For the first few weeks after reading Lit by Mary Karr, I could not walk into a restroom without thinking of prayer. While struggling to accept the customary Higher Power imperative of her 12-step AA program, Karr reluctantly offers her first prayers on the cold tiles of more than one bathroom. One such prayer closet lies within the same Cambridge “loony bin” (Karr’s term) where poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton may too have knelt during their respective stays.
Published in 2010, Lit is the third of Karr’s bestselling memoirs. While The Liar’s Club (1995) and Cherry (2002) delve into the author’s turbulent childhood and teenage years respectively, Lit traces the journey of the adult Mary Karr from low-income college student at a Midwestern LAC to acclaimed poet, memoirist, and professor of creative writing. Lit‘s 386 pages primarily contain Karr’s first marriage and subsequent divorce, her struggle with alcoholism as a young mother – transitioning her journey to sobriety and religious conversion.
Prior to Lit, my personal exploration of Karr’s work was limited to The Liar’s Club and her most recent poetry collection, Sinners Welcome (2009). Yet again, I found Karr’s particular gift to be a profound, pleasantly irreverent voice and a figure skater’s finesse with a sentence. For example, standing in the kitchen, pregnant with her first child, and just having learned that her first poetry book would be published:
“I chew my caramel, satisfied as a brood sow in a mud wallow. Neither good nor ill can reach me.”
While skilled with imagery, Karr also knows how to drop metaphoric fluff to great effect:
“I keep getting drunk. There’s no more interesting way to say it.”
Despite Karr’s engaging wordsmithery, I sometimes found her adult emotional life difficult to access. For example, Karr repeatedly emphasizes that her son, Dev, is the reason she was able to become and remain sober. Dependent-free twenty-two-year-old that I am, I found myself wondering: What do you mean you looked at him and knew you had to stop?
I imagine a collective sigh from mothers around the world as they look wistfully past my genuinely confused face, and offer former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz’s poetic yet unhelpful description of Notre Dame:
“If you’ve been there, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, none is adequate.”
I raise this only because I’ve recently read the mother’s perspective better conveyed. Creative nonfiction writer Maggie Nelson excels in this area in The Argonauts (2015), in which she explores every detail of having a child in a way that challenges and enlightens. After a thorough description of giving birth to her son Iggy, Nelson writes:
“He is perfect, he is right. He has my mouth, incredible. He is my gentle friend. He is on me, screaming.”
There is much to discuss with Nelson – a blog for another time.
Yet I didn’t pick up Lit for Karr’s journey to sobriety, her account of motherhood, or even her story of becoming a professional writer – I picked it up because of one line on her Wikipedia page: “[Lit is] my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.”
Prior to reading Lit, I mentioned my interest in Karr’s “unlikely Catholicism” to a friend. His response: “This might be what does it: Liz the Catholic.” Despite 16 years of Catholic schooling and a genuine interest in spirituality, I had taken a well-advertised break from Catholicism while in college. As someone who had recently bowed-out (with a bit of sound and fury), I had to know: why would someone choose Catholicism after having no religion for 30+ years?
Flipping through my crinkled copy of Lit, which had been baptized with coffee, I notice that my annotating hand was particularly drawn to passages that confess spiritual reluctance. Karr calls this her”outlaw ethos.” Rather than delving into disagreements with doctrine or skewering corrupt popes, she openly discusses a deep aversion to the basic idea of God.
For example, “I’m trying to start hearing the word God without some reflexive flinch that coughs out the word idiot.”
Karr’s hilarious forthrightness about her internal ego battle is the highlight of Lit. In successfully living beyond addiction and igniting spiritual healing, she is particularly accessible for those (like myself) who have become flippant about religion due to various news items, life events, etc. More than ‘we the flippant’ would like to admit, spiritual isolation can be a painfully empty feeling, and it requires a major push to turn around and proceed in the opposite direction. Perhaps surprisingly, it may help to read every possible facetious comment articulated by a well-respected poet.
Following a prayer journey begun in a bathroom, Karr delivers a glimpse of the other side: “The spiritual lens . . . is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved.” Karr’s is a narrative worth encountering.