April 2014: The Liars’ Club
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When Mary Karr published The Liars’ Club in 1995, her brutally honest, funny/sad portrait of her hardscrabble childhood in an East Texas oil town, she changed the landscape of memoirs. Her combination of storytelling skills and evocative writing set the standard—one that holds decades after the book first appeared. Real Simple Deputy Editor Danielle Claro hosted our discussion of The Liars’ Club.
The Liars’ Club: Chapters 1 Through 4
Are you all as hooked on this memoir as I am? I feel like I’m curling up with Mary Karr and digging in, like she did with her father when he told his stories. Her delicious, effortless metaphors (“the rivers crawling through” her swampy town; “that dim stab of fear”) spill forth so generously. It’s yummy reading. She has me wrapped around her finger, so when she says she “tossed a pebble at her sister’s knee” and was made by her grandma to sit in the hot car as punishment, I don’t even question it till a few pages later (when I start to wonder what she meant by “toss” and where lies the line between pebble and rock).
The scenes where Karr is hanging with the Liars’ Club have such warmth, and that joy of inclusion we treasure in childhood (heck, forever, right?). It makes me think a little of The Tender Bar, written much later than this book, by J.R. Moehringer. I’m betting J.R. is a Mary Karr fan. One of my favorite moments comes when the guys are giving Karr’s dad a hard time about one of his tales/characters: “Daddy stares seriously into the middle distance, as if the old man in question were standing there himself, waiting for his story to get told properly and witnessing the ignorance that Daddy had to suffer in the process.” I’m not sure it's appropriate for me to pepper this post with smiley faces, but they’re here in spirit, after every quote.
Grandma is such a vivid (often vicious) character, and kudos to Karr for acknowledging that her sister does not necessarily agree with all of her facts, especially surrounding Grandma. This is one of the things I love about this memoir. We are inside the head of a really young kid, and discovering life—and locusts and secret histories and the moment when fun turns into fear—as she discovers it.
I have to talk about the rape scene. I felt it coming and kept putting the book down—stayed on the same spread of pages and kept finding excuses not to keep reading. The tenderness with which Karr writes this scene, almost like she’s taking care of her tiny little self and also being incredibly gentle with the reader, is almost unbearable. I’ve never read anything like this. I’m kind of without words. I couldn’t sleep after I read it. The horror crept in and would not go away, and that seems appropriate. It should horrify us and upset us and keep us awake all night.
There’s so much more to talk about, so let me pass around the talking stick a bit and hear what’s on everyone’s minds. What are your thoughts on Karr’s mother? I’m fascinated by her and can’t wait to spend more time with her. Also, did you read the introduction? I intentionally skip intros for the same reason I ask friends not to tell me one single thing about a movie I want to see; I like to interact with art as itself, with no setup. And this intro was added in 2004 (the book was published in 1995). Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
The Liars’ Club: Chapters 5 Through 11
I hope you’ve had a chance to read Chapters 5 through 11. So much has happened to our hero, Mary, and her sister, Lecia. They’ve been plucked from the life they’ve always known and dropped into another one, with an entirely new set of characters and, tragically, without their father.
You can almost feel the dryness of Colorado compared to the rich swampiness of home. The magical sensory descriptions that poured forth from MK in Leechfield are gone. Almost everything now is internal—also brilliant and moving and heartbreaking—but inward. I think back to the beach incident, when poor Lecia nearly dies and to MK’s description of nature in and around Leechfield (wretched, threatening) compared with the idyllic images of the girls and their horses (waterfalls, vistas, meadows). It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to process that contrast. And I kind of love the fact that MK doesn’t waste time trying to explain it. What I mean is, I appreciate what she doesn’t put in this book as much as what she does. She gives us the vivid stuff. And she cops to it when her memory ends—that’s all there is—or when the next thing she recalls is a day later. It’s so intimate because it’s the way all our memories work, and we rarely acknowledge it.
I’ve taken to underlining—and to saying things like “taken to” : )—because there are so many beautiful turns of phrase or achingly relatable truths or funny/sharp observations, I just don’t want to lose them:
“I’d never seen a shark up close before, and what struck me was how chinless it was…” (page 111)
“At the same time, I’m more where I was inside myself than before Daddy started talking, which is how lies can tell you the truth.” (page 124)
“…maybe the craziness was just sort of standing in line to happen, and the drinking actually staved it off for a while.” (page 125)
Okay, now I see that I have way too many things underlined to share.
Just one more, during the fire (let’s talk about the fire, please): “The canvases catch before the frames do, so lined up at different heights along one side of the pyramid are these framed pictures of frames.” The fire alone is something we could talk about for hours.
What do you wish for Mary at this point in the story (end of Chapter 11)? I’m homesick for her. I wish she could go back to Leechfield—although who knows what that would be like. What scenes/moments are staying with you?
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
The Liars’ Club: Chapters 12 Through 15
First things first: Mary Karr is in the house! Well, she will be soon. Have questions for her? Post them below by EOD next Friday, May 2.
Back to business: I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this last chunk of The Liars’ Club.
Chapters 12 and 13, when Mary and her sister are still in Colorado, were so incredibly painful. I had to put the book down for a while. MK was gentle and vague in the telling of the first time she was raped. But this second incident she brings us in vivid detail, and there’s no escaping the horror being perpetrated on this tiny little girl. As a reader, I felt helpless. Complicit. Adults have failed her. Her mother left her with this guy, as a “babysitter.” What?! I’m having a hard time being articulate about it. Every time I think about what this child went through I’m unable to type.
I was enormously relieved, of course, when Lecia took charge. Though once again, even as the girls are headed back to the relative safety of Leechfield, they’re in the hands of a shady character.
About structure: I was shocked and a little dismayed by the jump forward to 1980. I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to the characters yet, especially little Mary Marlene. It felt like a huge loss. I had in my head/heart that I’d have 30 more pages with her, but she just vanished. The new narrator was Mary, yes, but a different one. Grown-up and seeing the world and her life as a writer does. She had a new voice—she was more of an observer, I think. So to me that last section felt like a different book—a book I would love to read, but not at the expense of more time with the family I’d been hanging out with. I understand that the third section was here to explain Mother and to help us forgive her. But Mother’s story was no doubt a deep one, and hearing it quickly left me with questions and an urge for more detail. That said, this book contains some of the most beautiful writing (and my favorite kind of writing—simple, raw, unadorned) I’ve ever seen. And I would and will recommend it to everyone.
I have lots more thoughts on this chunk of LC but I’d rather hear from you.
How did you feel about Mary and Lecia’s last bit of time in Colorado?
What were your favorite parts of the reunion/return to Texas?
What were your thoughts on Daddy in this last section?
How did you feel about the jump forward to 1980?
What are your thoughts on the title of the book?
Are you about to run out and buy all MK’s other books? (I am.)
Please share. Thanks!
Mary Karr Answers Readers’ Questions About The Liars’ Club
Blunt, funny, not so funny. Yeah, Mary Karr’s answers to our questions about The Liars’ Club have arrived, and they are much like her book.
From reader dconnolly: What kinds of responses did you receive from non-family members who recognized themselves in The Liars’ Club?
Everyone was either thrilled or too dead to comment. I had a home town library signing where 500 people lined up. Plus nobody shot me.
From reader aStarc: I know writing a memoir must be challenging in so many ways. How hard was it to fully reveal the truth? Didn't you have moments you just wanted to hit the delete button?
I DID hit the delete button just because the writing was not as good as I wanted most of the time—I rewrite like a maniac. But, no, I decided the truth was my only hope back at age about 19....
From reader BringSunshine: One thing that bothered me and seemed to bother Mary as well was her neighbors. They either turned their head or talked behind their backs. My question is: Mary, now as an adult what role do you think neighbors should take if they see situations where children are being neglected or may be in danger?
Now it’s so different—there’s a heightened social awareness of child neglect/abuse. But when I think how bereft I’d have been had I left my parents, I don’t think I’d have wanted to leave them. If somebody had sent them both to rehab and gotten us some therapy, that’d been nice. But those were different days.
From reader karingam: How are your relationships with the family members in your book now? Was it more painful or therapeutic to write? Was your primary motivation awareness of child neglect and the importance of support systems?
It was painful and cathartic to write, but the therapy for 15 years before made the writing possible. My parents are dead, and my sister and I wish each other well but aren’t close. Sadly, my motivation was venal. I had a financial flamethrower on my butt—a single mom in Syracuse where the snow was measurable in yards. I needed a car! And I was too old to wait tables—my back too bad. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” Samuel Johnson said. That’s partly a joke, of course. I found so many other people who suffered so much worse than I ever did after the book came out. I am wildly happy—a great man with a loving (to me) family and a son like something you win at a raffle.
From reader CatKib: What do you say or think when a person now “uses” the excuses of his or her childhood event(s) to explain a crime, alcoholism, and even a terrible misdeed toward another person? Have you been back to your childhood “home” in Texas? Does your sister still have bangs? (My sisters and I were very fussy about how our hair looked also:))
My sister still has bangs sprayed v. hard in place so they don’t move! Lol. Sadly, childhood is the only time when we should be taken care of. Part of my spiritual practice is taking responsibility for my adult actions. Those of us who had a rough time never miss being young—my life has been happier every year.
From reader Kelkarp: I would like to know whether Mary ever talked about the sexual assaults or whether her family didn’t know until she wrote the book. I would imagine how horrible her mother would feel, on top of all the other guilts she harbored in her life.
My mother and sister were ignorant about the sexual assaults, and neither felt guilty. Neither was a very guilty-feeling type. My mother said, sweetly, “Those sons-a-bitches.” And my sister then changed the subject. Which was fine. I was over those things by the time I wrote the book, I am happy to say.
From reader monya7: I’m wondering what advice she has for writing a memoir.
I am writing a book about memoir that will be out in fall 2015—tell the truth. If you’re writing about people who were cruel to you, do it with love. Don’t write for revenge.
From discussion leader Danielle Claro, deputy editor, Real Simple: How did you determine where to restart the story (1980, I mean)? Were there other moments you considered jumping back in on, or was this the clear re-entry point to you from the start?
I kept worrying the bone of where to start up, then the narrative thread very clearly was about Mother’s secret. My editrix kept saying, “How will you make the transition?” And I called her one day and said, “X-number-of-years later comma...” My proposal for Liars’ Club included all three books [TLC, Cherry, Lit], up till about halfway through Lit, when I got sober. Who knew?
From RS.com deputy editor Maura Fritz: You write of your parents and their actions (or non-actions) with blunt honesty and even humor but no judgment. What was it like, then, to have strangers form their own judgments?
Most people adored my family. You would be surprised to learn that my 75-year-old mother got marriage proposals! My sister was very interested in propriety. Mother was such an outlaw, she didn’t really flinch.