Salvation in a bottle
Mary Karr comes clean in a riveting third memoir
She may be 20 years sober and a Catholic convert, but don’t get the wrong impression—Mary Karr is no “candy-ass” (her word). She’s still the tough, scrappy outlaw that readers were introduced to in her first memoir, The Liars’ Club.
When it was published in 1995, The Liars’ Club offered a searing portrait of Karr’s hardscrabble Texas childhood that raised the art of the memoir to a new level and brought about a revival of the genre. In her follow-up, Cherry, she recalled the wild ride of her adolescence and her sexual coming-of-age. Her third memoir, Lit, more than 10 years in the making, details how Karr ultimately emerged from her troubled upbringing triumphant, but not before a descent into alcoholism and near-madness.
A recent call to her New York home confirms that Karr indeed hasn’t lost her edge. The conversation—briefly interrupted by a call from the dean of Syracuse University, where she teaches English, and the arrival of her “heroic” assistant, without whom, she says, she would be “like an overfilled Macy’s balloon”—proves lively and candid.
“I’ll tell you,” she says with only the faintest trace of a Texas drawl, “this is the first book I’ve been excited to promote. This is what my life’s about now . . . how I became a mother, my relationships, my spiritual practice, my nervous breakthrough. Those things are so much closer to who I am now. This is what I talk to people about. Even if people think I’m an idiot, I’m interested in having the conversation with readers.” And readers, whether familiar with Karr’s previous work or not, will be riveted.
Never shying away from self-scrutiny, she explores the dissolution of her marriage, the joy and pain of motherhood, her father’s stroke and death, her fraught relationship with her own mother and her professional setbacks and successes in equal measure. This account of the latter part of her life is as unsparing and unsentimental as her first two memoirs and, like the others, by turns hilarious and gut-wrenching. She again brings to the task her acerbic wit and a poet’s eye for lyrical detail.
In search of the stable home she lacked as a child, Karr married a handsome, patrician poet and with him has an adored son, Dev. But over time, she drank herself into the disease that nearly destroyed her mother. Her path included, among other detours, a stint in “The Mental Marriott,” a famous asylum, where she found wisdom in unlikely places.
Asked how writing this book was discernibly different from writing the other two, Karr laughs, “Well, for one, I’m clearly the asshole. I think that’s the big thing.” She adds, “The hardest thing for me about writing these books is how to handle the emotional and moral questions, and this one obviously posed a lot of moral questions. You know, how do you write about your child? How do you write about someone you’re divorced from?” She says that, toward the end of the process, she ending up throwing away 525 finished pages of work.
She’d been working on the book for seven years, and her editor was pressuring her to turn in a finished manuscript. “I said, look, y’all could publish this, and it’s technically true, in that I didn’t make up the events, but it didn’t feel true. I mean, the other thing was when I wrote about the religious stuff I had a very hard time not sounding like one of those evangelists saying send me a dollar.”
Writing about religion, she concedes, is tricky business. “It’s very hard to write about. It’s like doing card tricks on the radio, I think—writing about prayer and spiritual experience to people who mostly think you’re an idiot. On the other hand it was an important part of my story, and I felt obligated to represent it, not in any evangelical way. . . . I know this sounds insane, but I believe that God wanted me to write this book. That doesn’t mean that God wants the book to succeed by any measure.”
She’s unapologetic about her faith, and anticipates a backlash from critics and “professional atheists” alike. “Believe it or not . . . I’m an extremely private person. You really wouldn’t know that, even though I’m pretty open and honest about things that other people would not be open about, but the degree to which I care about my reputation is pretty limited. I really gave that up long before I published anything anybody read. I think you have to [do that] as a writer or else you’ll go insane. My fear [in writing about faith] wasn’t so much that people would look at me and think I was a candy-ass, as that I wouldn’t represent it truly—I wouldn’t be able to recreate an experience in the reader that matched and mirrored my experience. I wouldn’t be able to create an emotional experience for a secular audience. That’s what I was most scared about.”
Karr manages to write about spirituality without ever coming across as didactic or preachy—no small feat. “Well, on two earlier drafts I did,” she confesses. “Hopefully I corrected that.”
In one passage, she eloquently describes her first stirrings of faith, a brush with the numinous: “I feel some fleet movement travel through my chest—a twinge, a hint. This faint yearning was not belief itself, but wanting to believe.”
She says her transformation would never have been possible without her mother’s recovery from alcoholism. “I honestly think if my mother had not gotten sober, there’s no way. . . . She gave the whole family a great gift.”
“I was so scared and so mean all the time,” she says of her pre-sobriety days. “I do feel like my life has been transformed and is better than I could ever have imagined. I’m so much more in it. I have more life now in a day than I used to have in a year.”
Karr’s entire body of work attests to this simple truth: that the past, until you reckon with it, will remain in hot pursuit. In other words, what you don’t bring into the light will destroy you. Lit brings this process full circle. That pleasingly monosyllabic title encapsulates this writer’s entire journey thus far—one that is about drinking and the illuminating revelations of sobriety, about the redemptive power of literature and how the act of writing can save a soul.
Katherine Wyrick is a writer in Little Rock.
Excerpt from Lit:
Age seventeen, stringy-haired and halter-topped, weighing in the high double digits and unhindered by a high school diploma, I showed up at the Pacific ocean, ready to seek my fortune with a truck full of extremely stoned surfers. My family, I thought them to be, for such was my quest—a family I could stand alongside pondering the sea. We stood as the blue water surged toward us in six-foot coils.
No way am I going in that, I said, being a sissy at heart. My hair was whipping around.
Wasn't that the big idea? Doonie snapped back, rifling through the back for towels and a wet suit. He was my best friend and maybe the biggest outlaw, point man on our missions. He tended to land the most spectacular girls. The ocean roar was majestic enough that I quoted robert Frost:
The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in
And thought of doing something to the shore
Water had never done to land before . . .
Pretty, Doonie said.
Quinn spat in the sand and said, She's always like Miss Brainiac, or something, or like she's fine.
He zipped up his outsize wet suit with force. The crotch of it hung down so low that for him to walk, he had to cowboy swagger.
My hair was three days without soap, and my baggy cutoffs were held up with a belt of braided twine a pal of ours made in prison.
That's me, I said. Miss California.
Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers, from Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr (2009).
More from Mary Karr:
On religion: “The Catholic Church didn’t designate me a spokesperson. I’m sure the Catholic Church, many people, wouldn’t approve wholeheartedly of my particular brand of Catholicism. I mean, I have sex outside of wedlock . . . I do things the Catholic Church frowns on to say the least.”
On alcohol: “We have no business drinkin’, our people.” Describing a moment on her wedding day, she writes, “Drinking to handle the angst of Mother’s drinking—caused by her own angst—means our twin dipsomanias face off like a pair of mirrors, one generation offloading misery to the other through dwindling generations, back through history to when humans first fermented grapes.”