Once Was Lost

At this point, recovery memoirs are a dime a dozen, but this work from poet, memoirist, and recovering alcoholic Mary Karr is different. For one thing, she is a poet, so her description of sitting on the back stoop with a baby monitor and a tumbler of Jack Daniels can give you a good case of vertigo. But the big difference is that in her quest for a higher power who could keep her sober, Karr didn’t settle for the generic “spiritual-not-religious” pastiche that has become a recovery movement cliché. Instead, she took an unexpected turn into more-or-less orthodox Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church. Lit begins with a 17-year-old Mary, strung out on LSD, trying to sleep in an abandoned car in a Southern California parking lot. It ends with her grown-up, middle-age self going to confession and working the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Karr’s first book of nonfiction prose, The Liars’ Club (1995), spun an epic tale from three years of her horrendous southeast Texas childhood. It was the Moby Dick of memoir, featuring, in the role of the whale, Karr’s mother, Charlie Marie, an alcoholic, pill-popping, oft-married, frustrated artist who, when she wasn’t lying in bed nursing a hangover, might be found pulling a pistol on one of her husbands or trying to drive the family car off a bridge.
That mother’s presence hovers over Lit as well. Early on she drives Mary to college on the plains of Minnesota. Both mother and daughter get blacked-out drunk each night of the three-day road trip. It’s a generational passing of the baton. As a young woman, Mary sinks into troughs of drunkenness, and occasionally rallies out of them, for poetry, or for love. But the long arc of her life leads steadily downward to the night when she tries driving home to her husband and son, blind drunk, in a cold Boston rainstorm, with a flat tire, and miraculously avoids a date with a concrete barrier wall.
That was the last drunk, and the turning point in Karr’s story. Until then her saga was one of simultaneously running from and toward her mother. Now mother gets replaced by God. It’s not an easy pilgrimage. Karr was raised to be agnostic and bridles violently at the notion of prayer, which she sees as sitting in an empty room talking to the air. But her sober friends say that prayer is what keeps them that way. It’s not a big deal, fellow poet Thomas Lux tells her: “Try getting on your effing knees tonight. Just find 10 things you’re grateful for.”
The act of surrender required for Karr to attempt prayer opens the door for the belief that follows. Knowing perhaps that he had an especially tough nut to crack, God seems to send Karr some pretty obvious signs. She prays for money, and the next day notice of a grant award appears.
For some time, Karr lives happily and soberly with her self-styled faith. Then, one Sunday morning, her son asks to be taken to church, “To see if God is there.” That begins a round of religious sampling that ends with the “carnal” smells and images of Catholic liturgy and the simple surrender she finds among the Catholic faithful. With her Syracuse University colleague, fiction writer Tobias Wolff, as a godfather, Karr and her son are baptized at an Easter vigil.
The fact that this thoroughly postmodern Mary can find a viable worldview and a healing community in the most institutional of the churches should provide encouragement to readers who struggle to breathe life into their own ecclesial bones. And her account of seeking and finding that pearl should make the discovery fresh and, perhaps, even send the reader to his or her knees in gratitude.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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