What do you do with a memoir that details in four pages a graphic display of child molestation?
What if its the author as a young child that’s the subject…
Does that change the make up of the story from autobiography to something more sinister–like pornography?
Does it matter that this is an event in the past? Does it make it any less real or problematic?
Those were some of the questions I asked myself as I finished reading Mary Karr’s 1995 memoir The Liar’s Club.
The book was Karr’s first memoir [she’s since written two more–Cherry and Lit–I’ve read neither of them] and the idea to write it came from her friend Tobias Wolfe.
In her own words, Carr said it was an agonizing task that involved a mountain of emotional labor–not just to revisit dark places but to merely get the words on the page. Here she is in a Salon interview:
I would lie down on the floor and go to sleep after about an hour and a half’s work. Literally go to sleep like I had been driving all night. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I went to a shrink and said, ‘Am I repressing something, bah bah bah bah.’ And she said, ‘Well, I think you are just really exhausted by it.’
Fortunately, her herculean effort paid off.
The Essence of The Liar’s Club
She wrote a compelling, hilarious and haunting autobiography about growing up as a child in Leechfield, Texas–oil refinery country–raised by a hard-working, hard-drinking, but sturdy and surprisingly gentle father who managed to marry a displaced New Yorker living on the outskirts of madness.
The book ended up being a runaway bestseller–a justified judgment given the quality of the writing and a decent payoff for the task of exposing herself.
But the question is–did she go too far?
In Carr’s defense, as a child she played the hand she was dealt–and as a child that’s sometimes all you can do.
What you get is a gritty, foul-mouthed eight-year-old girl who fought hard for survival and security, revenge and love–things hard to come by when you have a mother who’s head is in a perennial cloud of vodka, methamphetamine diet pills, suspect men, brooding jazz and fatalistic literature.
So it comes as no surprise when I tell you that Karr’s mother lacked a woeful amount of judgment, most clearly seen in her decision to allow questionable men to babysit her daughters.
The scene was terrible. And you saw it like a dark storm slowly sweeping in from the sea. At one point I wondered if Carr was going to actually go there. Or would she pull out early enough to avoid the explicit?
I had hope she’d pull out. Earlier in the book Carr handled a case of rape very sympathetically without giving an uncomfortable amount of detail.
That’s why it surprised me that she dove into this particular scene with no holds barred.
Where I’d Like to Have Not Gone
At least that’s my guess because the moment I saw where she was going and had no intention of stopping, I bailed and counted the pages before the scene was over.
Granted, as I quickly skimmed the pages looking for the end (it came, by the way, when the chapter ended) the scene covered mostly emotional territory, like her mental activity during the event.
And I’m glad to say she never revisited the topic again.
But here’s the deal: This scene would NEVER make it to the movie screen. In fact, if you owned a video of this event, you’d be arrested.
Why, then, is it okay in a book? I argue it’s not. It permits us to go to dark places we should never visit.
Naturally, this uncorks a litany of problems, namely censorship. But should the world thank Mary Carr for “going there” on this particular topic and being candid about it?
All this does is allow us to inch our moral boundaries back, calibrated by our sense of appropriate indiscretion–and that’s, unfortunately, what you get when you don’t have absolute boundaries.
Gore Vidal–who defended cannabis laws–once said that some people should be told not to do drugs.
I agree. And the same goes for morality. Mary Karr’s book would’ve been a runaway bestseller without this scene.
A Curious–If Not Disturbing–Side Note about the The Liar’s Club
This book is viewed as the book that jump-started the memoir explosion. Naturally, in it’s wake we have self-expression without guardrails.
One has to wonder where this will take us if we don’t provide those boundaries.