By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 10, 2009
For a writer of memoirs, Mary Karr has had a charmed life. That is, a lot has happened, almost all of it colorful, much of it painful. And, in each of her three books, she’s followed the advice of mentor Tobias Wolff (“Take no care for your dignity") and produced not just a bestseller, but a memoir that expands our idea of what a memoir is.
If you missed The Liar’s Club or Cherry, Lit offers a cheat sheet. Raised in Port Arthur, Texas by a father who worked --- literally --- in oil and a flighty, unstable mother who, one especially dark night, was intent on killing her daughters with a knife, Karr bailed on her family when she was 17. In California, she did menial work and learned to drink. But she knew that writing was her destiny, and she honed a style of poetry that stripped language clean in order to deliver taut, blunt stories.
She got noticed --- especially by a tall, Harvard-educated poet. They married and had a son, and, right there, when it looked as if she had everything, she started downing a bottle of Jack Daniels a day. It wasn’t as if she didn’t recognize the trouble she was in. Alcohol flowed through her family history --- her father, she’s written, could start a fight sitting alone on the front porch. But she was desperately afraid her husband would divorce her and win custody of their son.
“Lit” is about many things: the resolution of her relationship with her mother and father, her struggle for recognition as a writer, her inability to unfreeze her marriage. But mostly it’s about alcohol and faith --- about an intellectually arrogant woman who’s too proud to surrender and too smart to believe. In the last half of her book, she does both.
The image of Mary Karr at AA meetings and on her knees in prayer is a stunner. The release from alcohol, hard as it was, is the lesser miracle for her. The greater surprise? Her embrace of Catholicism.
Sorry, but I think my alcoholism was 20% of “Lit”, at most. Writers have been alcoholics since time immemorial. But only now are many writing about it. And you have to make a distinction between literature and sound-byte memoirs. The sound-byte memoir is only worth reading in an airport. I want to create a whole world, like a novel.
Of your drinking before you started living with Warren, the patrician poet who'd become your husband, you write, “So long as I didn't leave my apartment, I didn't drink.” Why?
Because if went anywhere, I'd get shitfaced drunk or take any cocaine proffered. So I had to stay in the house, go to the library and school, and come right home --- that was my world. One night I went to an art opening where I knew there would be really shitty white wine --- and I got shattered.
What is alcoholism to you --- a disease, chemical condition or a learned response?
I buy the disease model because it makes it easiest for me to stay sober. And at the end of drinking, you do feel compelled. I mean, I don't lack for self-discipline. I floss. I do sit ups. I pay taxes. I do all kinds of shit I don't want to do. But if a drink's around…
Okay, let's deal with this religious conversion of yours. In your childhood, you write, the bookstore in Port Arthur sold gold-rimmed Bibles and dashboard Christs…
…and I was completely immune to religion. I thought it was like the Easter bunny. I was in the 5th grade before I got that people were serious about God --- I thought the whole thing was a social convention. I had no idea people believed this made-up stuff.
Your mother never said a word about God?
Mother was a spiritual dilettante. Gods came and went --Theosophy, yoga in the early sixties, Zen, Christian Science. I'd say our religious education interested her less than our artistic one, but she didn't pay much attention. To Mother, we were like lizards in a terrarium. Once a week she'd tap the glass and see if we were still moving.
I'm a believer of sorts, but reading the story of your religious conversion was like a horror movie. I kept wanting to scream, “Turn back!”
And it was just like that. It's like: You don't want to be a werewolf, but you wake up in a field wearing a cloak of muslin and fur wrapped around your head.
I have trouble picturing Mary Karr going through the alphabet, giving thanks letter by letter.
I was desperate, and it was like they were pointing to a stump and saying, Talk to that; or to a tailor's dummy and saying, That's your prom date. But faith is not a feeling. It's a set of actions. Prayer was 100% rote for me, but I'd beaten myself into this teachable state. I could finally get that my life was warped and my thoughts were way off. And the woman who told me to pray my way through the alphabet was a Harvard social theorist who'd written a famous book on Durkheim. At first I complained, so she made me read my gratitude list to her on the phone. Which was smart --- a lot of times it's just doing what you're told, it's not about the beliefs. And now religion is a necessity. I didn't have a choice. I had to get religion.
In Graham Greene's “End of the Affair”, there's this passage: “I believe there's a God --- I believe the whole bag of tricks, there's nothing I don't believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I'd believe. They could dig up reasons that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I'd believe just the same. I've caught belief like a disease. I've fallen into belief like I fell in love.” Is that you?
That is me, but I'm not naturally inclined toward the mystical.
The more improbable the story, the deeper you believe?
When I have this conversation with people who mock my faith, I find they have all kinds of mystical beliefs. My skeptical friend whose husband died thinks he talks to her through the wind chimes. No, not big on the improbable.
You write about a “carnal” Christianity. And I think of Manet's painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dead Christ with Angels. Seeing it was the first time I thought of Christ as real --- real enough to be a corpse.
I didn't get Jesus either. I came in on the Holy Spirit, this vague force for benevolence. When I got baptized, I thought Jesus had too many barnacles. He was not a smart guy. He was unnecessarily fucked up. Then I did thirty weeks of St. Ignatius's spiritual exercises, and I got a sense of Jesus as a human unit.
Toward the end of the book, you're assigned two Bible passages. You open your mother's Bible and find --- like an arrow shot across 70 years --- that she marked them both when she was a kid. And no other passages in the book are marked. You say: “I know how specifically designed we are for each other.” In essence, aren't you saying that God holds us all in the palm of His hand?
It's the Reinhold Niebuhr quote: “We're put on earth a little while to learn to bear the beams of love.”
Do you feel with this book that you have, for needy readers, ceased to be a writer and have become, like a liberal Peggy Noonan, a spiritual sob sister --- a beacon for the broken and lost?
Oh, please! You don't understand what happened when “Liar's Club” came out. I had 80 page letters from death row and pre-op transsexuals. I think what we do when we read together is to enter into a community. We take suffering into the body and transform it.
How are you going to talk about your belief on your tour and in interviews?
Let me tell you: Talking about this to a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio. People will think I'm nuts. But I have to do this. And, just so you know, the people who knew me when I was drinking think I'm much improved --- they say, “I can't believe you're not crazy.” And that's what I like about Catholicism: the quality of realism in this practice. Sounds crazy, but it's true. We are sinners --- we do want to eat the candy and fuck the Fedex guy and suck cocaine off each other's chests.
Does faith make writing easier?
Yes. It makes everything easier. Working on this book, at one point, I considered selling my apartment and giving the money back. Then I let go of the outcome. Sure, I want to sell a million copies and be on Oprah. I don't know if that's in my best interest. But I think God knows. So that relieves you of a lot of fear about the marketplace. I saw a picture of myself in the Wall Street Journal the other day. I looked like Nosferatu. I'd rather look like Cindy Crawford, but these days, I really don't sweat it.