At AA meetings everywhere, recovering alcoholics tell their stories in an effort to help other alcoholics to identify and believe that they too can recover from alcoholism. When I read Mary Karr’s third memoir, Lit, it struck me as a particularly vivid, instructive and inspiring example of that genre, the AA story. The format, well-known to members of Alcoholics Anonymous, comes in three parts: How It Was, What Happened, and What It’s Like Now.
I hadn’t read Karr’s two previous memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry, when I picked this one up. It didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t feel confused about any past references-though now I want to read those earlier books too.
Karr is a poet as well as a memoirist and former drunk, so her style is often poetic, sometimes a bit odd in the syntax, requiring a second look-and frequently funny. She begins each chapter with an apt literary quote. Her story takes us from her dissolute teenage years to her education as a poet, marriage to another poet, through her successes and her difficulties in her marriage and career as her drinking progresses. With the birth of their son Dev and Mary’s continued drinking, the marriage fails, and Mary finally knows she has to quit.
We get the how it was, what happened, and what it’s like now in rich detail. My favorite parts, of so many favorite and true parts, about writing and love, child-raising and the insanity of alcoholism-is when she gets to the good stuff of recovery, when she gives up and begins to take directions from the women in AA, because she can’t stay sober by herself.
They share their experience. They’re honest with her. They give good suggestions, like get phone numbers of ladies, and choose one for a sobriety coach; clean the coffeepot; don’t glom onto the first guy you meet, just date for a while; if you have a problem, bring it to the group; pray to a higher power that you don’t understand at all; and try picturing yourself being held by two giant hands. These suggestions and many others get her through the first days and weeks and months of not drinking.
They’re the kinds of things that people who join AA and go to meetings hear every day, and learn so much from, about not drinking, and enjoying life more not drinking. It’s very good, Mary Karr’s How It Was, What Happened, and What It’s Like Now. In order to get the full effect, you’ll need to read her words in her latest memoir, Lit.
Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
For a good description of the three-part AA story, see Sobering Tales, by Edmund B. O’Reilly. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.