Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club is a remarkable book. Some parts made me squirm, others delighted me to no end. One main reason I decided to post about it here, though, is that it’s a memoir. It’s all true.
Poet Mary Karr published The Liars’ Club in 1995. While she was writing the book, she kept calling her mother on the phone, asking her what I imagine to be all sorts of questions – yet her mother didn’t get to see the manuscript until it was in print.
I’ve talked before about the tricky business of personal life portrayed in one’s own writing – and while I was reading Karr’s memoir, I kept wondering how writing the book – and making it public – affected her relationship with her mother. In the end, the book is very much about just that relationship, or the lack thereof.
Most of the book takes place when Karr is about seven years old, growing up in Texas oil country, with a flamboyant mother who misses the thrills of New York City, and a blue collar father who takes pride in never crossing a picket line. Karr does a convincing job showing us the world her seven year old self inhabits, a world where mom covers their home’s windows with colored paper so nobody can see her or her daughters walk around the house in the nude, but also a world where that same mother punishes her at the behest of her strict grandmother.
The titular Liars’ Club refers to the father and his friends, who meet to play, drink, and talk. Mary is allowed to listen in on their stories. She is a tomboy and relishes the time spent with the Liars’ Club. In a way, the tall stories the men share with each other create both a sense of closeness and an unbridgeable distance between them, much like the conflicted relationship between the two girls and their mother. We enter young Mary’s life just as things start to change: while she is a child, others begin to see sexual potential in her, and while she hasn’t actually changed, a neighborhood boy, a babysitter, and the Liars, begin to treat her differently. There’s a sense of frustration and helplessness.
I won’t go into a summary here – you can find that elsewhere easily enough. However, I’ll say that by the end of the book I felt like I really got what Karr was doing: she was telling her side of the story, the seven year-old’s side of the story, the college student’s side of the story, with no claim for it to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Through the girl’s eyes we see the grandmother’s battle with cancer, the racism of the father’s friends, the mother’s mental breakdown, as well as her own sense of shame and anger and confusion. Karr makes clear that there is also the mother’s truth, and other truths she cannot write because they are not hers to tell, but, say, Tex and Belinda’s.
Maybe that’s the only way we can write a good memoir – with honesty, humility, and the awareness that every story is a facet of something larger. Every story is by necessity incomplete. Omissions are not accidents.
You can learn more about Mary Karr, her poetry, and her memoirs (by now she has written three) at her website: https://www.marykarr.com