I had never read Mary Karr before, though I'd heard The Liars' Club was good, because I'm not fond of memoirs or confessional writing generally unless the person had an amazing life.. When I found out LIT was about how Karr became a drunk and fought her way to recovery, I figured on giving the galley away. The whole 12 step thing has always seemed a tragic joke to me but then I heard Karr talk at Book Expo about the excruciating business of soul baring and why she had to do it--to set the record straight for her son. And she was funny talking about her pretensions as a poet newly married to another writer, an Ivy League blue-blood and about to start her own family. She congratulated herself on having escaped her mother's galloping insanity and triumphed over her soul destroying, hard scrabble childhood in Texas. Ahead of her was a life of love and achievement. But then, life brought her to her knees in more ways than one--she could have died and she had to learn to pray to survive. Karr's self-respect was not easily earned and the pride of a self-made intellectual meant she never let herself off easily or at all. Curious, I read this book and found myself rooting for things to work out for her, as they proceeded to go to hell.
What I came to like about this book is the compassion you feel for Mary because she has so little for herself. Trying to make ends meet on scarce money meant poverty was already a way of life before she got pregnant. Yet Mary soldiers on, doing her teaching jobs, writing her poetry, up all night with her baby, not to mention constant visits to the hospital with his illnesses. Then, struggling to hold it together, her mother gives her a beer--to relax. Mary's mother, herself in recovery, passes on the "drinking curse." What motivates Karr's drinking is not the need to escape but to anesthesize overwhelming emotions--from her past and her present. Trying to keep it under control, for the sake of her kid, marriage, and job, leads her to endless beers and whatever else she can drink and hide. Soon she can't function without drinking. She thinks she must do it to be there for her son, to be the loving encouraging wife to a husband working multiple jobs. She even worries about being a decent daughter to the mother she knows always has let her down. Soon knows this self-deception can't be denied.
Whether it's the drinking as cause or symptom, she can't escape that her life is in meltdown. She's no longer the always alert mother. Her marriage is about estrangement and she fears discovery. Karr manages to publish one book of poems and gets a prestigious grant, but soon finds she can't write anymore. When she goes to a marriage counselor with her husband, she's touched that he says she isn't an alcoholic. His denial means he has a faith in her that she knows is misplaced. She descends further and the facts of her marginal existence come to a head one night, after she's honored at a dinner and her car spins out of control. Mary's astonished she's alive and realizes that she can't leave her son without a mother. She comes to terms with the fact she is an alcoholic and learns that with her family history of emotional instability, she will die if she continues.
But before she can change herself, she has to come to terms with history, she thought she had overcome--her mother, the monster she grew up with and now felt she was turning into. Her mother the talented artist, was also a self-absorbed drunk who almost shot both her daughters.
Yet the monster she grew up with is now a straw-dog, an old lady who means well but still can't deliver on her promises. When she asks her mother, who is supported by both daughters and constantly double dips her expenses, "What she brings to the party," Her mother answers, "Well I'm fun?" And that for Mary is the doppleganger of her own hyper-responsibility, that she and her sister have taken on in their lives.
In this extraordinary book, Mary is heroic in her outsize struggle to overcome her illness. She goes into rehab to get sober, then once sober loses her mind and has to go into a mental ward. She must entirely lose herself to become a grounded person. It's a poet's journey to the underworld and you enjoy her escorts, her wise rehab coach Jone the Bone, the gallows humor of Deb, a beauty with a model's polish, paralyzed on one side of her body, and others who help her through layers of self-deception. Ultimately, she comes out of herself enough to connect to with what's strange and numinous. As unbeliever, she accepts that abstract force might be called God among other names. This connection of faith keeps her sober, when intellect fails. Karr's journey is that of an ironic mystic. She reads Thomas Merton, but you think Dylan Thomas, and hope that unlike his tragic end, Karr will keep her spiritual connection. I found this book unexpectedly profound.