Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr. Harper Collins. 386 pages
Her family drank. As a girl she sat with her father in bars and sipped from his beer cans. On her first trip home as a college freshman, at Christmas, her father picked her up at the bus station and offered her a swig of the whiskey he’d hidden under his truck’s seat. “The bottle gleamed in the air between us,” Mary Karr writes in her latest memoir, Lit. “I took the whiskey, planning a courtesy sip. But the aroma stopped me just as my tongue touched the glass mouth. The warm silk flowered in my mouth and down my gullet, after which a little blue flame of pleasure roared back up my spine. A poof of sequins went sparkling through my middle.”
Until then, in high school and college, drugs had been her preferred escape. But that day in the truck, her birthright of drink claimed her. She dropped out of Macalester College—which had admitted the poor girl from a redneck Texas town in the first place, she says, out of pity and oversight—at the end of her sophomore year. Why? She didn’t know, at the time. But it’s hard to keep on track when you feel empty and lost.
Karr’s family was epically dysfunctional. Her mother was often drunk and was disordered in some major narcissistic way that could flare into psychosis. What parental love Karr felt seemed to come from her father, who as a dedicated alcoholic wasn’t reliable and who likewise neglected her. In this atmosphere, in which she never got “that sense of acceptance and security” kids need, she and her older sister had to raise themselves as best they could.
In Lit Karr looks back at herself from the vantage point of twenty years of sobriety; we know she’s in a safe place and so can enjoy her harrowing pilgrimage. I don’t envy Karr her material, however plucky her voice and chipper her attitude as she stares into the abyss—but my gosh what a delicious book this is.
She’s a master at making scenes (chapters typically begin with some authorial musing and summary, with visual snippets, before fading into a major scene that renders experience and that propels the narrative). And her mordant humor (a gift from her colorful mother, as were her literary ambitions) underscores the larger awareness that seems always to have been there. Poets write well, of course, and Karr has some interesting moves. Like sometimes starting sentences with a verb: “Fitful, this rest is.” “Worried, I must have been, about . . .”; or the noun: “The child-abuse tour, she jokes it is, for my agenda is to double-check my words against . . .”
Early in the story, Karr the college dropout is tending bar and trying to get her poems published. A side gig teaching retarded women at a group home finally seals her resolve to become a poet. A snippet shows her prose’s smooth clarity and its colloquial kick:
As staff people herded them in I felt my armpits grow damp. The faster ladies spilled into the room around me like kids lining up for a pony ride. A flat-faced woman with the severe and snaggled underbite of a bulldog stood introducing herself with a handshake before she sat. I’m Marion Pinski, she said. P like Polack Pinski. She wore a brown beret flat atop her head like nothing so much as a cow pie.
Alongside her squeezed other women, whose heads seemed as small as dolls’. Under narrow shoulders, their bodies went mountainously soft. And they were mushroom pale, as if they’d been grown underground. It’s a shocking thing to face all at once so many kecked-up, genetically disadvantaged humans. In a country that values power and ease and symmetry, velocity and cunning, kinks in their genetic code had robbed them of currency.
A romance with Mr. Right seemed part of a steady, if labored, upward arc. So her mismatched marriage is poignant: Karr calls her patrician husband, also a poet, “Warren Whitbread”—as in complex white bread—and it’s hard to say whether, at base, they didn’t love one another or whether they each were just too damaged. He was from a wealthy WASP family and hers was poor blue-collar. His withdrawal from Karr, her chaotic family and her emotional plight, feels about as bad as her self-destructiveness. But Warren also grew up feeling unloved, and Karr paints his chilly parents’ sins as more inexcusable than those of her own because, in her house, cruelty wasn’t deliberate but “the haphazard side effect of being shitfaced.”
And yet, she says, “Poetry will deliver him from his stultifying fate as it will me from my turbulent one.” Literature delivered them separately, however. (In her subsequent affair with David Foster Wallace, whom she got to know in AA, we see another brilliant intellectual brought low enough by addiction to learn coping skills from bikers and hookers.)
In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” Karr said Lit took seven years to write largely because she kept trying to get her marriage and divorce right. She threw away 500 pages in August 2008 in which her ex was an angel and as many in January 2009 in which she was the wretch. “It was so horrible,” she said of the process. The third version felt to her finally balanced.
In her 1995 bestseller The Liar’s Club, Karr wrote about her chaotic early life. Cherry, in 2000, dealt with her adolescence and high school years. Lit reprises the highlights of the earlier books and covers Karr’s early adulthood, marriage, motherhood, and early middle age, with her growing alcoholism and her slow, erratic and precarious recovery the through line.
Karr reluctantly turns to Alcoholics Anonymous and prayer as she tries to get sober. Almost immediately, good things begin to happen, including an unasked-for $35,000 writing grant; at that time, she’d written one ignored book of poetry. With this windfall, her angry rejection of faith weakens a notch. Her ragtag AA fellows, whom she had largely scorned as losers, begin to coalesce for her into a safety net, their community based on “radical equality.” Their small kindnesses humble her. Slowly she begins to widen her concern from herself to them and their struggles.
And here Lit begins to achieve its greatness, as Karr documents how, kicking and cursing, the canny, heartbroken little atheist gradually became the humbled soul who got religion. For a writer of her gifts to document such a thing is valuable. And I wish she’d said even more—more about God, revealing her conception of her deity, if she has one (one female AA buddy told her she prays to the sane part of herself—the kingdom of heaven indeed within). But describing the God you do or don’t believe in is more taboo than anything. In understandable deference to her large audience, assumed to be unbelievers, Karr holds back. She and her publisher may be too concerned for their tender feelings, but her trying to explain faith to the secular world without seeming idiotic or preachy gives Lit a nice tension.
Prayer, if not God, helped her kick booze. And yet, when Karr got sober she got suicidal. Pitched by depression off the folding steel chairs at her AA meetings, she landed in a locked mental ward. She had drunk to ease the pain that years of therapy hadn’t touched. She’d drunk out of an abiding sadness. Make no mistake: this is a sad story, the sequel to a “tortured and lonely” childhood, made tolerable by humor and a happy outcome.
In the loony bin, abandoned by her colleagues and writer friends (yet not forgotten by her posse of recovering drunks), Karr at last truly surrendered to prayer and humbly asked God’s help. She’d feared that such capitulation would erase her individuality, but found it delivered her unto herself. And still she quibbled about the meaning of words like will and care—so much so that her support group votes “that I’ve surrendered already and am just being a bitch about it.” To their will she yields, another softening of her egoistic armor. Her buddies have her write a list of what she feels angry, hurt, or self-reproachful about—from being raped as a child to her minor unfaithfulness to a boyfriend in college—and the litany runs to almost eighty pages. A marathon session with an ancient priest, whose own pre-ecclesiastical life was far from holy, helps ease her shame.
Even today, one senses, her path wasn’t forever smoothed. Her equanimity takes a daily spiritual discipline. In a powerful summation regarding an unhappy childhood’s legacy, Karr indicates she remains vulnerable to a species of fragility and suffering:
When you’ve been hurt enough as a kid (maybe at any age), it’s like you have a trick knee. Most of your life, you can function as an adult, but add in the right proportions of sleeplessness and stress and grief, and the hurt, defeated self can bloom into place.
Aside from Karr’s considerable gifts as a writer, we keep reading because she’s the story’s hero—we root for her, her own worst enemy—and she rises. Karr learns to live with herself by managing herself. Which means coming to terms with her brokenness and her understandable anger and her mother, whom she loved and hated, almost became, and was able to forgive. Prayer, this ancient answer, did it, along with community and service to others.
Karr documents a transformation that enabled her to own her own faults and misdeeds—her own badness and sin, in her words—instead of blaming all her dysfunction on her abundantly dysfunctional parents. I found this a moving testament to the healing power of a spiritual discipline. In our time, this is underestimated, in comparison with psychotherapy, certainly. The sources of Karr’s misery—let it be said—were in no way connected to religious “guilt” (quite the opposite); instead, traditional devotion, admittedly preceded by twenty years of therapy, shattered her prison of pain and anger.
I’m amazed by Karr’s accomplishment as a writer in this inspiring memoir and moved by her journey as a human. Lit is a generous, yeasty book that elevates Karr’s “journey into awe” into literature.