The Queen of Truth
Mary Karr Remembers Her Adolescence in 'Cherry,' Her New Memoir
The Decade of Truth -- that's what readers and people who love to categorize the things we read will call the 1990s, when writers excavated their souls and readers came running to see what strange new creature might be pulled from the wreckage. Maybe the memoir is the more artistic sibling of the decade's self-help books that taught us the dances of anger, forgiveness, and love. Or maybe talk shows, TV court, and real-life cop videos got us hooked on seeing someone else suffer up close.
The memoir bloomed in 1988 with Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior -- or maybe the next year when Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life came out. Suddenly, it was okay to call your folks what they were -- drunks, molesters, emotional abusers, or simply suffocatingly old-fashioned. In a 10-year period, some of America's best writing about childhood, families, secrets, and survival was born -- Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted (1993), Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Colored People (1994), Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart (1994), and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (1996), just to name a few. (And of course there was Austin's own Marion Winik's First Comes Love in 1996.) Fiction even began to look like memoir -- Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990) and Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), for example.
From this accomplished circle, there emerged the reigning Queen of Truth, a plucky poet from Texas' "Golden Triangle" who made two years of a hellish childhood a place that about half a million people wanted to live -- if only briefly. Mary Karr's The Liar's Club (1995) surprised everyone with its bracing honesty, brutal wit, and graceful lack of self-pity. No one was more surprised than Mary Karr herself, a university professor and newly divorced mother in need of wheels. The book's raging success granted her unlikely hometown fame and the Toyota Corolla of her dreams. Now she's back with Cherry, a low-down remembrance of her teen years in the age of Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll -- in a town too religious for the former and too backwater for the latter, leaving mostly only drugs.
When I called Mary Karr last month to find out more about Cherry, her home sounded like a movie set -- complete with ringing door bells ("Oh, that's my photographer -- my assistant will get it") and brief interruptions ("Let me just tell him he can look around upstairs") but Karr took it all in stride. The focus of articles in People, Time, and Elle and dozens of newspapers across the country when The Liar's Club went on its literary rampage five years ago, Karr knows how to be a good Southern hostess while spinning a wicked yarn about herself and her friends. "They were an amazing bunch of people," she recalls. "I was so lucky."
Well, how are they now? That was the question most on my mind when I closed the book late one night leaving a 17-year-old Karr waiting for some hippie boys to take her in a half broken-down truck to L.A. I imagined that Meredith, Karr's intellectual poet friend, was, like Karr, an East Coast poet. ("No, she's in such a prominent position that she's the only one that's asked for anonymity. She went to prestigious universities and then entered the business world -- she's back in Southeast Texas but she's doing very, very well. She's still the smartest person I know.") I wondered if Clarice had gotten mired down dating that Cajun boy and now was a Port Arthur hairdresser with five kids. ("Clarice is married with two kids. She's worked hard enough at being an administrative genius that they are very well off. They travel a lot. She and Doonie are still the two funniest people I ever met.") Doonie? Well, I figured he died of a drug overdose despite his lovable goofiness and ability to make drug dealing sound like a career you could just fall into. ("He's got a construction business in San Diego now. He makes more money than God and has an elegant girlfriend and lives on the beach and surfs every day. But he's still the kindest guy -- when I had major surgery a few years ago he left his business and came and took care of me for a week.") And what about John Cleary, the blond football player whose legs Karr massaged in one of the sexiest scenes ever committed to paper? I guessed he was a Houston attorney who headed fundraisers for abused kids. ("He works in sales in L.A. and has three daughters. His wife is virtually bedridden with a serious illness so he's almost a single father and he's doing an amazing job raising the girls.") Karr has stayed in touch with them all over the years -- even before her fame made their shared histories book fodder. "We turned out astonishingly well," Karr observes like a proud mother.
Well, Karr certainly has turned out very well. The difference between being an accomplished poet in upstate New York writing a memoir about Southeast Texas and being a New York Times bestselling author writing a second installment is huge. "Cherry was artistically more challenging," Karr admitted. "I had to find a voice for the different ages. And then there was the problem that in this book I was not a victim, but a volunteer. I threw away about 500 pages!" Karr confessed that she also felt conspicuous. "I felt guilty enough for the money these people had given me for the last book!" she laughs. When writing The Liar's Club she would fall into a deep sleep after working for a few hours. Did she find this book less emotionally draining? "I didn't fall asleep," Karr recalls, "but I did get double pneumonia afterwards! I learned that falling apart is common for memoirists."
What about Karr's use of the second person voice? Cherry must be the only memoir in the history of the universe that is written about 50% in second person. The notion of using "you" when you are clearly writing about "I" is a strange one. "I needed to create a sense of detachment," Karr explains with the authority of a university professor. "At the time, I didn't have a self to be inside. Second person gave me a sense of remoteness, which is how I felt at the time." So the reader, in taking on the mantle of Karr's thoughts and exploits through the second person, actually helps the young Karr create herself. It can get a little annoying at times -- but the effect is artful and haunting.
Sex is what really stands out in Cherry -- not the hard-core act that the title suggests but the chaste sexual longing of girls. A young Karr dreams not of having sex with the beautiful John Cleary, but the all-enveloping eroticism of dancing with him. And then, later, there's kissing: "You often go meandering inside his breath until you feel yourself vanish into the plush warmth of his tongue, each movement of which is a word or piece of punctuation in a conversation so intricate, all your diligence is required to keep up." Where, I wondered, did she learn to write about kissing like that!
Karr admits that it was hard to get the sex right. "Our culture doesn't recognize what is libidinal for a young girl," she observes. "There's not a language for girls having sexual feelings. Though the world is saturated with the language of male stimulation, there's nothing comparable for girls. Boys are hard-wired to get the deed done in a way that girls aren't. In fact, when I began, I was trying to write about it from an adult point of view and I realized it just wasn't right."
When I asked her where she discovered inspiration to create an accurate description of girls' sexual feelings, Karr was hard-pressed. "Women don't write about it -- except aberrant sex. Maya Angelou's rape scene in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings comes to mind and Katherine Harrison's The Kiss. But most women memoirists just skip over the years 12 to 16. Mona Simpson gets it in [her novel] Anywhere but Here." But mostly, Karr just mined her memory for what her sexual fantasies were back then, surprising herself at how simple her desire was.
Unlike in The Liar's Club, Karr's parents are mostly in the background -- in fact, her mother is often literally missing. In Cherry the enemy is the place and time -- and of course Karr herself. Karr describes the constraints she felt being a girl, the ruthless judgment meted out to other kids who veered from the football quarterback/beauty queen model, and the sexist school administrators who were charged not with educating kids so much as controlling them. I asked Karr if she thought that her experience growing up in the Seventies was unique to Southeast Texas. "No, I think growing up anywhere that was isolated and environmentally ruined -- near the coal mines of West Virginia or oil fields of Alaska, for example -- would have been similar." Before Barnes & Noble, she recalls, "you literally couldn't buy books. Books saved my life! Poetry saved my life!" Karr repeats; it's one of her familiar mantras. "But I had to get somebody to drive us two and a half hours to Rice University or the University of Houston bookstore!"
I wondered if she thought things had improved for girls. "Back then," Karr recounts with bleak humor, "there were six girls born without pores and everyone else was in the inferno." She credits girls' sports with changing things for the better, offering girls new ways to prove themselves. The mother of a teen boy, she says, "Boys and girls talk more now. The toothpaste is out of the tube. People talk about sex, and a lot of stuff that was clamped down back then is just out there."
Karr doesn't shy away from the role she played in her own adolescent demise (a scene where she sassily asks the school principal how he knows she isn't wearing a bra will make many wish to relive high school just to deliver a similarly shocking line). One of Cherry's most memorable scenes is an LSD-laced visit Karr and her friends make to a juke joint, an Alice in Wonderland kind of world where things are not what they seem. I asked Karr whether this frightening episode was a kind of watermark in her adolescence. "I think when you reach a certain age your parents are gargoyles and because you resemble them -- everything's inherited, after all -- you feel like a gargoyle, too. Then you start choosing activities and who you'll associate with, trying on different selves." In fact, while growing up Karr literally donned different costumes (goth girl, surfer girl, hippie), trying to find her authentic self. "When you're that age, the world is kind of like Dante's Inferno," Karr observes, making one of several literary allusions in our conversation. "You think you know what you're doing, but you have no idea. The world operates on protocols you're in no way privy to. You have no idea when you're going to be arrested and when you're not. You have no idea of the vastness of your ignorance." As an aside, Karr laughingly tells how a friend's son recently got a tongue stud and her friend remarked of the teen: "He's his own idiot now!"
The summer of 1970, when Karr was 16, she came to Austin. She remembers it as "a mini-San Francisco" and recalls coming to campus where a protest against the shootings at Kent State raged. She was here visiting her old drama teacher who was working on a doctorate, one of a tiny cast of adults who recognized Karr's talent and steered her toward literature. "Hippies ran the town," Karr reminisces. "Austin was the cultural epicenter of the state. But it was a lot whiter than where I grew up."
When I asked Karr how she remembered all this stuff -- from the ubiquitous musical jewelry box with the spinning ballerina to the exact packaging of LSD -- she said she starts writing and "the memories just unpack." She says she only kept one journal, when she was 12, a sketchbook she stole from her mother's art supplies and decorated with glitter. "I will grow up to write 1é2 poetry and 1é2 autobiography," she wrote then, a premonition that even Karr finds strange. ("What did I know about autobiography? I had read some biographies like Helen Keller's, but that was about it.") She also wrote that she wanted to be "a real woman, a hardworking woman with a pure soul." With two beautifully crafted memoirs under her belt, a third book of poetry out (Viper Rum, 1998), tenure at Syracuse University, a teenage son, and a blissful romance, Karr is definitely hardworking and real. And if her soul isn't entirely pure, well, readers of Cherry will be grateful for it.
Mary Karr will read from Cherry at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, November 11, at 1:15pm in the House Chamber in the State Capitol. Fiction writer Robin Bradford is currently a Fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch.