At a recent casual discussion of The Liar's Club: A Memoir of Mary Karr (Viking Penquin, New York, 1996) about the young life of the author growing up in (what else) a dysfunctional family in East Texas, I was surprised by the reaction of about one-third of the all women group: they did not believe some of the experiences. They made their case based partially on their own strong feelings, and partially on Karr's sister, who disputes Mary's memories of some of the dire events' One reader believed that Karr's remembrances are "flawed ... I have memories from childhood that my siblings say never happened, or happened differently, why not this? Mary Karr could even believe these things happened this way, but I doubt it."
I do not agree. I believe Mary Karr. Even if distance from the event has distorted or changed the facts, her experiences resound with truth in a strange land of mismatched parents, alcohol abuse (what else?) and, yes, love. Karr's mother has married "beneath" her. Karr's father, Peter, is an oil refinery worker she meets on her way through town after a disastrous marriage. (This husband, who shows up early in the memoir, is quickly dispatched by Peter Karr.) The story of her parents' stormy yet passionate relationship is seen through the eyes of the pre-adolescent Mary, and she has left little out.
Through Karr's strong writer's voice, we are taken on this difficult journey. There is a disturbing clarity of memory which is at times difficult to absorb, but just as the reader experiences deep anguish at the events in the child's life-i.e., the break-up of the marriage and separation from the beloved father, the wandering through the West with an unstable mother -- Karr brings us back with her humor, persistence, and lack of sentimentality. We want to continue the journey.
While her sister could (and did) question the accuracy of some of the events, I question whether any siblings see, hear and remember family events in the same way. In fact, Mary Karr refers to her mother's researching and clarifying of many of the incidents for her. In addition, Karr is a poet, and with her poetic imagination, it is possible that she may have written a description of childhood events that are superimposed by her adult images and experiences, but she has melded them together seamlessly. What the reader experiences throughout the book is an unfolding of events seen through the eyes of a child, and there is a deep ring of authenticity to them, e.g., who could doubt the truth of the father's liar's club of admiring drinking buddies?
I believe the writer. Many episodes in the book have a truth that would be difficult to simulate: they are sad and funny at the same time. Take the journey yourself, and see if you believe.
Sally Ann Kress is a member of the English Department at Hudson Community College in Jersey City, New Jersey.
© 1997 The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Kress, Sally Ann. (1997). "Review of The Liars Club by Mary Karr." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 9.