How to review a book of this nature? It is basically like casting judgment on someone’s life and what they have gone through. I’m in a memoir phase lately, which in and of itself is a bit of a surprise. I’ve always maintained that if you write an entire book about yourself you should definitely have done something mildly noteworthy. Is having a crappy childhood, and equally crappy adolescence noteworthy?
Can it teach anything? Is teaching and being ‘relatable’ its own end? When I finish reading a memoir I eventually have to decide what feeling am I left with? Am I uplifted? Am I depressed? Am I given hope? I tend to like the memoirs that end on a hopeful note… Karr’s didn’t quite get there.
Karr’s parents (particularly her mother) were dysfunctional alcoholics. And when I say dysfunctional, I mean that they don’t care for each other, and they don’t care for their children terribly well. Now, as I say this, realize that Karr is writing this book and though she lets her mother and sister read it before publication, we are seeing events through her eyes. Karr begins with her earliest memory of her home being set on fire, and a family doctor trying to determine whether or not Karr is okay. Later we learn that Karr’s mother may or may not have tried to kill her. Karr and her older sister Lecia learn to take care of themselves and each other as well as they can despite radical shifts in their parents temperaments and priorities. Karr’s parents met in Texas in 1950, she was on her fourth marriage, and he was a Texas roughneck. They would marry and divorce, only two remarry. Karr’s mother would have an impressive (or depressive) seven husbands when all was said and done. So I’ve diagnosed Karr’s mother with some creative mental illnesses. To Karr’s credit (I guess, though it isn’t the right word), she is pretty matter of fact about her mom’s shortcomings. I don’t know if she is overly forgiving of her mother and a little hypercritical of her father whose largest problem I can tell was ever hooking up with Karr’s mom. Either way, she doesn’t seem as bitter as other people in similar situations. When the family receives a windfall of money they hit the road and end up in Colorado. There Karr’s mom quickly picks up another husband, and Karr’s father returns to Texas. The money does not solve any of the Karr’s problems and only seems to enhance the alcoholism, depression, poor decisions, and influx of men. Eventually, the family returns to Texas, but not before Karr is sexually abused.
I’ve not read Karr’s other books, Cherry or Lit which go into greater detail about Karr’s sexual abuse (sadly, multiple times, multiple offenders, but that is not a unique story when parents are disengaged or too trusting), but Karr deals frankly with these incidents in this memoir. They are stomach churning and heart breaking, but not dwelt on in a manner to shock or fixate or cast blame. She handles these portions of the book more delicately than she handles her mother’s breakdowns/suicide attempts/attempted murders and I appreciated that she didn’t try to thrust these events into the readers faces as if to say, “See! See how bad my life was! And look at me now!” She does allude to other tragedies and other secrets that a reader will no doubt learn in her other books, but I’ve had enough, thanks. The relationship that I found most interesting in the book is Karr’s relationship with her sister, Lisa. They are different in temperament, looks, and political leanings. Even while they fight one another there is an underlying pride and attachment that is clearly illustrated as Karr brags about her sister’s unflinching courage. That is the essence of family, I suppose, and maybe a bit of what Karr was trying to say. Even when your sister becomes everything you despise (a rich Republican) you still love her because you went through the same fight, and the same trauma. We also learn the supposed cause of Karr’s mother’s insanity (though, I have my doubts…).
While Karr manages to capture what it is like to be the product of a truly messed up childhood, one wonders how accurate the narrative is. Clearly, “I had some nice days and some good times and felt genuine love” doesn’t sell as well as “my mom may have tried to kill me and I was sexually abused”. I am probably being unfair, but I imagine Karr’s life is not unique in its tragedy especially in the 1960s in Texas oil country. I’d imagine there are dozens of childhoods as bad or worse. Karr mentions that she still gets letters from people who have been touched by her story, or relate to it. I suppose that is something, and while this certainly isn’t the best memoir I’ve read, I can imagine that it might make some people feel better about their own situations which is indeed something.