The Family Sideshow
When I set out on a book tour to promote the memoir about my less than perfect Texas clan, I did so with soul-sucking dread. Surely we’d be held up as grotesques, my beloveds and I, real moral circus freaks. Instead I shoved into bookstores where sometimes hundreds of people stood claiming to identify with my story, which fact stunned me. Maybe these people’s family lives differed in terms of surface pyrotechnics —houses set fire to and fortunes squandered. But the feelings didn’t. After eight weeks of travel, I ginned up this working definition for a dysfunctional family: any family with more than one person in it.
Maybe coming-of-age memoirs are being bought and read by the boatload precisely because they offer some window into other people’s whacked-out families, with which nearly everyone born in the fractured baby-boom era can identify. They also guarantee a central character emotionally engaged in a family narrative. Any writer’s voice —even an omniscient, third-person narrator’s in fiction —serves as a character in the text. But in memoir, the alleged “truth” of a given voice makes it somehow more emotionally compelling. It announces itself as real. Because family memoir lodges us in a writer’s personal history, we can almost see the voice being shaped by factors of geography, socio-economics, psychology. Like a ghost that assembles itself from mist, so the writer’s self seems to appear from her voice. Believe this, the autobiographer says, it’s real. If metafiction has been working double-overtime to explode the lie that fiction is true, memoir somewhat reestablishes the reader’s dream.
Of course, most readers doubt the absolute veracity of a memoir’s reconstructed dialogue and so forth. Tobias Wolff noted in a recent lecture at Syracuse University that all memory involves imagination and vice-versa. Some memoirs also clearly wander into the realm of the fantastic to construct what read like family myths —Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, for instance. There the author steals her Chinese mother’s method of “talking-story” to meld her own somewhat conflicting Chinese and American selves.
Still, we presume that the truth’s skeleton underlay Hong Kingston’s tale. So the character speaking to us from those events also feels, in some way, like a more real escort through the drama than a fictional narrator’s. However “real” Ishmael may seem in Moby Dick, Mary McCarthy offers me as a reader what feels like greater intimacy with a living character in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Don’t get me wrong. Greater intimacy with a narrator isn’t always what a reader wants: I haven’t given up reading novels. But in the cocooned isolation we occupy at this millennium’s end, a friendly voice on a page has value.
A child’s voice or perspective can also open the often firmly locked door to a reader’s own memories of youth. When I read in Harry Crews’s A Childhood how that backwoods Georgia boy made up stories about models in the Sears catalog, I identified with it wholesale, even though I grew up far from the savage poverty Crews lays out:
“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple…. I knew that under those [Sears models’] fancy clothes, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world.”
Anybody would twig to some universal truth about the childhood Crews describes here, I think. We all lose our innocence in part by coming to marvel at the rift between one’s private life —family fights, say —and the glossy families sold by the media. Crews’s voice conjures that innocence for us, the time when a family universe was still so colossal that you could project that reality onto the lives of strangers. Crews’s private experience ultimately overrode the lie of the Sears catalog. The stories he made up with his friend gave him, he later wrote, “an overwhelming sense of well-being and profound power.”
Crews’s survival is also encouraging, a testimony of sorts. In a class on memoir I taught at Syracuse University last year, my students puzzled me at the term’s end by praising the genre’s sense of hope. Of the dark and dire stories we’d read —mental institutions for Susanna Kaysen and rape for Maya Angelou —hope didn’t seem the leading emotion (except perhaps in Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People). “They lived to write books,” one student said. “They grew up and got away from their parents,” said another. The fact that the writers outlived their troubled pasts, walked out of them into adulthood, ultimately served as empowering for that class of readers.
Not everyone’s so wowed by what memoir offers up. William Gass took a hard swipe at the whole genre in Harper’s last May (“Autobiography in the Age of Narcissism”) primarily scolding the genre’s lack of truth. “The autobiographer is likely to treat records with less respect than he should…. Autobiographers flush before examining their stools.”
For “truth” Gass favors history without bothering to note —as Tobias Wolff did in the aforementioned lecture —that historians are no more neutral toward their subjects than memoirists are. Nor can such primary sources as letters and diaries be construed as “objective.” Gass also neglected history’s glaring failures. My high school history text cheerfully described the westward migration without a glance at the native peoples whose bones got plowed under in the process.
Gass also praised fiction for veracity because it doesn’t announce itself as true. I could borrow that same reasoning to defend memoir for its blatant subjectivity. In our time we’ve watched most great sources of “objective” truth —churches and scientific studies and presidents among them —topple in terms of their moral authority. So any pose of authority can seem the ultimate fakery. In this way, Michael Herr’s psychedelic memoir of Vietnam, Dispatches, seems way more authentic to me in describing that war than the Defense Department’s records “objectively” assembled under Robert McNamara.
In our loneliness for some sense that we’re behaving well inside our very isolated families, personal experience has assumed some new power. Just as the novel form once took up experiences of urban, industrialized society that weren’t being handled in epic poems or epistles, so memoir —reliant on a single, intensely personal voice for its unifying glue—wrestles subjects in a way that readers of late find compelling. The good ones I’ve read confirm my experience in a flawed family. They reassure me the way belonging to a community reassures you.
My bookstore chats did the same. On the road, I came to believe —despite the dire edicts from Newt Gingrich and the media about the moral, drug-besotted quagmire into which we’ve all sunk —that our families are working, albeit in new forms. People have gone on birthing babies and burying their dead and loving those with whom they shared troubled patches of history. We do this partly by telling stories —fictional and non-fictional ones —in voices that neither deny family struggles nor make demons of our beloveds.
Mary Karr grew up near Port Arthur, Texas. She has won Pushcart Prizes for both her poetry and her essays, and her work appears in such magazines as Granta, Parnassus, Vogue, Esquire, Poetry, The New Yorker, and The American Poetry Review. Her two volumes of poetry are The Devil’s Tour and Abacus. She has been awarded grants from the NEA, the Whiting Foundation, the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, and others. Karr has been featured in numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mirabella.
The Liars’ Club, which has appeared on bestseller lists across the country, is the winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and the Texas Institute of Letters Prize for Best Nonfiction. It was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and selected as an American Library Association Notable Book. The Liars’ Club was chosen as one of the best books of 1995 by People, Time, The New Yorker, and Entertainment Weekly. Karr, who has worked as a Fellow at the Harvard Business School and as a crawfish trucker in Texas, currently teaches literature and creative writing at Syracuse University. She lives in upstate New York with her son.
“The Liars’ Club is a classic of American literature…. Mary Karr conjures the simmering heat and bottled rage of life in a small Texas oil town with an intensity that gains power from the fact that it’s fact.” —James Atlas, The New York Times Magazine
“An astonishing book…. Her most powerful tool is her language, which she wields with the virtuosity of both a lyric poet and an earthy, down-home Texan…. One of the most dazzling and moving memoirs to come along in years.” —Michiko Kakutani,The New York Times
“This book is so good I thought about sending it out for a back-up opinion…. It’s like finding Beethoven in Hoboken. To have a poet’s precision of language and a poet’s gift for understanding emotion and a poet’s insight into people applied to one of the roughest, toughest, ugliest places in America is an astounding event.” —Molly Ivins, The Nation
“A triumphant achievement in the art of memoir and the art of living…. Karr fills her turbulent pages with a prose as pungent and zesty as a Gulf Coast gumbo.” —Newsday
“Crackles with energy and wit…a wild and wooly contribution to the annals of American childhood.” —The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Her literary instincts are extraordinary…. Karr has the poet’s gift for finding something huge and unsayable in a single image…gothic wit and stunning clarity of memory.” —The Boston Globe
“The essential American story…. The Liars’ Club is a beauty.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
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In the introduction to this piece you say that any family with more than one person is dysfunctional. Why do you feel this way?
If dysfunction means that a family doesn’t work, then every family ambles into some arena in which that happens, where relationships get strained or even break down entirely. We fail each other or disappoint each other. That goes for parents, siblings, kids, marriage partners —the whole enchilada.
Obviously, these failures cover a spectrum. The parent who beats a kid insensibly on a regular basis registers differently on the disappointment-meter from the one who doesn’t deliver a pony for Christmas. Probably the vast majority of families fall between these two poles. Nevertheless, I believe that every tribe has to accommodate a wide range of behavior from its members. Illness and death, which we’re taught in this country to view as aberrant, actually afflict us all. Depression hits everybody from time to time. The current figures on alcoholism vary, but I heard a lecture once where someone claimed that five percent of the population consumes ninety percent of the liquor sold. You can bet that segment of the population causes considerable strain on those near and dear. When people suffer their relationships usually suffer as well. Period. And we all suffer because, as the Buddha says, that’s the nature of being human and wanting stuff we don’t always get.
You also talk about the popularity of memoirs about dysfunctional families in post-baby-boom America. Is dysfunction a particularly American phenomenon? Or is interest in reading about it?
Probably readers’ intense interest in scaldingly tough family lives is an American phenomenon, but I’m no expert. The only other country I’ve ever lived in is England, where I encountered much sneering about our narcissistic interest in therapies, self-help, twelve-step recovery, etcet. Still, their rates of divorce and alcoholism are up like ours. Their families have probably endured the same upheavals in structure. The Liars’ Club has done well over there, and my British publisher described the same boom in memoir over there that we’ve seen here.
The fact that America’s so geographically vast adds a factor the Brits don’t have —how far-flung we are from our beloveds, who traditionally helped us with an occasional bag of groceries or an afternoon of babysitting.
What memoirs that you’ve read have inspired you the most? Did any of them influence the way you conceived your own?
The memoirs I adore were all stolen from shamelessly. As a junior in high school, I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. That she wrote about a rural, Southern, working-class family was a revelation to me. The peasants in Tolstoy were one thing, but Angelou showed me literature’s characters didn’t have to be limited to the ruling classes, with which I had virtually no truck. The same held true for Harry Crews’s Childhood: Biography of a Place. Plus Crews drew more heavily on the vernacular than Angelou did. Maxine Hong Kingston showed me in Woman Warrior that you could write about feminist issues without either being didactic or painting yourself as some slobbering victim. In my early twenties I had the great privilege of meeting both Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff at Goddard College where I went to grad school. Their books —The Duke of Deception and This Boy’s Life, respectively —showed me the virtues of humor. Plus their very different prose styles and that of other master writers —Frank Conroy, for instance, in Stop-time (available from Penguin) —showed me that memoir’s an art, even if historically an outsider’s art. There’s no reason it can’t be as well written as fiction, even if structurally it’s more episodic.
Other memoirs I’m passionate enough about to have taught include Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, George Orwell on Burma and his Homage to Catalonia, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, Michael Herr’sDispatches about Vietnam, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People, and Robert Graves’sGoodbye to All That.
Where did you get your storytelling ability and how did you develop it?
The idiom in this book is my daddy’s mostly, the densely poetic idiom I grew up with in East Texas. To say “it’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock” is to utter a line of poetry. The phrase is metaphorical. It’s physically accurate in evoking the kind of head-bashing thunderstorms you get from the Gulf. Plus it works at the bounds of social propriety, which is where writers often go to find difficult truths that haven’t been written to death already. It also grows out of a milieu that’s seldom written about —one in which cows piss on flat rocks and people stand around to marvel at it.
How does your work as a poet enter into your prose writing? Did it influence The Liars’ Club?
Poetry started as an oral art. So I always listened to stories, and my work as a poet makes me migrate to metaphor, trying to learn the truth about one thing by looking at something like it. As a poet, I’ve also tried to cultivate a precision of language that would probably help anybody write anything better. In Ezra Pound’s Cantos there’s a Chinese idiom that he favors —a single ray of sunlight coming like a lance to rest at an exact place in an honest man’s heart. Pound likened this to Dante’s notion of verbum perfecium, the word made perfect. That’s a lofty goal, but poetry urges you toward it.
Poetry also makes one a compulsive reviser. I can do as many as sixty drafts trying to feel my way into whatever’s interesting or true in a poem. My editing style is to slash and burn. That helped, but I also had to severely limit myself to three drafts of each chapter; otherwise, it would have taken twenty years to write this book instead of two and a half. Viking would never have paid me, and I needed the money. Bad.
In The Liars’ Club you describe several years of your childhood and then shoot forward seventeen years to recount your father’s death. Why did you choose to structure your story the way you did?
The mystery I set up at the start of the book had that shape by my measure: Why did my mother have the psychotic episode that started the book?
What fueled her on the wild tear I described in those first two sections? I hoped the reader wanted to know the answer to that question, so I didn’t want to drag him or her kicking and screaming through every meal I ate my entire life to reach the point where her secret was unearthed. While I was writing, I worried my editor about how I’d pole vault through history for seventeen years. Then I hit on it: “Seventeen years later…” We do that all the time telling stories to each other and permit the loss of time, so why not in print. Plus that loss of seventeen years gave me another passel of books to write, I hope.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to write a memoir?
Tobias Wolff wrote me a brilliant letter while I was at Radcliffe College trying to start this book. “Take no care for your dignity,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else.” He also warned me against the kind of stultifying, moralizing didacticism that plagues all bad writing. “Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed.” I kept that taped above my computer while I worked along with the poem by Zbigniew Herbert translated from the Polish that I quote at the start of the book’s third section. They were the mojos I held up against the literary bullshit to which I’m prone.
What are you working on now?
I initially sold The Liars’ Club as a Stop-time for girls, but I never got past that one childhood drama into the drama of puberty, which is the swamp into which I’ve currently waded. So I’m working on a sequel that details my somewhat itinerant adolescence.