Catching Fire

Mary Karr’s career as a memoirist began in the aftermath of a fire. When she was seven years old, her mother suffered a psychotic breakdown. Mary and her sister Lecia watched as their mother piled up their belongings—clothes, books, toys—in the backyard and set the heap on fire. Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club (1995), begins with her fuzzy memories of that night. Her mother, having hallucinated that she’d killed both of her daughters, was admitted to a psychiatric ward for a temporary stay. “No one ever mentioned the night again,” Karr recalls. “It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.”

An enormous popular and critical success, The Liars’ Club was credited with (or blamed for) launching a new wave of memoir-writing. (Karr deflects this accusation: “I think memoir started with St. Augustine,” she told Salon in 1997.) Although it marked Karr’s debut on the bestseller lists, she was already a widely published poet with a reputation for being passionate and pugnacious—in a prize-winning 1991 essay, “Against Decoration,” she criticized poetry marked by “intricacy for its own sake,” and made her case by naming names. In 2000 Karr published a second best-selling memoir, Cherry, which described her adolescence in the same ugly Texas town immortalized in The Liars’ Club. In both books she demonstrated a knack for engaging broad themes (growing up in America, discovering sexuality) by describing her own experiences in all their singularity.

The fire that began Karr’s search for herself is reflected in the title of her newest memoir, Lit. In her previous books, Karr conjured the confusion of her childhood and rendered it faithfully without sacrificing the perspective she had gained in the intervening years. Lit, which picks up where Cherry left off and follows the author into adulthood, is more expansive than Karr’s previous memoirs, and initially the attempt to cover so much ground seems like a mistake. The opening chapters, on her brief college career and her early attempts to break into writing, seem cursory, even evasive. But once the story really kicks in and the large, transcendent themes begin to appear—heartbreak, the joy of motherhood, the pain of addiction, the gift of faith—Lit matches its predecessors in candor and outstrips them in insight. Karr examines her past darkness in the light of the faith and self-knowledge that she spent those years working toward. She lays out her descent into addiction, her process of recovery, and her path to conversion with an honesty that makes it all intelligible to addicts and teetotalers, believers and nonbelievers. As she discerns God’s presence in her life, the hole left by her childhood traumas finally seems to be filled, and the result is something like a miracle.

Lit begins with a prologue addressed to Karr’s son, Dev. “Your birth altered my whole posture on the planet, not to mention my role vis-à-vis Mother,” she tells him. Her mother is an unforgettable character: she is intellectual and free-spirited, but also needy, immature, and irresponsible. It’s not hard to understand why Karr would be wary of exposing Dev to “Grandma Charlie,” who once allowed him to watch Pulp Fiction (when he was eight). Yet as she attempts to explain herself to Dev, Karr realizes, “Mostly, Mother couldn’t hurt you. But I both could and did.”

The story Karr really seems to want to tell begins when she connects with her future husband (Dev’s father), Warren. He’s a fellow traveler in the pursuit of poetry, but otherwise he and Karr have very little in common. Like much that came before it, their romance feels underexplained (How did they fall in love? Did they?), and Karr’s encounters with Warren’s upper-class family are amusing but somewhat contrived. By that point, however, Karr’s dependence on alcohol has come to dominate her life as well as her recollection of it. In her account of their drifting apart—much more evocative than her rendering of their romance—Karr is delicate with the details but generous with the blame. She knows her drinking helped doom a relationship that was shaky to begin with. “If you lie to your husband—even about something so banal as how much you drink,” she writes, “each lie is a brick in a wall going up between you, and when he tells you he loves you, it’s deflected away.”

“Lit” is an abbreviation for “literature,” Karr’s lifelong vocation (she is presently a professor at Syracuse University), but it is also slang for drunk, high, under the influence. Alcoholism—which Karr inherited from both parents—is a disease characterized by a peculiar mix of self-loathing and self-absorption. Karr spends her married years painfully see-sawing between those extremes as she struggles with stress and insecurity. Gratitude is inaccessible to her: “I have a gaze that blanks out luck any time I face it,” she confesses, “like a black box over the eyes of a porn star.” Her writing suffers, and her initial attempts to get sober on her own falter and give way to relapses. But when she finally drags herself to a twelve-step meeting, ready to seek help but not quite humbled enough to admit she needs it, the attitude of those already working the program strikes her as cultlike, or else impossibly naive. “The filter of my head notices how people keep talking about being grateful, as in I’m so happy to be thankful to be grateful to sit here with you nice sober folks. I look around and think, Your lives must suck worse even than mine if this constitutes fun for you.”

Memoirs of addiction are a dime a dozen (ask anyone who’s been through rehab what they spent the time reading). But Karr has a unique ability to send up the irony-free culture of recovery while humbly testifying to its life-saving power. She was raised to be suspicious of religion—“Church is a trick on poor people,” she hears her father’s voice sneering—so she finds the “higher power” element of the program especially difficult to swallow. Prayer feels like groveling, but sobriety eludes her without it. At the insistence of her sponsor, Karr finally, grudgingly, gets on her knees: “Help me to feel better so I can believe in you, you subtle bastard.”

At this point Lit crosses into another popular genre: it’s also, and most profoundly, a conversion story. The title’s deepest level of meaning turns out to be spiritual—through her struggle with sobriety, after a suicide threat and a stay in a mental hospital, divorced and trying to provide for her son on her own, Karr finds strength in prayer. It’s a journey that seems to begin long before her first A.A. meeting. Dev’s birth introduced her to joy as an experience distinct from pleasure: “Joy is a different thing, because its focus exists outside the self—delight in something external, not satisfaction of some inner craving.” That shift in focus, from her own tortured memories and dependencies to something outside herself, helps her outgrow her childhood hurts. It also happens to be a central tenet of the twelve-step program and a necessary condition for religious faith. Thanks to her early experiences with prayer, she says, “The spiritual 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.”

It is also thanks to Dev that Karr’s relationship with her “higher power” led her to join a church. At his request, they begin regular Sunday visits to various houses of worship. During their comprehensive, ecumenical search, Karr surprises herself by gravitating toward defined dogma and the “carnality” of the crucifix, and mother and son end up in a Catholic parish. She knows how unlikely this seems: “I get a snippy postcard from a novelist I know who says, Not you on the pope’s team. Say it ain’t so.” Having once equated religion with stupidity, Karr is careful to answer and accommodate the objections of “nonbelievers” as she writes about her journey toward faith. Her testimony is powerful because it’s wry and knowing but not at all defensive. Petitionary prayer, like asking God to help you pay your bills, “sounds nuts,” she admits, “unless you’ve spent a few years during which prayer keeps you from driving into stuff.” In her memoirs of childhood, Karr proved she could laugh at herself without compromising the honesty and compassion with which she told her story. Now she can joke about God and still profess that, for her, belief is a matter of life and death.

Lit brings the memoir trilogy full circle, ending around the time The Liars’ Club was published and praised. The writer Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life) had begun that process by introducing Karr to his literary agent. Years later, he was Karr’s godfather, preparing her to receive the sacraments. “In the end, no white light shines out from the wounds of Christ to bathe me in His glory,” Karr jokes about her decision to convert. “Faith is a choice like any other.” But illumination came, however humbly, and she and Dev were baptized together. Karr invokes a memory of that Easter Vigil, of the moment when the paschal candle enters the church and the congregants offer their tapers to be lit. “The flame’s passed one to another,” she says, “until we’re all holding fire in our hands.”

Published in the 2009-10-23 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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