Her family drank. As a girl she sat with her father in bars and sipped from his beer cans. On her first trip home as a college freshman, at Christmas, her father picked her up at the bus station and offered her a swig of the whiskey he’d hidden under his truck’s seat. “The bottle gleamed in the air between us,” Mary Karr writes in her latest memoir, Lit. “I took the whiskey, planning a courtesy sip. But the aroma stopped me just as my tongue touched the glass mouth. The warm silk flowered in my mouth and down my gullet, after which a little blue flame of pleasure roared back up my spine. A poof of sequins went sparkling through my middle.”
Until then, in high school and college, drugs had been her preferred escape. But that day in the truck, her birthright of drink claimed her. She dropped out of Macalester College—which had admitted the poor girl from a redneck Texas town in the first place, she says, out of pity and oversight—at the end of her sophomore year. Why? She didn’t know, at the time. But it’s hard to keep on track when you feel empty and lost.
Karr’s family was epically dysfunctional. Her mother was often drunk and was disordered in some major narcissistic way that could flare into psychosis. What parental love Karr felt seemed to come from her father, who as a dedicated alcoholic wasn’t reliable and who likewise neglected her. In this atmosphere, in which she never got “that sense of acceptance and security” kids need, she and her older sister had to raise themselves as best they could.
In Lit Karr looks back at herself from the vantage point of twenty years of sobriety; we know she’s in a safe place and so can enjoy her harrowing pilgrimage. I don’t envy Karr her material, however plucky her voice and chipper her attitude as she stares into the abyss—but my gosh what a delicious book this is.