With deftly wielded humor and heart-wrenching candor, Katherine Perreth vividly recounts the myriad physical, mental, emotional and spiritual repercussions stemming from her son’s massive brain hemorrhage. Seven-year-old Ben suffers numerous disabilities and, later, mental health challenges. Yet, love wins.
Making Lemonade With Ben is a compelling Cinderella story tracing sixteen years of Ben’s life. It begins with the night a University of Wisconsin Hospital neurosurgeon saved Ben, and follows Ben through young adulthood. Although he encounters years of substantial obstacles, in 2011 his never-say-die cheery attitude and uber-outgoing ways ultimately carry him to Washington D.C. There he represents the Madison Children’s Museum, his employer, at a national award ceremony. Wearing his ankle-foot-orthosis with a smiley face on the back, Ben juggles one-handed everywhere he goes, accomplishing his life goal: “Make humanity smile.”
Universal themes of perseverance and compassion encourage readers to contemplate contemporary issues: mental illness treatment, recovery and stigma, the role of intentional employers in the lives of those with disabilities, and the success that can occur when a community values all of her citizens.
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Could you please tell us a little about your book?
Making Lemonade With Ben: The Audacity to Cope (MLWB) alternates between two timelines: 1996-2010, Ben’s traumatic yet often hilarious childhood, and the fall of 2011 when he was hired by a children’s museum as a one-handed juggler, and sent to Washington DC to collect a national award.
At heart, MLWB is a love story with multiple threads: mother-child, husband-wife, mother-daughter, supportive communities-suffering family, nurturing women-hurting woman. The book includes bits and bobs from our three years living in Japan and a cameo appearance by Johnny Depp. (When Johnny hugs you at 4:00 in the morning, you know you have a story.) Wrapping up my life’s loose ends in what I’ve come to call Life With Ben, I found the completion of MLWB extremely gratifying. Just like finishing laundry.
Some folks misread the title, and thus believe the book to be about hope. For me, MLWB is about what happens after hope has evaporated, poof! What do you do then?
The book starts emotionally rough, with Ben in a coma. However, the structure provides sweet breathers – I organized MLWB the way I’ve learned to live, with joy, laughter and humor in the midst of pain.
MLWB inhales my brand of quirky and exhales heartache. While I’m dead serious on some subjects in the book, notably my suicidal tendencies, depression, psychotherapy and how we can better support our struggling citizens, you’d be hard pressed to read too long without finding humor. After all, it has been high on my family’s list of coping strategies. I also feel that humor makes us stop and think.
2. Who or what is the inspiration behind this book?
Ben. And women asked for his story, and mine. Many people followed Ben’s recovery for years after his initial emergency craniotomy. When I would email updates, women invariably responded, “I hope you’re going to put this in your book!”
I thought they were crazy. For well over a decade, I dwelled simply in familial and personal survival – albeit, sometimes it was non-functional survival.
3. Who is your biggest supporter?
My family. I gave my kids the three 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 and offered insights, commentary, and clarifications, making MLWB so much richer. (In fact, three of his essays are included and I gave him the last word.) My other two kids chose to read only their appearances, and approved them all – I threatened to stop cooking nightly dinners if they didn’t.
My husband read it repeatedly, adding his voice while encouraging me to keep mine. Whenever I wanted to yank this section or that, because I felt too vulnerable, he talked me out of it every time. I took his advice except for the chapter entitled “A Woman Is A Woman.” He asked if I could at least blow up some shoes. Ain’t gonna happen.
Ben, now 25, has been incredibly supportive post-publication, offering his critique of the book that bears his name, “Flawless sprinkled with awesomeness!” (Need I mention this is my favorite review?)
4. What cause are you most passionate about and why?
Removing stigma from mental illness. The sooner we all understand that mental illness is just like physical illness, the better for everyone. Mental illness is nothing new, nothing to be ashamed about, is a global concern, and can be a killer – just like physical illness. Even if we can’t be “fixed,” the choices we make can either alleviate or exacerbate our illnesses – physical and mental. There is a measure of empowerment in that.
And powerful good can happen when a community values all of her citizens through intentional employers and proper mental illness treatment and support. Ben’s life bears witness to that.
I believe the Clubhouse Model of mental illness treatment, support and recovery is critical. For more information, visit http://www.iccd.org
5. Are you a different person now than you were 5 years ago? In what way/s?
Most important, writing MLWB produced the unexpected consequence of having my heart put back together, something I didn’t think was possible. People often muse that writing the book must have been cathartic. Actually, all the writing I did for years before beginning MLWB was cathartic. Telling the story, organizing the writing, weaving in humor and my Creative Cathartic Vignettes, putting all that together into one hefty rectangle, was more than cathartic. It was healing. I often say MLWB is my heart and soul in 3D – it may be a broken heart, but it has been soldered.
And if you’d like to know why I chose to offer it to the general public, it’s because I have a social work degree from the UW-Madison, but even more important, I have a social work heart. (There’s part of the backstory of MLWB for you – for free! Don’t you love free things?)
6. What do you feel has been your greatest achievement as an author?
When a woman hung an Olympic-like medallion around my neck at an award ceremony last November, I felt like I had successfully reinvented myself. Receiving “Non-fiction: Inspirational” kudos in Miami was split-second surreal.
However, readers contacting me to thank me for my honesty in writing MLWB, definitely trumps the medal. I have struck a chord with many who either suffer themselves or love someone struggling with mental illness, raising a special needs child, and/or living with chronic disability.
People tell me they have found my words helpful in either better explaining themselves to family and friends, or better understanding someone else. Really, how can you best help someone you love if you don’t understand the situation?
Women especially find the topics raised in MLWB pertinent and conducive to book club discussions. (Hey, women! I’m counting on your talking amongst yourselves leading to change in society.)
7. What do you feel is your biggest strength?
My big mouth and willingness to be vulnerable. Decades ago in college, my best friend said, “Kath, you’re willing to say what other people only think.” She meant that as a compliment, finding my self-deprecating witty candor refreshing.
8. Biggest weakness?
My big mouth and willingness to be vulnerable. ’Nuff said.
(This is a good example of the double-edged swords I talk about in MLWB.)
9. What do you feel sets this book apart from others in the same genre?
Ben. Ben embodies Yeats’ sentiment, “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.” Ben’s uber-outgoing ways, cheerfully charming disposition, and never-say-die attitude endear him to nearly everyone he meets. Who wouldn’t love a one-handed juggler sporting a smiley-face on the back of his ankle-foot orthosis?
Yet, although MLWB chronicles Ben’s life, and is an amateur psychological study on my kids, husband and marriage, it’s also a candid look at 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. In MLWB I’ve done such a marvelous job accurately portraying myself that sometimes I feel as if I were Lady Godiva, minus the hair.
10. In the last year have you learned or improved on any skills?
Not to say learned, but I have improved my technological abilities a little – I now can text emoticons.
My brain has been on a pretty steep learning curve, finding there are entirely too many options to click, share, link, follow, tag, like, hiccup. It’s pretty safe to say that if it has more than two buttons, and it isn’t a blouse, I’m going to have trouble with it. Real and virtual.
However, speaking to live audiences is a delight. When over 100 people rose to their feet at the conclusion of our National Alliance on Mental Illness keynote speech in March 2014, there were only two things to do: let my mascara run and my heart shoot fireworks of gratitude. (Ben also juggled lemons on stage, which had a great deal to do with that standing O, I’m thinkin’. You simply cannot stop Ben from communicating with humanity, pursuing his goal to make everyone smile.)
11. Do you have any rituals you follow when finishing a piece of work?
Well, the day MLWB was published I donned my Golden Lame Wonder Woman outfit and danced wildly in my living room while my husband spun the discs. Does that count?
12. What are some of your long term goals?
Tea with Queen Elizabeth at her annual Garden Party. Until then, I’ll just be taking tea in my own backyard with my husband.
13. Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
As a journalist, I love a story. But I really love a backstory – the how and why of the thing. Recently, I’ve been speechwriting. My standard speech details the bewildering, slightly OCD, creation of MLWB.
When I write, whether my book, speeches, or feature articles, I must be entertained. I’ve learned if I’m entertained, others are. There has got to be honesty, as well. I’m going to tell it like it is, and hopefully you’ll die laughing.
Or crying. Obviously, there’s much sorrow and pain in life, no laughing matter. Ben’s life underscores that. But if I can inject black humor into my dismal situation, that also aids in expressing troubling emotions. At least I’ve found that to be true. I say I’m an equal opportunity employer when it comes to humor: white, gray and black, I’ll use ’em all to survive.
In writing MLWB, I aimed for real – it proved quite the balancing act. I did not want to be either whiny or Pollyannaish.
(You can be the judge on whether or not I succeeded.)
Thanks for taking the time to read this and for your support!
Katherine holds UW-Madison Social Work and Sociology degrees, is a reporter for her hometown newspaper, the Middleton Times Tribune, and conducts a class on reminiscence writing. In addition, in her role as administrative staff with WESLI (an ESL school on Madison’s capitol square), she deals in chalk. And paper. Oodles of paper. She recently took an EmptyNester Victory Tour with her husband of 28 years, but hasn’t yet changed the locks on their home. Their three kids can still get in.
Her latest books is Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope
Drop by to pay her visit at: www.katherineperreth.com.
Katherine is giving away a Kindle Paperwhite!
- By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
- This giveaway begins April 21 and ends on June 27, 2014.
- Winners will be contacted via email by July 2, 2014.
- Winner has 72 hours to reply.
Good luck everyone!