Lulu: The Cat The New Yorker Left Behind

Years and years ago, I wrote a "Talk of the Town" story for The New Yorker about Carole Wilbourn, a cat therapist who started making house calls on troubled New York City cats decades before Cesar Millan whispered to dogs or Jackson Galaxy braved cats from hell.

Carole Wilbourn, who was New York City's first cat therapist, is still practicing today. She's the author of several books, including Cats on the Couch, and has appeared many times on radio and TV. Veterinarians consult her frequently. "Emotional problems can cause medical problems," Carole told me then. "That's why you have to treat the total cat." She has a monthly blog, The Wilbourn Way.

My piece, which was about visits to cats named Byron and Ned, has just been reprinted in The Big New Yorker Book of Cats. (Byron was being terrorized by his father, Little Guy; and Ned was mourning the death of a cat named Buster.)

I didn't get many "Talk" stories into the magazine, so this was a big moment. But it always troubled me that Lulu, the third cat Carole and I went to see, never made it into The New Yorker. And Lulu had the most poignant story of all. But the legendary Mr. Shawn, New Yorker editor for 36 years, dropped her from the magazine at the last minute -- because (I was later told) he wasn't comfortable with cats in heat or with the possibility that a cat might have been deliberately injured.

Seeing Byron and Ned back in print after all this time started me thinking all over again about poor Lulu, who never got the recognition she deserved. I dug up my original manuscript, which I guess in her honor I'd always held onto. So now, finally, here is Lulu, as I wrote about her then:

Lulu: Lulu, a small, sleek black cat with yellow eyes, probably five years old, lives with her person, Mardi, in a studio apartment on Jane Street. "I called on Carole to help Lulu overcome some of her fears," Mardi said.

Lulu is afraid of many things: unexpected noises, tall men with deep voices, anything that waves over her head, teenagers, anyone in a heavy coat, laughter, closed closet doors, paper, paper bags, and, especially, oven doors. Mardi's apartment, cheerful and cluttered, is full of plants and has posters of polar bears and gorillas.

Carole began by spending about 15 minutes questioning Mardi, as the two women sat on facing white wicker loveseats. Lulu was on Mardi's lap, watching her whenever she spoke. Mardi, a tall, striking woman with large luminous eyes, is a dancer, actress, and a seamstress who designs costumes for Broadway shows.

"Three years ago on a cold winter afternoon," Mardi said softly, stroking Lulu, "I saw a smoky gray cat, terribly thin, lying on a subway grate to keep warm. My first thought was 'Poor child! I hope she doesn't die.' Both her front legs were broken. She spent months in a cast and wouldn't even leave my bathroom. Every day I held her in my arms for hours. From smoky gray she turned white, and then pepper-and-salt, and only then black. She's come a long way -- at first she was so terrified of sunlight she wouldn't go near the window. And so frightened of the TV set, even when it was off, that for a while I had to keep it covered with a cloth. I gradually realized that she must have been hurt on purpose."

Carole agreed. "Where does she sleep?"

"With me," Mardi said. "I don't mind -- she's not a hog. Sometimes she cries in her sleep. I named her after the Lulu in Berg's opera. They both had such tragic lives."

Carole got down on the floor and observed Lulu for about ten minutes. She gave Lulu some catnip, but Lulu wasn't responsive. She gave Lulu a hand-stitched red toy mouse, which Lulu knocked about. Then Carole got up and retired to a corner to write up her diagnosis and suggested treatment. Lulu retreated to Mardi's lap. In about ten minutes Carole snapped her pocketbook shut, and Lulu threw her arms around Mardi's neck. Mardi hugged her.

"Lulu's kittenhood was full of trauma," Carole said. "She may have had a TV set thrown at her, or been kept in a closet, or even an oven. I think she is clearly reliving these experiences, over and over."

Carole took a deep breath and continued. "I don't think Lulu was always the angel she is now. Far from it."

"Lulu?" Mardi said, her eyes widening.

"When you found her she was unspayed, which means she was in and out of heat -- probably yowling for days on end, and biting people. Attack cats are often confined Toms and females who are experiencing constant and intense frustration. Maybe Lulu was driving her people crazy, and they said, 'If you don't stop it, out the window you go!'"

Mardi held Lulu closer. "Were you like that? Hmm?"

"She has an abandonment complex," Carole went on. "Get a vet to prescribe anti-anxiety medication, and keep her on it for several months. That way she won't be so thin-skinned, thinking, Oh! a closet door! Oh! the oven! Oh! a teenager in a heavy coat! Lulu also has the single-cat syndrome. Another cat would be great -- cats need cat interaction."

"My place is too small," Mardi said.

"Try giving Lulu green olives and melon -- they act as aphrodisiacs. She's been spayed, so she'll feel sexy but not frustrated. Massage her. Compliment her. Leave soft music on when you're not home."

When we spoke to Mardi a few weeks later, she said she was reluctant to put Lulu on drugs. "I'm sure it would help," she said, "but it goes against my grain. I'll keep on massaging and complimenting her, and I guess at her own pace she'll keep on getting better and better."

That was how my "Talk of the Town" piece about Lulu ended. All these years later, I got an update. According to a neighbor on Jane Street, Lulu's self-esteem improved beautifully; though still shy, she grew calmer, more self-assured and outgoing. Mardi got interested in pigeons, and kept a rescue pigeon, which she named Streetdove, in the apartment. Lulu became friends with Streetdove.