Tell Me About Your Family


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.”

5 Responses to Tell Me About Your Family
  1. Matt
    June 25, 2015 | 11:15 am

    I’d like Michael to go first!
    I am a card carrying member of a dysfunctional family, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Actually I begin on couches with therapists and in church basements to try to break the cycle.

  2. Michael
    June 25, 2015 | 11:31 am

    Matt I assume you mean me! I will say our Fam is amazing but yes we have our struggles. I’ve been treated for depression. I have an eating disorder that has caused me and my family real pain. I’m in recovery and it’s a daily effort and a daily (most days) joy. That’s my story. That and saying I have the best wife and three kids anyone could possibly hope for. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. My life began when I hit bottom.

  3. David Anderson
    June 25, 2015 | 12:13 pm

    It’s funny to see this interaction, Matt and Michael. Sort of a nice community we share here!

  4. Candy Warner
    June 25, 2015 | 8:35 pm

    I love your writing, David. Those “happy families” that we see from the outside, they are not strictly fantasy. All our dysfunctional families have moments of joy. And how sane we look when we march outside and the craziness is camouflaged. A wise man once told me not to compare my insides to other people’s outsides. Here is a family tale. My mother used to make me take the Inflatable Man with me if I wanted to drive after dark. He was one of those blow up things that fall backwards then come right back up- just a half a man really. So embarrassing. His face was flat and he did not look real at all. I would put my dad’s hat on him but it still looked like I was driving around with a snowman. As much as I considered the Inflatable Man to be a burden, he was really my hero as he got me out of the house.

  5. Matt
    June 26, 2015 | 7:58 am

    Wow, thanks for that Michael – I just meant you because of your relation to David! Clinical depression, anxiety, rehab for alcoholism – yep I can relate! And yes, it all changed my life for the better as well in one of life’s great ironies. The one thing I have found out the hard way is I can’t change anyone else in my family (because man did I try when I had it ‘figured out’ after rehab), but that I can separate and re-define my role.

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