Mary Karr


MARY KARR (speaking to students): Every poem probably has sixty drafts behind it.

JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: Mary Karr talks about her love of poetry with students at a writers’ conference in Michigan.

KARR (speaking to student): Hello, honey-bun.

VALENTE: Karr was known mainly as a poet until her coming-of-age memoir, “The Liars’ Club,” became a bestseller in the 1990s. It was the vivid story of a sometimes hilarious but often brutal Texas childhood.

post01-marykarr(speaking to Mary Karr): Here’s a snapshot of your past, the past that you write about: troubled family life, unstable childhood, alcoholism, divorce, depression, near suicide. Who is Mary Karr today?

KARR: Well, it’s really been uphill since all that.

VALENTE: Karr reveals the rest of her story in a new memoir, a story summed up in its title “Lit”—as in lit from within by the literature she grew up with, by alcohol and drugs, and finally lit by a faith she found unexpectedly in the Catholic Church.

KARR (speaking to writers’ conference): No one in the Catholic Church hired me as a spokesperson, nor would they. I’m sure I’m not the pope’s favorite Catholic, nor is he mine.

VALENTE: Karr grew up amid the hardscrabble oil fields of East Texas. Her father drank himself to death. Her mother was married seven times.

post02-marykarrKARR: I’m somebody who really does feel like I was snatched out of the fire and found something in myself that’s luminous and gives me ballast.

VALENTE: The road to faith was a long, hard climb for someone who once described herself as an “undiluted agnostic.” By her mid-thirties Karr’s life had begun to unravel. Her marriage was failing. She drank heavily, wrecked the family car, was hospitalized for an emotional breakdown. In desperation, she took a friend’s advice and reluctantly began to pray.

KARR: I would kind of bounce on my knees, and I would say, “Higher power, please keep me sober today”—whatever they told me to say—and then at night I would say, “Thank you for keeping me sober today,” and then I started to express myself, which was often, you know, with obscene gestures, double-barrel at the light fixtures.

KARR: Karr was newly separated and trying to stay sober when her five-year-old son asked her to take him to church.

KARR: And I said why, and he said the only sentence he could have said that would have gotten me to church. He said, “To see if God’s there,” and I thought, “Oh. Okay.”

post05-marykarrVALENTE: Karr took her son to various churches, a process she dubbed the “God-o-rama.” She would sit with a paperback and a cup of coffee while he searched for God.

KARR: We got out, and we got in the car, and he’s buckling his seatbelt, and I said, “So was God there?” And he’s like, “Well, yeah,” like where were you? So that was when I decided that, for him, we would find a place of worship.

VALENTE: Karr says she still equated most organized religions with something people just did socially. Then one day she passed a Catholic church in Syracuse, New York, where she was teaching. She was struck by a banner out front. It said, “Sinners Welcome.”

KARR: I thought I had a better shot at becoming a pole dancer at 40, right, than of making it in the Catholic Church, and I think what struck me really wasn’t the grandeur of the Mass. It was the simple faith of the people. For me this whole journey was a journey into awe. I would just get these moments of quiet where there wasn’t anything. My head would just shut up, and I knew that was a good thing. And also the carnality of the church: there was a body on the cross.

VALENTE: Father. Bruno Shah, a Dominican friar, is a close friend who has written about Karr’s work.

post03-marykarrFR. BRUNO SHAH: In the Catholic Church above the altar one sees the cross with the body on it. The body is there. The corpus of Christ is there bleeding, still in the midst of the world, and that’s I think really what got to her—her experience of being a sinner, her experience of being a sinner and recognizing that this does not distinguish her from anybody else in the world.

VALENTE: Many of her recent poems reimagine the life of Christ. She sees in poetry a form of prayer.

KARR: Poetry is for me Eucharistic. You take someone else’s suffering into your body, their passion comes into your body, and in doing that you commune, you take communion, you make a community with others.

VALENTE: Karr has been sober for twenty years, but she still prays to keep her demons at bay.

KARR: I don’t have very much virtue now. It’s really all of it is grace for me, all of it is given. I’m a very venal. I want to eat all of the chocolate and snort all of the cocaine and kiss all the boys.

post04-marykarrFR. SHAH: The fact that this person would turn around so drastically is compelling. She sees all the alcoholics who don’t make it. She sees all the good chances that have been given to her for no good reason, and she asks in wondering thanksgiving to God, why me? And that’s a great testimony to her faith and to the authenticity of her conversion.

VALENTE: A conversion she says transformed every aspect of her life.

KARR (speaking to writers’ conference): My goal in writing about my faith wasn’t to proselytize, even though I did feel called in prayer to write about it, but to try to make a bridge between people who had been, like myself, completely unbaptized, completely without faith, a bridge between that and to bring them into the experience of faith.

VALENTE: Karr says she hopes her turbulent past provides more than just a good story but also sends out a message of hope to others. With her characteristic wry humor, she still refers to herself as a “black-belt sinner,” but a lucky one nonetheless.

KARR: I’ve never contended that I had a really horrible life. I feel like Jesus does like me better than he does all of you.

VALENTE: For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Judy Valente in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  • BarbaraMarie

    I was fortunate enough to hear Mar at Joe’s Pub in New York. Mary has given back so much. You get
    what you give back. Her sobriety is amazing and she is the kind of Catholic I would like to become again.
    And the writer I would like to be. I am grateful for her in so many ways.

  • Fr. Claude L.

    Hi Mary, You probably we’re going for laughs too in your “Jesus likes me better…. comment, (I do that
    in sermons when I can) but how about God deals with us uniquely, not comparitively.

  • Ralph

    I look forward to each weekend when “Religion and Ethics” is on PBS. Unfortunately, I often have to miss it because it is aired at awkward times. On CT-PBS, for example, it comes on at 11:30 p. m. Sundays. On MA-PBS it is Saturday at 2 p. m. These are the only two opportunities to view it.

    As to Mary Karr, I confess to being a bit annoyed with this segment. It was the sort of presentationI that I would expect on EWTN, Mother Angela’s channel, but not PBS. There are many millions of former Catholics here and overseas who have left the church, frequently because they regard it as retrogressive, a relic of the past, replete with doctrines and practices that are alien to the modern world. Many of them have turned against all religion. Many others have affiliated with one or another branch of Protestantism or with some other faith conmmunity. Perhaps you should have a segment on that phenomenon as part of one of your programs.

    I am quite sure that God smiles equally upon people of every faith who live compassionate lives. Sadly Catholicism still insists that it alone is the only true religion.

  • Frank Lee

    Why is Ralph “quite sure God” acts in any way whatever? If God is God, it seems to be at least equally presumptuous to think that a creature has a clear notion of how God acts as to teach that only a particular religion is revealed and therefore fully true. Furthermore, to present a story about a representative of the latter viewpoint (if the poet actually believes that) is not tantamount to espousing such a view.

    Karr is but one in a long line of modern literary converts to Catholicism.

    I found this to be a well done story, regardless of my personal feelings about the religion, as problematic as it may be.

  • Andrew McKenna

    Frank Lee got it right. If we let God be God, which He will be despite our efforts to remake him in our image , which is what we do when we make him the host of all our resentments, we can perhaps see him as waiting for us as much as Simone Weil sees our need to wait for him–rather than reach out and grasp at him. For a full blown theology that is congenial with Mary Karr’s experience of God, I recommend the writings of James Alison

  • Ann Turner

    Ralph, Mary said that piece about Jesus loving her more with deep and great irony. She is making fun of herself and perhaps, some of her inside beliefs. I know that people praising Catholicism can feel awfully scratchy to those who have fled the church–often for compelling reasons–but I find Mary’s voice to be extremely authentic, and what she says about conversion, fear, and love to be inspiring as well as true. At least, in my experience. I think the key here is not to intellectualize what Mary Karr says, but to take it in, like a piece of rich, dark chocolate. Just let it sit inside and see what happens.

  • Christina S

    What a wonderful piece! God works in mysterious ways indeed!

  • Frank Beazley

    Mary’s story is not new, it is not unique, it does not set her apart from other converts to a faith or upon a pedastal as a writer, woman, mother or human being. Her story is one of finding peace in a faith that challanges and comforts. Because of our individual and communal identity as mere mortals all faiths have much in common: flaws. But, faith is also about the beauty of imperfection, the wisdom of that which cannot be rationalized, the absolute blindness of it all.

    Mary’s faith is as much about being part of a universal (catholic) understanding and common bond, as it is about enbaling her to get her fingers on the rock ledge and hold on for dear life.

    As a Church, Catholicism historically reflects the actions of St. Peter, and St. Paul and the early Christian community and how they built on the rock. Then as it is now the Church had its critics and sometimes the negative view points are justified.

    Why does anyone join organized religion? At a time when the Roman Catholic Church is under fire for a plethora of reasons, why do people join or stay within its realm? Why did Mary really become a Roman Catholic? And how does she benefit today from belonging to this church? And just as importantly how do I and those of the Catholic faith benefit from all the Mary’s who become Roman Catholic?

    We need a writers/faithful symposium to examine the why?

  • Aquinas X

    @ Ralph: What Catholic Church are you talking about? Over a billion members globally, and you think you can summarize what all of them believe in a tired and reductive statement. Most rank and file Catholics do NOT insist that Catholicism is the only true religion. Neither, for that matter, does the institutional church in any clearly definitive statement. But that aside, what strikes me most about your post is how you seem implicilty offended that PBS would run a feature illustrating a positive experience with Catholicism. You claim to be “quite sure that God smiles equally upon people of every faith who live compassionate lives.” “Popery” excluded, of course.

  • Bryan Martin

    I’m suspicious about celebrity conversions. This one, too. I predict that Mary Karr’s venture into Catholicism is not the end of her journey, but I understand why it is important for her now. I only hope that her spirituality will grow. There is a lot of confusion about religion and spirituality today, witness the rise of the “Nones” in America. The tendency of some is to turn away from God because of religion. I hope that she will grow to appreciate that God is more than the Roman Catholic Church (or any religion for that matter) and that the Spirit is alive and well in the world. May the love of God flow from God’s heart through Mary’s heart, to her world.