The Liars’ Club

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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.

It was in Leechfield, Texas, on the Gulf Coast, that purely by accident Charlie Marie Moore met J. P. Karr, a working man employed by Gulf Oil, and, for reasons which remained mysterious to Mary Karr, abandoned her husband and married him. Leechfield—swampy, vermin-infested, fouled by chemical poisons which produced one of the highest cancer rates in the world, was once voted by BUSINESS WEEK as “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.

The Liars’ Club which gives the book its title was a group of men, including Karr’s father, which met to drink, play pool, and tell stories. In this masculine world the author found some relief from the traumas of life at home, a home dominated by a mother so mentally unstable that at one point she was committed to a mental institution. The author, who at the age of seven was raped by an older boy, lived on the raw edge. Yet her spirit was never broken, and the deep feelings she retained for her mother led her, when she was in her twenties, to probe for a truth which set them both free.

THE LIARS’ CLUB is moving, deeply enjoyable, and a brilliant testimonial to the value of art.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 16, 1995, p. 1.

The Nation. CCLXI, July 3, 1995, p. 21.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, October 20, 1995, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. C, July 9, 1995, p. 8.

The New Yorker. LXXI, July 10, 1995, p. 78.

Texas Monthly. XXIII, July, 1995, p. 78.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 18, 1995, p. 3.

The Liars’ Club

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2039

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 event is presented as hardly separate from the pattern of daily life, which continued to careen ever closer to the edge—literally so: Evacuating the family during Hurricane Carla, Karr’s mother—whether deliberately or accidentally is uncertain—almost drove off a high bridge.

During Grandma Moore’s stay, Charlie Marie Karr maintained an icy emotional control. Afterward, she began drinking again and got into raging fights with the children’s father, a steady drinker himself. As to whether it was the drinking that brought on her “near-fatal attack of Nervous,” Karr declines to speculate, but what followed was the event mentioned at the beginning of the book. Charlie Marie, an artist, built a bonfire in the yard out of her paintings, her children’s clothes, and whatever else came to hand; then she went into the house and stood framed in the doorway of her daughters’ room. “Swooping down from one hand [was] the twelve-inch shine of a butcher knife.” Her call to the doctor, claiming to have killed both girls, led to a solicitous assembly of neighbors and police.

After Charlie Marie’s release from the mental hospital, the family “moved to Colorado wholly by accident.” Charlie had inherited a considerable amount of money—how much was never certain—from her mother, some of which they were spending on a trip to the Seattle’s World Fair. They never got there; instead, whimsically, they stopped along the way and wound up buying a house. Almost in the same spirit, it seems—in her constant search for something new and better, some surcease from pain—Charlie divorced her husband, who went back to his job in Leechfield, leaving the girls with their mother. They were allowed to choose which parent they would live with, a choice motivated, poignantly enough, by their feeling that, left alone, their mother would be in big trouble.

She was in big trouble anyway, anesthetizing herself with alcohol and Russian literature. Within a few months she remarried, and then they moved again, farther west to a town called Antelope, where Charlie bought a bar. The children attended a surrealistic school in which the teachers did not teach but sat in the lounge smoking and devouring slabs of chocolate cake. Still, school was better than staying home sick; on one occasion, Karr was sexually assaulted by her baby-sitter.

One theme that emerges from this way of life is the loss of childhood: These girls, cast out of Eden almost from birth, learned of good and evil early and firsthand. Along with that came the necessity to make life-altering decisions long before they were ready to. Thus when Charlie Marie “[took] it into her head to shoot Hector,” her new husband, it was Mary Karr who ran barefoot through the snow for help, and Lecia who called their father to demand two airplane tickets to Texas. By the time Charlie appeared in Leechfield—unannounced, with Hector in tow, supposedly to pick up her clothes—she had squandered her inheritance and was in debt. When Hector apparently said something insulting to Charlie, J. P. Karr beat him brutally in a kind of Wild West showdown, as a result of which Charlie stayed and remarried him.

Yet the family could hardly be said to have lived happily ever after. J. P. Karr “couldn’t stand [Karr’s] growing up, specifically since [she] grew up female.” No longer was she invited to the Liars’ Club; she and her father grew apart, and she left home for good at seventeen. Meanwhile, Charlie had fallen victim to depression and was spending most of her time in bed, “drugged to the gills on Valium . . . and whatever book she’d drawn from the literal tower of them stacked on the floor by her nighttable.” In 1980, his health ruined by years of hard drinking, J. P. suffered a stroke that left him helpless, and the life of his troubled nuclear family drifted to a hapless close.

The fairy-tale ending occurred when Karr, by then in her twenties, took her courage in both hands and pressed her mother for the truth about crucial events in her earlier life. Karr had been aware that Charlie had two children by an earlier marriage, but had known nothing about them. One winter day during World War II, Charlie had returned home from work “to find her entire house empty, her family gone.” That was the first night she got drunk. It was much later, by accident, that she located the children, flew west to reclaim them with a court order awarding her custody in her pocket—and when she arrived, decided impulsively that they would be better off where they were. She then “flew back to New York and started looking for somebody to marry who’d help [her] get [her] kids back.” Yet each husband in succession would lose interest, whereupon she would become angry and leave him. The only one who would have taken them was J. P. Karr, but by then it was too late; the children were too old and declined to come. “Then it was like a big black hole just swallowed [her] up.” These revelations led ultimately to a reunion with the lost children—adults in their forties by then—which “marked a time when [their] house began to fill with uncharacteristic light.”

Charlie Karr’s story was that of “La Llorona,” the weeping woman. In this ancient Latin tale, a woman drowned her children in a river, then was condemned, before she could enter heaven, to search it endlessly for their souls. The finding, ultimately, lay in the telling: “What Mother told absolved us both, in a way. All the black crimes we’d believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we’d cobbled together out of fear.” Karr “never knew despair could lie.”

That is a vision that flies courageously in the face of most of the facts of life, for the civilization her archaeological dig has unearthed is a dark one: casually cruel, destructively careless, poisoned by secrecy. Yet, although “the world breeds monsters, . . . kindness grows just as wild.” Karr’s hard-won recognition of that paradox lies at the heart of her story.

In The Liars’ Club Karr never preaches, rarely judges or generalizes, and maintains a miraculous balance between passion and detachment. The difference between this memoir and ordinary self-serving autobiography is not of degree but of kind: Paradoxically, this book in which the first-person pronoun appears on most pages is essentially egoless. It tells truths large and small—of a society whose abandonment of its children signifies its loss of soul; of a family whose secrets almost destroy it; of a wounded child whose spirit ultimately is unquenchable. This last is the largest truth of all. Through Karr’s grittily physical poetry, spirit shines brightly. The Liars’ Club, a stunning accomplishment, dramatically demonstrates the value of art.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 16, 1995, p. 1.

The Nation. CCLXI, July 3, 1995, p. 21.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, October 20, 1995, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. C, July 9, 1995, p. 8.

The New Yorker. LXXI, July 10, 1995, p. 78.

Texas Monthly. XXIII, July, 1995, p. 78.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 18, 1995, p. 3.

Historical Context

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Memoir Genre
A memoir differs from an autobiography in that it does not cover the writer's entire life, only selected portions. Traditionally, memoirs were written by public figures late in their lives, reflecting on great events in which they had played a part. Thus, politicians and statesmen have been noted memoirists. In a memoir, the focus was usually not on the writer, but on other well-known people the writer had known or encountered.

While there have always been literary memoirs as well as those by statesmen, in the 1990s the nature of the memoir genre began to change. Many of the new memoirs were written by relatively unknown writers with unusual experiences to relate rather than by well-known public figures. Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted (1994), for example, was a bestselling memoir of Kaysen's life in a mental institution. Frequently, the new memoirs were about the author's childhood, with an emphasis placed on the honest, if painful, recall of unsavory details, including various forms of degradation, such as alcoholism, poverty, or sexual abuse.

In 1995 alone, approximately two hundred memoirs were published. The Liars' Club turned out to be the most popular of them all. It was followed in 1996 by Frank McCourt's bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes, about the author's impoverished upbringing in Ireland.

Commentators link the rapid growth of this kind of memoir to the popularity of confessional television and radio talk shows, in which people discuss the intimate details of their private lives. As James Atlas puts it in his New York Times Magazine article,"The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now'':

In an era when "Oprah" reigns supreme and 12 step programs have been adopted as the new mantra, it's perhaps only natural for literary confession to join the parade. We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept.

Karr has her own explanation for the rise of the memoir genre. In an interview with Charlotte Innes in the Los Angeles Times, Karr says that it is due to ‘‘distrust of institutions; loss of faith in the moral authority of belief systems; and a corresponding turning inward and listening to one's own voice.’’ She argues that because many families today break up, this leaves many people with a feeling of failure.

They reach out to television and books in order to reestablish a sense of community, the feeling that they are not alone. In an essay in New York Times Magazine, Karr relates how hundreds of people came up to her after book readings she gave on nationwide tours and told her that her family reminded them of theirs. People felt encouraged and reassured by Karr's record of her personal experience. She concludes:

Just as the novel form once took up experiences of urban, industrialized society that weren't being handled in epic poems or epistles, so memoir—with its single, intensely personal voice—wrestles subjects in a way readers of late find compelling.

Not all commentators see the growth of this type of memoir as a desirable trend. Novelist William Gass, writing in Harper's magazine a year before the publication of The Liars' Club, suggests that many writers of memoirs are too self-absorbed. They make the mistake of thinking every small thing that happened to them is important enough to be recorded. Gass also argues that it is almost impossible for a writer to convey a true account of his or her own past:

Every moment a bit of the self slides away toward its station in the past, where it will be remembered partially, if at all; with distortions, if at all; and then rendered even more incompletely, with graver omissions.

Literary Style

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Imagery
Although Karr often uses vulgar expressions that are part and parcel of the way many of the local people speak, she also on many occasions uses highly poetic imagery. This creates quite a contrast for the reader. In one of the milder examples of local slang, for example, a girl emerging from a coma after contracting encephalitis is "half-a-bubble off plumb.’’ But on the next page, Karr uses a more literary form of expression, a simile, to describe the effect of her father's voice on the neighborhood children:"the kids all startled 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.’’ Examples of similes (figures of speech in which one thing is compared to something else in a way that brings out the resemblance between the two) might be found on almost every page. Karr's similes are often original and memorable. The oil storage tanks in Leechfield are "like the abandoned eggs of some terrible prehistoric insect.’’ Mary's mother's eyes are like ‘‘the flawed green of cracked marbles.’’ A large woman in a ‘‘flowered dress’’ looks ‘‘a lot like a sofa.’’ When Mary and Lecia visit their post office mailbox in Colorado twice a day to see if there is a letter from their father, the box ‘‘always sat empty as a little coffin.’’ This simile perfectly expresses the feeling of abandonment the girls feel when they do not hear from Daddy.

Setting
The fictional town of Leechfield, in eastern Texas, is important in creating the atmosphere of the memoir. Leechfield is in every way an oppressive place. Sitting in a semi-tropical latitude close to the Gulf of Mexico, it is three feet below sea level at its highest point and two rivers run through it. It is so damp and swamp-like that the homes are built without basements, since it would have been impossible to keep them dry. The many oil refineries and chemical plants give the whole town a smell like rotten eggs, a smell that gets worse the hotter the weather becomes. The night sky is an acid-green color because of the flames that rise from the oil refineries. According to Mary, the magazine Business Week voted it one of the ten ugliest towns on earth.

Leechfield was also the manufacturing site for Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to defoliate trees and shrubbery where the enemy could hide. Agent Orange is poisonous to humans, although this was not known at the time.

To add to Leechfield's hazards, the city is also afflicted by swarms of mosquitoes, which necessitates the spraying of DDT (a now-banned poison) from a huge hose on a mosquito truck. The neighborhood kids "slow race'' their bicycles behind the truck, inhaling the fumes. The aim is to come in last, which means that the winners often vomit and faint from the poison they inhale.

This image of poison, as well as the whole unsavory atmosphere of Leechfield, is an apt metaphor for Mary's early life, lived in the poisonous arena of family discord. Yet when Daddy says the town is too ugly not to love, it also seems appropriate for the story that Mary tells, a story that is at times ugly, but also in its own way full of love.

Literary Techniques
Numerous additional literary devices are employed in the memoir, as noted in the critical essay. These devices include starting the memoir in medias res; the use of suspense; the technique of foreshadowing; and ‘‘genre blur,’’ a writing trend Karr describes as blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.

Media Adaptations

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An audiocassette of Karr reading The Liars' Club was published in 1996 by Penguin Audiobooks.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Strunk, William, and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3d ed., Macmillan, 1979, p. 21.

Atlas, James, ‘‘The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now,’’ in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, pp. 25-27.

Ermelino, Louis, Review of The Liars' Club, in People Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 3, July 17, 1995, p. 28.

Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction, Knopf, 1984, reprint, Vintage Books, 1985.

Gass, William, "The Art of Self: Autobiography in an Age of Narcissism,’’ in Harper's Magazine, May 1994, pp. 43-52.

Innes, Charlotte, ‘‘In The Liars' Club, Mary Karr Uses Humor to Tell about Her Fractured Family,'' in Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1996, p. 5.

Ivins, Molly, Review of The Liars' Club, in the Nation, Vol. 261, No. 1, July 3, 1995, p. 21.

Karr, Mary, ‘‘Dysfunctional Nation,’’ in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, p. 70.

Karr, Mary, Viper Rum, New Directions Publishing, 1998, p. 1.

Lopate, Phillip, The Art of the Personal Essay, Doubleday, 1994, p. xxxvii.

Orwell, George, Such, Such Were the Joys, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1952, p. 118.

Pinsky, Robert, The Situation of Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 5.

Review of The Liars' Club, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 16, April 17, 1995, p. 45.

Schoemer, Karen, Review of The Liars' Club, in Newsweek, Vol. 126, No. 6, August 7, 1995, p. 61.

Skow, John, Review of The Liars' Club, in Time, Vol. 145, No. 26, June 26, 1995, p. 77.

Further Reading
Karr, Mary, and Frank McCourt, "How We Met: Mary Karr & Frank McCourt,’’ in Independent Sunday (London), July 8, 2001, p. 7.
Karr and McCourt (McCourt is the author of Angela's Ashes), describe their personal relationship and offer comments on each other's work.

Karr, Mary, and Gabby Wood,"The Books Interview: Mary Karr,’’ in Observer (London), June 24, 2001, p. 17.
In this interview, Karr talks about her life and her method of writing, saying that she discards large amounts of writing before settling on the final version.

Smith, Patrick,"What Memoir Forgets,’’ in the Nation, Vol. 267, No. 4, July 27, 1998, p. 30.
Smith argues that the trend in autobiographical publishing is to share vivid emotional and personal details of individuals' lives. These books go beyond enlightenment in their relentless effort to entertain. What they lack (although Smith makes an exception of Karr's memoir) is insight into the impact of human relationships on the human condition.

Young, Elizabeth, Review of The Liars' Club, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 375, October 20, 1995, p. 39.
This British review is as laudatory as most of the American ones. Young praises Karr's vivid, beautiful writing; the care with which it has been constructed; the mastery of East Texas slang; and Karr's sense of humor and emotional honesty.

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