Mary Karr: Family and Memory

Image credit: Screen grab from “To See,” by Sammy Scher

In 1995, poet Mary Karr ignited a memoir revolution when she published The Liars’ Club (Penguin Books), a gritty but lyrical account of her childhood in an East Texas oil town. Karr wrote the book during a profound time in her life; she was teaching at Syracuse University and also learning how to navigate life as a sober Solo Mom. It was a journey: around the time her marriage imploded and her own mom quit drinking, Karr had embarked on a slide into alcoholism that culminated in a near–suicide attempt.

Karr shares that journey in her third memoir, Lit (Harper Perennial, 2009), which details her downward spiral and subsequent route to sobriety, recovery, and faith. Her son, Dev, was a lodestar in a dark time; she went to Alcoholics Anonymous and quit drinking because she wanted to be a mother to her child in a way her own mother had not been to her. In fact, Lit opens with a letter to her son, in which she explains that she tells her own story in the hopes that it will help Dev, now an adult, better understand and clarify his own path.

Karr has been sober for decades, but she’s never forgotten the challenges she faced and the people who supported her. Passing on that kindness in return is important to her. “I always talk to people who are trying to stay sober and trying to have some kind of connection or community,” she told the Fix in 2013. “And I spend a lot of time talking to young women with little kids who [are] trying to quit drinking, because when I was a young woman with a little kid and I was trying to quit drinking and a single mom, it was so hard; I was so deranged. So I feel an obligation to be of service. And there were people who helped me and talked to me and talked to my kid, who made places in their lives when I was so isolated—I want to be available to them—to any woman . . . who is raising a kid and trying to quit drinking.”

To add to the mix, money was tight in those years. Before Karr sold her first book, she depended on her adjunct professorship to pay the bills; as the author shared with the Daily Orange in 2015, a big challenge was not being able to afford a car. “Anybody who tells you that’s not important has never been as broke as I was,” Karr says.

But she persevered, and thrived, as both a writer and mother. Her relationship with Dev remains a strong one; in 2009, Karr shared with the Daily Beast that she and her son are very close. They are also honest with each other. As the author noted with trademark bluntness, “He has no problem telling me to go fuck myself; I have no problem telling him that either.” Salty language notwithstanding, the pride she takes in him is evident. “Dev is unnaturally spectacular,” Karr said of her filmmaker son who lives in Brooklyn, close enough to his mom that they can go to Pilates classes together. One of his short films, created around the time of Lit’s release, captures his mom’s wit and candor.

Other works by Karr include Cherry, her coming-of-age memoir also published by Penguin Books (2001); four books of poetry; and The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), a nonfiction breakdown of the elements contributing to great literary memoir. In 2012, the author collaborated with musician Rodney Crowell on the album Kin. The music, which includes songs such as “Anything but Tame,” addresses issues of family and how memory can shape one’s sense of history.

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