Catching Up With Cady McClain, Author Of Murdering My Youth

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Cady McClain’s memoir arrives at a hugely significant time for women. Just a few weeks ago the social media movement #YesAllWomen launched as a response to the massacre in Isla Vista, California. While it’s difficult to say for sure what drives a person commit mass murder, it was clear to many people that Elliot Rodger was partly motivated by a set of misogynistic principles. Murdering My Youth is, on the one hand, about McClain’s complicated and often traumatic life as a child actress and soap star. But what makes it a more powerful text, is that—whether intentionally or not—it also reads as a critique of a dangerous society where men (including male relatives) feel entitled to a young woman’s body. Hollywood functions as an escape for McClain, but also as a predatory environment for the young actress. In sharing her story the author, no doubt, speaks for many others, but it has to be said that her journey is simultaneously, entirely unique. Paste caught up with the Emmy Award winner to talk about this amazing story of survival and—in spite of it all—unconditional love.

Paste Magazine: I love that part of what you’re doing in your memoir is advocating for therapy. In your writing you mention that two of your therapists—Ron and Colette—talked you into writing more in general, and also writing about the trauma.
Cady McClain: I think it was really more Colette who encouraged me to write, but not as a form of therapy. She really believed that therapy is about the connection between two people, about talking and working through your relationship issues by being in a relationship with a therapist. She felt like the writing was very helpful for me just as a project. I’ve since done some research, and my new therapist has done a lot of work with veterans at UCLA. She actually pointed out to me as I was finishing the book that one of the techniques used with trauma victims is getting them to tell their story. The idea is to get them so comfortable with telling it—whether it’s recording it and listening to it over and over and over again, or if it’s writing it down and reading it—basically the idea is to help them own it. Owning your story is a way to release the trauma. I think it’s called immersion therapy.

Even more so. She told me a story about a woman who’d been raped in the military in a very violent fashion and she was asked to come and speak to other survivors. And the way she would calm herself down to prepare to go and speak would be to listen to herself tellthe story on tape in her car. In a funny way, it’s like when she’s reminding herself of what she was able to survive and to go through it reminded her of how strong she was. So she could move forward and help other people. Instead of feeling victimizedshe owns it in a creative fashion, and it ends up empowering you.

Paste: There’s so much that you tackle here. When you first sat down to write— I don’t know if you knew exactly what you were getting ready to write— what was one of the first memories that you wrote about?
McClain: Oh, that’s a really lovely question. I actually started writing in the third person. I was writing as a character but I knew it was me. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh I’m going to sit down and write a memoir.” I really enjoy writing, thought maybe I’d try to write a story or something. The very first thing I wrote—and it’s not even a very long part in the book—was the memory of looking in the mirror and cutting my own hair. That was me anxiously and impulsively trying to reinvent myself. In a funny way you could say—and my therapist says this—the book takes all of these disparate parts of myself and links them altogether with this timeline. Writing it out helped me because when I was trying to reinvent myself by cutting my hair—which I know a lot of people do—the experience was painful for me. It was the cutting and chopping, and removing this piece from myself, to try to liberate myself. It’s like getting a tattoo and wondering if that will change you. It never does.

Paste: In one of the more striking points in the book you sort of thank your parents for dying while you were still fairly young. It was a shocking moment to me because this is something you’re not supposed to say. And even in that moment there was a little bit of humor in your delivery. How did you get the courage to to admit that?
McClain: There were many times when I was writing the book and I basically told myself, “No one is ever going to see this.” (laughs). It was like, “Just get it out there, this is for you. Let’s get it over with.” So I was able to be very honest from that perspective.

But over and over again through rewriting and rewriting—you know as a writer you’re constantly doing this—I’d be editing, and I’d ask myself, “Should I cut this? Does this need to be in this book?” But for me, because some of this stuff is so heavy, I thought we need the moments of levity here and there, and we needed the honesty.

Paste: Yes, it’s a very honest thing to say.
McClain: And my sister and I joke about it all of the time. “Thank God they’re dead.” (laughs). And we laugh. And so I think if it’s making us laugh, it’s gotta make someone else laugh. If they were here, they’d still be torturing us. And we’d be even more screwed up than we already are. (laughs)

Although, there are times where that’s not always true! I think about how my mom was evolving right before she died. And I think about whether or not she would have even evolved if she hadn’t been dying. I just don’t know.

Paste: I think the balance is there. Because the other part that you’re honest about is the fact that you did grieve. It surprised you, but you still lost a parent and you felt it. Your parents don’t just come off as these monstrous beings that you were glad to be rid of. Interestingly enough, when I saw those photos at the end I was scared to look at them at first. Did you ever have second thoughts about including them?
McClain: No, I always really, really wanted to. The whole point is that they were human beings. For me, I was struggling to find their three-dimensionality so that they weren’t just my parents who did these abusive things, but that they were people who had been abused and in turn passed it on. It’s about taking responsibility. Yes, your parents did stuff to you, but it’s your bag of shit now! You have the choice to live consciously or unconsciously.

So I tried to pick sweet photos. They weren’t monsters. But, with the help of alcohol, they were unconscious much of the time.

Paste: It’s interesting that you went all the way from California to New York, but things did not change right away at all. But on the first page you write about New York at night, although you’re back in California now. What the East Coast represent for you today?
McClain: New York is where I became who I am. I live on the West Coast now and people ask me where I’m from, and when I say I was born in L.A., they go “What? Really?” I’m a Californian, I was a California kid, but I became who I am in New York through all of the exposure that I had to the world. I sought that out, and I sought out therapy and help there. It was a tough road there for me.

I think I’m gonna call the second book Days of Being Wild (laughs), because after my mom died I decided that I was going to have all of the fun I didn’t have as a child. And I picked some (laughs) really choice playmates, and had some pretty rock n’ roll times. I didn’t know how not to repeat my parents. It took fifteen years of hard work to realize that the pattern had been ingrained in me, and that I had to do something about it. It didn’t happen over night.

It was a bumpy, bruised up, rough time, but it was kind of what I wanted. New York made me tough—maybe tougher than I needed to be. And when I realized I was getting too hard I tried to stop it. Coming back out west has helped me soften again, which I think is important. But I still have a fondness for New York.

Paste: I was and was not surprised by some of the stories of abuse that you shared. You stressed that Hollywood is an adult world, and that people whose children are involved need to know that they’re getting their children involved in an adult industry.

What do you think has held other people back from speaking out about these things that are—from your perspective and others’—commonplace?
McClain: It comes with a lot of shame. People get embarrassed to talk about these things. So there’s this shame associated with the question, “Why didn’t we know?” If you’re a bystander and you see a kid on the set talking to an adult, it might sort of flash across your mind that it might be inappropriate, but you don’t do anything or look into anything. And then later you find out that the kid is getting raped. Later you ask yourself, “Why didn’t I do something?” There’s this adopted sense of responsibility.

It’s also just grotesque to think about. Adults touching children sexually is a very disturbing image. And yet, because it’s a work place there’s this coldness that takes place. People feel like they’re there to do their job; they’re not there to babysit. It’s like, “If these parents have decided that this kid is old enough to be on the set, then that’s on them. We’re just here to make sure that the scene gets done. And if the kid gets exposed to bright lights, or inappropriate language, or possibly inappropriate touching they rarely complain because they’re terrified they’re going to upset their mom, or mess up the show. It’s such an easy opportunity for people to forget that they’re dealing with a nine year-old child.

Paste: Well, I’m glad your story is out now. And I know Pamela Anderson recently came out and spoke about being sexually abused in the past. I think this is the only way we can encourage other people to speak out, to first speaks so that a space where this conversation is normalized can be created.
McClain: Absolutely. And that’s the point of this book. If it can start this conversation for others who might have grown up in an alcoholic family, or for someone who might have been molested at a young age—if others can see that this is, in fact, horrifically common—then I want to have a small part in helping with that.

It’s also about lessening or completely getting rid of that shame factor. It’s so important for people to know that it’s not their fault, but it’s their responsibility now to get through the experience so they can heal and move forward. It’s not easy. But it’s possible.

Paste: Yes. Thank you again for sharing this.
McClain: Thank you!

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.