Mary Karr Names Names
A quarter-century of sobriety has filled the Liars' Club author with candor. She proves it by treating The Fix to her unfiltered views on David Foster Wallace, Dr. Drew, James Frey and much more.
In today’s saturated memoir market, Mary Karr’s still sizzle. The Liars' Club, detailing her tough Texan upbringing—complete with her mother’s gun-waving schizophrenic breakdown and her father’s alcoholic buddies, who gave the book its title—burst onto the scene in 1995. Some say the book spawned a whole bloody genre of ‘90s memoirs featuring addiction as a leading theme, with the likes of Hornbacher, Flynn and Frey following in her wake.
Karr, 58, has been sober for 24 years. She has published four volumes of poetry—most recently Sinners Welcome—as well as two other memoirs: 2000’s Cherry, which dealt with her adolescence, and 2009’s bestseller Lit, which chronicles her recovery from alcoholism. Readers see Karr slowly moving from desolation, trepidation and booze-fueled mania to a mysterious new openness and peace—due partly to an unlikely-seeming conversion to Catholicism. Still, she’s maintained her acerbic wit, outlaw sensibility and lightning-tongued, sailor-mouthed interrogation of anyone in spitting distance.
"Small wonder that everybody who’s on 'Celebrity Drug House' or whatever it is would like to blow their fucking brains out."
Karr teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University, where I once took a memoir class with her. On the first day she got in a huge spat with the program director, who came in and told her she was in the wrong classroom. They traded some choice barbs and he walked out. Then she broke character and told us to write down everything that happened—it had all been an act. The class argued long and hard about whether he was wearing pants or long shorts, and the exact wording of the final insult. Our recollections of such a recent event, as well as our personal reactions, varied wildly. The exercise demonstrated how inaccurate memoir is. Karr gave The Fix a chance to see if interview can do any better.
The Paris Review called you “surprisingly diffident when it comes to talking about [your]self.” Have meetings and therapy helped you become more comfortable with that?
Everything I wanted people to know I’ve already presented, and in some ways I’m more candid in talking about myself than I was before. When you surrender, you get used to a certain level of candor—you know, the old thing, you’re only as sick as your secrets. You develop a confidence in truth-telling. Part of my drinking was so much about trying not to feel things, to not feel how I actually felt, and the terrible thing about being so hidden is if people tell you they love you…it kinda doesn’t sink in. You always think, if you’re hiding things, How could you know who I am? You don’t know who I am, so how could you love me? Saying who I am, and trying to be as candid as possible as part of practicing the principles, has permitted me to actually connect with people for the first time in my life. It’s ended lifelong exile.
They always say God is in the truth, and I’ve ended loneliness and been able to feel connected by saying who I am and how I feel. I’m sort of comfortable to the degree to which I’m an asshole. It’s not like I’m not an asshole—people know the ways I’m an asshole and it’s within the realm of acceptable asshole-ocity. Part of my drinking and depression was having a voice in my head that was constantly criticizing everybody. I was sort of brought up that way, hypercritical, and I feel like my spiritual practice is a constant correction out of judging everybody else. But I think I’m more critical of myself than anybody, strangely enough, as marvelous as I am.
It’s generally agreed that the enormous success of The Liars' Club spurred a lot more confessional memoirs. But since then, there’s also been a trend in other media to broadcast people’s deepest secrets in a way that’s often seen as exploitive. What do you think about shows like Intervention and so on?
I think the problem with visual media like TV is that they’re reductive. They don’t show the psychological complexity, the real struggle and practice of what it is to have to give up the substance. I think Dr. Drew should be shot. I really do. That guy...small wonder that everybody who’s on 'Celebrity Drug House' or whatever it is would like to blow their fucking brains out. He seems like the most malevolent—I’m sure he means well, I’m sure he has benevolent impulses—but he seems so insincere and exploitative. And also, being told, “Oh yes, you are special because you’re a celebrity and trying to get sober”… I think those shows, especially with celebrities, are awful, and that’s why anonymity is important: Nobody should be a spokesperson. I’m not an example of anything, and the best way to learn about how to quit drinking is to spend a lot of time talking one-on-one with people who have done it.
James Frey is another famous memoirist and addict—a highly controversial one. Do you want to share your opinion of him, or should I nix that question?
No, no, go ahead. He was the guy who wanted nothing to do with AA—and look how well you turned out, you lying sack of shit! I felt sorry for that guy for a while and then when he started that thing—let’s rip off young people and exploit them—that thing he’s doing is just...really reprehensible, I don’t quite understand it.
If we can talk about your relationship with David Foster Wallace in the early ‘90s—did you get sober together?
He was in rehab and we’d met through friends; he was in rehab down the street and I lived in Belmont, Mass., which is where McLean [Hospital] is. When he got kicked out of Harvard they slam-dunked him in McLean, where I’d eventually do a happy little stint. One of the Whiting fellows said, "Can you contact him?" So I brought him a batch of brownies. I thought it was super sweet that they did that. I was about a month clean; his sobriety date was about a month after mine. So we ran into each other a lot. He was in a halfway house where I did volunteer work. I would drive people to job interviews and stuff like that; there were a lot of disabled people, people who only had one hand or whatever. Everybody there had to have a job and I drove a lot of people around. So I saw him there quite a bit, and we had a lot of mutual friends, many of whom ended up in Infinite Jest in a way I thought was…I really thought was unkind.
I remember you saying how a lot of Infinite Jest was lifted straight from meetings, despite the anonymity tradition. But some would say storytelling is always plagiarism, and maybe his book did people good; where’s the line?
Yeah, I thought it was pretty awful. Another person who does that is Augusten Burroughs. Everybody I ever wrote about, including David, I talked with in advance and said, “This is what I wanna do.” I talked to David before… I wasn’t going to use his name, then after he died, I’d talked to him before he did it and included him enough that I was gonna give him a pseudonym—which he said he didn’t care about, but nonetheless…then he was dead before the book came out. Tragically, stupidly...moron. Moron.
How much do you think his addiction or sobriety had to do with his death [by suicide in 2008]?
David had tried to kill himself three times before that, so you can’t slap that on it. I think being sober kept him alive way longer than he would have made it otherwise. But he wasn’t exactly sober by my measure: He was taking lots of anti-anxiety meds and stuff I consider chemically no different, so I don’t know exactly. I wasn’t in touch with him the last six months of his life. Such a tragic thing. And you know, I don’t know his wife but it seems like such a nasty fucking thing to do. Here’s this woman who’s been trying to take care of you and…I guess I could’ve imagined myself in that situation too easily, and I wouldn’t have been as nice about it as she was. I was lucky I wasn’t, I guess, but damn.
I think we kept each other alive to some extent, for a period of time when we were trying to quit using and it was all but impossible for each of us to do that. And I think our friendship and sobriety was important to both of us. I told him a lot of things about how he was writing. Everybody was very in awe of him because he was so much smarter than everybody. I’d been living in Cambridge where everybody was smarter than everybody, and I’d sort of decided that smart wasn’t that big of a deal. Not that it’s not a great advantage, but in his case I think it was a great disadvantage.