Lit by Mary Karr
shelved as: memoir, mental illness*
*trigger warning: alcoholism, depression, suicide
Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning to live. Written with Karr’s relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor, it is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up—as only Mary Karr can tell it. [the back cover of my 2010 edition]
Having read Mary Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club, last year, I was delighted to discover a copy of this book in my parents’ attic. I fell in love with Karr’s writing style in her first book, which focuses on her childhood, and was delighted to find that Lit focuses on her adult life. Despite this, Lit is a coming-of-age style narrative, in which the main character (in this case, the writer) goes through a growth process that’s long, grueling, hilarious, and heartbreaking.
Karr has such a unique voice and she’s hands down the best memoir writer I’ve ever encountered. Not a sentence goes to waste in this book, and she writes in present tense about events from the past, which lends the story a sense of immediacy that’s unique among the memoirs I’ve read. Rather than using standard quotation marks for dialogue, she leaves everything bare, relying on the spoken words themselves to emphasize the specific voices of people in the story. Unlike a lot of memoirs, which center on the writer’s childhood victimization, Karr makes herself the “villain” of the story. She writes about all the mistakes she made along the way, from feeling like she abandoned her father in his long journey toward death, to emotionally abandoning her husband and son in favor of drinking, to resisting her Higher Power for so long.
In a lot of ways, Karr’s story subverts our cultural ideologies of wonder moms, those women who manage to balance a small child (or children), a high-powered career, housework, and a spousal relationship without ever breaking a sweat. On top of teaching and taking care of her son, Karr is also struggling to make it as a poet—and it takes her ages to get to where she is now, which is comforting. Let there be no doubt: Karr fucks up, big time, in multiple ways. She suffers under the pressure to be a “good mom,” particularly because she increasingly recognizes the ways her own mother failed her (for full details, see The Liars’ Club). Despite struggling from Alcoholism the Disease, Karr blames herself for the ways she fails to be an adequate mother, and subverts the idea that once you have a kid, everything changes—because she keeps drinking in unhealthy ways after the birth of her son.
I am not a recovering alcoholic or an addictive person by any means, but I really connected with Karr’s struggle as an alcoholic. Maybe it’s because alcoholism so often coincides with depression, or just the overall understanding that comes with mental illnesses and just how hard it is sometimes to get the help you need. Whatever the case may be, a lot of what she writes about alcohol recovery spoke to me as a person constantly struggling with the self-hatred that goes along with recurrent depression. One passage that struck me:
“I’m so watery at my edges, so permeable, so easy to hurt, and my inner monologue—what you hear more or less constantly, should we turn up the volume on it—went Oh shit, stupid bitch. What’ve you done now? Fuckup fuckup fuckup…The only way I know to twist the volume off is to choke it with exhaust.”
And so she ends up (somewhat) attempting suicide, checking herself into a psych ward before too much damage is done. As painful as it was to read this—as much as it lined up with some of my worst days/moments/weeks of depression—it was cathartic in that I got to watch Karr pull herself out of it eventually. The most important thing about any mental illness narrative, in my mind, is that it forces the reader to recognize that she’s not alone in her pain, that she, too, can pull herself out of it. This is empowerment, for a depressed person, even though it might be triggering for some.
The latter half of the book is somewhat of a conversion narrative. Through her experience with AA, Karr’s sober buddies constantly badger her to give prayer a try. Despite not having a religious background, despite declaring that she doesn’t believe in God, Karr ends up desperate enough to get down on her knees. It’s a powerful narrative about surrendering to that which you cannot control or understand, and although I don’t consider myself religious (more like spiritual, if anything), I wasn’t really thrown off by this. I thought I might end up tossing the book aside when the religious stuff came in; I grew up not-quite-Catholic and I just don’t care for the ritual, the restriction, that organized religion will forever be in my mind. And yet, Karr manages to weave the religion into the story in a non-judgmental and extremely accessible way, perhaps because she herself was such a nonbeliever for so long. She doesn’t proselytize, claim superiority, or even really imply that her Higher Power is or should be anyone else’s Higher Power—she’s more implying that it wouldn’t kill you to be a little open-minded. Which, I guess, has got me thinking about my relationship to religion and whether or not I’ve had a Higher Power all along, even if It doesn’t fit into anyone else’s ideas of God.
Reading Lit felt like going on this journey with Karr, watching her screw some stuff up, and then watching her pull through after all. She can’t fix the past, but she can move forward, and shows that each of us can find redemption in our own ways. I found this book to be incredibly revealing about my own psyche and, ultimately, it’s a story about finding hope and strength even on your worst days.
What is your favorite memoir? Have you read any of Mary Karr’s? Got any A+ mental health narratives for me? Let’s talk in the comments!
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