Mary Karr: The helplessness of childhood


"The Liars' Club," by Mary Karr. 320 pages. New York: Viking. $22.95

Describing her experiences at about the age of the heroine's bratty little sister in the TV series "My So-Called Life," Mary Karr, in her memoir "The Liars' Club," recounts a childhood too harrowing for prime time. Raped twice before she is 9, she is also menaced by her mother, who makes Mary and her slightly older sister Lecia the targets of her desperate self-destructiveness and at one point hallucinates having murdered them. The consolation of Mary's childhood is keeping her adored daddy company when he entertains his pals, the "liars' club," with tall tales that reshaped his own past.

Ms. Karr's memoir describes her life at age 7 and 8 and then jumps ahead to her mid-20s, when she comes home to nurse her father through a stroke. As such, it is the story of a woman who realizes, when grown up, that what she experienced as a child qualifies as abuse. Strongly told, it is also strangely unfeeling.

Structurally, the book moves from one polished, creatively written account of something unspeakable and grisly to another. At the same time, it rigorously eschews the direct expression of any feeling. In a colorful flow of rural East Texas patois mixed with unceasing profanity, "The Liars' Club" forces the reader through a succession of gruesome descriptions.

A dying grandmother's amputated leg is unflinchingly described: There were still streaks of black running from the stump end up her thigh in what looked like narrowing rivers. . . . You could see how they'd tried to save enough flesh from the thigh to fold it over the cut bone . . . but you could tell from the stitching that the edges were randomly folded over in the ragged way you might try to close up a pork roast you were stuffing." Ms. Karr's account of forced sex with a baby-sitter is equally clinically thorough. It is all done extremely well, but rather than admiring the skillful dissociation of action from feeling, as coolly contemporary as a Tarantino film, many readers will find it makes the truly disturbing merely fashionable.

Luckily, the end of the book introduces a softer note. Mary and her sister grow up defined by their coping mechanisms. Lecia marries a fellow "Rolex-wearing young Republican," buys her parents "flashy presents," and believes that "people who whined about their childhoods were . . . ne'er-do-well liberals seeking to defraud the insurance industry out of dollars for worthless therapies." Mary claims the outsider's ultimate escape and breaks up her visit home with phone calls to her therapist. And in the story's climax, she also forces her mother to own up to the truth she abandoned two children from an impulsive teen-age marriage. So Mary finally connects to the mother who was XTC always such a problem, such a thorn, a danger.

The limited nature of the reconciliation rings true. And the book is humanized by Karr's understanding of how helpless children are, and how easy it is to misuse that helplessness. At least in part, "The Liars' Club" looks beyond its well-wrought surface and allows some meaning to the pain and suffering that fill its pages.

* Anita Finkel is associate editor of Collier's Encyclopedia as well as editor and publisher of the New Dance Review. She has worked for Ballet News, Charles Scribner's Sons and Barron's.

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