I was reading this week about Mary Karr, the poet and author of The Liar’s Club, the runaway bestseller from a few years ago. I was surprised once again by how normal it is to be “abnormal,” and yet how frightening that is to be.
Karr was born in 1955 in Groves, Texas, a small town in South East Texas where chemical plants and oil refineries sprawl across the landscape. It was a hardscrabble town and Mary Karr had a tough childhood. Her mother was an amateur artist and businesswoman who had been married to seven different men, and her father worked in the oil refinery. They both drank a lot. “I was small-boned and skinny,” she writes, “but more than able to make up for that with sheer meanness.”
Karr’s friend, Tobias Wolff, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood, and the result was the New York Times bestseller, The Liar’s Club. Karr writes, “When I set out on a book tour to promote the memoir about my less than perfect Texas clan, I did so with soul-sucking dread. Surely we’d be held up as grotesques, my beloveds and I, real moral circus freaks. Instead I shoved into bookstores where sometimes hundreds of people stood claiming to identify with my story, which fact stunned me. Maybe these people’s family lives differed in terms of surface pyrotechnics — houses set fire to and fortunes squandered. But the feelings didn’t. After eight weeks of travel, I ginned up this working definition for a dysfunctional family: any family with more than one person in it.”
Remember that opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina? “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Of course the “happy families” are just what we all see from the outside; they’re a fantasy. In fact, we all live in families that have, in Karr’s words, “more than one person in it.”
What liberated Mary Karr was telling the world about her family. It’s how she found out she was normal, really. So, tell me about your crazy family. And I’ll just say, “Sounds pretty normal to me.”