Lit is Mary Karr’s third memoir, following The Liar’s Club and Cherry. Anyone who loves language will appreciate Karr’s soulful, acidic, blunt Texan voice, and if you are familiar with The Liars’ Club, you know that Karr’s childhood is unlikely and traumatic enough to merit a memoir in several volumes, no excessive navel gazing needed.
The last volume in the series, Lit, explores Karr’s writerly ambition and her initiation into higher education. The pain of her childhood is still palpable — in her emotionally disconnected marriage, her struggle with alcoholism, and in her exploration of the writing life.
If You Haven’t Read The Liars’ Club
Mary Karr grew up in a small, swampy, industrial town in Texas. Her father, J.P., worked in an oil refinery and her mother, Charlie was an aspiring painter who suffered from manic depression. Mary and her sister, Lecia were their anxious, obscenity-armed girls. The title refers to the colorful conversations between J.P. and his friends, swapping stories after a long shift. Karr takes a cue from her father, writing with charming swagger.
“The Bog Queen”
A large portion of Lit is dedicated to Karr’s battle with alcoholism and her subsequent conversion to Christianity. Compared to the vividly documented emotional abuse in The Liars’ Club, these struggles are more familiar. At the end of Lit, Karr moves her mother out of the family’s Texas home and into an assisted living facility. The chapter opens with the line, “The house I grew up in sat in a bog, and in the middle of the house sat my mother, well into her dotage.”
A few weeks prior, Karr embarked on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, involving, among other things, classes, meetings with a spiritual director, journaling, and hours of prayer. She met with a Franciscan nun named Sister Margaret, “patiently going blind behind fish-tank glasses.” Sister Margaret listened patiently to Karr’s spinster fears, then gently suggested, “let’s eat a cookie and pray for each other’s disordered attachments. Mine involves pride and cookies.”
Driving home, Karr feels confident about her spiritual exercises and a little smug about fulfilling her daughterly duties. When the Texas humidity and post-move exhaustion prompt an angry outburst from her mother, Karr lashes out, unleashing old wounds. This exchange leads to a search for her mother’s Bible, dated 1932. When she finds it, each of Sister Margaret’s suggested passages have been underlined by her mother in blue chalk. Taken aback, Karr writes that “this is not the parting of the Red Sea… [but] I know how specifically we [she and her mother] are designed for each other. I feel in a bone-deep way the degree to which I am watched over…”
It seems fitting that Karr’s conversion, and her writing, guides her back to the “Texas sinkhole” she wanted to escape. It is fitting that she experiences God’s grace within the confines of her challenging, highly imperfect, muddled relationship with her mother. Here are the last few sentences of Lit, ending the chapter called “My Sinfulness in All Its Ugliness”:
“Every now and then we enter the presence of the numinous and deduce for an instant how we’re formed, in what detail the force that infuses every petal might specifically run through us, wishing only to lure us into our full potential. Usually, the closest we get is when we love, or when some beloved beams back, which can galvanize you like steel and make resilient what had heretofore only been soft flesh… It can start you singing as the lion pads over to you, its jaws hinging open, its hot breath on you. Even unto death.”