Real Roles: Bernadette Murphy

Bernadette Murphy

1. What’s your name? Where do you live? How old are you?

My name is Bernadette Murphy. I live in Pasadena, California, and recently turned (gulp!) 53. I still don’t know how that’s possible.

2. Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?

I grew up in Glendale, California, the daughter of fresh-off-the-boat immigrants in a large, Irish-Catholic family. Though there was a lot of love in our family, much of my childhood was overshadowed by my mother’s severe bipolar disorder. She was regularly institutionalized and underwent shock treatments; I mostly raised my younger siblings. Between the very conservative Catholicism of my parents and the stigma of mental illness, I grew up with some very odd notions about life, God, morality, and what it means to be a “good woman”—ideas that took a long time for me to release and replace with healthier notions.

3. How would you describe your current family and close support community?

Family of my choosing surrounds me these days. I have three wonderful young adult children (27, 24, 21) who are north stars for me. Along the way here, I have been blessed with strong, independent women who taught me what it means to a woman of integrity and vision, the person I always wanted to be. I also belong to a 12-step group whose members support me and give me a sense of belonging. And I make my home with a wonderful man who inspires and challenges me daily. What more could I possibly wish for?

4. What are some of the things you do on an average day?

I read and write, I walk the dog, I run, bicycle and practice yoga. I try to meditate daily but I don’t always make meditation the priority I wish it to be.

5. What do you do to pay the bills?

I am an associate professor of creative writing at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program. I also write books (my newest is Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life) and I publish essays about life and literature.

6. Does your life look like what you imagined it would when you were young?

I never could have dared to wish for the life I have now. Who are you to think you deserve that? echoed in my brain for a long, long time. Though my parents always told me that I could be anything I wanted, neither they nor I believed it. My parents didn’t go to college and thought it was beyond their station—a holdover from class issues in Ireland—though they were both very smart. (My dad was a self-taught polymath.) Because they thought it was out of reach for them, they didn’t ever think to encourage my siblings and I toward college. They thought we’d simply finish high school and get working-class jobs.

I followed my older brother Frank’s lead and went to the local community college, unsure of a career direction. Nursing sounded good. When an English teacher asked if I’d ever thought about being a writer, I was stunned. He might as well have asked if I’d ever thought about being President of the United States. It seemed so out of the realm. The idea that I could live in the world of words was the greatest thing I had ever heard of. I feel so fortunate and blessed to abide here, and to have so many nurturing, creative, and stable people to share this world with me.

7. What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your life?

There have been a lot of them! My (then) husband nearly died from a pulmonary embolism when we were a young couple with our first child. We almost lost our middle son in a near-drowning accident when he was 3. We lost our family house to foreclosure during the mortgage meltdown and had to start all over again with three young children. I later walked through a difficult divorce that took a huge toll on all of us.

But the greatest challenge was growing up with a mentally ill mom who, though she sought psychiatric help, was never able to achieve stability. I know she genuinely wanted to be the best kind of mother possible, and I am honored that I have gotten to have the dream she wanted for herself. Still, caring for my younger siblings while trying to raise myself in a world in which chaos could break loose at any moment was difficult. I have great empathy for those whose childhoods shaped them in ways that were less than beneficial. And I look with absolute awe at those who grew up with nurturing, present parents in calm environments. I think my biggest accomplishment has been giving to my own children a semblance of what I always wished for myself.

8. Have you made any decisions or choices that have surprised those around you?

Learning to ride a motorcycle at age 48 not only surprised those around me, it surprised me. My father was dying, my marriage of 25 years was ending, and everything in my life hurt. Then I learned to ride the motorcycle and I turned everything I thought I knew about myself on its head. I had never harbored a desire to ride a motorcycle before then, had no idea that it would be the path to freedom I was looking for. Within two years of learning to ride, I pursued a divorce, moved to French Polynesia, learned to rock and ice climb: My entire life dilated once I allowed myself to do this one thing. I now have a life beyond my wildest dreams, thanks in many ways to the motorcycle.

9. Who have you looked to for inspiration while creating your life? What have they taught you?

The women in my life who showed me what it means to be a mom were crucial when my kids were young. I had zero role models before becoming a mother myself, other than the example of what not to do. They taught me to ask for help when I needed it, to not try to power my way through everything. I can’t tell you how many phone calls I made: “Please stay on the phone with me for a while. I can’t do this.” They gave me permission to be vulnerable and to fall apart.

My first writing teacher, David L. Ulin, showed me what it looks like to live a creative life and I tried to follow his example. Since then, countless writer friends have modeled for me the kind of life I wanted and showed me how to achieve it. I owe many debts of gratitude to these wonderful people.

10. What TV shows, movies, music, or books have been particularly formative or important in your life?

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton showed me it was OK to stand apart from what the “cool” kids are doing. Emily Rapp’s writing (The Still Point of the Turning World) and her life inspired me to be as raw and honest as possible in my own writing. “West Side Story” inspired me to take pride in my from-the-wrong-side-of-the tracks upbringing. And Fonzie from “Happy Days” showed me what it means to be authentically me. (I still swoon for Henry Winkler.)

11. Are there any stories not told in media that you’d like to see represented?

Women on the road! I had a fabulous experience riding my motorcycle from Los Angeles to Milwaukee and back, and then later, to Washington State and back. Being on the road opened up the world for me, showed me that there were so many more options than I initially thought. And yet, we don’t see films or movies about women on the road very often, and when we do, they usually end in rape and/or death. Thelma & Louise had a fabulous, life-expanding road trip, but it included a rape and ended with death. There are countless versions—in film and in books—of beneficial and adventurous male road experiences. Where are the stories of women taking to the road in a life-expanding way?

When my 20-year-old daughter traveled solo in Europe, she was stopped regularly (by mostly men) asking her if she felt safe. I wish there were more stories that reflected how wonderful travel can be for women and fewer stories that try to scare us into smaller, more contained lives.

12. How often do you think about gender roles and whether your life matches what others might expect from your gender?

I think about gender a lot and am considering writing a book on how women lead differently from men, and how societal expectations and constraints (like marriage) can sometimes keep us limited. Though we have the keys to let ourselves out of many of those restraints, we don’t always know that we have them. There’s no question: My life doesn’t match what my parents and some of my siblings and friends would expect from my gender. But at this stage, I’m too content living fully and authentically to give their disapproval much thought. That said, I’d like to live in a world where women are more encouraged to fully inhabit their expansive lives. I love watching my daughter, who’s on the UCLA Triathlon Team and lives a massive, heart-centered life. She gives me great hope.

13. What wisdom have you gained in life that you think other people would benefit from knowing?

I’ve learned that friends and family are often quick to warn you about all the perils you might encounter if you take risky options. But no one tells you about the death that occurs, slowly, like the frog swimming in a pot of increasingly heated water, if you don’t put your true self on the line. When I listen to the fear that tries to cajole me into staying small, that fear multiplies like germs in a petri dish, taking over everything until it eventually frightens me into a full-scale retreat from life. I have to fight back. So I try to cajole myself into taking contrary action.

Photo courtesy of the author