Saints, Sinners, and Mary Karr

Photo: Marion EttlingerI first heard of Mary Karr four years ago in Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Within the opening pages he said, “I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club. Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular — but by its totality — she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.” Wanting to soak up every bit of writing wisdom I could, I immediately ran out, bought the memoir, read the first twenty pages or so, and then hastily put it away. At the time, I couldn’t handle her story. It was too much. I didn’t know how she had survived such a painful childhood, and I didn’t have the stomach to find out. I was looking for something a little more — well, King-ish: strange was fine, but preferably with a tasty, easy-to-swallow coating. I’m convinced that books are destined to be read, and sometimes reread, at particular times in our lives, and I wasn’t quite ready to meet Miss Karr.

Then I got preggers, freaked out about becoming a mother, and after delivery, suffered from postpartum depression. I heard Mary had a new memoir out called Lit, and that she had also converted to Catholicism. Guess what? It was finally the right time for me to read this author.  In the hours when I wasn’t crying or pumping my sore, underachieving breasts, I deliriously guzzled Lit, which is ironic, because the book is all about Mary’s own delirious guzzling, and her resulting alcoholism, recovery, and eventual conversion. It was exactly what I needed. She talked about those hard hours of infant nights with her own son, and how the only thing that got her through the day was looking forward to the next drink. Her book, my supportive family, and God’s grace got me through my first tough days of motherhood.

Mary has a flat-out irreverent sense of humor, doesn’t give a damn about social codes, and is certainly not fluent in Christianese. It is so refreshing to hear someone talk about personal faith in a sincere, uncalculated way. During our phone conversation, Mary said that it can sometimes seem like “Jesus is covered in barnacles,” weighed down with all the religious lingo. I asked her if she had experienced any crazy reactions from either the secular or Christian audiences during her book tour, but she said no, that her readers are typically deep-feeling people, and that she enjoys connecting with them, both on and off the page. The paperback version of Lit just debuted at number eight on The New York Times nonfiction best seller’s list, and she’s been in a flurry of readings, Tweets, and multimedia interviews. But she says she’s worked her whole life to get to this point, so she “has no right to bitch,” and she knows she’s “damn lucky.”

In Lit, as in her other two memoirs, The Liars’ Club and Cherry, Mary neither glamorizes nor waters down her life’s events. At the height of her alcoholism, when her son Dev was still a croupy baby, she says, “before I change him, before I squirt the syrupy acetaminophen into his mouth, I haul him whooping down the stairs to the kitchen. I open the stove where a near empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s squats like the proverbial troll under the bridge. Needing neither glass nor ice, I press my lips to the cool mouth, and it blows into my lungs so I can keep on.” Finding a small, brief time of sobriety, but no relief from depression, Mary contemplates suicide as “a secret relief, a pocketed worry stone I can rub a slight dip into . . . As a kid, I watched Mother disappear into the occasional locked bathroom with a gun, and I’d alternately banged my fists on the door, begging her to come out, then stood back and hollered she should go ahead.  I was sick of her shit.” With a garden hose and duct tape, she takes off in her rusted car with the intent to end her life but finds “a new image of Dev charging around my study with his red cape behind him. He’s coming for me, I think, like a superhero. He’s flying me out of myself.” It’s at this point that Mary drives straight to a psychiatric hospital and checks herself into what she calls the “Mental Marriott.”

Mary’s true spiritual conversion did not come until a couple of years later, when Dev asked to go to church to “see if God [was] there.” I asked Mary if motherhood played a role in her conversion, and she said that it “softened my heart so the God who had been calling to me my whole life could finally batter and ram His way in.” One of my favorite quotes in Lit is, “If you’d told me a year before I started taking Dev to church regular  that I’d wind up whispering my sins in a confessional or on my knees saying the rosary, I would’ve laughed myself cockeyed. More likely pastime? Pole dancer. International spy. Drug Mule. Assassin.” I told Mary I thought it was a cool trick of God’s that her other memoirs are steadfast proof of her staunch agnosticism before her conversion; it makes the transformation so much more powerful. She said it is truly miraculous, but there’s a miracle she’s even more thankful for: Dev remembers nothing of the turbulent years when she was a barely functioning alcoholic.

In addition to writing the three memoirs, Karr is also an accomplished poet, with four published volumes of poetry: AbacusThe Devil’s TourViper Rum, and most recently, Sinners Welcome. Oh, and she is also the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. What a lazy bum, huh? She said that she must write something every day, and that right now, because of her hectic schedule, she mostly writes poetry — and also as it turns out, lyrics with legendary country songwriter Rodney Crowell. Crowell once mentioned Karr in his song “Earthbound” in a line that says “Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, Mary Karr.” Mary said it was the best company she had ever been in, and was more used to being on the “most likely to be expelled” list. Crowell’s admiration of Mary turned into a close friendship, and now they are collaborating. She was talking with him about the kind of “bad boys” she typically attracts and said, “It’s like, if the law don’t want you neither do I,” and at that moment, a song was conceived between the two. 

I asked Mary if she would ever consider writing fiction and she said, “I might, I mean . . . I really pray about this shit. It’s like, ‘what am I supposed to write?’ And I never get a long-term plan, it’s always a day at a time.” If she doesn’t get enough downtime in which to be alone, write, and read, Mary feels out of sorts. She could stay in her house for two weeks and be fine, and she usually reads a book every couple of days. But newly engaged to a real estate entrepreneur, Mary can also turn on the social charm when needed. Anyone who has heard her speak or be interviewed can attest to her spunk and raw, disarming humor. She is Texan, after all.

What does Mary hope her readers take away from her writing? “Other than hoping they want to buy five or ten or seventy-five copies — I really hope that they feel lit — that they feel some parcel of the Grace I’ve been given. I do feel that God loves me better than everybody else, and I say that almost non-jokingly. I’m embarrassed sometimes that God loves me that much. And I don’t mean that I have a good lifestyle because God loves me — they told me I had liver cancer [she doesn’t]. It’s not that I don’t have the same shit that everyone else has, but I have really been transformed. I don’t feel scarred. It’s amazing.”

When I told Mary that I’m a hairstylist she excitedly said, “Oh! I cut my own hair! My wife-in-law taught me how.” Mary’s “wife-in-law” is the ex-wife of her fiancé. Obviously, there is a friendly rapport between the three, and this is just one more example of Mary’s unlikely, but welcoming, outlook on life. Her perfect day: “I’d get up, write, feel like I’ve done as well as I can do, go to the gym and squat-press a hundred and sixty pounds, be able to walk to the farmer’s market, and cook dinner for my son, his girlfriend, and my fiancé — my sister coming over, you know — being with the people I love. I don’t want anything fancy. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing.” I truly hope that Mary Karr does keep doing what she’s doing. We need much more of her.

Kristin Russell lives in Nashville with her husband and son. She works as a hairstylist at Green Pea Salon, and also writes fiction. Find her at:

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