Through memory, Mary Karr has reconstructed the harrowing events of her upbringing. The stories comprising Karr’s bestselling memoir The Liars’ Club (1995) occur primarily in the years 1961 to 1963, when she was roughly ages 7 to 9, then leapfrog ahead to 1980, when her tale reaches a tentative close. Since its publication, The Liars’ Club has become surrounded by yet another layer of intriguing yarns: those of how the book came under contract to be written and how readers responded to her raw truths.
As Karr tells it, the book’s genesis was partly serendipitous, partly inevitable, and partly a practical solution to a jam. In 1989, Karr received a $25,000 Whiting Writer’s Award, which enabled her to complete The Devil’s Tour, her second book of poetry. (She was also holding down an office job at that time.) At a celebration dinner, Karr sat with another award recipient, writer Tobias Wolff, her friend and former teacher at Goddard College (where she earned an MFA) and his agent Amanda Urban. Karr began spinning tales of her early family life, and Urban urged her to put together a proposal and sample chapters. The book was sold to Viking before Karr had time to think twice about all that might be involved in dredging up the past. Of her motivation, Karr says, “My marriage ended, and I needed the money. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have any furniture.” She also adds, “If you’re a writer and grow up in a family like mine, you have to go out of your way not to write about it.”
The task was searing: “When I started unpacking my memory and sitting in the middle of it all day, I had the most bizarre experiences—I’d write an hour and a half or two hours and then lie down on the floor of my study and sleep the sleep of the dead.” Taped above her computer was a letter from Wolff offering her this advice: “Take no care for your dignity. Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed.” Karr’s mother, on the other hand, put it more bluntly. “Hell, get it off your chest,” she counseled.
Karr seems to have accepted both directives, stripping her past bare and risking full exposure. The Liars’ Club (a title borrowed from her father’s drinking buddies) hits the reader between the eyes with horrific experiences—alcoholism, attempted infanticide, and sexual molestation among them. Nonetheless it is an oddly hopeful and darkly comic book, largely because of its pungent East Texas idiom and the strong emotional ties that bind the family, despite the tumult. Seven-year-old Mary Karr is the last person anyone would have wanted to sit next to in grade school, yet her feisty toughness carries the narrative. That Karr’s mother (now sober and still living in Karr’s hometown) supported Karr in writing openly from her child’s-eye point of view bears testimony to family courage.
Karr followed The Liar’s Club with another memoir, Cherry (2000), about her teenage years.
Excerpt from The Liars Club (1996)
At dusk in the late summer in 1962, the mosquitoes rose up from the bayous and drainage ditches. Kids fell ill with the sleeping sickness, as we called encephalitis. Marvalene Seesacque came out of a six-month coma that left her what we called half-a-bubble off plumb. Other kids weren’t luck enough even to wake up, and for the front page of the paper, Mother had taken a slew of funeral pictures with tiny coffins. A mosquito truck was dispatched from Leechfield Public Works to smoke down the bad swarms. It puttered down the streets every evening trailing a long cloud of DDT from a hose as big around as a dinner plate. Our last game of the day that summer often involved mounting our bikes and having a slow race behind the mosquito truck.
A slow race is the definitive Leechfield competition. You win it by coming in last. This might sound easy enough to do unless you’re riding a two-wheeler, in which case slowing too far down makes you tump over. The trick was to pedal just fast enough to stay upright, but not fast enough to pull ahead of anybody. Add to this the wet white cloud of poison the mosquito truck pumped out to wrap around your sweaty body and send a sweet burn through your lungs, and you have just the kind of game we liked best–one where the winners got to vomit and faint. That was what I remember Tommy Sharp doing, vomiting in the ditch in front of the swimming pool. Shirley Carter set down the kickstand on her red Schwinn just in time to pass out cold as a wedge on the roadside, so that Lyle Petit’s mother, who worked as a nurse, had to be called to blow into her face and get her going again. Not a winner, I was standing in the crowd of kids watching her blue face get pinker when my mother started calling me.
All the kids looked up. It was never Mother who called us. Mother rarely even came out in the front yard since Mr. Sharp had told her she was going to hell for drinking beer and breast-feeding me on the porch. ‘You could see evil in the crotch of a tree, you old fart,’ she was supposed to have said in reply. Since then, it was Daddy who hauled the garbage out front and did any calling home for supper. At the sound of her voice, the kids all started a little the way a herd of antelope on one of those African documentaries will lift their heads from the water hole at the first scent of a lion.
I started running, vaulting the muddy ditches that ran in front of the identical houses. I’d just leapt over one of the squat towers of mud that crawdads left when I saw my grandmother’s red Ford wagon parked in front of our house. Our car always arrived from even the shortest trip strewn with candy wrappers and soda bottles and a coffee can sloshing with pee. But when I peeked into the Ford’s window, it looked like the old woman had driven clear across the state of Texas with nothing more than a box of pink tissues. Mother was holding the screen door open and shading her eyes as I climbed up onto the concrete porch. Her cheekbones winged out, and her eyes were the flawed green of cracked marbles. She told me that Grandma had cancer and had come to stay with us for a while, but that I shouldn’t let on I knew.
The Liars’ Club (1995)
The Devil’s Tour, poetry (1994)
Abacus, poetry (1987)
Salon.com interview with Mary Karr
Reading group guide for The Liar’s Club
Book review of Cherry