The Liars' Club, by Mary Karr




Nota de leitura:

Mary Karr, nascida em 1955, é professora de Literatura Inglesa na Universidade de Syracuse, New York.

The Liars’ Club, que foi um enorme êxito editorial, tendo figurado na lista de best-sellers durante mais de um ano, foi publicado em 1995. Antes,  a autora dedicara-se a escrever poesia, tendo publicado três livros: Abacus, The Devil’s Tour e Viper Run.

Este livro de memórias não está traduzido para Português, nem sequer para brasileiro. No Brasil, está traduzido o último livro de memórias, Lit: A Memoir (Meu último porre), mas não o anterior Cherry, sobre a adolescência da autora.

The Liars’ Club é um livro enorme: 320 páginas de letra miudinha. Está dividido em três partes, por datas e locais da acção: Texas, 1961; Colorado, 1963; e Texas again, 1980. O título vem do clube onde os homens da aldeia se reuniam a impingir uns aos outros histórias que inventavam. O panorama é terrível: pai irritadiço e violento com a esposa, mãe psicótica e alcoólica, casada sete vezes , uma avó cheia de maldade, enquanto não vai desta para melhor. Mas as duas irmãs amam de verdade os pais e não os querem ver separados. Acresce a convivência com adolescentes amorais: a autora é violada por duas vezes.

No meio destas desgraças, a autora escreve com um humor à prova de bala. O apoio da irmã mais velha e a inteligência (ou esperteza) com que nasceu salvam-lhe a vida.

Os detalhes da narração são tantos e a escrita tão cinematográfica que seria impossível que a autora ainda os tivesse na memória, trinta e tal anos depois de terem acontecido. Mas o livro está tão bem escrito que depressa esquecemos isso.

Foi este livro que sugeriu a Alexandra Fuller a escrita do seu primeiro livro de memórias “Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood” (2002).






May 26, 1995


BOOKS OF THE TIMES; They're Liars, and That's Just the Least of Their Problems




THE LIARS' CLUB A Memoir By Mary Karr 320 pages. Viking.


The title of the poet Mary Karr's extraordinary new memoir is taken from the name that came to be attached to the informal club formed by her father and his drinking buddies in a small Texas town in the early 60's. Days and nights they weren't working at the oil refinery or the chemical plant and could get away from their wives, they gathered at the American Legion Hall or in the back room at the local bait shop to play dominoes and tell and retell stories. Her father, says Ms. Karr, who used to tag along, told the best stories of all: stories he acted out with his consummate gift of mimicry, stories filled with unforgettable characters and terrible drama, stories that would haunt his young daughter for the rest of her life.

Ms. Karr inherited her father's remarkable gift for storytelling, and she has used that gift to create one of the most dazzling and moving memoirs to come along in years.

Most of "The Liars' Club" takes place in 1962 and '63, when Ms. Karr was 7 and 8, but the book also moves backward and forward in time, unfolding like some magical origami flower to give the reader an indelible portrait of an entire family and an entire world.

In the early 60's, Ms. Karr writes, the small East Texas town she calls Leechfield was a foul, swampy place that smelled of industrial chemicals. Agent Orange was supposedly manufactured there, and Ms. Karr says the place would later become "one of the blackest squares on the world cancer map," "right up there with Bhopal and Chernobyl." It was a landscape of extremes, a place plagued by locusts and snakes, and buffeted by hurricanes and tornadoes, a place once voted by Business Week as one of the 10 ugliest towns on the planet. When Ms. Karr left home at 15, she writes, no one organized "any posse to sniff me down." She says, "They just figured that wherever I was headed, it must be better than Leechfield."

"It turned out to be impossible for me to 'run away' in the sense other American teen-agers did," she explains. "Any movement at all was taken for progress in my family."

As delineated in these pages, Ms. Karr's family emerges not only as a grand collection of eccentrics but also as a sad, troubled clan of misfits, cut off from one another's love by their secrets and resentments. There's Ms. Karr's mother's great-uncle, who used to dress up as a matador when he got drunk, and her paternal grandfather, who used to climb up on ladders all the time so he could "get closer to the Lord." Her father's uncle didn't speak to his wife for 40 years; instead of getting a divorce, they simply split their house in half and lived in proximity and silence for the rest of their lives. Perhaps oddest (not to mention, meanest) of them all is Ms. Karr's maternal grandmother, a fierce old woman who carried a hacksaw in her purse and who once sent away for a detective training kit so she could spy on her relatives and friends. Her long and painful convalescence from an amputated leg left Ms. Karr with a lasting, terrifying sense of death.

It is Ms. Karr's own parents, however, who dominate "The Liars' Club," like ancient Greek colossi with their larger-than-life arguments and fights, their extravagant passions. The former Charlie Marie Moore grew up in the dust bowl of West Texas, married for the first time at the age of 15, and moved away to the glamorous city of New York, where she enrolled in art school. There were six more marriages and along the way, her daughter recalls, a tragic secret that warped the rest of her life, but Charlie Marie hid the past (or tried to) when she returned to Texas and met Pete Karr one night under a bright "General Electric moon."

Where Charlie Marie was impetuous, moody and erratic, Pete was steady and sure, "the guy you set your watch by," the one who "woke in the same humor every morning, asking did you want oatmeal or eggs." Though he had a temper and could easily deck anyone he wanted to with his fists, Ms. Karr writes, he never missed a day of work in 42 years and could take pleasure "in the small comforts -- sugar in his coffee, getting the mockingbird in our chinaberry tree to answer his whistle."

The Karr household was never terribly conventional to begin with: their idea of dinner seems to have consisted of everyone sitting on an edge of the master bed, facing in different directions. And as the years passed, the family gradually succumbed to the centrifugal force of its disappointments and losses. After her mother's death, Charlie Marie spent more and more time drinking and dreaming of her lost life in New York. She devoured books by Sartre and Marx, and sank into crying jags as she listened to opera and jazz. In the parlance of East Texas, Ms. Karr writes, she was "nervous" -- a term that "applied with equal accuracy to anything from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis." Pete, meanwhile, withdrew into his work: days often passed without his returning home to see Mary and her sister, Lecia. He did not even come back to shepherd his family to safety during Carla, the big hurricane of 1962.

Acts of negligence and willful hurt proliferated after that. In just the two years described in this book, Mary Karr says she was raped by a boy from school and sexually molested by a baby sitter. When her sister broke her collarbone in a horseback-riding accident, no one even volunteered to take her to a doctor. At the height of her madness, Charlie Marie even set fire to her daughters' toys and clothes and threatened them with a knife.

Such horribly painful events are conjured up by Ms. Karr with breathtaking clarity and compassion. In the course of recounting her mother's spectacular breakdown, Ms. Karr describes how she learned the writerly art of detachment, how "God answered my prayers" and "I learned to make us all into cartoons." What's remarkable about this book, however, is the very fact that she doesn't turn her parents into two-dimensional stick figures but instead makes them wonderfully palpable human beings, flawed, unreliable, even treacherous but also vulnerable and desperate to love.

Her most powerful tool is her language, which she wields with the virtuosity of both a lyric poet and an earthy, down-home Texan. She's able to describe everything from her grandmother's rapacity for argument (she "just clamped down on it like a Gila monster") to the image of her sister diving into the ocean ("I can see Lecia's pale white feet like the neon tail fin of a mermaid slipping away just out of reach") to her own delight in her father's companionship (just being out with him and his buddies "lights me up enough for somebody to read by me") with equal poise, precision and wit. It's a skill used in these pages in the service of a wonderfully unsentimental vision that redeems the past even as it recaptures it on paper.

Ms. Karr has written an astonishing book.



June 27, 1995

Gritty Book Sets Prudence Aside



"Don't approach history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits," the author Tobias Wolff wrote to Mary Karr in January 1991, as she embarked on "The Liars' Club," her memoir of her East Texas childhood, published this month by Viking. "Don't be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else," Mr. Wolff wrote. "Take no care for your dignity." And indeed, Ms. Karr did not. She has written one of the rawest memoirs by a serious American writer in years: the story of her childhood in "the Texas Ringworm Belt," oil-refinery country where the cancer rate rivals Bhopal's and Chernobyl's, in a town Business Week called one of the 10 ugliest on the planet.

Ms. Karr's mother suffered from something known locally as "Nervous." She married seven times -- twice to Ms. Karr's father -- and spent stretches of Ms. Karr's childhood insensible from drugs and alcohol. She set fire to Ms. Karr's toys, and tried to kill her. And as if all this wasn't enough to make a person miserable, at the age of 7 Ms. Karr was raped by a neighborhood boy and a short while later molested by her babysitter, all of which she discusses explicitly. Indeed, she takes no care for her dignity in the memoir, which Michiko Kakutani, reviewing it in The New York Times, called "an astonishing book."

Still, for someone who minces no words on paper, Ms. Karr is oddly private in person. "At this time I feel very protective of my 74-year-old mother," she said recently on a visit to New York from her job as a professor of creative writing and literature at Syracuse University. (Mr. Wolff, who wrote about his own harsh upbringing in "This Boy's Life," is a colleague.) She will not reveal the true name of the town that became Leechfield, Tex., in her memoir. Nor will she talk much about her own drinking, except to say, "I can't drink alcohol." And she will not discuss her drug taking, though she mentions it in her book, or the possibility that she may have spent time in a recovery program. "You're not supposed to say," she said.

For anyone who doesn't come from East Texas, Ms. Karr's memoir is like an anthropologist's account of a foreign country. This is a place where people "hunker down," and "hork" hot dogs, and insult is an art form. "You could see evil in the crotch of a tree," Ms. Karr's mother says to someone who has criticized her. And when a local man wakes from a coma mentally impaired, he is "half a bubble off-plumb."

Ms. Karr's book has a cast of Southern eccentrics right out of a Flannery O'Connor story. Her mother read Sartre and Camus, and told her daughters bedtime stories about Athens in the age of Socrates and fin-de-siecle Vienna. Ms. Karr's father, an oil driller, was a storyteller too, a man who shaped raw experience into the rise and fall of narrative, who took a poet's joy in the language, and who let his daughter listen in when he was with his drinking buddies, the Liars' Club.

Mary Karr went on to lead a wild life of her own. She left home at 17, fled to California and camped out with a group of surfers in a Lincoln Continental.

Only when she was grown, and rummaging in the attic for some papers, did she confront the secret that shaped her family: the existence of two children kidnapped from her mother by one of her husbands, who then disappeared. Suddenly, the reasons for her mother's need for oblivion, and her many marriages, became clear. Her mother had "started marrying people to get her kids back," Ms. Karr said. The night of Ms. Karr's discovery, Ms. Karr and her mother got drunk. "Why didn't you tell me?," Ms. Karr demanded. According to the memoir, her mother replied, "I thought you wouldn't like me anymore."

"Her exact sentence stays lodged in my head," Ms. Karr writes, "for it's one of the most pathetic sentences a 60-year-old woman can be caught uttering."

Partly out of a desire to shape this chaos into meaning, Ms. Karr always wanted to be a writer. She published a poem in Mother Jones magazine, a result of a chance encounter with the poet Denise Levertov. She was admitted to a writing course at Goddard College, where she met Mr. Wolff and wrote an essay on the poet John Ashbery's use of "non-linear" time. She moved to Boston, where she was a marketing communications manager for a computer company in Cambridge and a research fellow in managerial economics at the Harvard Business School. "If you're a poor kid you do what you have to do to make money," Ms. Karr said. Still, she managed to publish two books of poetry.

Along the way, she married a man from a very different background, whose idea of family life, she writes, was to speak to "his mother on holidays, from one end of a long, glossy dinner table." She will not reveal his identity, except to say that he went to Harvard, is a poet and teaches at a prep school in Connecticut. The marriage produced a son, Devereux Milburn, now 12. Three years ago, the marriage broke up.

Few poets can live off poetry. Ms. Karr had been trying to write a novel about her crazy childhood, without success. In 1989, both she and Mr. Wolff won $25,000 Whiting Writers' Awards, cash prizes given annually to 10 promising writers. At a dinner with Mr. Wolff and his agent, Amanda Urban, she told some of her stories about her family. Ms. Urban was intrigued, and urged her to write a memoir, asking for a proposal, three chapters and a delivery date.

"I realized 'She's serious as a heart attack,' " Ms. Karr said in her throaty voice, adding that Ms. Urban got her a sizable advance ("a whole lot; I'm not supposed to say how much"). With every three chapters, she said, "Viking would give me more."

In a way, "The Liars' Club" is a helpless child's answer to a mother before whom she is powerless. Ms. Karr's quest for the truth about her family was a search for salvation. And in a way it redeemed her mother's life as well.

After the book was finished, her mother demanded to read it. "She lobbied like a banshee to see it: 'What if I die before it's done?' " Ms. Karr said, imitating her mother's Texas drawl. Last August, on the back porch of Ms. Karr's house in Syracuse, her mother sat "turning the pages and weeping" and apologizing for her actions while her grandson tried to console her.

"I said, 'You were an alcoholic,' " Ms. Karr recalled. " 'Plus, you were really nuts!' She just thought it was great. She reads well. She doesn't suffer fools. She laughed and wept. My mother is one of the more unconventional human units."

Her mother is sober now. "She's really kind of an amazing human being," Ms. Karr said. "She's been sober for 12 or 13 years. She went back to school before my dad died. She taught art in junior high school. She did most of the work for her Ph.D. A lot of this came from finding those children. My half-brother helped her get sober."

Ms. Karr refused to discuss her newly found half-brother and half-sister, except to say their reunion has been a happy one. Her mother remains "both very capricious and a delightable human being," Ms. Karr said. "That makes her irresponsible."

"If I hadn't discovered the past and gone through therapy, we wouldn't be close," Ms. Karr said. At the end of the book, there is a soaring passage about the redemptive power of truth. She writes that "what mother told us absolved us. . . . All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths. . . . "

"It's only looking back that I believe the clear light of truth should have filled us, like the legendary grace that carries a broken body past all manner of monsters."

These days, Mary Karr, sober and the mother of an active child, says she's happy. Will she marry again? "I hope not!" she said. "I'd rather take a whipping. I'm doing something I call Date-a-rama," she said.

"I saw in some review that I was born unlucky," she said. "When I hear myself described in these bathetic terms, I think of kids who are in Rwanda or H.I.V. positive. I get up, suit up, and shut up. I teach two afternoons a week; it's a piece of cake. I live in the house Toby lived in when he wrote 'This Boy's Life.' We put a basketball hoop up in the driveway; kids come from all over. Who wouldn't be happy!"

After a pause she added, "One reason I'm happy is I think I should've been dead a hundred times over."


The Washington Post

Hardscrabble Lives

By Jonathan Yardley

Sunday, June 18, 1995



A Memoir

By Mary Karr

Viking. 320 pp. $22.95


It's difficult to get much perspective on large events when they're happening right around you, but even from this vantage point it seems safe to say that literary historians of the future will look back to our times and remark upon two significant developments. One is the withering away of American literary fiction, a victim in part of forces beyond its control and in part of its own willful withdrawal from society. The other is the diversion of the confessional urge upon which literary fiction has fed into nonfiction, most specifically the memoir. Indeed, if matters continue at their present pace, the memoir may well be our most important literary form by the turn of the millennium.

It is a measure of how rapidly this transformation has taken place that the most recent edition of The Oxford Companion to American Literature, published only a dozen years ago, contains no general entry for memoirs and no specific ones for the book, Stop-time, that we can now identify as the beginning of the age of memoir, or its author, Frank Conroy. Published in 1967, that book was immediately recognized both for its distinctive literary quality and for being, at the time, sui generis; now the confessional memoir borders on the commonplace, especially the memoir of a difficult and eccentric but rewarding childhood.

The Liars' Club is the most recent addition to this genre, and a welcome one by any standard. Its author, Mary Karr, is described as "a prize-winning poet and critic," so it is with some embarrassment that I acknowledge no previous acquaintance with her name or work, but then in 1967 no one had heard of Frank Conroy, either. If The Liars' Club seems less remarkable now than Stop-time did then, it is only because that book and many others have accustomed us to memoirs of unsparing candor; but it is remarkable all the same, and a great pleasure to read.

Mary Karr, who is now about 40 years old, is the daughter of a laconic Texas oil worker and his somewhat flibberty-gibberty wife, herself also a Texan but one who did some time in New York and came away from it with a taste for the life of literature and art. Perhaps not surprisingly, this union resulted in a daughter with a down-home affection for the hardscrabble place where she grew up and a considerable gift for the English language; perhaps no more surprisingly, it produced another daughter, Lecia, who has displayed considerable skill at tough dealings in the world of business.

Considering the chaos of their childhoods, it's no small accomplishment that these two women survived to adulthood, much less made large places for themselves. Their parents' marriage had its moments of tenderness and happiness, but much of the time it was fractious, noisy and self-destructive. Their father was loving when he put his mind to it, but his real life was at work and with "an audience of drinking men he played dominoes with on days off," called the Liars' Club by one wife who finally tired of all the boozing and story-telling. Their mother was around, but she drank heavily, retreated into her artistic fantasies, and hovered at the edge of a condition known regionally as "Nervous," i.e., mental imbalance.

The family as a whole was "Not Right," which is to say that it did not conform even to such normality as existed in the East Texas town of Leechfield, not far from Port Arthur, a place so dreary that "Business Week once voted it one of the ten ugliest towns on the planet," a place of which their father said "the town was too ugly not to love." Everybody lived in sorry little houses and talked the union line -- "Daddy said a Republican was somebody who couldn't enjoy eating unless he knew somebody else was hungry" -- but the Karr family stood out all the same, what with both parents drinking and shouting at each other and nobody caring what anybody else thought.

As invariably happens in such circumstances, the two girls were thrown together in an intimate but far from tranquil alliance. "In fights Lecia and I have as grown-ups," Karr writes, "she'll scream at me, You were always so . . .cute!' And I'll scream back, You were always so . . . competent!' Which sums up our respective jobs in the family." Both girls were tough, not merely because circumstances demanded it but because they admired their father, who was quick on the trigger:

"After I grew up, the only man ever to punch me found himself awakened two nights later from a dead sleep by a solid right to the jaw, after which I informed him that, should he ever wish to sleep again, he shouldn't hit me. My sister grew up with an almost insane physical bravery: once in the parking lot outside her insurance office, she brushed aside the .22 pistol of a gunman demanding her jewelry. {Expletive} you,' she said and opened her Mercedes while the guy ran off. The police investigator made a point of asking her what her husband did, and when she said she didn't have one, the cop said, I bet I know why.' "

Mary Karr puts a brave face on her childhood, but she hardly scants its bruising aspects. She hated her maternal grandmother, who lived with them while slowly dying of cancer, and when death at last came she almost rejoiced in it, yet "something in me had died when Grandma had, and while I didn't miss her one iota, I keenly felt the loss of my own trust in the world's order." She describes in harrowing detail the day their mother finally snapped, one that instilled what became "an old fear: I didn't want Mother to kill herself." When her parents divorced, her heart just about broke, and when they got back together it mended, if imperfectly.

Her memoir's title refers in part to the Liars' Club that was her family and in part to the American Legion poolroom and bar. Until Mary underwent the transformation from little girl to young woman, her father used to take her there. "Something about the Legion clarified who I was," she writes, "made me solid inside, like when you twist the binocular lens to the perfect depth and the figure you're looking at gets definite." She adds:

"That bar also delineated the realm of sweat and hourly wage, the working world that college was educating me to leave. Rewards in that realm were few. No one congratulated you for clocking out. Your salary was spare. The Legion served as recompense. So the physical comforts you bought there -- hot boudain sausage and cold beer -- had value. You attended the place, by which I mean you not only went there but gave it attention your job didn't deserve. Pool got shot not as metaphor for some corporate battle, but as itself alone. And the spiritual comforts -- friendship, for instance -- couldn't be confused with payback for something you'd accomplished, for in the Legion everybody punched the same clock, drew the same wage, won the same prize."

Thus it is that, like many other American memoirs, The Liars' Club is a tribute to and lament for a world its author no longer occupies. Discovering and conquering new worlds, living new lives: It is the essential American story. In order to tell it one has to leave, has to acquire the skill of telling and the perspective to see it whole. Probably it's a better thing to write a book than to shoot a game of pool, and Mary Karr doesn't give any sense that she regrets the path she's taken. But she most surely regrets what she left behind, and she makes us regret it too. The Liars' Club is a beauty.




·    OCTOBER 31, 2009

A Writer's Toughest Character

For Mary Karr, it turned out to be herself




Mary Karr was four years behind deadline for delivering a new memoir detailing her disintegrating marriage, alcoholism and recovery. She had scrapped more than 1,000 pages and was considering selling her Manhattan apartment to give back her advance.

"That's how much I didn't want to write the book," said Ms. Karr, best-selling author of "The Liars' Club" and "Cherry," also memoirs. "I was clawing my way through it. It was a horror show."

It takes a lot to make Ms. Karr flinch. Her first book, a major best seller, dealt with her childhood in a Texas oil town, where her mother had a penchant for booze and firearms and threatened to kill Mary and her sister with a butcher knife. Her second book, "Cherry," traced her adolescence as she experimented with drugs and different identities.

But writing about her adult self proved harrowing. It took nearly seven years, and two discarded versions, to get it right.

"I'm no longer a 16-year-old on LSD who doesn't know any better, I'm a 30-year-old alcoholic shrieking at a toddler," said Ms. Karr, 54. "I'm suddenly culpable."

"Lit," due out Tuesday, covers Ms. Karr's college years, her troubled marriage to an aristocratic fellow poet, and her binge drinking, near-suicide and gradual conversion to Catholicism.

After "Cherry" came out in 2000, two separate publishers approached Ms. Karr with "a big fat honking advance" of nearly $1 million for a third memoir, she said. She turned them down because she felt she couldn't face her recent history. But two years later, she found herself writing the first chapter of "Lit," a prologue addressed to her son. Ms. Karr and her publisher, HarperCollins, wouldn't reveal what her advance was, but Ms. Karr described it as "a s—load."

"Lit" is landing in an increasingly choked memoir market—a shift that some publishers and literary critics attribute to Ms. Karr's own successful 1995 debut. More than six million memoirs sold last year, up from 1,256,000 in 2004, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 75% of retail sales.

Works by literary memoirists such as Ms. Karr, Tobias Wolff and the late Frank McCourt are now vastly outnumbered by a flood of celebrity memoirs, political memoirs, memoirs about addiction and disease, memoirs about pets and "year of" memoirs, in which the author spends a year forgoing toilet paper, following the Ten Commandments or reading the Oxford English Dictionary.

Ms. Karr says she tries to be accurate, not unbiased. She typically describes events as she remembers them, then sends the manuscript to people who can verify the stories. She showed "Lit" to her sister, to a woman who ran the halfway house where she sought alcohol counseling, to her friend Tobias Wolff, and to two spiritual advisers. Her ex-husband declined to vet it, so Ms. Karr sent it to their marriage counselor to make sure it wasn't wildly skewed.

Getting the marriage right proved one of the most difficult pieces. In her first two attempts, Ms. Karr said she demonized herself and made her husband look like a saint.

Finally, she decided he could "write his own damn book," and wrote her version.

Ms. Karr also struggled to describe her spiritual conversion, which felt "too pedantic." Her publisher asked her to give readers a step-by-step guide of how to pray, she said. "I think they wanted another 'Eat, Pray, Make Money,'" she said.

In January 2008, she threw out 590 pages and kept 120. She was panicking. For the next few months, she wrote frantically, sometimes for 14 hours a day, often in her pajamas, barely leaving her apartment.

Ms. Karr says she's not sure she has another memoir in her, but she's not swearing them off, either. At the moment, she's at work on a set of poems and a book about how to write memoirs.







One of the great joys of Mary Karr's memoir "The Liars' Club" is reading about what an adept little shit-kicker she was. By the age of 8, this East Texan was a world-class settler of scores, whether that meant biting the hell out of some kid who had wronged her or shinnying up a tree with a BB gun in order to pump lead into an entire offending family. "I was small-boned and skinny," Karr writes, "but more than able to make up for that with sheer meanness."

At 42, Mary Karr is still small-boned and skinny. And -- to my general discomfort -- she is still willing to do some shit-kicking. "I'd rather take a whuppin' than do one more goddamned interview," Karr barks at me when I meet her in a New York hotel lobby, her dark eyes shooting out little cartoon sparks of pique. (Karr's features are so compact and well-defined that she looks like an Al Hirschfeld sketch.) "I feel like I've been lashed to the mast," she says, reeling off the list of appointments and appearances she's already logged today. Karr leads me into the hotel's restaurant, where her fiancé, British publisher Peter Strauss, is waiting. Strauss' presence partly explains why she's upset: This lunch turns out to be the first chance they've had to see each other in several days. For 45 minutes, they chew their food and cast longing glances at one another. I trot out my questions, hoping not to have any steamed vegetables flung in my direction.

Karr is in demand right now for several reasons. For one thing, "The Liars' Club," published early in 1995, has come to be viewed as the book that jump-started the current memoir explosion. For another, Karr and her publishers are celebrating the fact that "The Liars' Club" has been on paperback bestseller lists for almost exactly one year -- the book has gone back for 17 printings, and there are close to 400,000 copies in print. "You'd think people would be sick of me," Karr says. "I'm sick of myself." Yet she seems genuinely surprised at the book's ongoing success: "If you've been a poet for 20 years," she says, "you don't expect anybody to read anything you write."

"The Liars' Club" deserves its wide audience. Karr is a shrewd, plucky and deeply observant storyteller, and she expertly spins out the details of her family's life in small-town Texas in the 1950s. Her mother was a kind of "Bohemian Scarlett O'Hara" whose wild streak (and seven marriages) shocked Karr's neighbors; a devoted parent, she would also be subject to destructive rages and psychotic episodes. Her father was a brawling oil worker, a generally taciturn man who came most fully alive when he told stories, spinning out whoppers with a group of men called "The Liars' Club." Karr's greatest achievement, though, is her ability to climb inside her own 8-year-old cranium. She evokes the landscape of a preadolescent mind with such exactitude -- fights, fears, petty jealousies -- that "The Liars' Club" stands as one of the best books ever written about growing up female (or growing up, period) in America.

Karr escaped Texas at age 17, she has said, when she joined some surfers bound for California. She found her way to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., where she spent two years before dropping out to travel. Karr later attended Vermont's Goddard Collage, where she studied with the writers Tobias Wolff and Frank Conroy, both of whom have been influential in her career. Karr married a fellow poet in 1983 -- they had a son, Dev, now 11 -- and divorced 10 years later. She has published two books of poetry, "The Devil's Tour" and "Abacus." She now lives with her son in upstate New York, and she teaches writing at Syracuse University.

As our interview progressed, Karr's irritation gradually vanished. She talked about everything from the storm surrounding Kathryn Harrison's memoir "The Kiss" to her reasons for beginning to write "The Liars' Club" ("I literally needed the money") to her recent work on "Cherry," a forthcoming memoir of her teenage years. No vegetables were thrown.

"The Liars' Club" was published two years ago, yet it's already regarded as the Ur-text of this so-called "memoir explosion." Are you surprised that this has become such a heated cultural battle?

Well, I think memoir started with St. Augustine -- not with me, and not with Oprah. Memoir has an august, and inaugust, history. St. Augustine got drop-kicked for just using the first person pronoun at all. It was considered morally reprehensible. Memoir has long been what Geoffrey Wolff has called an "outsider's art." People want some sort of moral compass, and the subjective suddenly has power it hasn't had before because all of the measures of how we are doing -- the church, community life, religious or government leaders, certain kinds of values, family -- no longer mean what they once did. There are other people who have written memoirs -- Frank Conroy, Maya Angelou. Maxine Hong Kingston wrote a great memoir, "Woman Warrior." I think I'm the current ... (trails off). But I don't know why they don't call Richard Ford and bust his chops about all the Harlequin romances that are being published. Most of the memoirs are going to be bad, the way most novels are going to be bad, the way most articles are going to be bad, the way most poems are going to be bad. It's hard to make something of quality.

You must feel like you're being blamed for creating a monster.

Yeah, and I'm crying all the way to the bank. Toby Wolff did a great piece in the Times last Sunday where he said -- talking about James Wolcott (who wrote a strongly negative review of Harrison "The Kiss" in The New Republic) -- that Wolcott stood at the gates of literature as if to prevent any memoir from passing through. There is a history of genres or different forms (being discredited). A sonnet was seen as really low rent at one time among poets because it didn't have the sweep of an epic -- and it didn't have the rhetorical power of an epistle. The notion that something would be a little lyrical song, or that a novel was made up -- it was just fancy, sprung from someone's head -- was seen as morally reprehensible. It's odd that when a new genre emerges as interesting, the only way people choose to take it on is on some moral ground based on the notion that art is mimetic. No one calls up Don DeLillo and says, "What things about Lee Harvey Oswald did you make up and which ones are absolutely true?" They are fully accepting of freedom in that form. But I guess with memoirists choosing to use novelistic devices, these are fair questions for readers to ask.

I read an interview in which you said that one or two of your father's "Liars' Club" stories in your book were, in fact, things you made up.

They are pure fiction. They are absolutely made up. But they are not represented as truth in the book. I sort of defend doing it that way. They are seen as bullshit, and represented as bullshit in the book. The interesting things people have said -- you know, "Did your mother really shoot at your stepfather?" -- I've responded like, "I wouldn't make that up." Then I'm all morally outraged. But what do I expect? You sign up to play football and then you complain you've been hit?



The Liar's Club
How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood—and what they said in return

By Mary Karr

Posted Tuesday, March 27, 2007


The other week, Slate posed the following question to a group of memoir writers: How do you choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you?


As soon as you start to leave things out—to shape a tale—you're maneuvering the actual. Can I tell about the boy who raped me without investigating who may have raped him as a child (data that would certainly spin the moral compass a few degrees at least)? Not without dismantling history. Hence the innate scorn with which memoirists get treated—it's a scuzzy business at best, displaying your wounds in the marketplace, making close compatriots into "characters." How dare I? I did take a few precautions.

Every major character in both memoirs (still alive) was alerted to the project in advance and "warned" about scenes they might find troubling—i.e., I told my mother I intended to recount her psychotic break. I told my best high-school friend (Meredith) that I'd describe her cutting herself, as well as her brother's stint in jail. My pals who show up in Cherry were alerted as well—Clarice (from grade school), Meredith, John Cleary (the first boy I ever kissed), Doonie (the drug dealer), Stacy (an acid-taking volleyballer), along with two high-school boyfriends and my remaining family. While I didn't call them for "research" purposes, many told me stories I'd forgotten that wound up in print. Those folks are always thanked up front.


Maybe it's strange that—given my advanced age—I've stayed in touch with all these people through the years. Doonie, Stacey, Clarice, Meredith (until she died a few years back), John Cleary, and I remained (and remain) close. Definition: We continue to celebrate each other's birthdays, at least by phone call and Hallmark card. We speak at Christmas. Every few years, we visit. Many of these folks joined me at the Texas Book Festival in 2000 when Cherry came out.

Maybe this ongoing closeness made writing about them easier. Or maybe they're just tolerant individuals, which they'd have to be to associate with me for so long.

Once the manuscript was completed, I sent it to these primary characters for fear I'd misremembered or misrepresented them. The one small complaint I got was from a rock musician (an ex-beau) who worried that I said he'd smoked pot as a teenager—a scene he didn't deny but now found embarrassing. I offered to take the scene out but refused to change how I remembered it. He preferred it stay in.

The large complaint involved my friend Meredith. She asked that I take out the scene of her cutting herself with a razor. She didn't mind if I reinserted it in later editions, after her elderly mother died. To write it and blur the identity of the "cutter" seemed a fat lie to the reader—plus, it's a different kind of betrayal: Watching a stranger taking a razor to herself just differs—morally speaking—from watching a dear pal. So, I'd initially intended to cut the chapter altogether. Then "Stacey," our volleyball-playing pal, said she'd prefer to claim the cutting acts as her own. Stacey felt the scene was socially relevant and in some way "true" and that the book would suffer from its absence. This is the only intentional falsehood I've consciously constructed—other than fake names. It's the one time I've let literature rule over fact. And now that Meredith and her mother are both dead, I correct the score.

Oh, and the Liars' Club stories in that book (minus one I'd tape recorded) were sheer fiction, but since they deal with frozen farts and the like, I figured their historical accuracy would never be under dispute.

After both books' publications, several minor neighborhood characters and teachers wrote me or came to hear me speak. It tickled me that a number of the guys I surfed with at Meekham's Pier showed up at a bookstore in Houston. The oddest character participating was an old pal who'd vanished into the Witness Protection Program back in the late '70s. The greater complaint has been that I didn't use real names or the real name of our town. In other words, people preferred to be affiliated with their representations in the book. Some folks were pissed I left them out.

I'm certain that I've forgotten, blurred, or misremembered a zillion events, characters, and details large and small. Also, at this point in literary history, it's understood that memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt. That said, I believe a writer makes a contract with the reader to tell the truth. I try to stick with the stuff that's stuck hardest with me. And if I don't recall something I know the reader will wonder about, I announce it's been forgotten. In the one case when a family member differed not on facts but on their interpretation (my sister remembered a grandmother I found malign as a nice old lady), I told the reader as much (I added—not so slyly!— that the same sister also voted for Ronald Reagan: twice). Maybe I've avoided complaints due to my own character—not that it's stellar, but the converse: If someone's behaving like an asshole in my book, it most always tends to be me.


Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club and Cherry, is the Peck professor of literature at Syracuse University.








Oh, my God! I'm a lush!


Lisa Gabriele


Published Friday, Dec. 04, 2009



You might blame Mary Karr for our love affair with the survivor memoir. Her 1995 autobiography (the first in a seeming trilogy), The Liars' Club, was an international bestseller that chronicled how she survived her alcoholic parents and a feral East Texas childhood (that included rape and the threat of rickets) to become a celebrated writer and esteemed professor.

In the lauded follow-up, Cherry, she tells how she survived a bruised adolescence and shaky young adulthood. And now Lit lays out in painful, gorgeous detail how Mary Karr survived herself.

The Liars' Club and Cherry are remarkable, not just because they're beautifully written, but because they seem to describe someone utterly lacking in self-pity – a feat, considering the hell through which Karr was dragged by her reckless, but loving, parents. In Lit, we learn, not surprisingly, that Karr coped by drinking, not very day, and not with much fanfare, unlike her much-married mother, who drank until she peed her pants, and her bar-brawling dad, who died of chronic alcoholism.

Rather, like a lot of women who “raged” as teens, “partied” in their 20s, and hoped the boozing would naturally taper off in their 30s, Karr simply drove her drinking underground. Her courtship with Warren, a WASP-y poet from old money, wasn't overly dramatic, but their subsequent marriage becomes pocked with livid awareness that her drinking could cost her the man she hoped would save her from herself.

“There had been a time when the wide world was sunlit, every grass blade shining, but the sun's spotlight has shrunk smaller and smaller,” she writes. “Now Warren is squeezed out. He's a shade, an outline. I can't see him any more.”

Though she never got drunk during her pregnancy, the baby doesn't fix things either. In fact, her son's arrival signals the beginning of the end of ardour. Karr's drinking was once a reward for being a good mother and wife. It soon becomes a punishment for being neither. “Happy hour” takes place after tucking her son into bed. While her husband teaches night class, Karr crouches on the back porch of a lovely house on a lovely campus, where she smokes and sips, listening to sad music until her head gets heavy enough to fall sleep. When she's not dosing herself in the dark, she's driving around the local reservoir, blaring tango and finishing off a six-pack.

 “I keep getting drunk. There's no more interesting way to say it. [...] Liquor ... shrinks me to a plodding zombie state in which one day smudges into every other – it blurs time.” What used to stimulate her poetry now blocks its exit from her creative recesses.

Another problem: Her son is sickly, so staying sober enough to be of motherly use is becoming harder. His emergency-room visits, the croupy hacking in the middle of the night, her husband's fatigue, all conspire to interrupt her drinking.

After her car spins out in the rain on an empty highway, Karr greets her husband at the door, soaked and sober. He mutters, “You smell like a bum,” barely concealing his contempt. That is her “moment of clarity.” She makes that inevitable descent into a church basement, squinting at the dull, staid language of recovery, the kind she avoids in her own writing. Thankfully.

By now, no one would blame readers for being skeptical about the ubiquitous recovery memoir, from the too-harrowing-to-be-true mendacity of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, to the too-clever tone of Augusten Burroughs's Dry to the too-pleased-with itself The Night of the Gun, by David Carr.

What those books barely touch on, and what Karr tackles head-on, is how getting sober translates into living sober. Even Intervention, the popular A&E documentary series, casts an avid eye on the lurching drunks but always leaves them at the precipice of re-entry. It might have something to do with the queasiness that the word “God” engenders, an idea or entity the newly sober are often instructed to embrace, especially if they, like Karr, wind up in a 12-step program.

Karr never mentions the organization by name, but it's clear she smacks into the “God thing” at Alcoholics Anonymous. She not only bristles at the word, she wholesale balks at the idea of prayer. It is only after a stint in a mental hospital that she experiences those “reversals of attitude so contrary to my typical thoughts – so solidly true – as to seem divinely external.” There she surrenders on the floor by the toilet, a familiar place for many a kneeling drunk. “Before I feared surrender would sand me down to nothing. Now I start believing it can make me bloom more solidly into myself.”

Karr doesn't convince us that she's found God; rather, she convinces us of a simple need to search for something bigger than ourselves, a fact that astonishes even her: “More likely pastime? Pole dancer. International spy. Drug mule. Assassin.” It's a path that eventually leads her from the church basement to the church itself: a Catholic church.

In and of itself, this is a classic addition to the memoir genre and the bow atop an unforgettable trilogy of books by a brave and brilliant writer. But it's also a moving and helpful compendium for anyone baffled by someone else's, or their own, drinking.

Lisa Gabriele is a television producer and an author, most recently of the novel The Almost Archer Sisters.







The Liar's Club, by Mary Karr


Reviewed by Andrew Wille


Mary Karr's The Liar's Club springs from that American tradition of fine memoirs of awful yet fondly remembered childhoods - it comes with an endorsement from Tobias Wolff, and it also calls to mind Mona Simpson's autobiographical novels. It's an unflinchingly honest book and, with affection, eloquence and wit, it recreates aspects of all our childhoods - and the adults who can fulfill our dreams, or fail us.

Mary Karr grew up in the sixties in Leechfield, a swampy Texas oil town best known for hurricanes, mosquitos and the manufacture of Agent Orange. Her wild and unconventional family stands in stark contrast to more respectable God-fearing neighbours, whose children Mary delights in outraging. Some of the more warmly drawn scenes in the book involve Mary's father who works at the refinery and is active in the union. He regularly hangs out with his fellow oil workers at the American Legion Bar, competing to tell the tallest tale in Texas as he shoots the breeze with other members of the Liar's Club. In doing so he earns a permanent place in Mary's heart as champion mythmaker, and she has evidently inherited his talent as an extravagant storyteller.

Her mother, who fancies herself as a sort of 'bohemian Scarlett O'Hara', never fits into town life; not only has she been to art school in New York but she is 'nervous' and inclined to heavy drinking binges. Mary's mother's breakdowns and long, drawn-out shouting matches between the parents occupy a central role in this book and in Mary's childhood. They are vividly described in horrible detail, picturing the hurt of the child who can see and feel but barely understand.

Other demons surface. A mean and puritanical grandmother comes to stay to die of cancer, leaving behind gruesome memories of a slow and painful (and odorous) death. While there she plagues Mary and her sister Lecia with endless spiteful demands. At the age of seven Mary is sexually assaulted by an older neighbourhood boy who she thought was just a playmate. A couple of years later, when her parents separate and she moves to Colorado, she is forced to perform oral sex on an unnamed, but not forgotten babysitter.

The strength of The Liar's Club lies in such moments, which are recalled without self-pity and with such power that you almost feel that you're there, shirking from the awful smell of Grandma's breath, trying to understand why a man is peeing in your mouth. It's here that Mary Karr succeeds in reaching out to all our childhoods - the happy times and the sad, the curiosity and the guilt and the shame of the no-longer innocent. I found The Liar's Club a little disappointing in comparison to This Boy's Life, as it lacks the single narrative thrust of that book's search for escape, but when you reach the end, and share with the grown-up Mary the discovery of her mother's secret history, you are moved by the honesty and love of this moment.


The Observer

Exactly as she remembers it

Mary Karr makes a living out of writing about herself. She talks to Gaby Wood about blurring genres, coming of age and getting ambushed by the truth


Gaby Wood


Six years ago, Mary Karr wrote The Liars' Club, a wonderful memoir about her traumatic childhood in Texas. Now she has written another - Cherry - which picks up her story in adolescence. In both books, she has a warm, lilting voice and a spiky intelligence; she uses phrases like 'broke-dick', 'wild-assed' and 'done drop the cheese off his cracker' (meaning 'he's crazy').

Fans of the first will certainly welcome the second. Nevertheless, there's something rather peculiar about the idea of writing serial autobiographies: to write one memoir may be a way of regarding one's misfortunes; to write two begins to look like carelessness.

Mary Karr makes a living out of transferring her life onto the page. She also holds a chair in English literature at Syracuse University in New York State. Where her own writing is concerned, her perspective seems to shift uncomfortably between critical distance and self-absorption.

For example, the critic in Karr describes writing Cherry in response to a gap in the market: there are coming-of-age memoirs written by men, but 'women don't write about sexual activity between the ages of 12 and 18 - unless it's aberrant'. So the memoirist in Karr set out to write about the ordinary process of losing one's virginity. But she couldn't see that when it came to ordinariness, she hardly seemed the woman for the job.

As anyone who has read The Liar's Club will know, Karr was raped before she was 10, and her babysitter forced her to give him a blow-job. She comes to this universal event with personal baggage she has already declared. And yet the rape is mentioned in only two short paragraphs of Cherry : 'How odd, you'll later think, that you embarked on your first love affair... with such a large sexual secret in tow.'

How odd indeed; for someone who thinks about herself professionally, Karr seems to have made a remarkably disingenuous decision. 'It was not anything that I forgot, or blocked from my memory,' she says. 'I remembered that it happened. It was the kind of thing you brush over in your adolescent mind, but it wasn't forgotten. The problem with writing something like that is that I don't know what it's like to come of age sexually without it.'

Because events in The Liars' Club were so extreme, it's strange to come across her mother, the woman whose psychotic episode was central to The Liars' Club, as a portrait painter who leafs genteelly through art history books. 'It was different,' she says.. 'I think every family has a patch where the sources of the family are maxed out, and the flaws in everybody's character are thrown into stark relief. And my life really did get less chaotic.'

Interviewing Mary Karr is a strange business: on the one hand, you know a lot about her formative years already; on the other, you've just met. It's like meeting someone with their clothes on when you've only ever seen them naked.

Instead of asking more questions about her life, I find myself working backwards, as if it's my duty to protect the privacy she has left. Or I give her the benefit of literary doubt, suggesting, not that she might have made things up exactly, but that her self on the page is selectively chosen. She agrees to an extent - 'I think the reader understands that it's an act of memory, not an act of history' - but she is quick to defend her methods: 'I do have a really good memory. I mean, like I can remember all the phone numbers of everybody on the street I grew up on.'

It's as if there were some moral issue at stake, and in fact she does comment on this at one point, saying that 'there's a moral virtue attached to different forms at different times in history. The novel used to be thought of as reprehensible because it was made up. And now in some way, the memoir is often mocked because' - she rolls her eyes to emphasise the ludicrousness of this - 'it plagiarises reality, or something.'

Karr is a purist when it comes to memoir writing. 'It seems to me that the whole history of literature for the past two centuries has been about genre blurring, to some extent. But I've tried, within all that corruption, to say what I know, and to 'fess when I don't.'

There is no mistaking her then: the girl whose alcoholic mother thought she had killed her children, who was sexually abused, who tried to overdose, is before me, an attractive, successful, self-possessed woman in her forties.

It's hard to know how much to ask about what happened to Karr next, since there's always the possibility that she may be planning another sequel ('I don't know,' she says, 'they certainly wag a lot of money at me to try to get me to do that.')

But she tells me that she went to college, 'made really great grades, got a great scholarship', then dropped out. She moved to England for a while, then enrolled in a graduate writing programme that was taught by Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Louise Gluck, Richard Ford, Charles Simic, Robert Hass and other luminaries. She writes poems and criticism, and tells me she has a lot more money since she wrote The Liars' Club. She got married, and divorced. She has a son who is 15, and when I ask her if she would write about herself now, rather than just her childhood, she says she thinks her boyfriend 'would probably blow his brains out'.

Karr tells me that she writes a huge amount, and then throws out 'everything'. 'I think you get ambushed by the truth, writing about yourself,' she says, opening up for the first time about the differences between her life and the page. 'I always start off thinking I know what's important, and it's never what's important, it's always something else.' But if, as she said earlier, it's all exactly as she remembers it, how can she bring that judgment to bear on her own life? 'Because it's boring,' she replies, 'or there's something in my head that I've failed to transfer to the page.' Even when Cherry was finished, she tells me, she discarded another 500 pages of it. 'Did you miss it when it was gone?' I ask. 'Never. Never think of it again.'

Suddenly it becomes clear why it's hard to ask Mary Karr about her life: she lives in two time-frames, breathing in one and resurrecting another. However much of herself she reveals on the page, there are some things no one can be sure of. I ask her if writing memoirs makes her feel differently about her life. 'You know what?' she says. 'I wish it didn't, but I think it does.'

Mary Karr grew up in East Texas. She is a poet and essayist. The Liar's Club (1995) won the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and became an international bestseller. Mary Karr now teaches English at Syracuse University, New York.