Busted: Mary Karr

The Liars' Club author discusses worshipping art, getting sober, becoming Catholic, and writing Lit


BH: There are also thousands of people on the ground trying to help people in Haiti. So I guess one could also say perhaps that is where God is.

MK: Well, that’s exactly right. I remember telling the monk I gave my first confession to, before I was even baptized, I remember saying, “Where was Jesus in the concentration camps?” And he said, “He was right there. He had his hand on every person there.” You’ve said I suffered; I’m not in Haiti, I’m not in Rwanda, no one’s cut my hands and feet off. I was born white in America, the richest country in the world. But we all suffer, and we all suffer loss and I had these delusions, really, about who I was and who I was supposed to be, and how to get there. And I had a very hard time accepting reality, and to accept that in that reality is also this abundance of love. You know, I don’t usually seek God that hard unless I’m suffering. I mean, the degree of suffering usually increases my conscious contact with the Lord. Although I’m better about that the past few years.

BH: Anne Rice talked to us about coming back to her faith and she said she was talking to a priest about all of her doubts and sense of injustice saying, “How could this happen?” and the priest eventually said, “Anne, why don’t you just come back?” It was like he told her, “you can have those questions, but just come back.”

MK: Yeah. Right. Well, looking at a faith in terms of its dogma or history and thinking you know something about it is like studying gynecology and thinking you know something about being a great lover. And the truth is that faith has only revealed itself to me through practice. I tell people this all the time: You don’t believe in God? Pray on your knees, morning and night, every day for 30 days and see if you feel better?

BH: In Lit you describe how you and your ex-husband would recite poetry like it was scripture. Has faith changed your notion of art?

MK: We were in the church of poetry and I believe that art (particularly poetry or song) I think if you think about times you’ve really suffered — when someone’s died, when your heart’s broken, huge loss — you can’t really concentrate on a novel, you don’t want to go look at a painting — but music or a poem is short enough. And so I feel like it is that nexus of suffering and love, and the suffering might be whatever the artist is imagining or has experienced, and the love is in trying to give that form to another person, and in that way — a small, really primitive way — it’s eucharistic, in that you breathe the way John Keats breathed when you say a John Keats poem. You take him, his suffering goes into your body, and you eat it in a way and you’re transformed by it. I didn’t have that great a feeling, but I knew that I felt less lonely. I felt so lonely and estranged and like such a little weirdo; as a kid I was so miserable and unhappy, as most artists are. And I knew that when I read a poem — even if it was by somebody dead, somebody I knew I’d never see — I’d be like, “Oh, that person knows how I feel,” or, “I could feel like that someday.” You know, I could love someone that much someday. And so for me I think the sense of being joined to others was solely through art.

BH: How is church different?

I believe that art (particularly poetry or song) [is] eucharistic, in that you breathe the way John Keats breathed when you say a John Keats poem. You take him, his suffering goes into your body, and you eat it in a way and you’re transformed by it.

MK: Somebody actually asked me that the other day and I said, “Because it’s about the truth.” (Laughs). That’s about human experience, and he said, “Ah, but it’s when you start talking about the truth that I get nervous.” And I said, “Well you believe that the truth is that there is no God and you get to believe that.” I get to believe there is. I’m not giving you a noogie and telling you you’re going to burn in everlasting hell. Catholics aren’t that big on that rap.

BH: Accepting the notion of absolute truth is a big leap for a lot of people…

MK: Well, here’s what I say to people: “You don’t believe in the resurrection but you do believe the meek are going to inherit the earth?” You know? It’s a lot easier for me to believe the resurrection than for me to believe the meek are going to inherit the earth. So, you know, these other things are more feasible to you than someone rising from the dead? I mean, birth itself is unfeasible to me. And all I can say is, this has been necessary for me. I had a gun in my mouth. That’s the way I feel. I was going to blow my brains out or I was going to surrender and just try this, and again my experience of it is so much more important than the intellect. What was beautiful to me was the simple faith of people. And that’s what got me first; the Holy Spirit got me first, way before Jesus did. When I went in, and they do the mass intentions, and somebody says, “For my daughter who’s having open heart surgery,” or “For my son who came home safely from Afghanistan,” and all of a sudden, I just go whoosh — like an arrow flies into my chest — and I went, “Oh my God!”

When I walked in and I looked at these people, they looked like church people to me. And I thought, “What the f*** do I have in common with these people?” And then you realize that at the core… we are the body of Christ. One of the meditations I do in New York — you know, I can gauge my spiritual fitness based on how good of a pedestrian I am; I’m pretty good, I don’t give the finger to taxicabs anymore, but I want to and it’s a win for Jesus anytime I don’t — so when I’m going through the streets, I could never imagine everybody was Jesus, but I could imagine I was them. I’m wearing that lumpy coat pushing the shopping cart or I’m the rich lady walking the dog.

You don’t have to believe anything to practice. And so I would recommend any meditation practice in any kind of community. Otherwise for me, I’m going to sit around and make up rules that are convenient to my disposition. Left without a community, I’ll come up with all kinds of justifications to sleep with your husband’s best friend and your best friend’s husband and my best friend’s husband, you know, I can manufacture all kinds of rationales for my own behavior.

With my finger, and again, the carnality of the church — the fact that we stand up and sit down and breathe in and out and pray together, that we pray for the dead, that we pray as a church for peace — the truth is, the power of those people, bringing their hope and their faith and their terror and their fury — you know, their double-barreled middle fingers up in the air at Heaven — all the humanity of that, to me that’s what’s beautiful. I mean, I bought that and then I understood how Jesus is that.

BH: In your book you describe getting sober and becoming involved with “David” (aka David Foster Wallace) for a while. Were you in touch with him toward the end of his life?

MK: Yeah, I was. Our earlier relationship was tumultuous. We were both so snake-bit at the time we were together; we were both newly sober, I was five minutes out of a 13 year marriage and he was Young Werther in his own mind. We had gotten back in touch, we were at peace with each other, he had written me long letters of apology, and you know, I’m sure we were both as crazy as we ever were [when we were together]. Like he was right out of custodial care. And went back into custodial care right after we broke up. [Pause.] Somebody you get sober with is like somebody you’re in Vietnam with. And I was so gutted. It’s weird because he’s somebody I maybe talked to on the phone, I don’t know, twice a year, three or four times a year some years, you know, but I had no idea. I feel I have been so healed and so snatched out of the fire, and he had had all of this success. He always wanted to be a husband, he wanted to be a stand-up guy, and was kind of not that earlier in his life. You know, he had been kind of a pussy hound, and really in kind of a creepy way. And he was so proud to be married now. I can also imagine him in his intellectual arrogance, which was profound — very profound — thinking, “Oh, I’ll just go off these medications that have kept me from blowing my f****** brains out for twenty plus years.”

BH: So many people revered him that it can be difficult to separate out the man from the myth.

MK: At his memorial service, his best friend Mark Costello said to me, “One of the most telling things about David was that if you saw him walking down the hallway at college, he had these big Timberland boots on that looked like tough guy boots, when the truth was, David was actually a germaphobe. So it’s really kind of a sissy thing, that he didn’t want anything touching his feet — any of the germs in the bathroom from the other boys. And he would have this bandana on his head; and the truth is, he was self-conscious about his hair and he had headaches. And he would have on like a t-shirt from the community college where his mother taught; and his desire to please her, to prove that he was the genius his parents had wanted him to be. But David also had a habit, where he would pick a point in space that interested him and he would put you in that point and project onto you who you were. And even when you were in front of him, waving your hands and saying, “I’m not Anna Karenina, you know, I’m a single mom with a kid to take care of; I can’t go to the gym with you; I can’t go on a boat trip with you,” he didn’t get that at that time.

It’s funny, I remember Zadie Smith talked to me about him and saying, “He was always so polite,” and so genteel. And anybody who knew David knew that that’s almost like a fake thing that he put on. When I first met him; he started calling me “Ms. Karr.”