Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to meet an incredible woman, Katherine Perreth, and her even more incredible son Ben, at a writers conference. I can’t begin to describe what happened to Ben in just a few paragraphs, except to say that at age seven he had a massive brain hemorrhage and that event launched him and his family on an incredible life’s journey. That journey was recorded in amazing, emotional detail by Katherine in her book, Making Lemonade with Ben: TheAudacity to Cope.
I have to tell you, Katherine’s book kept me on the edge of my seat. Even though I knew from the outset that Ben had survived—he is, after all, a very real, very active young man in his twenties today—the way she crafted her story made it a page turner. I felt like she was narrating it to me personally, and I rode the roller coaster of her and her family’s ups and down as if I’d known them from the get go. But the thing that is most amazing about Katherine's telling of Ben's story is her wry sense of humor. While told with heart-wrenching candor, the story was never maudlin; Katherine's ability to turn some pretty devastating lemons into lemonade makes this story a great read on so many levels.
Of course I wanted to know more about Katherine and what it took for her to write this book, and what it meant to Ben, so I emailed them a few questions. They were both kind enough to reply. While I became intimately familiar with Katherine’s voice over the course of the book, I was surprised by Ben’s answers. He is every bit as articulate and eloquent as his mother, but he has his own unique and delightful voice and sense of humor. Katherine’s replies are below. My interview with Ben was posted separately.
A Conversation with Katherine Perreth
MCW: Katherine, you write with such voice and passion in Making Lemonade with Ben, but you mention early on in the book that you once gave up on writing it. What did it take to actually get the book written?
Katherine: A phone call from the Madison Children’s Museum in early September, 2011. MCM asked if I would be willing to write a letter of nomination on behalf of my son, Ben. The museum was slated to receive a national award in Washington D.C. and needed to send a community representative. At the same time, the museum hired Ben – he had been volunteering for over a year as a one-handed juggler. I figured if they actually did select Ben as their representative, then I would have the sweet framework I needed to write his traumatic, yet often hilarious, childhood.
For three months I chronicled everything, how the trip to D.C. unfolded. I was so obnoxious with my accuracy that my sixteen-year-old daughter commented snarkily, “Oooh, look, Mom. It’s another conversation. Better write that down!” She will also tell you that for 18 months, as I buckled down writing and re-writing for what seemed like ad infinitum, I wore four outfits. And that included my p.j.s.
MCW: What do you hope people take away from your book?
Katherine: One reviewer said I succeeded in removing the stigma that comes with mental illness. I’m not sure that’s true, but I’m gonna take it. If Making Lemonade With Ben can hammer a dent in stigma, I’m thrilled. The sooner we all understand that mental illness is like physical illness, the better. Mental illness is nothing new, nothing to be ashamed about, is a global concern, and can be a killer – just like physical illness. We need to fund what works, for example Yahara House, Madison’s clubhouse model of mental illness treatment, support and recovery. Yahara House is all about “What I can!”
Making Lemonade With Ben is primarily a love story with multiple threads. In the 21st century, it’s way past time for stigma. We’re a nation of can-do fixers, but sometimes we can’t be fixed. Then empathy, understanding, and love are required.
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.
MCW: What kind of reactions have you gotten from readers?
Katherine: “Wow!” has frequently been the first word in feedback I’ve received from readers. People have been overwhelmingly appreciative, positive, and expressive – writing online reviews, tossing me stars on Amazon and Goodreads, and contacting me via my website and email. I am so delighted, because I didn’t know how the book would be received and now I don’t have to move to Canada. Although, this past winter, I thought I had.
People are shocked at how much they laugh while reading Making Lemonade With Ben. They expect to cry, given my subject matter, but are taken by surprise at my use of black, gray, and white humor. As one of my main coping strategies, I’ll use all the humor available in order to survive and thrive.
Many people struggling themselves with mental illness, chronic disability, or as a special needs family have contacted me to thank me for writing. As have those who love someone with those challenges. Because I am so vulnerable in the book, leaving myself feeling like Lady Godiva minus the hair, these words of thanks mean the world to me. One woman wrote that my words helped her clarify her own experiences so she could better explain herself to her therapist and family. It doesn’t get any better than that.
MCW: What are you doing with your life and work now that Ben is an independent adult?
Katherine: I have been delighted to get back into the paid workforce. As a reporter for the Middleton Times Tribune, I revel in tooting the horns of my hometown folks. I also continue to lead a reminiscence writing class for women of a certain age, helping them write their life stories. Really, their stories should be high school required reading. And recently, I’ve upped my hours at WESLI, an English as a second language school on the square. As the behind-the-scenes administrative assistant, I deal in chalk and paper, oodles of paper, but these days I’ve added culling through thousands of international student files. Thirty-four years of students. Every time I finish reorganizing part of the alphabet, I do a jig and drag my co-workers to the cabinets to, “Behold the files!” (I work with a team of super women who always humor me.) Sometimes, as with the popular Korean last name, “Kim,” I take the liberty of dancing early. Took me days to get out of the “Kim”s.
MCW: Do you have another book project of any sort in the works?
Katherine: I still consider myself in AA – Authors Anonymous – in book recovery. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing. Mostly, I’ve been speechwriting. Recently, I keynoted the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Dane County’s annual award dinner. It was a glorious evening. Libraries, faith communities, service organizations, bookstores, and medical and educational institutions have also invited me to speak. At the end of July, the UW Department of Psychiatry is hosting me as a guest lecturer. It is open to the public, I have been told. This year, Ben has committed to accompanying me, joining me in speaking. People find our presentation informative, inspirational, and humorous – of course, humorous.
I am also happy to visit book clubs. Although it’s always a bit disconcerting when I show up and introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Katherine,” and someone replies with feeling, “We knoooowww!” To contact me, people can email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Katherine Perreth's book, Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope won the Readers’ Favorite International Book Award for 2013 in the “Non-Fiction, Inspirational” category. The book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your public library.
Please check out my interview with Ben next!