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'Any Way I Tell This Story Is A Lie'
by MOLLY LANGMUIR
The deeper I got into Lit, Mary Karr’s memoir about getting sober and becoming a Catholic, the more I was drinking. The irony of this was not lost on me. There I’d be, home alone, my second glass of wine/whiskey/beer at hand, noticing distantly that the lines on the page were starting to bend together. Meanwhile, what I was reading detailed exactly the kind of damage excessive drinking can inflict. I am impressionable like this. A few nights after reading how Karr’s nightmares regularly woke her up screaming, I woke myself up screaming from a particularly wretched dream. This was at a friend’s house, too, which was awkward.
Unfortunately, I was not as impressionable when it came to sobriety, at least not at first. Karr and I parted ways right around the time she started drying up. I kept drinking through the rest of the book, and my (comparatively negligible) mini-bender only gave way by the time I got about halfway through her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, a few weeks later.
Really, what was going on is that the book was making me jealous, and in a deep down insidious sort of way. This was true of my response to all of Karr’s memoirs, which I read in entirely the wrong order, by the way, from the back to the front to the middle, sort of like an Oreo cookie. Her writing is just so beautiful, and she has done so well by it.
One often noted fact about Karr is that the career path she planned as a little girl involved writing, half-poetry and half-autobiography. Her ability to so exactly achieve her childhood aims feels almost freakish, especially considering where she grew up (an oil refinery town deep in the dirty south of East Texas in the 1950s), and that this aim, in that town, made her even more ridiculously alien than she already was.
This only further stoked my envy of Karr. I, on the other hand, am invariably bad at this. I aim for California and end up in Venezuela. Really. This happened to me once.
What makes envy a particularly inappropriate response is that all three of Karr’s memoirs involve a not insubstantial amount of suffering. The Liars' Club, which came out in 1995 (she has said she did it “for the money,” and I believe her, because she seems honest like that), details her childhood in that little Texas town (except for a miserable interlude in Colorado), a period that almost every profile of Karr describes as “hardscrabble.” Karr herself in these profiles is invariably described as “scrappy,” which seems appropriate enough — she once sat in a tree with a BB gun and calmly took down a childhood enemy.
I lifted the BB gun and sighted through its little V as close as I could to the white glare of Rickey’s glasses. I fully intended to pop him between the eyes. I repeated Daddy’s injunction to pull any trigger slow: “Don’t jerk it, Pokey,” he always said. I didn’t, and after the satisfying little zing, a miracle happened. I saw Rickey Carter slap his neck, like he thought a wasp had stung him.
(Her response to the Rickey’s dad when he caught sight of her and yelled at her to stop: “Eat me raw, mister.”)
Personally, though, I don’t like the term hardscrabble. It gives everything such a Norman Rockwell sheen. So instead I will just say her childhood certainly sounded hard. Her father was a good-hearted drunk (or at least he started out that way, once he more fully descended into alcoholism he became increasingly cruel) while her mother was a pill-popping drunk with the occasional terrifying psychotic fit. As one might imagine, these people did not always make for the most capable parents. In one interview Karr describes her mother treating her “like a terrarium lizard you checked out from time to time with distracted curiosity.” Unluckily, Karr also had two horrifying and nonconsensual run-ins with the opposite sex, the second of which was so disturbing it turned my stomach.
The whole rash of terrible decisions Karr makes in her next memoir, Cherry, which is about her adolescence, is not exactly surprising after The Liars' Club, since people don’t generally walk out of a childhood like that unscathed. There is the inevitable suicide attempt, the boys, the drugs, the messed up friends, and the idea that suffering sets one apart and makes one special. (People who remember being teenagers, even if they didn’t have wretched childhoods, may also relate to aspects of this.)
The narrative sometimes skips large chunks of time, but Cherry has an internal driving force that keeps you reading no matter that you’re never quite sure where it’s going. Honestly, I really didn’t care, because along the way Karr describes aspects of female adolescence so vividly that it was able to transport me back not just to her experiences, but also to my own. Karr quite exactly evokes that period of life when you want something from a boy but don’t exactly know what, and when your newly developing fantasies consist of a chivalrous move at recess and holding hands but not yet anything involving bodily fluids:
Despite what Nabokov’s Humbert wanted to think, I’ve never met a girl as young as I was then who craved a bona fide boning. But glowing nonspecifically from my solar plexus was this forceful light. I wanted John Cleary or Corey or some other boy to see that light, to admire it, not to feed off it for his own hungers. When I closed my eyes at night, I did not manufacture naked bodies entwined. Mostly I didn’t even venture into kissing. Rather my fantasies at the time were all in the courtly mode. I pictured John Cleary/Corey taking my hand for the couples’ skate at the rink, how we’d cut a slow circle together in a spotlight, with his gaze inventing me in the stares of those we passed.
By the end of Cherry, though, Karr has grown from an awkward 11-year-old desperate for titties (her word) who one day has the bad idea to bike shirtless around town to a screwed up hippied-out teenager who spends seven nights in a row jacked up on meth. That a book told in the first person manages to keep this transition fairly seamless is both mysterious and impressive. (In this respect my envy was slightly eased by the fact that apparently this at least did not come easy — in one interview Karr mentions that the book went through 87 drafts.) There are also many accounts of disturbing acid-induced hallucinations, including a particularly concerning one where Karr ends up in a terribly sketchy bar filled with heroin junkies. While these rang true I did wonder, just a little bit, how Karr managed to remember everything quite so well if she was that messed up.
Eventually, as you learn in Lit, Karr replaces hallucinogens with straight up booze, and loads of it. Clearly, no one does walk out of a childhood like that unscathed, even when you’re ridiculously talented and smart (or even “whip smart,” another term people can’t seem to resist using about Karr) and end up married, like Karr, to a blueblood of the highest order.
Karr’s drinking starts to level off about two thirds of the way through Lit, and then really ends after she starts obsessing about suicide and does a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Meanwhile, her various attempts at sobriety have led her to AA, where people keep bugging her to find a higher power. This annoys her, at first, but eventually she starts praying regularly and, basically, at this point the heavens open up and start pouring down riches. Seriously. It’s sort of weird. There’s money, and a car is involved, and a book deal, and forgiveness, and sobriety, and damn, it’s enough to make a girl start to think that whole Secret bullshit pretty much has nothing on some old school religion.
This pissed some people off, the idea that “scrappy,” “rebellious,” “whip smart” Karr had succumbed to Catholicism, but honestly I think that’s a silly response. Karr doesn’t pretty things up in some weird way, or make it seem like she drank some Jesus Kool-Aid. Instead, she writes about becoming religious in a way that is real and brutal and funny. Her first prayer, for example, begins: “Higher power, I say snidely. Where the fuck have you been?” And it ends: “And help me. Help. Me. Help me to feel better so I can believe in you, you subtle bastard.”
She makes it seem like becoming religious was actually really, really hard, and is honest about how it went against a lot of strongly held opinions about who she was. Ultimately, though, it just became the only sensible thing to do. Because it was really working for her, and, you know, things are already hard enough, so why make them any harder?
Come March, after I’ve been praying for a solution to our transportation woes, a professor I’ve met once or twice through mutual friends approaches me on the quad. She’s going to Italy and heard I needed a car. Maybe I could keep hers through the summer; she’d consider it a favor.
And that’s how hard that was. Such unearned gifts feed the growing faith that some mystery is carrying me.
This made me even more jealous. Because while I don’t have designs on Catholicism, I certainly wouldn’t turn down serenity, or the sense that someone, somewhere (i.e. God) has a plan for me, and has actually kept me around for some special purpose. I mean, honestly, who would turn that down? It sounds great. Unfortunately, my gut about such things is that while there is certainly something sacred roaming around here on earth (but not in the creepy way that sounds), I don’t really feel like there’s anyone watching out for me in particular. At least not in a “Oh you need a car? Here let me help you with that” sort of way. Although it did just occur to me — maybe this is where faith comes in? Will have to give that more thought.
Anyway, even if reading Karr’s books makes you drink yourself into a stupor of jealousy, this doesn’t matter. What matters is that her memoirs are drastically good. And not just in the literary sense, but as human artifacts. They are brave and honest and look ugliness straight in the face. Also, they tell a story that must have been incredibly difficult to live through in a way that lets everything and everyone get dirtied up and muddied in the process. This, in my view, requires no small amount of generosity. I mean, you try describing the breakup of your marriage, like Karr does in Lit, in a manner that leaves both parties looking equally culpable. In Karr’s version of things, everyone ends up with a little bit of the blame, and therefore everyone is blameless.
This equanimity, to be honest, is really what makes me jealous. My own upbringing had far more run-of-the-mill type problems than Karr’s, but it still ended me up in some of the same places. And she seems to have done such a good job moving on from them. This makes me yearn for whatever she has, whatever she understands that I don’t. But here is what her memoirs left me with: the sense that while some of us are far more damaged than others, not one of us gets through this place unscathed, and what matters in the end is what you do with that. Also, the next time any woman I am close to endures a breakup, I will most definitely be using the line Karr and her sister always share with each other in such circumstances. Which is this: “Remember the pussy goes with you.”
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