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Lit: A Memoir

Karr had been a binge drinker, but too poor to indulge every day; when she got pregnant shortly after the death of her beloved Daddy, she quit altogether. The 1986 birth of her son, Devereux, ended "the perennial estrangement I've powered through the world running from…the instant his gaze brushes by me, some inner high beams flip on. Never have I felt such blazing focus for another living creature."

Yet soon she was drinking again, her first beer handed to her by her now-sober-but-still-crazy mother as a breastfeeding aid. Karr does not play the blame game as she ticks off the ordinary stresses of new motherhood—a croupy baby up half the night, a husband who sleeps through it all because he has to get up and go to work in the morning—that do not lead most new mothers to gulp whisky as they rise to tend a coughing infant. Every alcoholic knows the endless string of vows to quit endlessly broken, and every parent, even a teetotaler, knows the guilt of having your child see you out of control (in Karr's case, when three-year-old Dev was drawn out of the bath by the sound of his mother and father screaming at each other). A drunken car accident finally prompted her to give up alcohol for good.

Sobriety was quickly followed by a prestigious literary grant and a business card from a high-powered agent. (The latter had heard Karr telling stories about her parents over dinner, and suggested she write a memoir.) It was also followed by crippling depression—an aftereffect of the rage, sadness, and panic that had been blunted by years of alcohol abuse. She joined a "Sunday study group" at a local halfway house, whose residents had far grimmer stories than her own. But though her encounters with them quickly disabused her of the notion "that I am the most disadvantaged person trying to get sober," she still felt awful. Suicide seemed the only way to stop the pain; Karr began driving around with a hose and duct tape in the trunk of her car, hearing "the dull racket of my head's own Chihuahua-like bark—death death death."

I wept as I read Karr's explanation of what stopped her: "suddenly flying through me comes a new image of Dev charging around my study with his red cape behind him. He's coming for me, I think, like a superhero. He's flying me out of myself." Karr promptly drove to the halfway house and asked them to call her psychiatrist, "because I'm fixing to off myself." A doctor there checked her into a psychiatric hospital.

Karr's account of the spiritual awakening that completed her recovery occupies most of the book's final 100 pages. Here again, her intimately exact delineation puts lesser memoirists to shame. Before her hospitalization, she had resisted the calls of fellow addicts who pushed her to put her problems in the hands of a higher power if she was serious about getting well. Karr had grudgingly tried to pray, and had even found it helpful a few times, but it was a willed action. She didn't really get it until she spontaneously dropped to her knees behind a door in the hospital to pray for patients even more desperate than she:

But around me I feel gathering—let's concede I imagine it—spirit. Such vast quiet holds me, and the me I've been so lifelong worried about shoring up just dissolves like ash in water. Just isn't. In its place is this clean air. There's a space at the bottom of an exhale, a little hitch between taking in and letting out that's a perfect zero you can go into. There's a rest point between the heart muscle's close and open—an instant of keenest living when you're momentarily dead. You can rest there…I creak to my feet, feeling lucky.

The physical specificity of Karr's imagery, the modest acknowledgment that this is her personal perception of what happened, forestalls any whiff of I-saw-the-light cliché. "Faith is a choice like any other," she writes, and she makes no attempt to encourage others to emulate her choice; this is, simply stated, what saved her life. She finds God but doesn't lose her sense of humor: the chapter in which Karr describes joining the Catholic Church after sampling various other denominations is titled "God Shopping."

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