May 17, 2010
It's a testament to how much I think of literature that until just recently I thought Mary Karr's latest memoir, Lit, had to do with the subject, literature, rather than getting drunk. Actually, it has to do with both subjects, as, during the part of her life described here, Karr is a young wife and mother teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her husband Warren, a Ph.D., who both teaches and writes poetry and once studied under the famous master himself Robert Lowell. Certainly, "lit" as in literature, and poetry in particular, and the struggle to find meaning in both language and life run as concurrent themes in the prose.
As one reads this confessional about a young alcoholic mother and poet in Cambridge, one can't help but recall other notable female poets who perched briefly in that locale on their way to fame. Poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, both of whom committed suicide, (after some success), instantly come to mind. I read a marvelous short story once about poets Plath, Sexton and Lowell, the founder of the confessional poetry movement who suffered both from alcoholism and manic depression, and their imagined meetings in bars and cafes, discussing madness and suicide, during the time in the late 50s when they actually studied and wrote poetry in the same adult writing class in Cambridge.
While in that highly academic environment, and living with a scholar herself, Karr aspired to be a good mother and a successful poet and writer, but was impeded by her drinking, a turbulent past, and marriage to a professional who, while being a good father to son Dev, was a distant mate. Frustrations trigger Karr's descent into alcoholism, and she describes the process in vivid and unnerving detail.
There are the episodes of heavy drinking, vomiting, hangovers, lies; the guilt about raising a child in the midst of this; increasing unhappiness with her marriage. After Karr quits drinking, she becomes depressed and suicidal and makes a trip to the loony bin in an effort to save her life and mind.
It's not that Karr's existence was so horrifying, at least not to anyone who has ever "been there" and made it to AA rooms, where one hears every kind of story. But it's relentlessly dark, and would be stultifying were it not for the saving graces of Karr's humor and insight. You have to admire Karr's determination to get at the truth as she wades through her murky past and memory. She's not just telling her AA story, but analyzing key processes too, the level of her misery, lack of self-worth, how she got to become a drunk and came out of it, how she got help and learned to embrace a "higher power," some form of spirituality, which is considered essential in recovery from mental illness, particularly alcoholism.
The search for meaning and the telling take courage, and Karr has plenty of that. Thankfully, Karr's Texan wit runs rampant and can shift a dark mood in a nanosecond, as she would say, or make the reader crack up when she least expects it -- in the midst of a spell of misery or lunacy. While recounting a period in early recovery when she was utterly depressed, not exercising a bit, Karr describes showering and suddenly "feeling something in the back of my legs -- it was my ass."
It takes a special gift to write with humor and perspicacity about a crappy past. Karr has that gift, and her quirky prose infused with Texan sass makes all the difference.