Sleeping with Cats – A Memoir

Marge Piercy, a writer who is highly praised as both a poet and a novelist, turns her gaze inward as she shares her thoughts on life and explores her development as a woman and writer. She pays tribute to the one loving constant that has offered her comfort and meaning even as the faces and events in her life have changed — her beloved cats.

In this moving and generous memoir, Marge Piercy shares her perspectives on life and explores her development as a woman and a writer. Throughout, she revisits the people, circumstances, and actions that shaped her experiences and inspired her writing and political work as well her many love affairs and friendships. And, she pays tribute to the one loving constant that offered her comfort and meaning even as the faces and events in her life changed: her beloved cats.
With searing honesty Piercy tells of her strained childhood growing up poor in a religously split working-class family in Detroit. She examines her myriad friendships and relationships, including two painful early marriages, and reveals the effects on her creativity and career. More than a reminiscence of things past, however, Sleeping With Cats is also a celebration of the present and the future, as Piercy shares her thoughts on aging, poetry, the writing life, social action, sexuality, spirituality, religion, and finding a lasting and improbable love with a man fourteen years younger than herself.

The turbulent and exciting journey of one artist’s life, this is a deeply intimate, unforgettable story. Every chapter opens with a poem reflective of her emotional life at the time as well as never-before-seen photographs.


Exuberant Praise for Sleeping with Cats:

“An enriching pleasure is here for the taking: a lovingly written memoir by a woman in touch with what matters… If a story line is here, it is the near-miraculous one of a woman staying steady amid one personal discontinuity after another, one emotional battering after another. Praise is owed Piercy for her honest introspection. She is no score-settler or gut-fighter striking back at her emotionally cold father who never read a published word his daughter wrote, or at her obsessively controlling mother — or at the gods, for allowing the first 25 years of Piercy’s life to be, in her words, ‘unremittingly boxed in poverty.’ Confessionally, she presents herself not as the blameless heroine but as a person whose ‘best is often flawed and skewed. . . .My life has been full of blunders, misprisions, accidents, losses.’ The blunders include nearly three decades of sexual overdrive, with more bed mates, lovers, open marriage couplings than even John Updike could keep straight. In her concluding lines, Piercy writes: ‘Cats continue to teach me a lot of what is important in my life, and also, how short it is, how we need to express our love to those for whom we feel it, daily, nightly, in every way we can. With everyone we love, we have only a limited time, so we must learn to celebrate it body and soul. . . . Writing sometimes feels frivolous and sometimes sacred, but memory is one of my strongest muses. I serve her with my words. So long as people read, those we loved survive, however evanescently. As do we writers, saying with our life’s work, Remember. Remember us. Remember me.’ We will.”

The Washington Post


“The cats are the constant. Marge Piercy, feminist, activist and author of 15 novels, as many volumes of poetry and scores of essays, has rarely been without the solace of at least one feline companion. The cats, firmly placed in the emotional center of her memoir, “Sleeping With Cats,” do double duty, opening the doors to reflections on love,creativity and mortality.


Piercy begins in the present in the Cape Cod home she’s shared with her husband, writer Ira Wood, for the last 20 years. As she excavates memories, she keeps returning to this cat-filled house with its exuberant vegetable and flower gardens. These domestic interludes provide respite from the political and emotional tumult of a life packed with an ever-shifting cast of husbands, lovers and friends.


At age 65, Piercy has seized this moment to “reflect, reexamine, make amends and corrections–a sort of High Holidays of the soul in which I judge what I’ve done and left undone.” Piercy’s poetry has mined these emotions, and her fiction has grappled with social and political currents, but here she takes a much more deliberate path, attempting to illuminate the present through recounting her past. Although she announces that she will focus her account on her “emotional life, not on literary or political adventures,” the radical politics, feminism and cultural ferment of the ’60s, coupled with her unswerving commitment to her writing, provide the inextricable backdrop of her tale. Her fierce ambition to become a writer propels her beyond her rough Detroit childhood, a world laced with violence, street gangs, racism and prostitution. Born in 1936, she spent her early years in a family still reeling from the Depression. Her father installed and repaired heavy machinery for Westinghouse; her mother, a housewife, worked incessantly to keep their lives together. Although she credits her mother with introducing her to the joys of language through word games, neither of her parents understood her dreams: a college education, a literary life. Despite the lack of familial encouragement, by the age of 15 she had established the foundations of her future self. “In that year,” she writes, “I lost one of my best friends to a heroin overdose; my gentle intelligent cat was poisoned by neighbors because an Afro-American family was moving into our house; and my grandmother Hannah, to whom I was very close and who was my religious mentor, died of stomach cancer. My family moved to a larger house where I had a room of my own with a door that shut, and I began to write.” Years later, as an activist for civil rights, she realized that her militant feelings against racism had their roots in the murder of that cat.


Her reportorial voice, while often fierce and honest, can feel oddly removed from its subject. Although she brings her unflinching eye to her loves and marriages, she still seems baffled by her first brief marriage to a French student, who expected his wild writer bride to turn into a good Gallic housewife.
Her second marriage in 1960 “opened” in the middle of that decade, and its twists and turns with numerous partners over the next 10 years were often difficult for Piercy to negotiate. The recounting of confusion, pain and betrayal in the context of experimentation and liberation does not make for easy reading. In 1970, after living in New York City for several years, Piercy, whose work was beginning to be published, moved with her husband to Cape Cod, as a respite from the factional politics of the collapsing New Left and for relief from Piercy’s often debilitating emphysema. There, she set up priorities from which she’s scarcely wavered. “One of the things I chose explicitly was to put my writing first. Everything else in my life waxed and waned, but writing, I discovered during my restructuring, was my real core. Not any relationship. Not any love. Not any person.” Ex-husbands and old friends might fret over their characterizations, but Piercy is no softer on herself. “In the best of times I am not an easy woman to get along with, but when someone is estranged from me, I can be annoying indeed. Everything about me seems too much, too fast, too sure, too loud.”
Though she ultimately reconciled with her mother, her relationship with her father remained distant and difficult to the end. She is emphatic about not confusing familial obligations with affection: “In the retirement community facility, they imagined I adored my father because I fought them to accede to his wishes. Nonsense. I wasn’t going to put up with him, so they were going to have to.”


Writing about her cats, these limits dissolve; her prose expands and relaxes. As she sifts through the past, she sometimes seems irritated at failures of memory, the errors made, the destructive trajectory of relationships. In the end, it is the cats, the house, the present that resonate. The journey she depicts was not always pleasant; she has little nostalgia for days gone by. And she makes her case. Like her, the reader is content to return to the aging cats and writers sharing their lives and love in their house by the sea. ”
The Los Angeles Times Book Review


“Piercy’s Sleeping With Cats is the memoir of a woman who has refused to live her life according to the expectations of family, friends, lovers or literary followers. To the conventional-minded, some periods of her life may seem a tortuous path. But the streetwise girl who emerged from poverty has become one of America’s most respected authors. She calls herself “a stray cat who has finally found a good home,” and cats wander in and out of the memoir. Growing up in working-class Detroit, the child who became a writer began as a reclusive dreamer. She writes, “I found the space under the front porch mysterious, sandy and hung with spiderwebs. I loved the front porch, screened in by my father, with its creaky glider Icould lie on and stare up at the boards of the ceiling. That was one piece of furniture my cat was allowed on, so we curled up there together.”


She grew up among tough kids, the “riffraff” of poor or broken homes or foster children taken in for money from the state. Violence was a daily part of neighborhood and sometimes family life, her dogmatic father and overdramatic mother sometimes releasing their tamped-down hostility in odd ways: “The small front and back yards were war zones. He would run the lawnmower through her flower beds. She would dig up his sod and plant beans.”


Memories of Piercy’s elementary school are depressingly vivid — “the stench of urine and the yellow dirty halls and busted lockers, old books, old desks, and the contempt of the teachers for us and themselves.” For years afterward, whenever she dreamed of imprisonment, it was always that grade school she saw. Nevertheless, school became a way out of poverty and despair. Although her mother had been taken out of school in the 10th grade to go to work as a chambermaid, her father had finished high school and a technical school. Still, neither of them cared about their bright daughter’s academic successes in middle and high school. She believes they would much rather have had a “healthy flirtatious little girl, a sort of minor-league Shirley Temple.”


Piercy responded by becoming a part-time shoplifter and sexual adventurist rather than a Barbie.But the tough girl was also a voracious reader, devouring everything from James Frazer’s Golden Bough to William Faulkner to the New Yorker magazine, “sure I was becoming sophisticated with every page I turned.” When she was 15, she lost a best friend to a heroin overdose, her beloved grandmother Hannah died of stomach cancer, and neighbors poisoned her gentle, intelligent cat Fluffy after her family sold their house to an African-American doctor.


She withdrew from her street gang in favor of serious academic work, winning scholarships to college. At home the only being she talked to with total honesty was her cat; at college she became everyone’s counsel, dispensing advice like a soda machine and becoming “an emotional free lunch.” Unfortunately, upon graduation she married a French physics student, Michel, unable to see that she was “replicating the marriage of the cat and the dog, my parents’ fiasco.” Michel took her to live for a time in Paris with his family, who looked upon her with undisguised scorn. A cat named Jules became her confidant, the only one in the city who did not correct her French. Piercy’s attempt to draw identity from someone else failed, and she and Michel soon divorced. Her next marriage brought her a taste of middle-class life, ’60s style. Piercy writes: “This was life with the intensity dial turned as high as it could go. Intense friendships, intense sex, intense politics, intense pleasures and intense terrors.” What’s a bit daunting about Sleeping With Cats is not the intensity of Piercy’s love affairs but the sheer number of them. At one time during the heyday of “free love” and multiple relationships she was involved with five people simultaneously. She found that to be “exhausting,” however, and converted some of them back to friends. She notes blithely that men “seemed to come along as regularly as buses” and is confident that these experiences have made her a better writer. I must have been standing on the wrong corner during the ’60s. At any rate, the ’70s and ’80s brought her to the forefront of the women’s movement, where she discovered that what she had thought were personal problems were issues shared by many women. Today, Piercy lives happily and monogamously with her third husband, the writer Ira Wood, and their five cats on a farm on Cape Cod.


Sleeping With Cats is a fascinating look at someone who always aimed to be good but sometimes had to be satisfied with being “mildly wicked.” Marge Piercy certainly won’t be mistaken for a Barbie doll, but she’s a consistently powerful writer.”
The Houston Chronicle


“Born in the mid-1930s in a tough Detroit neighborhood, poet and novelist Piercy (Dances the Eagle to Sleep) fought grueling battles in her youth, involving difficult relationships with her parents, participation in a street gang and more. When she became pregnant at 17, her mother left her alone to perform an abortion on herself – she almost bled to death – and her hostile father once broke her fingers in the car door when she was late for a shopping trip. Piercy notes that her memoir’s focus is her emotional life, but that understates the book’s rich picture of her literary and political life. That life embraces 15 novels and just as many books of poetry, three marriages (one a 15-year open relationship in a communal household), sojourns in Chicago, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Paris, and a deep engagement in the political movements of the 1960s through the ’80s. She peppers these events with charming vignettes of the many cats she’s befriended during her life. Piercy is as convincing writing about her rough beginnings as she is describing her present status as the “cat lady” of her tiny Cape Cod town. “Remembering” she writes, “is like one of those old-fashioned black-and-white-tile floors: wherever I stand or sit, the tiles converge upon me. So our pasts always seem to lead us directly to our present choices. We turn and make a pattern of the chaos of our lives so that we belong exactly where we are.”
Publishers Weekly


“A beguilingly frank account of a fully engaged life, shared with cats. Detailing the changes that have roiled society since the Depression, as well as her relationships with family, friends, and lovers, Piercy provides a vivid historical and personal record of the late 20th century. Paralleling her own story are those of the cats she has known through her life. The personal and the political recollected with honesty and passion.”
Kirkus Reviews


“Esteemed novelist and poet Piercy loves cats, to the extent that “a spine of cats” has been the mainstay of her life. As she approaches her sixty-fifth birthday, she coaxes from her memory the “truth of events” as she can best interpret it from hindsight. Despite her insistence that her childhood is difficult to recall, the deprivations—even physical abuse—of those early years in Detroit are rendered in distinct hues. She joined a street gang specializing in petty theft; sexual adventure occupied not an inconsiderable amount of her teenage life. She attended college and endured two problematic marriages before she found her soul mate in her third husband. Through all the good times and bad times, Piercy has had cats to give her love and, figuratively, a shoulder to cry on. She mentions her writing, but more in passing, for this is primarily a memoir of family and friends—and cats have featured as both in her life. She is honest without having to spill blood and shed tears on every page. Although many of the events she shares are not unique, her resonant writing makes this a special book. ”


“Known for her feminism and political activism, writer Marge Piercy has long had another great passion: cats. They saunter in and out of the pages of her engrossing memoir, Sleeping with Cats, a book that candidly details the forces that shaped Piercy’s development as a leading poet, novelist and essayist. If you aren’t familiar with her work, there is much to discover, including 15 novels, 15 volumes of poetry and a book on the craft of writing, penned with her husband Ira Wood. Though she makes her home on rural Cape Cod, Piercy is a child of the city. Born and raised in Detroit, she had a Jewish mother and Protestant father. Both had difficulty relating to their scholarly, often rebellious daughter. Yet these hard-working blue-collar parents imbued her with a love of poetry. Though Piercy’s father was unhappy at home, he did something many other fathers don’t: he stayed. The ensuing family drama helped foster Piercy’s writing, and the family cats triggered a lifelong love and respect for felines. “My life has a spine of cats,” says Piercy. And so, they become central characters in this memoir. In fact, the author attributes her civil rights militancy to a cruel act wrought upon her beloved pet Fluffy. A boyfriend poisoned the cat in retaliation over the sale of her family’s house to an African-American doctor. “I understood hatred as I never had,” Piercy relates. That same year, a close friend died of a heroin overdose, and the author’s beloved grandmother passed away. The 15-year-old Piercy, who belonged to a girl gang, and was sexually active, did an about-face, becoming involved in school activities, studying Shakespeare, and reading and re-reading Faulkner. As a college student during the 1960s, she became an activist via the radical Students for a Democratic Society. Her metamorphosis as a feminist and a writer also encompassed myriad relationships – with women as well as men – and two failed marriages. Through it all, cats provided cheer and challenge. “The love of a cat is unconditional but always subject to negotiation,” Piercy says. “You are never entirely in charge.”
—American BookSellers Association BookPage


More Praise for Sleeping With Cats


“As a lover of literature and of cats, I was absolutely delighted with MargePiercy’s Sleeping with Cats. The book offers fascinating insights into Piercy’s life and impressive art and brilliantly articulates the profound connection between humans and animals. Already one of our finest novelists and poets, Piercy now emerges as a master of the memoir.”
—Robert Olen Butler


“There were no role models for women like me,’ Piercy confesses in her gripping memoir. Even back in the 1950s, she clung to the idea that the men in her life must treat her as an equal. She lost many men that way—but finally found true love. For feminists my age and younger, who still have so few role models, this book is a blessing, a much needed road map through the land of enlightened commitment.”
—Pagan Kennedy


“I would love this book for the poems alone—they are Marge Piercy at her most telling. But this book contains two kinds of poetry, the other of which is the prose story, dramatic and beautifully written, of an American life over the last 40 years by an author who is very much a figure of her times. The author is a fearless and exciting woman, who has written a book which, for all its insight and its beauty is also a page turner.”
—Elizabeth Marshall Thomas


“A touching and engaging memoir of a life boldly crammed with poetry and novels, lovers and friends, radical politics and feminism, and the cats who’ve shared it all. Because where would we be without cats?”
—Katha Pollitt


“Tough, smart, funny, honest, Sleeping with Cats is a revelation. It is not surprising that one of our major novelists has lived a life worthy of a novel, not surprising that one of our most important poets writes of that life with a poet’s sharp eye and a poet’s keen ear. This memoir focuses on the author’s emotional life. Here she reclaims the concept of love from the realm of the sentimental and the sensational, sharing a wisdom won through harsh experience and brave discovery. The book movingly charts the evolution of a writer’s voice and identity, in spite of numerous attempts to silence that voice and erase that identity. Most uniquely of all, this story is also a story of cats; as Marge Piercy puts it, “my life has a spine of cats.” The cats teach the author, and the author teaches us, teaching of time and struggle and writing and remembrance. “Remember. Remember us. Remember me,” says Marge Piercy. You will remember Sleeping with Cats.
—Martín Espada


“Marge Piercy is shameless; that is, she is that rarity, a free person. Her freedom enables her to write about her brilliant, fascinating life with honesty and gusto. It has also enabled her to create an existence rooted inthe most humane values. She is magnificent on the subject of cats. I lovedt his memoir.”
—Marilyn French


“Marge Piercy is a tough, loving, complicated ball of energy and combative intelligence who has lived a hundred lives with great passion, a fierce social conscience, and a lyrical drive to express the world in words. Here, she comes across as a wild soul who has dared almost everything, yet is gentle and compassionate to the core. This stimulating, intimate, and original memoir is a wonderful portrait of her struggle to become an artist, a lover, and an activist outside of the mainstream, a convoluted woman triumphantly free. It is honest to a fault, very touching at many levels, sexy, occasionally bizarre, a truly marvelous celebration of her committed and fascinating life. In the end, Marge seems to have discovered a peaceable kingdom that is wonderful and inspiring to behold: she has forged a powerful homeland. It took great courage to get there, and her telling of the journey hooked me immediately—I couldn’t put her adventure down.”
—John Nichols


William Morrow/HarperCollins
HardCover / 368 pages
ISBN 0-06-621115-8
Harper Perennial
SoftCover / 344 pages
ISBN 9-780060-936044
Available as an e-book