Mary Karr’s award-winning memoir of her early childhood in 1960s East Texas reads like a novel. This poet knows how to spin a yarn, and in this case, a mostly true story that focuses on the years she was about 6-8 years old. Mary and her older sister Lecia lived in a dysfunctional household, to say the least. At the center was their mother, an alcoholic who was battling depression and rages, the origins of which are revealed at the very end. Karr is an extraordinarily talented writer. She manages to weave humor and hopefulness into a narrative that can be dark and tragic.
Mary Karr’s mother, Charlie Moore Karr, had a string of bad marriages before meeting Pete Karr by accident while traveling through Texas. Pete was a WWII veteran and blue collar worker who enjoyed hunting, fishing, and drinking, and who seems to have been deeply in love with his wife. Charlie was always a fish out of water in the small town where they resided. She was an artist and read extensively in philosophy and religion, and she also drank like a fish. Charlie was prone to suicidal depression and rages, which her daughters learned to navigate and endure at a cost. Mary was sexually abused twice during this time, and Lecia was more an adult than either of their parents. The memoir begins with the immediate aftermath of one of Charlie’s rages, wherein she winds up in a psychiatric hospital. The details of that event are revealed later in the story. Charlie’s mother, Grandma Moore, resides with the family during this period as well. From Mary’s point of view, “Maybe it’s wrong to blame the arrival of Grandma Moore for much of the worst hurt in my family, but she was such a ring-tailed bitch that I do.” Grandma Moor was an old-school harsh disciplinarian and Mary was the object of much of her wrath. Grandma was also dying from cancer and hurricane Audrey was bearing down on their town. The events that follow are just as sad and depressing as can be, but Karr tells them with such colorful language and, at times, humor, that I found myself unable to put the book down.
What is so moving about this memoir is the love these family members have for one another and their resilience. Karr writes:
I think about the story of Job …. How he sort of learned to lean into feeling hurt at the end, the way you might lean into a heavy wind that almost winds up supporting you after a while.
Sure the world breed monsters, but kindness grows just as wild, elsewise every raped baby would grow up to rape.
As mentioned above, Karr’s writing is a wonder. I found this passage, related to a bad patch in her parents’ marriage, to be particularly evocative:
His head hung down at the angle a bull’s does at the end of a fight, when he’s lost a lot of blood and the shoulder muscles have been picked at and stabbed so he can no longer lift that head to make a charge.
Her descriptions of the legion hall where he father plays pool and drinks with his friends, as well as her retelling of the stories that he regaled his friends with make her later descriptions of his illness all the more poignant. Mary was her daddy’s girl, and her love for him is evident in each passage that mentions him. Her relationship with her mother lacked that closeness and warmth, but when Mary was 25 and discovered wedding rings in the attic, her persistent questioning is what got her mother to finally tell the full story of her past. Mary writes, “… a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it. In other words, the boat I can feel so lonely in actually holds us all.” Mary had both her sister and her mother read and comment on this memoir, and to their credit, they fully supported Mary’s writing it. Karr has written two follow up memoirs dealing with her later life, Cherry and Lit, which have also been critically acclaimed. I look forward to reading them.