Skip to content

Lit: A Memoir

Life's not fair—if it were, humans would not be so "variably gifted" at narrating the circumstances in which we each find ourselves. Take poet and autobiographer Mary Karr: countless memoirs by others followed her 1995 bestseller The Liars' Club, but few matched its wit and grit, and only a handful approached its generous spirit. Having a hair-raising childhood, it turns out, is compelling only if you write well enough to transcend juvenile grievances and generic insights.

The journey to maturity and sobriety chronicled in Karr's latest memoir, Lit, demanded even greater skill. Not too many people have watched their mothers set fire to their toys and clothes, as Karr recounted in The Liars' Club, but lots of folks endure failing marriages. More than a few descend into alcoholism. And a percentage eventually recover. In Lit, Karr recalls her experience of these relatively ordinary events with a poet's economy, an adult's rueful wisdom, and a native Texan's salty humor.

Karr has set herself a thornier task than in her first memoir, which centered around two years in the early 1960s, or in her second, Cherry, which covered her adolescence. Lit ranges across several decades—and many acres of emotional terrain. It opens in 1972, when 17-year-old Mary arrived in California "weighing in the high double digits and unhindered by a high school diploma." It closes with her mother's death in 1999, and a moving coda in which the author remembers her departed parents and describes the tentative equilibrium she has attained: "Good days, I see myself in others, and I know—in my bone marrow—nothing we truly love is ever lost…[but] there are days when through fear and egoism I shake my fist at the sky, afterward feeling silly and worn out as a toddler post-temper tantrum."

That phrasing is emblematic of Karr's precision as a writer. She depicts the seductive enticements and mortal perils of getting drunk, the rocky process of getting sober, the peace achieved by getting religion. She is slightly vague only about her troubled marriage. That probably stems in part from a desire to spare her son the gory details, but a deeper reason derives from one of Lit's finest qualities: the ability to step back and admit another perspective. "Were Warren [not her ex-husband's real name] laboring over this story," she writes, "I'd no doubt appear drunkenly shrieking; spending every cent I could get my mitts on; alternately crowding his scholar's home with revelers, then starting to vanish nights into a kind of recovery cult—none of this entirely untrue."

Memoir is an inherently self-centered genre, but Karr welcomes other people into her narrative with an empathy that extends even to the spooky Vietnam vet she met while hitchhiking on a California highway (he gave her a ride so harrowing she fled to safety in a Midwestern college). Among those tenderly profiled in the chapters about her decade between leaving home and getting married: the gentle psychology professor who took under his wing a blue-collar kid from Texas; the African-American poet (and junkie) who urged her to write from the heart, not the head; and the group of women with mental retardation she taught after she dropped out of college, whose wholehearted response to verse "fully converted me to the Church of Poetry."

That was Karr's religion in those days. "I clung to the myth that poetry could somehow magically still my scrambled innards," she writes, "the myth that if I could shuffle the right words into the right order, I could get my story straight, write myself into an existence that included the company of sacred misfit poets whose pages had kept me company as a kid." When she married "Warren," a fellow poet with a starry Harvard pedigree and an icy, wealthy family, she hoped they could create a new life and heal the wounds inflicted by their disparate but equally un-nurturing parents.

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."

A few more years would pass before the anger accrued from childhood was "siphoned out…like poison from a snakebite" and Mary Karr could say to her dying mother, "I hate that you're leaving…. I just got used to you."

Karr doesn't belabor the point, but we see how and why she never could have written The Liars' Club, Cherry, or Lit without the self-knowledge and serenity that faith gave her. You don't have to share that faith to be grateful that she found it; Lit brings to a fitting close a trilogy of astonishing memoirs that have enlarged our hearts with their piercing portraits of the human condition in all its messy glory.

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor of The American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. She previously reviewed Trouble by Kate Christensen on AARP The Magazine Online.

Read more Web-exclusive book reviews