Mary Karr's Lit: A Memoir
Martha Greene Eads

“I don’t think you’re a very good mama,” my nearly three-year-old informed me one afternoon.


“Oh, really?” I replied. “What would I have to do to be a good mother?”

“You would have to do some different things. You would have to do some things like Dada. You would have to play rough.”

My daughter’s frank assessment marks the end of that golden period in which I could do no wrong—or very little. I can now start counting myself among the countless ranks of mothers whose daughters suspected they’ve somehow been shortchanged.

Among my comrades is the late Charlie Marie Moore Karr, mother of poet and memoirist Mary Karr. In Lit, Karr plumbs her memory to come to terms with Charlie’s maternal failings and grapples with her own along the way. Karr’s desire was not that her mother be more “like Dada.” Although Karr loved her father, Pete Karr was as desperate a drunk as Charlie and never a serious contender for Father of the Year, even in gritty Leechfield, Texas, where Karr spent most of her girlhood. However much she wanted Charlie to be a different sort of mother, Karr reveals in Lit her even deeper desire: that she herself be a different sort of mother from Charlie. As she recounts her struggle to be a decent mom in spite of her own alcoholism, Karr grows in compassion for her own mom. In receiving forgiveness, she finds resources for forgiving Charlie.

Karr’s son Dev Millbank never tells her to “do some things like Dada” either—at least not in her account. He quite reasonably could have. Karr describes Dev’s father, whom she calls “Warren Whitbread,” as an ideal father: patient, kind, and resourceful. His family is to the Social Register what the Karrs are to the Leechfield newspaper’s police blotter column, even though he too had a dysfunctional upbringing. When Karr, half in admiration and half in resentment, asks her husband how he became such a good parent, Warren says, “I imagine what my father would’ve done with me, then do the opposite” (179). Karr, in contrast, repeatedly makes familiar choices that endanger her son, her marriage, and her own life. When Charlie finally dries out, Karr “get[s] drunk at her again, driving to the liquor store for a bottle of Jack Daniels like [her] poor old daddy used to drink (no scrap of awareness in the similarity).” She continues, “I drink it in the garage while flipping through my wedding pictures, where Mother looks walleyed and very pleased with herself. I could drag her behind my car, I think. Instead, I drain the poison I hope will kill her” (130). She manages to stop drinking before conceiving Dev but a few weeks after his birth accepts a beer (from her mother, of course) to help her breastfeeding milk supply, and the downward spiral resumes. “That’s how,” she muses, “in some cosmic accounting of our family’s rampant dipsomania—Mother’s recovery dovetailed with the start of my own years’ long binge, for from that day forward, I drank in increasing amounts, as if our gene pool owed the universe at least one worthless drunk at a time” (156). With her mother on the wagon and her father in the grave, Karr’s demons prevent her from even trying to match Dev’s father’s outstanding performance in the parenting department.

Fortunately, Karr develops a relationship with her heavenly Father, and Lit proves itself over time and pages to be a spirited conversion narrative. The book is not, however, likely to show up on a Christian family bookstore shelf. Even as Karr (kicking and screaming) gets to know her higher power through AA and comes to recognize that His name is Jesus, the four-letter words keep flying. A divorce from Warren, injudicious romantic interludes, and unflattering losses of temper lie ahead, as well. The book is tough to read, from start to finish, albeit nowhere nearly as tough as The Liars’ Club (1995) and Cherry (2000), both bestsellers, in which Karr describes her harrowing childhood and sexual coming of age, respectively. I had to put each of the first two books aside, finding incidents in each of them too painful to contemplate.

But this English prof/parent/Christian was a sucker for Lit as a celebration of both poetry and redeemed parenting. Think of Anne Lamott’s work; Lit is just as fresh and frank but a little more obviously erudite: name-dropping the likes of “Toby” Wolff, his brother Geoffrey, and David Foster Wallace; employing extended Homeric metaphors; offering esoteric epigraphs. Beneath it all, though, is a highly accessible appreciation for stories and story-telling, especially for the Gospel story as it continues to bear upon the lives of desperate parents and children. As mothers, Charlie Marie Moore Karr and Mary Karr “played rough” in ways no child would ask for, but each managed by God’s grace both to claim blessings and bless her offspring.

The memoir’s title is a pun I didn’t originally get. Having grown up in a Baptist teetotaling home, I needed my Catholic-school-educated husband to point out that “lit” keeps company with “soused,” “trashed,” “stoned,” and just plain “drunk.” In her BookPage review quoted in testimonials at the front of Lit’s Harper Perennial paperback edition, Katherine Wyrick caught the double-meaning: “That pleasing monosyllabic title encapsulates this writer’s entire journey so far—one that is about drinking and the illuminating revelations of sobriety, about the redemptive power of literature and how the act of writing can save a soul” (viii). Indeed, Lit is certain to appeal to nearly anyone who wants to read about deliverance from a crushing addiction and to those who savor solidarity with other avid readers. But you should also buy some copies to give to people in your life who, even if free of addictions to alcohol or literature, might need a reminder that God can bring good out of even our worst familial screw-ups, whether done to us, by us, or both.

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