#4 on The New York Times’ list of The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years
The New York Times bestselling, hilarious tale of a hardscrabble Texas childhood that Oprah.com calls the best memoir of a generation—now with a foreword by Lena Dunham in celebration of its twentieth anniversary
“Wickedly funny and always movingly illuminating, thanks to kick-ass storytelling and a poet’s ear.” —Oprah.com
The Liars’ Club took the world by storm and raised the art of the memoir to an entirely new level, bringing about a dramatic revival of the form. Karr’s comic childhood in an east Texas oil town brings us characters as darkly hilarious as any of J. D. Salinger’s—a hard-drinking daddy, a sister who can talk down the sheriff at age twelve, and an oft-married mother whose accumulated secrets threaten to destroy them all. This unsentimental and profoundly moving account of an apocalyptic childhood is as “funny, lively, and un-put-downable” (USA Today) today as it ever was.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,500 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
About the Author
Mary Karr kick-started a memoir revolution with The Liars’ Club, which was a New York Times bestseller for over a year, a best book of the year for The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, People, and Time, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the winner of prizes from PEN and the Texas Institute of Letters. Karr has won the Whiting Award, Radcliffe’s Bunting Fellowship, and Pushcart Prizes for both verse and essays, and she has been a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. Her other bestselling books include The Art of Memoir, the memoirs Lit and Cherry, and the poetry collections Sinners Welcome, Viper Rum, The Devil’s Tour, and Abacus. The Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University, Karr lives in New York City.
Lena Dunham (foreword) is the creator of the critically acclaimed HBO series Girls and the author of the New York Times bestselling essay collection Not That Kind of Girl. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, she lives in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Brian Rea (cover illustrator) is the longtime illustrator for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column and a former art director for the New York Times op-ed page. His design clients include Kate Spade, Honda, Billabong, Herman Miller, and MTV. Rea lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark. I was seven, and our family doctor knelt before me where I sat on a mattress on the bare floor. He wore a yellow golf shirt unbuttoned so that sprouts of hair showed in a V shape on his chest. I had never seen him in anything but a white starched shirt and a gray tie. The change unnerved me. He was pulling at the hem of my favorite nightgown-a pattern of Texas bluebonnets bunched into nosegays tied with ribbon against a field of nappy white cotton. I had tucked my knees under it to make a tent. He could easily have yanked the thing over my head with one motion, but something made him gentle. "Show me the marks," he said. "Come on, now. I won't hurt you." He had watery blue eyes behind thick glasses, and a mustache that looked like a caterpillar. "Please? Just pull this up and show me where it hurts," he said. He held a piece of hem between thumb and forefinger. I wasn't crying and don't remember any pain, but he talked to me in that begging voice he used when he had a long needle hidden behind his back. I liked him but didn't much trust him. The room I shared with my sister was dark, but I didn't fancy hiking my gown up with strangers milling around in the living room.
It took three decades for that instant to unfreeze. Neighbors and family helped me turn that one bright slide into a panorama. The bed frame tilted against the wall behind the doctor had a scary, spidery look in the dark. In one corner, the tallboy was tipped over on its back like a stranded turtle, its drawers flung around. There were heaps of spilled clothes, puzzles, comics, and the GoldenBooks I could count on my mom to buy in the supermarket line if I'd stayed in the carriage. The doorway framed the enormous backlit form of Sheriff Watson, who held my sister, then nine, with one stout arm. She had her pink pajamas on and her legs wrapped around his waist. She fiddled with his badge with a concentration too intense for the actual interest such a thing might hold for her. Even at that age she was cynical about authority in any form. She was known for mocking nuns in public and sassing teachers. But I could see that she had painted a deferential look on her face. The sheriff[hmp1.5]'s cowboy hat kept the details of his expression in deep shadow, but I made out a sort of soft half-smile I'd never seen on him.
I had a knee-jerk fear of the sheriff based on my father's tendency to get in fights. He'd pull open the back screen with knuckles scraped and bleeding, then squat down to give instructions to me and Lecia (pronounced, she would have me tell you, "Lisa"). "If the sheriff comes by here, you just tell him you ain't seen me in a few days." In fact, the sheriff never came by, so my ability to straight-faced lie to the law was never tested. But just his presence that night flooded me with an odd sense: I done something wrong and here's the sheriff. If I had, that night, possessed a voice, or if anyone nearby felt like listening, that's what I might have said. But when you're a kid and something big is going on, you might as well be furniture for all anybody says to you.
It was only over time that the panorama became animate, like a scene in some movie crystal ball that whirls from a foggy blur into focus. People developed little distinct motions; then the whole scene jerked to smooth and sudden life. Sheriff Watson's jaw dipped into the light and returned to shadow with some regularity as he said things that I couldn't hear to my blond, suddenly cherubic-acting sister. Some firemen wearing canary-colored slickers started to move through the next room, and Dr. Boudreaux's thick fingers came again to rub the edge of my speckled nightgown the way old ladies at the five-and-dime tested yard goods. There must have been an ambulance outside, because at intervals big triangles of red light slashed across the room. I could almost feel them moving over my face, and in the window, through a web of honeysuckle, I saw in my own backyard flames like those of a football bonfire.
And the volume on the night began to rise. People with heavy boots stomped through the house. Somebody turned off the ambulance siren. The back screen opened and slammed. My daddy's dog, Nipper, was growling low and making his chain clank in the yard. He was a sullen dog trained to drink beer and bite strangers. He'd been known to leap from a speeding truck's window to chase down and fight any hound he saw. He'd killed one lady's Chihuahua, then just shook it like a rag while Daddy tried to coax him out of her garage and she hollered and cried. When a voice I didn't know told some sonofabitch to get out of the way, I knew it meant Nipper, who disappeared that night into the East Texas bayou-or more likely, my sister later figured out, the gas chamber at the local pound. Anyway, we never saw him again, which was okay by me. That dog had bitten me more than once.
More door slams, the noise of boots, and some radio static from the cruiser in the road. "Come on, baby," Dr. Boudreaux said, "show me the marks. I'm not about to hurt you." I kept waiting to make eye contact with my sister to get some idea of how to handle this, but she was dead set on that badge.
I don't remember talking. I must eventually have told Dr. Boudreaux there weren't any marks on me. There weren't. It took a long time for me to figure that out for certain, even longer to drive my memory from that single place in time out toward the rest of my life.
The next thing I knew, I was being led away by Sheriff Watson. He still held Lecia, who had decided to pretend that she was asleep. My eyes were belt-level with his service revolver and a small leather sap that even then must have been illegal in the state of Texas. It was shaped like an enormous black tear. I resisted the urge to touch it. Lecia kept her face in his neck the whole time, but I knew she was scudging sleep. She slept like a cat, and this was plenty of hoopla to keep her awake. The sheriff held my left hand. With my free one, I reached up and pinched her dirty ankle. Hard. She kicked out at me, then angled her foot up out of reach and snuggled back to her fake sleep on his chest.
The highway patrolmen and firemen stood around with the blank heaviness of uninvited visitors who plan a long stay. Somebody had made a pot of coffee that laid a nutty smell over the faint chemical stink from the gasoline fire in the backyard. The men in the living room gave our party a wide berth and moved toward the kitchen.
I knew that neither of my parents was coming. Daddy was working the graveyard shift, and the sheriff said that his deputy had driven out to the plant to try and track him down. Mother had been taken Away-he further told us-for being Nervous.
I should explain here that in East Texas parlance the term Nervous applied with equal accuracy to anything from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis. Mr. Thibideaux down the street had blown off the heads of his wife and three sons, then set his house on fire before fixing the shotgun barrel under his own jaw and using his big toe on the trigger. I used to spend Saturday nights in that house with his daughter, a junior high twirler of some popularity, and I remember nothing more of Mr. Thibideaux than that he had a crew cut and a stern manner. He was a refinery worker like Daddy, and also a deacon at First Baptist.
I was in my twenties when Mr. Thibideaux killed his family. I liked to call myself a poet and had affected a habit of reading classical texts (in translation, of course-I was a lazy student). I would ride the Greyhound for thirty-six hours down from the Midwest to Leechfield, then spend days dressed in black in the scalding heat of my mother's front porch reading Homer (or Ovid or Virgil) and waiting for someone to ask me what I was reading. No one ever did. People asked me what I was drinking, how much I weighed, where I was living, and if I had married yet, but no one gave me a chance to deliver my lecture on Great Literature. It was during one of these visits that I found the Thibideauxs' burned-out house, and also stumbled on the Greek term ate. In ancient epics, when somebody boffs a girl or slays somebody or just generally gets heated up, he can usually blame ate, a kind of raging passion, pseudodemonic, that banishes reason. So Agamemnon, having robbed Achilles of his girlfriend, said, "I was blinded by ate and Zeus took away my understanding." Wine can invoke ate, but only if it's ensorcered in some way. Because the ate is supernatural, it releases the person possessed of it from any guilt for her actions. When neighbors tried to explain the whole murder-suicide of the Thibideaux clan after thirty years of grass-cutting and garbage-taking-out and dutiful church-service attendance, they did so with one adjective, which I have since traced to the Homeric idea of ate: Mr. Thibideaux was Nervous. No amount of prodding on my part produced a more elaborate explanation.
On the night the sheriff came to our house and Mother was adjudged more or less permanently Nervous, I didn't yet understand the word. I had only a vague tight panic in the pit of my stomach, the one you get when your parents are nowhere in sight and probably don't even know who has a hold of you or where you'll wind up spending the night.
I could hear the low hum of neighbor women talking as we got near the front door. They had gathered on the far side of the ditch that ran before our house, where they stood in their nightclothes like some off-duty SWAT team waiting for orders. The sheriff let go of my hand once we were outside. From inside the tall shadow of his hat, with my sister still wrapped around him in bogus slumber, he told me to wait on the top step while he talked to the ladies. Then he went up to the women, setting in motion a series of robe-tightenings and sweater- buttonings.
The concrete was cold on my bottom through the thin nightgown. I plucked two june bugs off the screen and tried to line them up to race down a brick, but one flew off, and the other just flipped over and waggled its legs in the air.
At some point it dawned on me that my fate for the night was being decided by Sheriff Watson and the neighbor ladies. It was my habit at that time to bargain with God, so I imagine that I started some haggling prayer about who might take us home. Don't let it be the Smothergills, I probably prayed. They had six kids already and famously strict rules about who ate what and when. The one time we'd spent the night there, Lecia and I wound up in the bathroom eating toothpaste past midnight. We'd eaten a whole tube, for which we had been switch-whipped in the morning by a gray-faced Mr. Smothergill. He was undergoing weekly chemotherapy treatments for mouth cancer at the time, and every kid in the neighborhood had an opinion about when he would die. Cancer and death were synonymous. His sandpaper voice and bleak disposition scared us more than any whipping. His kids called him Cheerful Chuck behind his back. The oldest Smothergill daughter had been permitted to visit my house only once. (Our house was perceived as Dangerous, a consequence of Mother's being Nervous.) She was so tickled by the idea that we could open the refrigerator at will that she melted down a whole stick of butter in a skillet and drank it from a coffee mug. Lord, I would rather eat a bug than sleep on that hard pallet at the Smothergills'. Plus in the morning the boys get up and stand around the TV in their underpants doing armpit farts. Let it be the Dillards', and I'll lead a holy life forever from this day. I will not spit or scratch or pinch or try to get Babby Carter to eat doo-doo. Mrs. Dillard stood with the other ladies in her pale blue zip-front duster, her arms folded across her chest. She made Pillsbury cinnamon rolls in the morning and let me squiggle on the icing. Plus her boys had to wear pajama pants when we were there. But the Dillards had space for only one of us, and that on the scratchy living room sofa. Maybe Lecia could go to the Smothergills', I proposed to whatever God I worshiped, and I could take the Dillards. I wished Lecia no particular harm, but if there was only one banana left in the bowl, I would not hesitate to grab it and leave her to do without. I decided that if the june bug could be herded the length of a brick before I could count five I'd get what I wanted. But the june bug kept flipping and waggling before it had even gone an inch, and Mrs. Dillard went out of her way, it seemed, not to look at me.
I don't remember who we got farmed out to or for how long. I was later told that we'd stayed for a time with a childless couple who bred birds. Some memory endures of a screened-in breezeway with green slatted blinds all around. The light was lemon-colored and dusty, the air filled with blue-and-green parakeets, whose crazy orbits put me in mind of that Alfred Hitchcock movie where birds go nuts and start pecking out people's eyeballs. But the faces of my hosts in that place-no matter how hard I squint-refuse to be conjured.
Because it took so long for me to paste together what happened, I will leave that part of the story missing for a while. It went long unformed for me, and I want to keep it that way here. I don't mean to be coy. When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn't quite fill it in.
I did know from that night forward that things in my house were Not Right, this despite the fact that the events I have described so far had few outward results. No one ever mentioned the night again. I don't remember any subsequent home visits from any kind of social worker or concerned neighbor. Dr. Bouchdreaux seemed sometimes to minister to my health with an uncharacteristic tenderness. And neighbors dragged my sister and me to catechism classes and Vacation Bible School and to various hunting camps, never mentioning the fact that our family never reciprocated. I frequently showed up on doorsteps at suppertime; foraging, Daddy called it. He said it reminded him of his rail- riding days during the Depression. But no one ever failed to hand me a plate, though everybody knew that I had plenty to eat at home, which wasn't always true for the families I popped in on.
The night's major consequences for me were internal. The fact that my house was Not Right metastasized into the notion that I myself was somehow Not Right, or that my survival in the world depended on my constant vigilance against various forms of Not-Rightness. Whenever I stepped into the road at Leechfield's one traffic light, I usually expected to get plowed down by a Red Ball truck flying out of nowhere (unlikely, given the lack of traffic). I became both a flincher and a fighter. I was quick to burst into tears in the middle of a sandlot baseball game and equally quick to whack someone in the head without much provocation. Neighborhood myth has it that I once cold-cocked a five-year-old playmate with an army trench shovel, then calmly went back to digging. Some of this explosiveness just came from a naturally bad temperament, of course. But some stems from that night, when my mind simply erased everything up until Dr. Boudreaux began inviting me to show him marks that I now know weren't even there.
The missing story really starts before I was born, when my mother and father met and, for reasons I still don't get, quickly married.
My mother had just arrived in Leechfield. She'd driven down from New York with an Italian sea captain named Paolo. He was fifty to her thirty, and her fourth husband. My mother didn't date, she married. At least that's what we said when I finally found out about all her marriages before Daddy. She racked up seven weddings in all, two to my father. My mother tended to blame the early marriages on her own mother's strict Methodist values, which didn't allow for premarital fooling around, of which she was fond. She and Paolo had barely finished the honeymoon and set up housekeeping in Leechfield, where he was fixing to ship out, than they began fighting.
So it was on a wet winter evening in 1950 that she threw her dresses, books, and hatboxes in the back of an old Ford and laid rubber out of Leechfield, intending never to return. She was heading for her mother's cotton farm about five hundred miles west. Just outside of Leechfield, where Highway 73 yields up its jagged refinery skyline to bayous and rice fields, she blew a tire. She was about twenty yards from the truck stop where Daddy happened to be working. He had a union job as an apprentice stillman at Gulf Oil, but he was filling in at the station that night for his friend Cooter, who'd called him in desperation from a crap game in Baton Rouge where he was allegedly on a roll.
All Mother's marriages, once I uncovered them in my twenties, got presented to me as accidents. Her meeting Daddy was maybe the most unlikely. Had Cooter not gotten lucky with the dice in a Baton Rouge honky-tonk, and had Paolo not perturbed Mother in the process of unpacking crates, and had the tire on the Ford not been worn from a recent cross-country jaunt (Paolo's mother lived in Seattle, and they'd traveled there from New York, then down to Texas, where divorce laws permitted Mother to quickly get rid of husband number three before signing up with number four). . . . All these events conspired to strand my mother quite literally at my father's feet on Highway 73 that night.
He said there was a General Electric moon shining the first time he saw her, so bright it was like a spotlight on her. She refused his help jacking up the car and proceeded to cuss like a sailor when she couldn't get the lug nuts loose. My mother claims that she had only recently learned to cuss, from Paolo. Daddy said her string of practiced invectives, which seemed unlikely given her fancy clothes (she had on a beige silk suit) and New York license plates, impressed him no end. He'd never heard a woman cuss like that before.
She changed the tire and must have made some note of his raw good looks. He was some part Indian-we never figured out which tribe-black-haired and sharp- featured. His jug-eared grin reminded her of Clark Gable's. Since she fancied herself a sort of Bohemian Scarlett O'Hara, the attraction was deep and sudden. I should also note that Mother was prone to conversion experiences of various kinds, and had entered a fervent Marxist stage. She toted Das Kapital around in her purse for years. Daddy was active in the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Whenever they renegotiated a contract-every two years-he was known as an able picket-line brawler. He was, in short, a Texas working man, with a smattering of Indian blood and with personality traits that she had begun to consider heroic.
What People are Saying About This
“The essential American story . . . a beauty.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
“Astonishing . . . 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 backup opinion. . . . It’s like finding Beethoven in Hoboken. To have a poet’s precision of language and a poet’s insight into people applied to one of the roughest, toughest, ugliest places in America is an astonishing event.” —Molly Ivins, The Nation
“9mm humor, gothic wit, and a stunning clarity of memory within a poet’s vision . . . Karr’s unerring scrutiny of her childhood delivers a story confoundingly real.” —The Boston Sunday Globe
“Overflows with sparkling wit and humor . . . Truth beats powerfully at the heart of this dazzling memoir.” —San Francisco Chronicle
"Mary Karr's God-awful childhood has a calamitous appeal. The choice in the book is between howling misery and howling laughter, and the reader veers toward laughter. Karr has survived to write a drop-dead reply to the question, 'Ma, what was it like when you were a little girl?' " —Time
"This is the real deal; funny, painful, and hotter than Texas in September. This is what the memoir is supposed to be." —Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly
"Elegaic and searching . . . her toughness of spirit, her poetry, her language, her very voice are the agents of rebirth in this difficult, hard-earned journey." —The New York Times Book Review
Reading Group Guide
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 pyrotechnicshouses 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 voiceeven an omniscient, third-person narrator’s in fictionserves 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 mythsMaxine 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 lifefamily fights, sayand 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 readmental institutions for Susanna Kaysen and rape for Maya Angelouhope 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 noteas Tobias Wolff did in the aforementioned lecturethat 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” truthchurches and scientific studies and presidents among themtopple 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 memoirreliant on a single, intensely personal voice for its unifying gluewrestles 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 believedespite the dire edicts from Newt Gingrich and the media about the moral, drug-besotted quagmire into which we’ve all sunkthat 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 storiesfictional and non-fictional onesin voices that neither deny family struggles nor make demons of our beloveds.
1. A major theme running through The Liars’ Club is the difference between Mary Karr’s parents. “With Mother,” Karr writes, “I always felt on the edge of something new, something never before seen or read about or bought, something that would change us. . . . With Daddy and his friends, I always knew what would happen and that left me feeling a sort of dreamy safety.” Karr’s mother is artistic and glamorous, while her father is down-to-earth. How do these contrasts lay the foundation for the Karr’s family life? Did you empathize with one parent more than the other? Did your feelings change as the book went on and more was revealed about them?
2. Despite the horror that permeated Karr’s childhood, characteristics like humor, honesty, and courage pervade The Liars’ Club. Karr does not pass judgment on her family or tell us how she thought they should have behaved. Would you have liked to have known more about Karr’s feelings about the events that she recounts? In what instances? Or were you able to discern how she felt through her actions? What emotions did you experience while reading The Liars’ Club?
3. Karr is a character in her own book, as well as its author. On the page, she’s a tough, scrappy kid who also has a tremendous sensitivity and devotion to the people around her. As readers, we understand the interior joys and terrors that make her such a rich and vivid character. How do you think she seemed to the people around her? If her mother was to make a list of her strongest characteristics, what would they be? If her father made such a list, would it differ in any way?
4. Karr tells her story for the most part from the point of view of a child, and what a child sees and understands. How might the storyand Karr’s perceptionschange if she had told it from the point of view of an adult, with the benefit of everything she has come to understand about her upbringing and her family? What would be gained, and what would be lost?
5. The author’s mother, Charlie Marie, never fully realized her dreams of becoming an artist. The author, who as child began to write poetry, was able to realize her creative ambitions. What gave Karr the strength to pursue that ambition? Was it “sheer cussedness,” one of the traits that characterized her as a child? Do you think the sadness of her mother’s unfulfilled dreams somehow propelled her? Do you think it had anything to do with her relationship with her father?
6. After Karr’s grandmother dies she sings, “Ding dong the witch is dead.” Were you surprised that she was happy her grandmother passed away? What in the grandmother’s character was so oppressive? Do you think her grandmother contributed to her mother’s despair and alcoholism? How important a part did she play in Karr’s life?
7. How would you characterize Karr’s relationship with her sister, Lecia? Does it change as the book progresses?
8. In an interview Karr said that she had previously tried to write a novel based on her childhood experiences: “When I tried to write about my life in a novel, I discovered that I behaved better in fiction than I did in real life. The truth is that I found it easier to lie in a novel, and what I wanted most of all was to tell the truth.” What do you think of this statement? Karr’s father was famous for the tales he told during meetings of the Liars’ Club. At any point did you feel that the author was perhaps altering or stretching the truth?
9. In the introduction to this guide, Karr states that while on tour to promote The Liars’ Club people from all walks of life told her they identified with her story. Do you identify with the Karr family? Did this influence you while you were reading the book? Is it “the essential American story,” as one reviewer stated?