Related Articles: Literary, All

Animal Magic

Geneen Roth's The Craggy Hole in My Heart and the Cat Who Fixed It

Geneen Roth is afraid of being taken seriously. It's too bad, because she deserves to be; Roth has written several insightful books about overcoming compulsive overeating, including the New York Times best seller When Food is Love. She conducts intensive workshops across the country that have helped thousands of people with eating disorders learn to trust their hunger. Now she's written her first non-eating-themed book, a deeply felt memoir about her father's death and the revelations about his character that followed. But Roth doesn't trust that her readers will be interested in the intricate story of her father's fall from grace. So she turns it into a cat book.

I should mention that I am not a cat person. Then again, Roth claims straight away in The Craggy Hole in My Heart and the Cat Who Fixed It that she isn't a cat person, either. Or wasn't; she had to be convinced to accept Blanche, the cat of the book's title who was actually a male. Mere days after taking in Blanche, however, Roth becomes as loopy a cat lady as ever there was. Roth takes Blanche for regular visits to a chiropractor and an acupuncturist (perhaps I should also mention that Roth lives in Berkeley and was a longtime Santa Cruz resident before that), and consults a series of animal psychics in an attempt to reassure herself that her paralyzing fear of Blanche's imminent death is unfounded. Blanche survives 17 years with kidney disease; instead it's Roth's father -- the other relative whose death she is convinced she could not survive -- who dies.

It is when Roth's father is diagnosed with lymphoma that the book really begins, for underneath all this cat silliness is a compelling story about Roth's family, about Roth's deification of her remote father versus her demonization of her volatile mother. After they divorce, her father remarries a woman who does not love him and all but abandons him as he is dying. Nonetheless, Roth's father, a lawyer, tells Roth and her brother that he will leave half his $3 million estate to his second wife Pepper and the other half to his two children to split. Fair enough. In the absence of Pepper's help, Roth and her mother take him to chemo and care for him until his death a few weeks later. Then they find out (warning: a spoiler follows) that he has left his entire estate to Pepper. Roth and her brother don't even get the family silver. Pepper has already changed the locks. "I needed him to be the perfect daddy who adored me so that I could survive the cold mother who hated me," Roth writes. "But here's the million-dollar question: If my father wasn't all good, how could my mother be all bad?"

This question is at the center of her story, but Roth doesn't do the dirty work of answering it. She prefers to divert our attention to the way Blanche the boy cat opened her closed heart, which enabled her to meet and fall in love with her shockingly non-neurotic husband, the corporate coach and author Matt Weinstein. I was not able to discern what Roth's cat-liberated heart has to do with her insistence on idealizing her father while he was alive, but the two themes finally come together when, fast upon the double losses of her father and her beliefs about him, Blanche dies while Roth is away teaching. Matt puts Blanche into the freezer so Roth can say good-bye upon her return. It takes her a few days to confront Blanche's frigid corpse, but when she takes him out and puts him in front of the fireplace (to thaw?), she claims that she has realized she is not behaving normally. "Finally, after a week, I know I need help; I can no longer tell the difference between the part of me that believes there is nothing to live for and my self," she writes.

This admission feels like lip service, a nod to the possibility that by now readers will think she has popped her top. When Roth comes to her senses long enough to have Blanche cremated and finds that after all these years of obsessing, "nothing lasts, not even grief," it feels too easy. Roth appears to be the only one who doesn't see that she has channeled her unexpressed pain over her father's true nature into the loss of her cat.

After years of slipping personal history into her books about compulsive eating, Roth seems to have concluded that she couldn't write about her father without finding a new distraction in her cat theme. She needn't have. Roth has an intriguing story to tell about her childhood, and I for one would like to read it-no pets allowed.

The Craggy Hole in My Heart and the Cat Who Fixed It: Over the Edge and Back with My Dad, My Cat, and Me
by Geneen Roth
Harmony Books; ISBN 1400050839
Paperback: 238 pages (June 2004)