Some memoirs shock. Some entertain. Some take us places we’re afraid to go. A rare few move us. Once in a blue moon, a book does it all. This is Risking the Rapids.
Dysfunctional family. Risking the Rapids opens with the shocking death of O’Garden’s older brother, which prompts her and other relatives to seek closure on a journey through the remotest spot in Montana. Described genially as a river “float”, a harrowing journey unfolds. This wilderness trip is contrasted with O’Garden’s account of growing up with her six siblings in a clashing Catholic family.
Alcoholic father, mean mother, Catholic guilt. WCCO-TV personality Don O’Brien was well-known in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota. Whether forecasting weather and trading wisecracks with the anchor on the nightly news, pitching for sponsors, or hosting a Saturday night movie, he was a man people trusted. In private, Don O’Brien’s family life was a far cry from what his fans saw on TV. Little by little we see the corrosion: nightly martinis shared with his wife Betty, an undemonstrative and icy-hearted mother. The neglect. The poisoning of self-esteem. The rigidity demanded by the Catholic church. Competition. Cruelty. All packed into ordinary days and nights as a sensitive girl comes of age.
Anxiety and danger. The children vary in their response to the profound anxiety sown in the offspring of alcoholics. One brother bites his fingers to gangrene. One relentlessly bullies the author, who begins overeating compulsively. One severs all ties with the family. Danger mounts as well on the Montana raft trip, when unusual river conditions swell and speed the waters. Both stories build with escalating intensity to excruciating climaxes.
If you read and liked books such as The Liars’ Club, The Wounded Heart, Coming Clean, Change Me into Zeus's Daughter, or Remember Me As Loving You, you will want to read Risking the Rapids.
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About the Author
O’Garden was awarded a Pushcart Prize for her lyric essay “Glad To Be Human,” (Untreed Reads.) Harper published her first memoir Fat Girl and Nirala Press recently published her book Fulcrum, Selected Poems, which contains her prize-winning poem “Nonfiction.” Her poems and essays have been featured in dozens of literary journals and award-winning anthologies (including A Slant of Light, USA Book award Best Anthology), and she has been honored with an Alice Desmond Award and an Oppenheimer for her children’s books.
A seasoned and entertaining presenter both on stage and video, O’Garden has appeared at top literary venues: including The Player’s Club, the Bowery Poetry Club, Nuyorican Poetry Café, and KGB in Manhattan; The Poetry Café, Mycennae House and Vinyl Deptford in London, and all throughout the Hudson Valley. She’s a regular contributor to 650Where Writers Read, in New York City and Sarah Lawrence College and has received several grants from Poets and Writers. Irene also presents to an audience of hundreds annually at the Global Seth Conference.
O’Garden has lived joyfully with her husband John Pielmeier, for 40 years. Most known for his play Agnes of God, John also writes movies and miniseries for television. This year, Scribner published his first novel, Hook’s Tale,” and his stage adaptation of The Exorcist opened in London’s West End.
Table of Contents
Tangletown, Mid century 17
Montana 2014, Day One: Loading Up 20
The Oaken Field 24
Long Live the Milkman 25
Within These Walls 29
Montana, Day One: Tenting Tonight 39
The Family Journal 43
Montana, Day Two: Practice 56
Between the Lines 59
A Crystal Cave 61
Montana Day Three: Angels on Horseback 69
Shifting Sands 74
Into the Spotlight 76
The Old Pew 84
Montana, Day Four: On the Raft 88
Family Portrait 101
Up to the Lake 103
In the Car 104
At the Lake 105
The Hook in the Heart 106
Lake Ways 107
Montana, Day Five: In Camp 110
A Blur of Sins 114
Good Grooming 119
The Cart 123
Very Personally Yours 125
Not Normal 130
The Living Water 133
Montana, Day Five: Beach Eats 135
Creating My Own Reality 138
At Gobby's Knee 150
Montana, Day Five: That Sound 157
Rocky Terrain 159
A Nameless Night 161
Dad's Plaid 168
Gibraltar Topples 171
Montana, Day Six: Focus 176
Measures Taken 178
The Determined Empty Chair 185
Montana, Day Six: Aiming for Hazards 190
Curious Old Path 195
Montana, Day Six: Curdles and Limits 197
Between Here and Heaven 201
Montana, Day Six: Inclinations 207
Wills Read and Written 212
Montana, Day Seven: Bequests 215
Thanksgiving 2013 220
Piecing Together 226
Montana, Day Eight: No Second Chance 232
Gifts of Family 241
Panorama's Edge 243
About the Author 250
What People are Saying About This
"For many years now, the poet, playwright, and memoirist Irene O'Garden has been a hero to me. I think of her as a walking, writing, beam of light. It is my hope that ...numberless others will come to know her gifts and, most of all, her captivating talent for wonder and marvel."
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic
“Family is landscape,” writes Irene O’Garden in her breathtaking memoir, Risking the Rapids. She gives us a bold dose of both as she embarks on a remote river trip to help make sense of a family wild and dangerous. In her brave eloquence, O’Garden adds a thoroughly welcome voice to the rich vein of American literature on the singular healing powers of wilderness."
Florence Williams, Author of The Nature Fix, LA Times Book Prize winner and editor at Outside Magazine
"It is a tricky business, navigating the river of forgiveness while honoring the injured self. In that wilderness the psyche must surrender to each boulder life smashes it against, and then stand in awe as we experience the changes wrought within our very DNA that are the gifts of facing down our demons; the gifts of looking our inner and outer truths square in the eye. O’Garden does this better than anyone I know and then puts it into words that have the cadence of angels." -Linda Ford Blaikie, C.S.W.Psychotherapist, Author of Godless Grace
"Irene O’Garden’s memoir is riveting, fiercely honest, and graced with poetic insight. An imaginative child plagued by insecurities, O'Garden vied with six siblings for her parents’ approval and lived beneath the Damocles sword of Catholic doctrine. Her chronicle of growing up in what seemed then a normal Mid-western family in the 1950s and 60s asks, "Who were we, really?" in a far-ranging, haunting journey of discovery."
Victoria Riskin, Former President,Writers Guild of America, West , Author of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
Risking the Rapids is a sensitive depiction of a family’s attempt to heal. In the tradition of classic memoirs like The Glass Castle that highlight the co- existence of tortured love and unresolved misery, Irene O’Garden has captured the essence of family connections. With suspense and uncertainty about how complicated relationships unfold, this story intrigues and inspires us. I highly recommend this book to all of us who struggle with the legacies of abuse and the hopefulness to heal.
Sonya Rhodes, Ph.D
Author and family therapist
"Irene O’Garden’s Risking the Rapids is, simply put, a literary triumph. Her roiling journey through the whitewater of big family turbulence is alternately a companionable sisterly punch in the shoulder and a vicious left hook to the jaw. And as is true for all superb writing, it is the “left hook” that unexpectedly provides the narrator’s stunningeven transcendentpassage into calm waters and healing. Put aside whatever has gained your attention right now and read this book. O’Garden is truly a wonderful guide. " - Steven Lewis, Loving Violet
"Risking the Rapids artfully peels back the layers of family to reveal both the darkness and the diamond. O'Garden lyrically shares the challenging circumstances of her midwest, Catholic childhood as a thread woven through a story of present-day danger during what is supposed to be a simple outing. The kaleidoscope effect of past and present, reflection and struggle bring the reader along on a powerful healing journey to bring what is hidden into the light." - Heather Ash, author of bestselling "Warrior Goddess Training."
“RISKING THE RAPIDS is a deep and powerful memoir. Irene O’Garden sifts through her family’s shared pain (and shared joy!) with elegance and care searching for nothing less than ultimate understanding and supreme forgiveness.”
-Martha Beck, author of Finding Your Own North Star
"I haven’t experienced this kind of reverberating tension and utter fascination with a family since Jeannette Walls’s memoir, The Glass Castle. Irene O’Garden’s long career of treasured work hits its highest note yet with her memoir. How she survived her upbringing in a big, dysfunctional Catholic family and the harrowing wilderness trip through whitewaters she took as an adult with her family is riveting and ultimately healing.
~ Debbie Phillips, author “Women on Fire: 20 Inspiring Women Share Their Life Secrets (and Save You Years of Struggle!
Irene O'Garden is, quite frankly, the most amazing writer I know. She's a poet - just read her words aloud. She's a story-teller - consider the arc of the tale she tells here. She's a dramatist - we're in that boat with her, risking the rapids, and hopefully rescuing our past self as she so magnificently succeeds in doing."
John Leonard Pielmeier, author of Hook's Tale, Agnes of God
"Irene O’Garden’s Risking the Rapids is both a meditation and a thrill ride in which a sibling’s death prompts an unlikely family rafting journey through Montana's wilderness. The beauty, moods, and menace of the swollen Flathead River seem an allegory of family life and, like sunlight glinting off water, her brutally honest reckoning is told in sparkling, luminous prose that gives memoir itself a fresh new shape.” Edward McCann, Founder/Editor, Read650.com
“If I were you I would set aside a goodly few hours as you are about to plunge into the lives of a family that has chosen you as their new member . You are about to dive into midst of the most colorful familial grouping you have ever experienced here they are on horseback immersed in rivers on tops of mountains quarreling forgiving sleeping camping .there is the celeb Dad the strong holding it altogether mother guiding misguiding consoling joyously feasting at holiday time and weeping too when tragedy befalls .this is a lively enthralling book that embraces our being and never let's go .Be good to yourself and embrace Irene O'Garden and Risking the Rapids.”
―Malachy McCourt, author of Ireland and A Monk Swimming