Everyone--the pool manager, the guards, the office people--waited while the resuscitation attempt continued. We were standing by then, too, secretly hoping for the moment when the boy would cough a bit and sit up, when he would reveal his Hollywood Houdini trick and we would be aghast, then relieved, a rage not finding us until later.

As always, great oak and maple trees leaned over the quarry cliffs like curious neighbors, their leaves swollen and heavy, their reflection painting a still life of false middle-class tranquility on the evening water. Had this been a silent movie, then we had definitely reached the point where someone had forgotten their cue, and the action inexplicably stalled. We waited and waited, through interminable minutes, and in that slow-motion moment the reality of the situation started seeping down into my gut--this boy, this rumored guest of a member, had come swimming with his friend on an ordinary summer day, and now he was dead. You never know what might happen, or when.

A few teammates came back from talking to Coach, bringing words that flew around the bleachers like a steely gust of wind.

"He's twelve."

"Trapped under a pipe."

"He was down there over five minutes."

"This is so creepy," Anne said to me.

All I could do was nod.

While we'd been finishing our set of two hundreds, all these champion swimmers not a hundred meters from the boy, he was down there writhing and yanking and trying his best to get free. He was dying, right there, in the same water that we were pushing through, singing our individual workout songs, counting the laps before practice would be over, before we could get home and eat supper, watch television and go to bed, just to wake up and play the same game again.

My sister and I waited until the silent ambulance drove along the sidewalk, until we heard it come to life on the street. Then we walked with our friends to the front-entrance gates to sit on the stone wall and wait for our rides.

Cars drove past, completely oblivious to the death that had just occurred in their own neighborhood. I wondered if any of them knew the boy or his family.

Nothing made much sense anymore anyway. Anne and I, and our brother too (whose practice was fortunately at a different time), were doing what we were supposed to be doing, we were swimming like hell, being good kids, trying not to cause trouble for anyone, especially for our warring parents. We didn't realize, on that eerie summer afternoon as we left Lakeside, how treacherous the water in our family was getting. We didn't yet recognize the undertow that was dragging our family down, how trapped the five of us were, that we were as pinned as that boy had been under that wretched pipe. Nothing we kids did--nothing anybody did--made a difference, for my parents, for that drowning boy. Nothing.

"Mom," Anne said calmly, when we got home and found Mom in the kitchen. "Something awful happened."

Dish towel draped on her shoulder, her worried green eyes zeroed in on us.

"What? What's the matter?" she said, impatiently.

"A boy drowned at Lakeside," Anne finally said.


"Don't know. Someone's guest."

"Ahh," Mom said. The sound she made was a sort of horrified yelp, her usual reaction to a crisis. Her narrow face would crinkle into a purse of pain and out would come a guttural, aching cry, as if someone had thrust a knife into her stomach. She squinted at us as Anne relayed the brief details, then we all just stood there in the stuffy kitchen, the ghosts gathering around us as they often did when we spoke of death.

"I've got first shower," Anne said, shooting her dark eyes my way, pulling us back to the reality of routine. It never took me as long to wash my hair, since mine was short and thick, cooperative even when ignored. Anne's, on the other hand, was long and prone to tangling, plus, she was older--she always took the first shower.

We didn't tell Dad when he came home later that evening. Drowning wasn't a topic we talked about with him.

Later that night, when I was alone in my room and couldn't fall asleep, I thought about that limp boy, about how devastated his parents must've been, how he'd awoken that morning like normal, having no idea he was going to die that day.

From my bed upstairs, I listened to Mom putting away the pots in the kitchen, could hear the mumble of television voices as they drifted out the den window and floated up to mine. The noise didn't bother me; it mingled with the whirring cicadas. I was in the habit of listening to the house.

Ours was a small, crowded house, where the rooms contracted in the evenings, amplifying sound and pressure and motion. The ghosts of our grandparents and uncle were everywhere, silent mostly, except when the silver tray rattled in the dining room in the middle of the night.

I had perfected the art of knowing everything that was going on--who was in what room, what Dad and Curtie were watching on television, who was talking and whether an argument was about to start. There was the shove of the swollen back door, the faint tap of Mom descending the basement steps, laundry basket in hand, then ascending again. There was the abrupt swish of water when she turned on the dishwasher, the downstairs toilet flushing, the creak of the oven door opening, and the slam of it closing again.

People have distinctive gaits, too, if you listen long enough. Dad's was the heaviest, shuffling and hard. Mom's was a quick, staccato step, muted machine gun fire, the sound of motion itself. Anne's gait was the quietest, a Cherokee Indian tracking a fox in the woods. Hers was the hardest to follow. Curtie's 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.

That night the sky had blackened by the time the dream slapped me awake. It was the falling dream again. I'd taken a wrong step, not over a rock cliff or high-rise balcony, but off the edge of a drained pool. In the dream, I tried and tried to scream, but sound refused me. The bottom of the swimming pool gaped at me, getting bigger and bigger. When I woke up, my heart pulsed in my stomach.

To get oriented, I put on my glasses and focused on the patch of wall in my room that was illuminated by our neighbor's floodlight. The traffic on nearby Chenoweth Lane was silent, no exhaling buses or honking speeders. The birds made no sound, and of course there was no wind. That's when I located the rattling noises in the dining room downstairs. Although I'd heard them before, they didn't fit any recognizable McCall footstep rhythm.

When I was younger and listened to the house like this, I thought burglars were stealing everything we owned, the only tangibles left of our grandparents. The creaking floors signaled stocking-faced men filling black sacks full of mint julep cups and serving trays and those delicate teacups we weren't supposed to touch. They were taking the dark mahogany box of silver cutlery, Mama T's china, the ancient candle snuffer, the antique coffee table with its fragile flap. They were stealing everything.

In the morning, I'd stroll casually through the dining room and open the sticking drawer of the cherry hutch, just to make sure the box of silver was still there, which it always was. The silver tray hadn't been moved either.

At some blurry point, since everything always remained in the same place, I abandoned the burglar theory and began a serious consideration of ghosts and what happens to a person when they die. I wondered if the drowned boy was already a ghost, or an angel, if he was on his way to heaven, if there was such a place.

It wasn't impossible, at least theoretically, that ghosts could be causing a commotion in the dining room. Suppose our grandparents wanted a cigarette and a cocktail, where else would they go but a dining room filled with their own furniture? It seemed as good a rendezvous spot as any, the perfect place to play a round or two of bridge, to tell a few jokes, to reminisce. The liquor cabinet, stocked with Maker's Mark, Jack Daniels, vodka, and scotch, was just a few steps away in the den.

As to my ghost theory, the silver tray was the main clue. It stayed on the serving table in the corner and anytime someone walked through the dining room, you could hear a clear, tinny rattle. That night, I listened to the silver shiver as it often did, felt my heart pulsing in my stomach and knew without a doubt, that something suspicious was going on downstairs.

I didn't venture down the steps to spy on the ghosts, though. Even at thirteen, I was a chicken--the idea of walking through the house in the dark proved too terrifying. I harbored a little girl's fear inside me that ran so deep and so wide, I had to struggle not to drown in it.

Everything changes in the dark anyway, and though I pretended to everyone else that I had no problems or worries, I carried a vague apprehension that, should I come too close to the ghosts, I might be swallowed into their shadows for good.

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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 McCall’s 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 book’s events and themes? What insight do they provide into the main characters?

4. What was your opinion of Catherine’s mother and father? Did your feelings about them change as you read the book?

5. “We have to stick together–we’re all we’ve 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. Dad’s was the heaviest, shuffling and hard. Mom’s was a quick, staccato step, muted machine gun fire, the sound of motion itself. Anne’s gait was the quietest, a Cherokee Indian tracking a fox in the woods. Hers was the hardest to follow. Curtie’s 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–don’t have to do everything you say.’ ” [page 49] Why do you think Catherine found assertiveness so difficult?

9. “Mom wasn’t 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 Catherine’s 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 Catherine’s 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 she’s gay, she’s 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, I’d thought every family problem was Dad’s fault.” [page 121] Did you also think that the issues the McCall family dealt with were solely because of Curt’s 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?

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