Grace and Gratitude

I know someone recommended Mary Karr’s Lit to me, but damned if I can remember who now.  The two people I thought had done so looked at me like I’d stumbled in drunk when I asked.  Whoever it was, please fess up, I so need to talk to you.

I read Liar’s Club, her first memoir, several years ago on the recommendation of several friends (yanno, maybe I do know who the culprit behind Lit is…will shoot an email her way and find out–saves me being on the receiving end of that look again).   If you’ve not read Liar’s Club and you are feeling emotionally stable right now, I totally recommend the read.  Karr–and this is true of Lit as well–picks up and throttles readers with the depth of her descriptions (and, oh my, that tone).  But, if you are feeling more than a tad blue, you may wish to wait a spell; the book is dark.

I think Lit strikes readers as dark as well–at least that is what I recall from the yet-to-be-confirmed-identity recommendation.  The memoir walks through the deaths of both of her parents, the commencement and demise of her marriage, her parenting strife, and her alcoholism.  Perhaps because this memoir is an addiction narrative (and she follows the trope almost to the letter, from sin (and sin and sin) to redemption), it does end on a far higher note than Liar’s Club, which is probably most of why Lit doesn’t strike me as harshly as her first memoir, which left me depressed.

But, if I am to be perfectly honest, and, hell, that’s why I’m here, isn’t it, Lit struck me as completely different because I rather over-identified with Karr, up until the redemption (I get the redemption, but I’ve not gotten to a “there” yet–I’m still half-jokingly calling my higher power HP and picturing Harry Potter, so, no, redemption this is not).  I have dog-eared this poor book nearly beyond reason (almost enough to render the page folding pointless), because so much of what she wrote resonated.  Her AA sponsor observes, for instance: “No offense…The fact that you’ve continued to drink, given your history of depression and family trauma–borders on the moronic” (208).  I am perfectly certain that there are scores of us about whom this is true, but I laughed aloud when I read this remark–I can imagine it being directed at me (and, frankly, as much has been suggested, by more than just me).  Other connections?

  • Guilt over distance from parent(s) (physical and emotional)?
  • Alcoholic mother?  Perchance other mental illness in mom?
  • Occasionally desperate need to fix/rescue mom?
  • Long history of depression?
  • Alcoholic with a tendency toward binge drinking?
  • Unfounded suspicion of people offering to help?
  • Conviction that no one understands me?  Said conviction dismantled by experiences in AA?
  • Witty, ironic written voice, where the humor often attempts to hide the pain of the words while simultaneously amplifying it?

Check, check, check on all but the last (we all have to have dreams to work toward, right?).  Lit‘s strengths lie, in particular, in Karr’s deft handling of becoming-alcoholic, the stages of which, she acknowledges, are easily made invisible through denial.  She recounts one of the revelatory moments (as with most of us, it’s a series of moments that move her to recognize her need to surrender) in her process, the morning after she first attended an AA meeting.  During the meeting, she stood and denied that she had a problem with alcohol.  She never, she notes as a for instance, takes a drink in the morning; the following morning, as she takes a drink from the tumbler of whiskey from the night before, she realizes that she has just caught herself in “the first lie”:  “In fact, I never poured the drink [in the morning].  I just drank it” (197).

I recall my shrink asking me about an eyeopener early on (I think that was the term he used) as well–I looked at him like he had stumbled in drunk, because I didn’t–ever.  While I didn’t use that as an excuse to keep drinking at the time, it certainly came up later, as I convinced myself that “I wasn’t that bad a drunk.”  (And I wasn’t.  I excel at being a drunk.).  In good lapsed-Episcopalian fashion (we of the Catholic-lite brigade), I took hangover and the attendant after-effects as necessary rites of penance for my various sinful habits.  Like my father before me, who, in his mother’s words, “forgot that confession and penance were supposed to be followed by ‘go and sin no more’,” I performed the penance as it came and went right back on my merry way to drinking.  (For clarity and amusement: my father converted to Catholicism when he was in college; my mother was raised Methodist.  Put them together and you raise a kid in the Episcopal church.  A kid, it turns out, for whom the Episcopal church isn’t liberal enough).

I’m particularly taken by Karr’s handling of the life of herself as the alcoholic mother.  She remarks “Only an alcoholic can so discombobulate her insides that she might weigh in her hands two choices–(a) to get drunk and drive into stuff with more molecular density than she has, and (b) be a present and loving mother to her son–and, on picking the latter, plunge into despair” (256).  So often I feel like a worse mother when sober; I’m not, I realize, but I feel like I am because I am so present and attuned to all the myriad ways I screw up, rather than being absolved by the denial at the bottom of the whiskey bottle.

On the flip side is Karr’s handling of being the child of an alcoholic (her mother gets sober in this book as well–to an occasionally comic effect).  As with alcoholic-as-mother, she handles her story of being the child of a decidedly unpredictable alcoholic with all the fervor one might expect out of a story that repeatedly involves her mother pointing a pistol at one suitor or another.  Or getting high before Karr’s rehearsal dinner.   Grace, at least in terms of her storytelling, doesn’t exist–she’s exacting, funny, and clearly irritable, but grace–or a willingness on Karr’s part to recognize events as such and to act in such a manner–develops in the course of the text, as she sobers up and matures.  Grace, in fact, becomes the central argument of her redemption, at least as the story unfolded itself in my head.  I picked up on a suggestion made to her, and began to count my gratitudes to ‘ole HP every night at bedtime (beginning with “Thank you for sobriety today”); I was stunned by how much this particular discipline helps my focus and, at least as importantly, my attitude.

I’d probably recommend this book to anyone, but most certainly to women who are in recovery, because the events are so familiar and so very well told.  And I would dearly like to thank the person who recommended the book–whoever you are, thank you, thank you, thank you.


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