Mary Karr is a poet, professor and best-selling author of The Liars’ Club, as well as several other popular books. In this free-wheeling and honest conversation, Karr discusses her troubled childhood, struggle with alcoholism and conversion to Catholicism. It’s a fascinating conversation with Rev. Gaddy about belief, transformation and spirituality.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Mary Karr[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.
You know, it’s not easy to write a book. And there are special challenges when the subject is autobiographical, and the life that’s revealed includes experiences that are painful and uncomfortable.
The stories of self that poet and author Mary Karr reveals in her books are powerful and challenging. Her memoir The Liars’ Club was a New York Times bestseller for over a year, and was named one of the year’s best books. Her third book, published in 2009, is Lit: A Memoir, which she says details “my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.” And I am very pleased to welcome Mary Karr to State of Belief Radio! Mary, welcome.[MARY KARR, GUEST]: Thank you Mr. Welton, always good to see a man from Louisiana. [WG]: And, you know, I should tell these people that this isn’t the first time we’ve met, and that we’re friends… [MK]: We’re old friends, we go way back, now. [WG]: Yeah, that’s right. And you know what? You offer so many different opportunities for discussion. We could deal with a dysfunctional family background; we could deal with moving away from drugs; teaching as a respected professor in a university; a devotee of Roman Catholic spirituality and interest in a maturing spirituality; writing bestselling books… Mary, talk about integration: how do you keep all that together? [MK]: Well, I only get paid by one person at a time, so whoever – and I’m such a, I’m a little bit of a hooker here, Welton, I mean that in the best way – whoever’s paying me, gets me. So I’m only doing this for free because I like you. But, no, so, I mean, when I’m working on a book of memoir that’s all I do; when I’m teaching I don’t write, because I find I resent my students if I do. I can work on poems, like, when I’m traveling or something, when I’m writing – because I travel back and forth between Syracuse and New York – but basically, I have a very good ability to concentrate, and I just shut out every other thing when I’m doing whatever it is I’m doing; and I usually have… I’m fortunate enough, as a professor, to have periods of time. What was hard was when my kid was little, and I was teaching and writing and raising a baby and painting the house, you know, doing everything a single mom does. [WG]: Well, people who have read your books and poetry know that you changed in a dramatic way. Why, when and how did that change occur? [MK]: Wow, those are hard questions. I changed because it was change or die, it was adapt or die, it was a Darwinian deal; I had a little baby, I was in the middle of drinking myself to death, my daddy drank himself to death, my mother – we wished would have died and didn’t, shot up the house instead. We had bullet holes all over the house – she shot at whoever she dated, and she didn’t date, she married – seven times; so that’s the dysfunctional family part.
And I found myself, in my early 30’s – in some ways, I looked as if I were together: I was married to a big Harvard hockey player who looked like something you win at a raffle; and I had a baby boy; and I was teaching at Tufts and Harvard in the academic ghetto; but I wanted to blow my brains out every day.
I was very depressed – I realized when I finally got sober I’d been depressed my whole life – and the only way I could get sober – I tried everything, and some self-help groups, which I usually don’t talk about very much – but I noticed that the people who didn’t drink, who didn’t want to blow their brains out and weren’t mad, all had a spiritual practice. Maybe they were Buddhist, or maybe they just meditated every day, or they did a lot of charity work – but they had some active spiritual practice that involved not themselves alone, but other people. And so it was suggested to me that I get on my knees and pray. And I’d never prayed in my life, so I didn’t know you couldn’t cuss and swear; I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do the double eagle, fingers up in the air at God and holler. And in a way, it was a very honest conversation that I had with God, from the very beginning, and something started to happen when I prayed. And the only way… I can only describe it physically, you know, the great thing about Catholicism – I became Catholic, eventually – was, it’s carnal; it’s all about the body, and God came to me where I was. I was in a state of real despair, and I would get these moments of quiet that I now think of as sacred moments, and it was the only quiet I’d ever had in my life. And even then, I didn’t call it “God”; I thought I was curing myself of alcoholism with biofeedback. Like, that’s what I would have told you. I wouldn’t have had a sacred, a religious spin on it. But I just kept going back to that well, it’s kind of like the story of the woman and the well in the Bible, you know, it’s where the water was; and I kept going back there, because I was having a hard time raising a kid.[WG]: When did you discover that you’re a good writer? [MK]: Well, I still haven’t quite discovered that… I guess I always wanted to write, and I always wrote a little bit better than the people my age. So, I still wouldn’t call myself… I think of a good writer as Don Delillo, or Harper Lee, or, I don’t know, Ralph Ellison. You know, I still don’t think of myself as a good writer, but I’m better than I would be if I didn’t write more than once, I guess. [WG]: So, you don’t mind, though, if some of us think you are a good writer. [MK]: I hope you all do! I hope you all spend a lot of money buying my books, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them all, but you just, at least, buy them. [WG]: Why do you write? I mean, I know what you’ve said, you have the hooker mentality and all that, but you don’t write just to make money, do you? [MK]: No, I mean, I started reading, I think, because I was lonely, and my house was lonely. And it was a place I could go, and especially when I read poetry, you know, I was a depressed child, very depressed, I had a suicide attempt as a child with a bunch of aspirin – nothing serious, relatively speaking, no one even knew what had happened – when I read poetry, if you’re very depressed and you have a hard time concentrating and you can’t read longer things, and to hear how somebody felt, I felt I could connect with another person emotionally when I read a poem. And to some extent, that connection with language, and with the imagined other, is what permitted me to enter into prayer, I think. In some ways, it was a natural thing for me to do to be speaking to somebody, or feel like I was in communion with somebody I couldn’t see. [WG]: You have a great following for your blog, and you’re always as unconventional there as you are surprising everywhere else. Who’s the audience, and what’s the message on that blog? [MK]: Well, it’s interesting, it’s not a very literary audience even though the repartee is very literary. It’s a lot of people from very different beliefs: some people are atheist, some people do yoga, you know, there are some very fundamentalist Christians, I have a couple of friends I know who are Pentecostal from where I grew up… [WG]: What do they do when you just let it rip like you do? [MK]: Well, you know, supposedly it’s really just… But it’s also people who are Catholic, I have priests and nuns and, I mean, the message of my Church – and of yours too – is a message of Jesus in general, but also of Mohammed and of every other faith, is that we’re supposed to love and tolerate each other’s differences. And so, when I feel myself getting my back up, even if somebody is homophobic, say, which, as you know, I was a groomsman in my friend Chely Wright’s wedding recently, and, you know, somebody said to me at one point: “What do you think about your support of gay rights when this people are sinners and they’re going to burn in hell?” And I said, you know what, maybe you’re right, but obviously I don’t see it that way, but I would like us to be able to continue talking to each other despite our differences. And I think what’s wrong with the political conversation and with the religious conversation right now, and why we are having a lot of wars and stuff, is people aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s differences. So I see it as my decision on that blog to try to welcome everybody’s beliefs no matter what they are, even if they disagree with me. [WG]: You want to tell people what the blog address is? [MK]: Well, it’s just on, I don’t even know where it is, it’s on Facebook, I think it is MaryKarrLit or MaryKarrLitUp, MaryKarrLit, I think, on Facebook, it’s the one that has about 5000 or so followers. [WG]: This is a strange question, but is guilt a part of your life? [MK]: Oh, well shame is. [WG]: Shame is. [MK]: You know, it’s funny, yeah, that’s the great thing about being Catholic. [WG]: Well, that is why I’m asking you that. [MK]: Yeah, yeah. It is, it is; and we’re good at guilt, y’all are good at being good-natured, much more than we are. [WG]: Don’t generalize. [MK]: I mean, y’all can grin and get on with it. And we are some maudlin bastards, you know. Y’all have better, your music is more fun, you know, you have better fellowship you Protestants, by “you” I mean you Protestants. [WG]: Well, why are you a Catholic? [MK]: They spoke to me. The body on the cross, I’ll be honest with you, I have a friend who’s a Passionist priest, which is a group of priests which, in some ways, are very active in the community and with the poor. But I understood suffering, I think, based on how I grew up. And a lot of people, my mother, I remember her saying, when I became Catholic: “You go up, and there’s that gory, bloody, butchered body on the cross, I mean, I worship the resurrected Christ.” And I was like, well we all do, but where are we? And for me, I suffer a lot, I just do. I have a dark mentality, I’m not a good-natured individual, I’m socially adroit but not particularly good-natured, not easygoing; I do want to kill everybody in the subway when it’s hot and they have my seat – and so I understand suffering. And so for me – and also the bodyliness of it, to be honest with you, standing up and kneeling down and, like, breathing in and saying prayers together with people, which I know for your people often seems like cattle-like or rote or, you know, like, these, kind of, big brother monsters, not being individual and having and individual connection with the Lord, but just, kind of, going through the motions? But for me, as somebody who really secretly believes that I am the center of the Universe – that’s actually a good thing; for somebody like me, in my spiritual practice, I walk into church – here’s the way I describe it: you know how, when you go to the state fair and you see everybody and you’re like: “Oh my Lord, who are these people eating the fried dough?” [WG]: Yeah. [MK]: And then you have a moment, I don’t know if it’s when you’re eating cotton candy and you see somebody else… For me, it’s either on the bumper cars, or at the end of the night in the little fairs they’ll have fireworks, and everybody looks up and is going “ahhhh,” you know, and they are in a state awe together. And you look at them and you say, “These… I am kin to these people. These people are like me.” And I walk into church and I hate everybody, and I leave and I don’t. So it’s literally… 100% has nothing to do with doctrine or ideology, it’s entirely to do with practice. The practice of it, for me, makes me a better person. [WG]: So, you can put up with a conservative theology, even though you have a pretty liberal social ethic? [MK]: Well, the Church is very different; as you know, despite the doctrine, I don’t think of the Pope as the Church, and I don’t think of the ideology or doctrine. I think of it as the people, and my church is also very good about working with the poor, very good at it. And we often… There is such a thing as Liberation Theology. And actually, I just saw a survey where Catholic parishes are more tolerant of gay people than regular – than most every other parish, including Jewish, Protestant – which was surprising to me, but that there were more gay and lesbian Masses and AIDS hospices and stuff like that. So, not in every church, obviously, but, I guess, certainly, I’m in New York City, Dorothy Day had the Catholic Worker downtown, so, you know…
All hierarchies are annoying to me. I’m an outlaw by nature, so to be an outlaw in the Catholic Church is kind of easy: there are a lot of us.[WG]: Yeah. Are you a feminist? [MK]: Sure. Yeah. [WG]: And what does that mean? [MK]: Well, I think it’s harder being a girl than it is a boy. It’s harder to be black than to be white, harder to be a girl than to be a boy, you know, harder to be poor than it is to be rich, harder to be short than to be tall, you know what I mean? And so, as a young girl, for instance, I’ve always supported myself, no man I’ve even been with has ever paid my bills, and so I believe in the equality of women. So, yeah, do I think women ought to be a priest? Yes, absolutely. [WG]: Are you political? [MK]: Not so much. I mean, I think, certainly like, for instance, on my blog or in my writing, I’m not a very good politician. It bores me; I find it very tedious. But, for instance, I have a very good priest friend who’s a Dominican who’s a very conservative, in term of doctrine, guy. And yet is spiritually, still, very advanced and very tolerant, and we argue; but there’s, kind of, no malice in it. So I’m not that political, I’m probably not as political as I ought to be. [WG]: What do you read? [MK]: I read everything. I’m reading, right now, a book on Revelations. It’s about to come out, by Elaine Pagels, the great Christian theologian, I think. [WG]: She’s been working on that a while. [MK]: She’s been working on it nine years, and I just went to Princeton and spoke to her seminar, and she gave me a copy of the galley. It’s an amazing book. It’s going to mess up your people. The way the conservative movement has, I think, often, the fundamentalist movement has, kind of, appropriated the Book of Revelations, and she puts so much of it in historical context. And she’s so immersed in all the prophets, I think, and such a great biblical scholar. [WG]: Just so you’ll know, you’re hacking off some people by calling them “my people.” They don’t think I am, but that’s OK… [MK]: They don’t think you’re Protestant? [WG]: That’s right. [MK]: They don’t think you’re Baptist? [WG]: Not… No, it doesn’t make sense to them. [MK]: What are you, then? [WG]: Well, I am a Baptist and I am a Christian; but, you know, there are some people that disagree on that, just like some people would say you can’t be a good Catholic or a good Christian. Ok, what’s your take on contemporary literature? [MK]: Right now? I think it’s in bad shape. I think it’s not a great age of fiction, I think it’s a great age of non-fiction. For instance, the other thing I was reading last night – I’ve been going back and forth between – I’m very interested in Russian history and the Russian Revolution; I’m reading a book on the Romanovs, and also, I just finished a book on Leningrad, and another biography of Stalin – so for some reason, I am very interested in Russian history. I think there’s a lot of hyper-intellectual, kind of, pretentious… I say a lot of contemporary literature is a trick on white people. It’s like, my friends who are people of color, almost to a one, are, kind of, not drawn in; again, this is probably a racist generalization – I don’t mean it as such – but they are not drawn in by this, kind of, very pyrotechnic intellectual prose that is very self-referential, not very unified, and pretty hard to understand. And doesn’t so much reward study for me; I’m a feeling girl, I’m old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon, I have a lot of heart, and I like what I read to be moving, emotionally moving… [WG]: So what’s your take on contemporary religion? [MK]: Well, see, since I didn’t know what it was like before, it’s kind of hard to know. It seems to me like we’re all too dug in, and again, one of the things that I’ve been interested in on my Facebook page is seeing people of all these different places – when you post something and people, kind of, get their fur ruffled, and then you’ll see them, kind of, all start to come around and come to consensus or come to agreement, come to accept ideas that oppose theirs. I mean, before I was baptized I went to see an old nun, she was about eighty years old, and I was on something called the Peace and Social Justice Committee in this church, even before I was baptized, and with the Berrigans – at that time, Jerry Berrigan was a member of the parish and his whole aim was raising money for AIDS ministry in Africa. And someone said: “Well, don’t you think these people are going to burn in hell because they haven’t been baptized?” And – more or less, I mean, they said that – and she said: “You know, when I was a young Sister and I moved to Africa, I used to think that way. And now I think, you know, the Holy Spirit assumes many forms.” And for me that is the great thing about a tripartite God: is that the Holy Spirit is a female pronoun, for one, in the Greek, right? And it does assume many forms. It’s not so nailed down, and it is where God, I think, speaks to us all in our hearts. [WG]: Mary, this is a mess because I’ve got half as many more questions to ask you as I have, and we’re out of time; but I’ve got one question I’ve got to ask you. This program is going to air, for most people, either on Christmas Day or on Christmas Eve. [MK]: Oh, Merry Christmas everybody! [WG]: Well, that’s what I want to know. Share a Christmas message out of your experience for our people. [MK]: I’ve got a great one. My priest, the priest who baptized me, who, by the way, was a guy who listened to Rush Limbaugh – which I don’t – but was a guy who is very spiritually evolved, and two years ago before he died, I brought him a little poinsettia – I was leaving Syracuse to go on my book tour, and I was afraid he was going to die while I was gone. And so I didn’t want to go, I was going to see him every day, didn’t want to say goodbye to him, I brought him a little poinsettia, and he was at that time in a wheelchair, he was covered in sores and scabs, and he had this cancer on his head that looked like, kind of, suppurating tree bark, bloody, puss-y, and I handed him that poinsettia, and he said, “Let’s go give it to the Blessed Mother.” And I said, “Is there a chapel here?” And he said, “Yeah, we go down in the basement of this nursing home.”
On this little wheelchair that is electric, we get in the elevator and I am looking at him with that flower in his lap and that cancer on his head, and I thought he was like the little drummer boy. And we went down there, and the room was a hideous room that overlooked the deepsy dumpsters in the back of the nursing home, and there was this ugly little icon, kind of neo-African icon of the Virgin Mary and the Baby, and it was hideous, and he said, “Put it there.” And then he said, “No, no, move it over there, next to it, it looks good, doesn’t it?” and I said, “You know, Father, it kind of looks great.” And he said, “Let’s pray the Magnificat,” like you would say to somebody: “Let’s go have a couple of beers and watch the game.” And that desire that he never lost, to give whatever he was given, however humble it was, to me is the great story of Christmas, I think.[WG]: What a great one. Mary Karr. Mary, you don’t hold back on what you share in your writing and that’s to the benefit of your readers. You haven’t held back in this conversation and I’m grateful for it, I’ve learned from you, as I always do, and I am confident our listeners have also. I can’t thank you enough for being with us on State of Belief Radio today. [MK]: Thank you, Welton, God bless. [WG]: God bless you. [MK]: Thank you.