Reading Mary Karr
Reading Mary Karr’s recent memoir, Lit, feels an awful lot like you are in the early weeks of a new friendship. I do not mean mere acquaintance here, or that kind of association among adults that remains superficial and cool. No; you read Karr as if you have met someone on a deep level, and yearn to hear their stories because you know this will be a significant and life-affirming relationship.
Lit is a true contribution to memoir as a literary genre. I don’t think I’m overstating its importance as a literary description of a human life when I compare it favorably with the confessions of St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the essays of Montaigne, or the volumes of autobiography by Virginia Woolf or Simone DeBeauvoir. Karr’s Lit has earned the right to be listed with these works.
I came to this book having read Karr’s earlier efforts, The Liar’s Club and Cherry. I admired these models of self-examination, and they gave me the grounds for thinking of Mary Karr as someone I just plain like as a person. I’ve read many of her poems too, and I listened to the songs she co-wrote with fellow east Texan Rodney Crowell. All these earlier writings and lyrics were of fine literary quality, powerful in their own way, but they did not prepare me for the transcendent potency of Lit.
What is distinctive about this third volume of Karr memoir? First, the story she tells in this book has the kind of trajectory, from corruption to redemption, we find in epics. Second, the writing reveals or is guided by a spiritual reckoning this is deep, inspirational and authentic.
We begin with Mary Karr falling in love with her eventual husband. They bring a child into the world. Following in the shadows of these happy events are the struggles that any couple devoted to writing as a career and vocation experience, the traumas and family troubles of Karr’s childhood that bubble to the surface of her consciousness with alarming frequency, and, relatedly, her growing drinking problem. The decline into alcoholism is precipitous and destructive. Karr winds up at the same institution that housed Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Indeed, this hospital (McLean) counted so many luminaries from the literary and arts world that Karr joked about including her time there on her resume. But no amount of humor could hide the personal horror she experienced.
Following this institutionalization, Karr began the slow return to health. This path was nurtured by the care of friends, the love she had for her son, and a turn to spirituality. Can I admit that I tend to regard conversions with the skepticism of an agnostic? This is true. But so does Mary Karr. Her own critical consideration of her turn to prayer and then belief is philosophical in the best sense of the turn. Philosophical reflection cultivates a distrust of fixed ideas, dogma and fundamentalism. The depth of Karr’s reckoning stands as a challenge to the new atheism associated with Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. With the exception of Dennett, perhaps, these writers show that atheists can be dogmatic too. Karr’s spirituality moves from something amorphous and self-serving (a tool against the disease she was fighting) into what is recognizable as Christianity and then to the spiritual discipline of Catholicism. The struggles that came with this transformation are rendered with utter literary beauty, questioning and depth. (Yes, I used the word “depth” yet again.)
Leaving the pages of Lit has proved too difficult for me. I am doing something now that I have not done for many years. I am re-reading a book that I just completed. For me, this is the strongest recommendation I can offer our listeners. Mary Karr’s Lit has provided me with a whole new vocabulary for self-reflection, and the sort of new friendship that changes your life for the more fulfilling.
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