Mary Karr: remembering the agonies and ecstasies of adolescence
Remember when your parents told you you'd always treasure your teenage years? So does Mary Karr, and with Cherry, she debunks that myth with all the dragon-slaying verve she brought to her 1995 best-selling memoir, The Liars' Club. "We all hit this age and get juiced on hormones, and our parents become gargoyles, and we ourselves become gargoyles. You're not estranged from your parents, you're also estranged with yourself," Karr said in a recent interview.
Cherry takes up where The Liars' Club left off, with Karr, a scrappy kid in Leechfield, Texas, hitting the wall of adolescence. But where her first memoir focused on her hard-drinking, troubled parents, here Karr turns her gaze inward. Cherry recalls her efforts at self-invention, or, as she writes, "to manufacture a whole new bearing or being, some method of maneuvering along the hallways that will result in some less vigorous psycho-social butt-whippings than those endured in junior high. . . . By fall you arrive at school a whole new creature."
"I felt like I was strapping things onto myself," said the author, who retains a hint of Texan drawl. "One day I would want to be a hippie and then a surfer, then Emily Dickinson. You change a million times."
The agony boys endure as teens may not be easier, but Karr thinks it makes for a better story. "Male adolescence is James Dean and Mick Jagger and Kurt Cobain. It's a celebrated form. It's got dramatic action. For women you just hit that age, you begin morphing in ways that make you foreign to yourself. A girl's feelings are so interior, there's no language for them," she said.
"There is no language light enough to write about masturbation, passion, longing for someone else. We don't get sexual the way boys do. You don't want someone to boff you into guacamole, which the average boy at that age does, you want something much more generalized. It does have sexual feeling attached to it, but it's less linear, less of a story from point A to point B. You want John Cleary [her enduring first crush] to skate over and couple skate with you. Those images have erotic feelings attached to them in a way most men would not fathom. I know from my own experience those things were very titillating."
To depict the precise feelings she remembered, Karr wrote a mountain of drafts and revised without mercy. "I just felt like I was wrestling a dragon. It was very hard," she said. "I probably wrote and threw away 500 pages before I started aggregating pages, and I threw away another 200 pages. Even to find the voice, that sense of estrangement from yourself, changes. It's different in the 6th grade than in the 9th grade. I tried to give that sense of change with each age. I did it by writing it really badly 87 times, finally hitting on a noise that sounded true to me, and I thought oh, yeah, we can work with this."
One of the sections Karr felt she could work with describes the dazzle of first love and the sexual feelings awakened when John Cleary kissed her. "Some unnamed luster has rushed into your pelvis with whole swirling star colonies and nebulae, and to withdraw your mouth from his would extinguish that glitter and leave you shivering cold."
"I'm sure my memory is flawed," she said and laughed. "I'm waiting for someone to file a lawsuit. I don't want to record every dot and tittle of my often pedestrian experience." Instead, she seeks the resonant moment and gives it shape through language.
Karr, who's written three books of poetry said, "I'm invigorated by language. Poetry saved my life. Really transformed me, really saved me." The magic of words helped her escape a father bowed by "an alcohol-soaked heaviness" and a pill-popping mother who put Karr on birth control before she turned 15.
Filtering memory through language is "an inefficient process. It means spending a lot of time alone in a room. You get ambushed," said Karr. "I have to find the story within the story, to write my way to what is most true. "
That sense of truth, of resonance is why the memoir form has become so popular, Karr believes. "I think the form that reveals the most about a culture is the favored form. With memoir, there's an intimacy, a sense of emotional engagement. People are lonely for each other."
If she remembers more than her friends do about that time, it's because she's worked at it. The process of memory for her involves filtering the past through the self she has become. "When you're sobbing your guts out because you have to wear ugly clothes and your mother says you'll look back on this and laugh -- and you do. It's that sort of looking back."
Though Karr still thinks of Texas as home, she prefers to do her looking back from a distance. Now a professor of English at Syracuse University, she left home at 17. She may not have known who she was but she knew she had to leave Leechfield and her family. "No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to," she writes.
She and her druggie bunch of friends lit out for Los Angeles in 1972 in a cross-country adventure she thought meant she'd escaped her past. It turned out Karr took a lot of her problems with her.
"I buried people," she said. "Many people of my generation did. So many of the people in this book died of AIDS, overdose, got hit by cars in the witness protection program, ended up in prison. It's a happy accident that I am none of those things. I didn't realize I had felt guilty until I wrote this book. I don't miss anything about drugs. I don't even drink. When I did that stuff, I drove into things and my life was unpleasant. There's no reason I'm not dead. I feel I dodged a bullet someone else caught. I feel I'm way ahead of the game."
She has emerged from the past not unscarred but with her basic core, what she calls her "Same Self" remarkably intact. And as Cherry proves, she's lived to tell the tale.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.
Author photo by Philippe Bordas.