On Burning and Becoming: Glennon Doyle and Mary Karr Part II

Mary Karr’s poem “The Burning Girl,” published in Poetry Magazine in May 2017 and later in her collection Tropic of Squalor (2018) is a devastating poem about a girl suffering from various self-harm disorders. While Karr attends Wimbledon with a group of friends, she observes her friend’s daughter as follows:

Listen to Karr read it herself here.

Karr’s “burning girl” is not the powerful “girl on fire” Alicia Keys sang of. (See here.) Nor is she the fully feeling girl Glennon Doyle describes in Untamed:

“The fire of pain won’t consume me. I can burn and burn and live. I can live on fire. I am fireproof.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Here, pain is a refining force, an agent of transformation. Its fire burns down old paradigms and allows the new, better, truer ones to grow.

Doyle understands her past addictions and illnesses as the product of pain avoidance. She writes:

“Pain is not tragic. Pain is magic. Suffering is tragic. Suffering is what happens when we avoid pain and consequently miss our becoming. That is what I can and must avoid: missing my own evolution because I am too afraid to surrender to the process. Having such little faith in myself that I numb or hide or consume my way out of my feelings again and again.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

For Doyle, fire represents the uncomfortable feelings that come with being a human on earth — anger, sadness, resentment, hate, shame, etc. For nearly half of her life, she preemptively struck such feelings down with drugs, alcohol, binging and purging, etc. Letting herself become unguarded against these fiery feelings was how she healed.

But when I read Untamed last week, particularly the line: “I can burn and burn and live,” I was reminded of Karr’s poem. What of the real fear of getting trapped in the fire? How and why does that happen? What should we do about it?

“The Burning Girl” is not fireproof, she is tinder. Karr describes the girl’s arms as “birch twigs” and her body as a “flaming tower.” Even with “ocean endless” love from her mother, the girl’s flames are not extinguished, and ultimately, “she burned.” The past tense of this final line suggests that her body was consumed and she died. (So do interviews with Karr on this poem, in which she reflects upon the unimaginable pain of losing a child.) There is no resurrection, at least not here. The poet has witnessed the burning girl’s suffering in her last days, and that is all we have.

Karr compares the burning girl to “the monk who’d doused himself with gas, lit a match, then sat unmoving and alert amid devouring light.” Likewise, she reminds me of certain female Catholic saints and mystics who died of anorexia mirabilis, meaning “miraculously inspired loss of appetite.” For example, Saint Catherine of Siena died at 33 after she stopped eating anything other than the Eucharist. More recently, French mystic Simone Weil died at age 34 from self-starvation, allegedly out of solidarity with the soldiers fighting in World War II.

St. Catherine of Siena, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

So, again, what about people like these – girls who get stuck in the fire? Who set themselves on fire in a misguided search for the Good? Can we learn to differentiate self-annihilating fires from the fires that enable us to become?

The primary distinction, as I see it, is that Doyle’s fireproof girl is in motion. She walks through and beyond the fire. She is alive. Karr’s burning girl, on the other hand, is stuck in it, unmoving: “She sat with us in flames.” Soon, she is dead.

We are fireproof in a human way, after all, bound by time and flesh. This limits our ability to withstand it. We need to jump in the ocean afterwards. Then maybe we need a long interval of watching Wimbledon in the 70 degree, partly-cloudy weather, tonic and lime in hand. In fact, I think this last in-between place is where we would be lucky to spend most of our time.

The essential mandate of motion during the fire walk reminds me of the “Beach Day” episode in Season 3 of The Office. Michael can’t even take the first step; Dwight overdoes it, falling on his stomach into the hot coals, insisting on staying down until Michael gives him the manager job; and Pam does the fire walk as designed, then is brave enough to tell Jim how she feels about him.


Why is it that so many of us stop walking and get stuck in our pain?

For some, myself included, a simple but important answer might be brain chemistry. For whatever reason, I am prone to getting stuck. To do the fire walk, I need a pair of thick socks, or else I turn into Dwight.

For a long time, journaling, running, music, etc. kind of did the trick to propel me forward when I hit the fire, but recently I’ve discovered how much better it is just to coat my brain in fire retardant ahead of time. Importantly, it’s not a pre-numbing; it’s an extra layer of padding. As my husband Thom observed, Prozac allows me to feel my fiery feelings but then later, feel better. Cry and then stop crying. Get up. Keep moving.

Doyle acknowledges her own need for additional padding, or fire-retardant. She writes in Untamed: “I am on Lexapro, and I believe it to be — along with the personal growth shit — the reason I don’t have to self-medicate with boxes of wine and Oreos anymore.”

Per Doyle, pill nay-sayers are “two-legged people calling prosthetics a crutch.”

I am with Doyle here. There are few things I am more thankful for than the invention of SSRIs.

My brain, left to its own devices has done a variety of weird things upon encountering fiery feelings. It has stopped all other activity and made it its full-time job to numb itself to the pain — reveling in its success. Like the burning girl. Other times, it has gone in the opposite direction and become hyper-feeling, so ceaselessly buffeted by pain that it becomes obsessed with it. In Darkness Visible, William Styron describes his depressed self as follows: “My brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.”

Thus, in my experience, feeling too intensely can be just as confusing and destructive as becoming numb. I’ve tried to ditch pain — too cool for it — and I’ve also tried to get an A+ in pain. It’s as if my subconscious wants to outsmart all oncoming fires by beating them their natural conclusion. Meanwhile, this need to direct and control the fire only amplifies its importance; making its effect way worse than it was ever going to be.

Karr’s burning girl continues to haunt me. She’s dead and gone, not saved by the vast love shown her the poem. “She burned,” and there is no certainty of resurrection. Perhaps all we can do is bear witness — which is what Karr does. “Force her sadness close,” she writes. It seems insufficient. In moments like this, I turn to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets — that perfect meditation on human insignificance, temporality, and the circular nature of all things. Any excerpt might do, but here’s a favorite of mine:

Blessed Are the Untamed

Glennon Doyle’s Feminist Spirituality

I picked up Glennon Doyle’s new book Untamed at the recommendation of a friend who wrote to me in response to my Rebecca Solnit post. I was hoping, as I do when I pick up new memoirs, to escape into Doyle’s life for a few hours. I especially wanted to hear about Doyle’s marriage to soccer god Abby Wambach.

I soon found that Doyle’s purpose was not to rehash her story, but to ask me to reflect on my own. Her overarching goal — written in short, fiery bursts — is to teach women “untame” themselves, i.e. to challenge the external structure (*cough* patriarchy) that has molded women into a common, unhappy shape.

The task that follows recognition, per Doyle, is to remake oneself according only to an inner sense of the good. Doyle calls this her inner Knowing.

“So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, we must ask ourselves: What is true and beautiful? Then our imagination rises inside us, thanks us for finally consulting it after all these years, and tells us a story.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed
Let’s get a good look at that vibrant cover art!

Based on the style of Untamed and Doyle’s corresponding social media presence, one might say that Doyle has become more preacher than memoirist. Rather than dwell on her long journey through pain and chaos, by which she finally arrived in the light, Doyle spends most of her time sharing the light she has found. Each short chapter of Untamed reads like a sermon, beginning with a personal anecdote and moving into a generally applicable metaphor about life, truth, and being human.

What makes Doyle unique, of course, is that she preaches to women, and the higher power she points them towards is found within.

No topic, question, or situation is excepted from the filter of Doyle’s inner Knowing; nothing is left to any external authority. Not even (or perhaps, especially not) the Bible. According to Doyle, the moral of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis is not “when a woman wants more, she defies God, betrays her partner, curses her family, and destroys the world.”

Instead, Eve’s is a story of creation that begins with self-trust (replacing blind obedience), by which humanity enters into continuous, refining process of regeneration that is Life itself:

“Maybe Eve was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Even John Milton, who would probably disagree with this take on Eve, would have to affirm Doyle’s right to filter the Bible through her inner Knowing. In 1644, in late-Reformation England, he argued against literary censorship in Parliament, saying:

“Truth is compared in scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.”

And further:

“The light which we have gained, was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.”

John Milton, “Areopagitica”

Doyle is not the first feminist to reinterpret Eve’s act as laudable. I found an archived New York Times article from the 1972 reporting on a feminist religious service in which the attendees recited the following in unison: “We hold that Eve performed the first free act.” But Doyle may be the first to help answer the question that follows after such an assertion: What next?

* * * *

In a gender studies class during my junior year of college, we read an article that posited that Christian notions of morality are primarily helpful for men seeking to become whole. For example, in my husband’s favorite Gospel narrative “The Sermon on the Mount,” (Matt. 5-7) Jesus teaches men to recognize the beautiful, undervalued capacities they have for building the kingdom of God; qualities tamed by patriarchal norms of masculinity. Jesus enumerates them as follows:

From The New Testament by David Bentley Hart. Matt. 5:1-12. He uses the word “blissful” instead of the traditional “blessed” because he says the Greek word originally had a connotation of “divine or heavenly bliss.” (Alternatively, this blog might have been titled: “How Blissful the Untamed.”)

It’s hard to imagine, based on the way Jesus operated, that he was speaking to a crowd of destitute mourners — gentle, merciful, and fighting for righteousness, when he first taught the Beatitudes. He was not known for preaching to the choir, as it were. He was known for challenging everything people thought they knew about God and religion. Surely, when he gave the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was speaking to a group of people who were not expecting to hear this message. Perhaps his audience was men in power, out of touch with the suffering masses; out of touch with strengths within themselves that might change their society for the better.*

*(As I have been taught, the book of Matthew was written for a well-educated, monied Jewish audience.)

Clearly, the Beatitudes are not an assertion of patriarchal masculinity, but rather a call to its opposite. It’s strange, then, that the male keepers of the Christian tradition have applied the Beatitudes to women to uphold their secondary, subjugated, tamed condition within patriarchy. This message might be summarized as: “You are already virtuous, you who suffer and are subjugated, so keep doing what you’re doing.” According to a NIV bible I recently acquired (for research purposes…) called “The Woman’s Bible,” the “Beatitudes for Women” are as follows:

The “description” column is surely not advising a woman to leave her unfulfilling marriage to a man, upset her three children, and marry a woman, as Doyle did.

As I see it, there are a few approaches for untaming our understanding of God — particularly as women inheriting a patriarchal spiritual tradition. We can (1) change how we read the words of our spiritual texts; (2) keep some pieces and toss others; or (3) put aside the old texts and teachers and spend time in learning from newly untamed, female spiritual teachers.

One writer who works to challenge common interpretations of the Bible is Mary Karr. In her poem “Who the Meek are Not,” Karr redefines meekness as follows:

“Who the Meek Are Not” by Mary Karr, from Sinners Welcome. Found here.

My now-husband, Thom, borrowed Sinners Welcome from me when we were seniors in college just getting to know one another. When he returned it, he highlighted this poem as one that had really resonated with him.

I had never taken particular notice of it, but I liked his noticing of it. Four years later, I can see how Karr’s portrayal of meekness describes Thom and how he moves through the world. There is great power within him — occasionally unleashed on the dancefloor — but he spends most of his time holding it back, listening intently.

It strikes me now that in order to understand Karr’s vision of meekness, one has to know what one is capable of. A woman must learn her unique strengths in order to exercise them. She must know recognize her power in order to check it. Doyle’s goal, in Untamed, and in preaching to women who follow her on Instagram, is to teach them to find the stallion’s great power within. (Except in her metaphor, it’s the cheetah.) Without knowing wildness, one cannot practice true meekness. It is useless for a woman to listen for the call of her inner Knowing if she does not believe in her ability to respond to it.

I have tried many times to figure out how to make the Bible speak to me without the impediment of patriarchy, or even the assumed-male reader. For example, I recently tried to change all of the pronouns in Proverbs:

After reading Untamed, I’m ready to put down project of re-writing the Bible and instead to let Glennon Doyle, and others, be my teachers for a little while. Beginning in late March, Doyle began conducting “morning meetings” on her Instagram, in which she spends approximately 10 minutes talking to her followers about her current emotional and/or spiritual state and offering wisdom.

I have started tuning into these meetings. Although the material is often repeated content from the book (likely spurred by having to cancel her release tour due to COVID-19), she makes it new for the day at hand. Occasionally we get to hear from Abby Wambach, too. One can tell that Doyle feels great responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of her readers and followers. For a writer, this daily communing and encouragement is certainly above-and-beyond. I find myself in admiration of it, of her.

Snapshot from a “Morning Meeting.” Check out her instagram here.

To close, I encourage anyone, especially women, to check out Untamed. And I offer its author, Glennon Doyle these rewritten Beatitudes:

Blessed are they who seek what is true and beautiful,

For they shall find it.

Blessed are they who listen to their inner Knowing,

For God is within them.

Blessed are they who see and challenge their taming,

For they shall be untamed.