Mary Karr’s memoir, consisting largely of scenes from her East Texas and Colorado childhood, works brilliantly on a number of levels. It is riveting first of all as narrative, a meandering river of humorous, harrowing, poignant, and deeply interesting stories. It is poetic as well, its images evoking a gritty physical reality sharply flavored by the locutions of the author’s origins. Full of casual violence, dislocation, fragmentation, it is social and psychological drama with a strikingly American slant. At the end, in the deepest and most satisfying sense, it is a fairy tale, telling of the breaking of an old enchantment.
The early life of Karr’s mother, born Charlie Marie Moore, was a prototypical American odyssey, a pattern of restless seeking and never quite finding. Reared in Lubbock, Texas, she married at fifteen because her mother wanted her out of the house; she moved to New York with her first husband and returned to Texas with her third. It was in Leechfield, on the Gulf Coast, that purely by accident she met J. P. Karr, a working man employed by Gulf Oil, and, for reasons that remained mysterious to the author, abandoned her husband and quickly married him. Leechfield—swampy, vermin-infested, fouled by chemical poisons that produced one of the highest cancer rates in the world—was once voted by Business Week “one of the ten ugliest towns on the planet.” Into this volatile family, this casualty of industrialism, Lecia Karr and, two years later, the author were born—endangered.
It was a traumatic life the children led, one result being that many images and events sank into the “great deep pit” the author, very early in her life, began “digging in [her] skull.” So it is not by accident that the opening sentence of this memoir reads, “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.” The image is of the author, aged seven in 1961, resisting the efforts of the family doctor to raise her nightgown to look for marks—wounds—on her body. “It took three decades for that instant to unfreeze,” for the surrounding picture to form itself in Karr’s mind. Because “this blank spot in [her] past . . . spoke most loudly to [her] by being blank,” it is not until much later in the book that she completes the story.
The sisters coped with trauma in dramatically different ways. Lecia, who became a successful insurance salesman, is quoted by Karr as saying, “Unconscious mind, my ass. Get over it.” Karr, however, worked hard to drag the darkest secrets of her childhood out of that deep pit: self-directed psychotherapy that presumably motivated her to write the book. The Liars’ Club was heavily researched, in part with the help of the author’s mother; Karr, who dedicated it to her parents, thanks her for “freely answer[ing] questions by phone and mail.”
As a child in the early 1960’s, Karr was to some degree sustained by inhabiting the masculine world of her father. J. P. Karr, brought up in an East Texas logging camp, loved to tell stories of his childhood, which to the author became “in most ways more vivid to [her] than [her] own.” He told them to a group of drinking men, whom “somebody’s pissed-off wife eventually christened . . . the Liars’ Club,” who gathered at the American Legion “or in the back room of Fisher’s Bait Shop.” While “not much of the truth in any technical sense got told there,” the tall tales and outright fabrications that passed back and forth had a mythic quality that spoke of the deeper realities of the men’s lives. Some of J. P. Karr’s stories resembled hero quests—outrageous journeyings ending always in a return—and “to Mother, such stories showed that Daddy offered steadiness. . . . Coming back was something she’d begun to need from a man, badly.”
Certainly Karr’s family needed all the stability it could get. Her mother was drinking hard and subject to fits of rage; her father, who “scared the hell out of people, ” at times was “just spring-loaded on having a fight”; and “Lecia and [Karr] behaved like savages at any opportunity.” Fights between the parents were frequent and emotionally violent. Then into this volatile atmosphere intruded Grandma Moore, Karr’s grandmother, slowly dying of cancer.
This woman, for or from whom Karr remembered “not one tender feeling,” sat in the house and “doled out criticisms that sent [Karr’s] mother scurrying around with her face set so tight her mouth was a hyphen.” Karr learned the meaning of suffering when “the doctors piped mustard gas through Grandma’s leg to try to stop the spread of her melanoma.” When she returned from the hospital after having her leg amputated, “she had ossified into something elemental and really scary.” Karr took to walking in her sleep, was suspended from school for attacking other students, and was raped by an older boy who “didn’t even have to threaten [her] to keep quiet.” This dark...