Who is Mary Karr? [Why truth is free, yet sometimes costs us everything.]

This post is the first in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Maybe Karr’s is a name that doesn’t mean much outside of academia and literature, but her story is significant because it taught me, for the first time, empathy for addicts. After battling alcoholism and a loveless marriage, Karr went on to publish three bestselling memoirs and currently teaches writing at Syracuse University. 

Karr also recently came to Austin for a reading at BookPeople, but I missed it because I didn’t then know who she was. My cousin Kelli had recommended Karr’s latest memoir Lit; however, I didn’t associate the author’s name with that other book The Liars' Club, which is required reading in many high schools but was not in mine.

By now, I have read Lit, and I do know (in some sense of the word) who Mary Karr is, and I wouldn’t miss her reading if she came through Austin again. Besides the fact that a book devoted almost entirely to her fight with alcoholism deviates into a strange Catholic conversion story near the end, Karr’s writing is powerful and her language beautiful.

“There’s a space at the bottom of an exhale,” she writes. “A little hitch between taking in and letting out that’s a perfect zero you can go into. There’s a rest point between the heart muscle’s close and open—an instant of keenest living when you’re momentarily dead. You can rest there.” Here Karr describes learning the practice of meditation that proved both a lifeline out of addiction and a gateway to her eventual conversion. 

Mostly, I never understood before why a person with an addiction can’t just stop, cold-turkey, and never look back. Especially when they can see how much the addiction is hurting themselves and their relationships. Karr had a newborn son when they both took to the bottle hardcore: his full of milk, hers full of scotch. When she said: “For me, everything’s too much and nothing’s enough,” though, I got it. For a second, I could relate to the overwhelming anxiety of being alive, and the hunger, always, for something else. If I didn’t personally have more constructive outlets for such moments, perhaps I’d seek solace in blackouts, too.

Then of course there’s the fact that Karr is a writer—a profession near and dear to my heart. In a passage typical of her honesty and directness, Karr admits: “I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet—buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift store furniture—than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” In a nutshell, this is the brutal crux of growing older. We construct images of ourselves, and sometimes there is no substance to the image. When it crumbles, or the mask is stripped off, or the visage itself becomes an ancient and wrinkled thing, what is left? Only truth.

Funny, how truth is free, yet sometimes costs us everything. Karr’s truth-telling in Lit slides a razor into the soft flesh between ribs, exposing her many-times-over failure as a wife, mother, and writer. It was also returned to her many-times-over in the form of bestseller royalties—and more importantly, freedom from the daily oblivion of addiction.

You can read more about Mary Karr at her author website.