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Author MB Caschetta's Memoir Is an Enlightening, Witty Read

Author MB Caschetta's Memoir Is an Enlightening, Witty Read

MB Caschetta and book cover

The lesbian writer's memoir in essays spans topics ranging from sexual abuse to long COVID, AIDS activism to unexpected connections with nuns — all chronicled with honesty and wit.

Writing is how MB Caschetta makes sense of her life — and the gifted writer has had quite a life.

Her memoir in essays, A Cheerleader’s Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, deals with serious subjects such as sexual abuse by a family member, disinheritance by her father, losing friends to AIDS and other diseases, and suffering through long COVID — as well as some lighter ones, like finding out she’s the only person at a spiritual retreat who’s not a nun.

“I definitely need to write to understand what’s happened to me,” says Caschetta, who’s also the author of the prize-winning 2014 novel Miracle Girls and two short story collections.

A Cheerleader’s Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment collects essays she’s written since the 1990s. She chronicles growing up in the 1970s and ’80s in a traditional Italian Catholic family in upstate New York, in which breaking out of prescribed female roles was not OK. Her father had become a doctor after growing up working-class, her mother was a homemaker, and they had three sons to go with their one daughter. The title reflects the fact that Caschetta’s mother pushed her into becoming a cheerleader to make her something other than what she was: a book-loving budding lesbian who thought her only escape was the convent.

She did escape that family — and the brother who came into her bedroom at night but ceased when she told him to get out — by going to Vassar College, where she blossomed, and then to New York City, where she plunged into AIDS activism at the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s.

Caschetta’s book discusses this activism, including the sexism she sometimes encountered in the movement, plus her work as a freelance writer and editor of medical ad copy — mostly gigs she didn’t mind, but a few that were ethically questionable. She also goes into how she met her wife, the writer Meryl Cohn (a psychic and Oprah are involved), after relationships with some women who didn’t suit her, such as one who measured the health of their relationship based on their “athletic compatibility” — which they didn’t have. Caschetta and Cohn, who live in Massachusetts, were one of the first same-sex couples married there after marriage equality went into effect in the state in 2004.

Then there’s the family. Caschetta’s mother edged toward acceptance of her lesbian daughter (a grandmother was unconditionally supportive), and Caschetta thought she and her father had made peace with each other — until she found she was cut out of his will. She never learned exactly why; his lawyer assumed it was because she was a lesbian, but her family didn’t think so.

“The disinheritance piece was pretty hard to write,” she says. It originally appeared in a somewhat different form in The New York Times in 2011, and it generated a huge response from readers who’d had similar experiences.

“I just got email after email after email with really sad stories,” she says. She answered every one, and she still gets a couple a month.

Her brothers eventually made things right with her, sharing their inheritance. Not all siblings would do that, she notes.

Of writing about the difficulties within her family, she says, “I tried to tread really lightly on all that stuff, but that is my truth.” Her family members haven’t discussed these writings with her. “They either don’t read it, or they read it and don’t talk to me about it,” Caschetta says.

When she writes about her life, “part of the healthy stuff is finding the humor in the situation,” she explains, and she manages to do that throughout the collection. “I feel like humor saves me,” she says.

She’s still writing — both the medical writing and her creative work — and drawing as well. She started drawing during the COVID pandemic and produced a graphic novel, but no one wanted to publish it. She also began drawing a comic strip, “Long COVID Canary in a Coal Mine,” and she posts installments of the strip at her blog, Literary Rejections on Display, where she has shared rejection letters she’s received over years — a reality in the life of any writer. Additionally, Caschetta is working on a novel about an ACT UP-style group coming apart because science has delivered what the activists wanted — a cure.

A Cheerleader’s Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment has been well received. It’s garnered critical praise, and it was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award and the winner of a Bronze Independent Publisher Award in the category of Creative Nonfiction. Find out more about the collection at publisher Engine Books’ website.

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