May 19, 2024

Dog Training Points Trained Companions

Happy Paws, Trained Hearts

Review of “My Beloved Monster,” a memoir by Caleb Carr

4 min read

Over the years, my wife and I have been blessed with 15 cats, three rescued from the streets of Brooklyn, three from barns near our home in Vermont, one from a Canadian resort and the others from the nearby shelter, where my wife has volunteered as a “cat whisperer” for the most emotionally scarred of its feline inhabitants for years. Twelve of our beloved pets have died (usually in our arms), and we could lose any of our current three cats — whose combined age is roughly 52 — any day now. So, I am either the best person to offer an opinion on Caleb Carr’s memoir, “My Beloved Monster,” or the worst.

For the many who have read Carr’s 1994 novel, “The Alienist,” an atmospheric crime story set in 19th-century New York, or watched the Netflix series it inspired, Carr’s new book might come as something of a surprise. “My Beloved Monster” is a warm, wrenching love story about Carr and his cat, a half-wild rescue named Masha who, according to the subtitle of his book, in fact rescued Carr. The author is, by his own admission, a curmudgeon, scarred by childhood abuse, living alone and watching his health and his career go the way of all flesh.

What makes the book so moving is that it is not merely the saga of a great cat. Libraries are filled with books like that, some better than others. It’s the 17-year chronicle of Carr and Masha aging together, and the bond they forged in decline. (As Philip Roth observed, “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”) He chronicles their lives, beginning with the moment the animal shelter begs Carr to bring the young lioness home because the creature is so ferocious she unnerves the staff — “You have to take that cat!” one implores.

Interspersed throughout Carr’s account of his years with Masha are his recollections of all the other cats he has had in his life, going back to his youth in Manhattan. And there are a lot. Cats often provided him comfort after yet another torment his father, the writer Lucien Carr, and stepfather visited upon him. Moreover, Carr identifies so deeply with the species that as a small child he drew a self-portrait of a boy with a cat’s head. He knows a great deal about cats and is eager to share his knowledge, for instance about the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of their mouths that helps them decide if another creature is predator or prey. His observations are always astute: “Dogs tend to trust blindly, unless and until abuse teaches them discretion. … Cats, conversely, trust conditionally from the start.”

Carr, now 68, was a much younger man when he adopted Masha. Soon, however, they were joined at the hip. As the two of them bonded, the writer found himself marveling at what he believed were their shared childhood traumas, which move between horrifying and, in Carr’s hands, morbidly hilarious: “I began to accept my father’s behavior in the spirit with which he intended it … he was trying to kill me.” Man and cat shared the same physical ailments, including arthritis and neuropathy, possibly caused by physical violence in both cases. Carr allowed Masha, a Siberian forest cat, to go outside, a decision many cat owners may decry, but he defends it: “Masha was an entirely different kind of feline,” and keeping her inside “would have killed her just as certainly as any bear or dog.” Indeed, Masha took on fishers and bears (yes, bears!) on Carr’s wooded property in Upstate New York.

But bears and dogs are humdrum fare compared with cancer and old age, which come for both the novelist and his cat. Carr’s diagnosis came first, and his first concern was whether he would outlive Masha. (The existence of the book gives us the answer he didn’t have at the time.) Illness adds new intensity to the human-feline connection: “Coming back from a hospital or a medical facility to Masha was always particularly heartening,” Carr writes, “not just because she’d been worried and was glad to see me, but because she seemed to know exactly what had been going on … and also because she was so anxious to show that she hadn’t been scared, that she’d held the fort bravely.”

Sometimes, perhaps, Carr anthropomorphizes too much and exaggerates Masha’s language comprehension, or gives her more human emotion than she had. But maybe not. Heaven knows, I see a lot behind my own cats’ eyes. Moreover, it’s hard to argue with a passage as beautiful as this: “In each other’s company, nothing seemed insurmountable. We were left with outward scars. … But the only wounds that really mattered to either of us were the psychic wounds caused by the occasional possibility of losing each other; and those did heal, always, blending and dissolving back into joy.”

Like all good memoirs — and this is an excellent one — “My Beloved Monster” is not always for the faint of heart. Because life is not for the faint of heart. But it is worth the emotional investment, and the tissues you will need by the end, to spend time with a writer and cat duo as extraordinary as Masha and Carr.

Chris Bohjalian is the best-selling author of 24 books. His most recent novel, “The Princess of Las Vegas,” was published last month.

Masha, the Half-Wild Rescue Cat Who Rescued Me

Little, Brown. 435 pp. $29

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