Mary Karr. Lit: A Memoir. New York:
as reviewed by Ted Odenwald
Readers of Mary Karr’s memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry, will not be surprised to find powerful elements running throughout this third work, which focuses primarily on her twenties and thirties. In the first book, she relived her painful youth in the shadow of poverty with parents, whose prime attachment was to the bottle-a mother who at her best was negligent and at her worst, homicidal. In the second memoir, she revealed the fruits of her dysfunctional youth carrying over into an adolescence filled with the fogs of alcohol and drugs. Lit is a mélange of personal disasters brought on by a combination of alcoholism and mental and emotional instability: a mental breakdown, a ruined marriage, and the fear of having inflicted emotional scars similar to her own upon her child. In spite of the pain that is revealed in every chapter, this memoir is a beautiful work. Mary Karr is incredibly gifted in selecting words that “work” and in crafting powerful poetic images of the life which she continually set afire.
As in the first two memoirs, Karr is haunted by the physical and spiritual presence of her mother. Escapes through a hippie culture and a college environment are unsuccessful. “…I was seventeen, thin, malleable as coat hanger wire, and Mother was the silky shadow stitched to my feet that I nonetheless believed I could outrun.” Her lifelong “urgent need …to put marks on paper…invariably leads me back to Mother, sprawled in bed with a luminous hangover, and how some book of rhyme I’ve done in crayon and stapled together could puncture the soap bubble of her misery.” The more she rails at her mother’s drunkenness, the more apparent it becomes that Mary is pursuing the same path as her mother. Mary is “morbidly compelled to connect with her.” “The way other families keep wedding videos or log dates in a Bible, mine stores in the genetic warehouse alcohol-fueled catastrophe.” It is as if “our gene pool owed the universe at least one worthless drunk at a time.” Ironically, it is the mother’s moving in with Mary temporarily that helps begin the writer’s recovery from her own alcoholism; the Mother’s ultimate recovery is so conspicuous that “it saved us both.”
Karr blames herself for her failed marriage. She decries her “innately repellent disposition,” her “small black heart,” and her drinking, which “shrinks me to a plodding zombie state in which one day smudges into every other.” But apparently the relationship had a weak foundation from the beginning. Her husband, Warren, comes from an aristocratic family, whose wealth and expectations he is trying to escape in an academic career; she, however, wants to enter the aristocracy, escaping the disastrous, hope-crushing poverty of her own background. She claims that “…every difference [in their backgrounds] lures me, for if I can yield to Warren’s way of being, his cool certainty can replace my ragtag -intermittently drunken-lurching around.” They pull apart, talking less and less, “…and since we both grew up in houses schooled to letting people vaporize into their own internal deserts with alacrity, we each let the other get smaller.” Marriage counseling, substance abuse therapy, and psychological treatment for a mental breakdown and attempted suicide-all are milestones of the dissolution of the relationship.
Much of Lit deals with Karr’s struggles for recovery. Step by painful step, she confronts the challenges posed to the alcoholic by AA. Though she has never been a religious person, she finds spiritual help in the structure of the Catholic Church. “Before, I’d feared surrender would send me down to nothing. Now I’ve started believing I can bloom me more solidly into myself.”
Karr attributes her escape from total despair and disaster to both her therapy and her new “spiritual lens.” The therapy “…rescued me…by taking me inward, leaching off pockets of poison in my head left over from the past.” The spiritual view of the world, “…even just the nightly gratitude list and going over each day’s actions-is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved.”
Lit is a beautifully told account of personal horrors which nearly destroyed the author. The passage of time has allowed her to examine the destructive fires of her life, fires set in her youth and fanned by her own behavior in adulthood. That she has survived is astounding; that she has risen above the destruction and recounted her near immolation so powerfully is inspirational.
Ted Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 40 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.