A few weeks ago I spent a muggy evening on my front porch ruminating. I wondered how it was that in a lifetime of reading I had seldom encountered a book whose primary character was a mother—let alone a wise, funny, faithful mother, like the one I hoped someday to be.
Several weeks later, as Mary Karr might tell it, a book showed up like an “unearned gift,” like proof that some “mystery [was] carrying me.” Lit (released in 2009; re-released in paperback this year), is Karr’s masterful new memoir about her life: as a writer and mother, her marriage and divorce, her alcoholism, recovery, search for God and ultimate decision to join the Catholic Church.
The third in a trilogy of dark, funny memoirs, Lit follows on the heels of Karr’s previous bestsellers, The Liars Club and Cherry, which tell the stories of her wretched small-town Texas childhood and rebellious adolescence. Even if you haven’t read those previous books, Lit stands on its own. In it, Karr summarizes much of her backstory and speaks for the first time as an adult. Honest and not about settling scores—if anyone comes off looking bad, it is usually the author herself—Lit is the best memoir I have ever read and, incidentally, a great comfort and guide.
In a time when the church is particularly embattled, this book reminded me of all the good, funny and flawed people who comprise it and even justify its existence. What’s more, it made me want to get down on my knees and pray. As one of Karr’s Alcoholics Anonymous friends barks at her, “Try getting on your effing knees tonight. Just find ten things you’re grateful for.”
Karr writes of her life as an alcoholic, disposing of empty bottles like body parts in dumpsters all around town, ruled by fear and full of anxiety and excitement, but never true sorrow or lasting joy until she “lets go” and begins to pray on her knees multiple times a day at the urging of other former addicts, who convince Karr that she needs some kind of prayer life if she wants to stay sober. She is reluctant. She writes, “I’m trying to start hearing the word God without some reflexive flinch that coughs out the word idiot.”
Karr began her writing life as a poet, and it shows in the care she takes with each line. For instance, when her husband comes to visit her in a mental hospital after a suicide attempt, Karr describes kissing his cheek this way: “I place my lips on his square jaw and taste the living salt of him.” Like Augustine’s before her, Karr’s prose often sounds more like poetry. Also like Augustine, Karr is intelligent, well connected and a bit self-conscious to find herself in this ragtag religion. She knows what you’re thinking. She knows how crazy this all sounds. It used to sound pretty crazy to her as well. That is part of Karr’s charm as a narrator. She takes herself lightly, even when dealing with the heaviest of matters.
In the end, Lit is perhaps a Confessions for our age. Like Augustine, Karr is a public intellectual and university professor with something to lose. And here she is being schooled on how to live a meaningful life by broken and unexpected sources. A heroin addict, for example, tells her, “Say thanks to your higher power”; her 8-year-old son in Power Ranger pajamas announces he would like to go to church “to see if God’s there”; a schizophrenic tells her in a moment of clarity, “Surrender.... Yield up what makes you want to scream and cry. Enter into that quiet...and pray to be an instrument of peace”; and an elderly Coke-swilling, cigarette-smoking monk who hears her confession says by way of closing, “Leave all that stuff here with me.... Go wear the world like a loose garment.” Karr is aware of how strange this all sounds to a secular audience and of how circuitous her own journey has been. After all, her father used to tell her as a little girl in Texas, “Church is a trick on poor people.” But ultimately, for Karr, faith is a choice like any other: “You can only try it out.”
Tellingly, Lit is not marketed as spiritual autobiography. The groping for God that occupies much of the second half of the book is not mentioned in the publisher’s blurb, but it is clearly at the heart of the story. Unlike most conversion narratives written by or about people who go on to live extraordinarily holy or influential lives—St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day—Karr’s book reminds us of the remarkable and quiet heroism of ordinary life: getting up every morning, staying sober, working, saying thank you, kneeling in prayer and trying not to scream obscenities at the people we love the most, the people who have failed us and whom we have failed.
It’s lovely, too, to read a book by a self-described “black belt sinner” who is female. Male narratives of sin and redemption are seemingly ubiquitous, but there are fewer female guideposts along the way. Thanks to Mary Karr, who has done something to change that.