Write Your Emotional Truth

The Liars' ClubThe Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr begins with a traumatic childhood memory of fire, the town sheriff in their home and a doctor asking seven-year-old Mary to show him her marks. Mary Karr remembers this moment vividly, but she doesn’t remember everything that happened that night: later she needed others to “paste together” what happened the night her mother went crazy and threatened to kill her and her older sister. Why did her mother do such a thing? All is revealed in the final pages, but the build-up and suspense Karr creates for her reader is worth the wait.

I’ve taught memoir for six years and one of the biggest barriers for my students is feeling that they can’t really remember what happened to them, and if they can’t really remember, then it doesn’t belong in a memoir. They might as well give up! Karr’s should be an inspiration for anyone who feels that they can’t remember—she very plainly tells her reader when she doesn’t know something (“The principal’s name was Mr. Janisch, and other than the fact that the kids called him Janbo, I remember not one distinct feature of his.”) But on the other hand, when she wants to call up the details, she begins her sentences with “I remember when,” which is a beginning memoir workshop prompt.

The interesting thing about The Liars’ Club is that the “I remember” phrases weren’t edited out, giving the book a much more languid and ethereal feel. She is a memoirist who uses emotional truth, rather than factual truth. After all, she is a gifted poet who blends fiction and fact when necessary so her creative freedom isn’t tamped down. For instance, she fictionalizes her hometown, Groves, Texas, in southeast Texas in the Port Arthur region known for its oil refineries and chemical plants. “Leechfield” is as much a character as her sister is (“The sheer stink of my hometown woke me before dawn. The right wind could bring you a whiff of the Gulf, but that was rare. Plus the place was in a swamp, so whatever industrial poisons got pumped into the sky just seemed to sink down and thicken in the heat.”)

Karr intended to write her true, messy life and she succeeds through her humorous voice, colorful language and extraordinary sensory details. She effectively captures her emotional truth of memory, even when others remember differently. Sometimes her memories and her sister’s memories of the same subject don’t match, and she discusses that. Mary hated her grandmother, while her sister Lecia was very sad when the old lady died. Karr states, “I content that her [Lecia’s] memories are shaped more by convenience than reality: she also recalls tatting as fun, and Ronald Reagan, for whom she voted twice, as a good guy.”

She reveals her father’s, mother’s, sister’s and her own flaws in careful measure. She wasn’t a great kid—she was lazy, she pooped in corners, and shot up the neighbor with a BB gun after cursing him out at eight years old. By showing the good, bad and ugly of her and her family, we believe her and her truth, even when the circumstances of her life make us think, “There’s no way that happened!”

Karr was a published poet of two collections before she penned The Liars’ Club after her divorce to perform a reckoning on not only her life, but her parents. She ends the book with an image of white light and truth. Only a poet could rely so heavily on metaphors, similes and sensory images of every variety. In lesser hands, her metaphors would overwhelm her prose and dilute her story, but with her, they make the prose sing.

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Your Turn:

 

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2 Comments

  1. Dave Baldwin July 24, 2012

    I don’t think most people realize just how inaccurate all human memory is–even the memories that seem to be crystal clear. History isn’t an accurate recounting of what actually happened; it’s the story agreed upon by the victors. If I had to write only based on what I could remember perfectly, I would never write anything again!

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