Family Over Everything

Mary Karr is a celebrated poet and memoirist, and her debut memoir, The Liars’ Club, is a gripping story of family life in East Texas in the 1960’s. The Karr family, in the memoir, is portrayed as intensely human. While the events that make up Mary Karr’s childhood are horrific, she never demonizes her family […]

Mary Karr is a celebrated poet and memoirist, and her debut memoir, The Liars’ Club, is a gripping story of family life in East Texas in the 1960’s. The Karr family, in the memoir, is portrayed as intensely human. While the events that make up Mary Karr’s childhood are horrific, she never demonizes her family members. Her mother is a mentally ill woman dealing with trauma, her father is a deeply caring man, and her sister behaves not unlike many big sisters. This is one of the most striking characteristics about Mary Karr’s debut memoir: her childhood was full of trauma, but her family was a loving one. The reader of The Liars’ Club is able to see the humanity and realism of the Karr family even if the events that transpire in Mary Karr’s childhood seem alien. The Karr family, in The Liars’ Club, is a recognizable family that was forced into extraordinarily disturbing circumstances.

In The Liars’ Club, Mary and Lecia are depicted as quite typical sisters for their age difference. Lecia, as the elder by two years, bosses Mary around and often insists on having her own way because she thinks that she knows better. She is also, as many elder sisters are, forced to take on the role of mother to Mary. This maternal role also often extends to caring for the girls’ mother, Charlie Marie, when she is drunk or having a breakdown of “Nervousness.” Mary and Lecia have a relationship that girls with sisters can relate to; they step on each other’s toes, each wanting to have the upper hand. In the end though, they are not against each other, and they are true allies in all situations that matter. When they are forced to choose which parent to live with when their parents get divorced, they work together to make a decision, difficult as it may be (Karr 192). This is a tender, familiar sisterly relationship, and although Mary and Lecia have to endure unimaginable difficulties as children, their friendship, as it is portrayed in the memoir, is notably unchanged by these circumstances. The same can be said of Pete Karr’s relationship with his children. Pete Karr works a low paying, physically demanding job with near constant hours, yet his children still see him as a reliable, loving presence in their lives. Despite circumstance changes, most significantly, the move to Colorado, Pete takes care of his children without question. During a fishing trip, after cooking dinner over an open fire, Pete cradles his children under his arms and holds them so that they do not wake up (Karr 190). This is the type of father-daughter relationship that makes the dynamic between fathers and daughters so meaningful. Even though Pete is in a failing marriage and has to constantly worry about money, his daughters can rely on him because he is as steady as a rock. They love him and he loves them, which is why their separation after Pete and Charlie Marie’s divorce is so heartbreaking. He wants to fulfill a secure role in their lives, but they are forced to leave him because Charlie Marie needs them.

On the surface of this memoir, Charlie Marie Karr seems like the most “villainous” character, and it is easy to attribute all of the Karr family’s problems to her. Mary Karr, however, takes care with her writing to not demonize her mother, only her mother’s actions. Charlie Marie is, in essence, a very recognizable woman. When her mother is sick and comes to stay with the Karr’s, Charlie Marie begins to act more “normal.” She cuts down on drinking and puts up with her mother’s constant ragging on the children and herself, which is a normal thing for elderly mothers to do. After she dies, Charlie Marie descends into alcoholism, a fairly understandable response to a parent passing, but her “Nervousness” causes her actions to get out of hand quickly. While the episodes of Charlie Marie inflicting violence against her children are akin to horror and thriller scenes, the woman herself is never meant to be the villain. In this characterization, it is clear that Charlie Marie is merely a woman attempting to deal with trauma. What makes the situation anomalous is when Charlie Marie’s mental illness makes her violent towards her kids, and she loses her identity. She is no longer their mother, she is a trapped woman who wants to escape. In Colorado, she is not a single mother, she is a woman with lots of money to spend who is trying to lose any and all connections to her old life. Charlie Marie Karr is the most distinctive example of a scapegoat that one could find in the reading of The Liars’ Club. When the text is read closer, though, Charlie Marie is not meant to be evil. Mary Karr takes care to not make her mother out to be a bad person. Only her actions were harmful. This becomes even clearer in the last several pages of the book when Mary and Charlie Marie have a reckoning over dinner. The truth about Charlie Marie’s life comes out, and it becomes impossible for Mary, or the reader, to think of her as an objectively bad person. She has been abandoned and her first two children were taken from her (Karr 314). She is a real woman who is mentally ill, and she is dealing with unforeseen circumstances.

The Liars’ Club pulls readers in with its vivid depictions of action-packed scenes and Mary Karr’s spectacular writing. After reading this memoir, it is easy to simply react by making a remark about the absurdity of the plot and moving on, but one of the most strikingly beautiful aspects of this piece is the characterization of the Karr family. Mary Karr takes care to not demonize anyone in her family or blame them for her traumatic childhood. It is clear, in her beautiful depictions of her family members, that she loves them deeply and that is the impression of her sister, father, and mother she intended to give to her readers. Mary Karr endures horrible atrocities as a child, including being raped twice and her mother trying to murder her. None of these events though, define her memoir. The Liars’ Club is a beautiful depiction of East Texas life in the 60s. Mary Karr writes with a singular voice and a definitive sense of purpose. Her writing makes the least out of plot and the most out of characters. The Karr family, in The Liars’ Club, is not defined by the wild things that happen to them. They are defined by the love and grace that Mary Karr gives them. They are a devoted East Texas family living though tumultuous events.

Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club is a fantastic illustration of a loving, ordinary East Texas family. Mary Karr herself wrote that “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it” (Karr XVI). While it is easy to look at the events of The Liars’ Club as outrageous, it is not quite as simple to find a member of the Karr family to blame for these bizarre plot points. Mary Karr deliberately does not blame any specific member of her family for her traumatic childhood. In fact, she depicts her relationship with her sister, father, and mother as traditional and normal relationships between sisters, a father and daughter, and a mother and daughter. The Karr family, in The Liars’ Club, is not an insane family. Rather, they are normal people, who love each other, living through chaotic circumstances.


Works Cited

Karr, Mary. The Liars’ Club: A Memoir. Penguin, 2005.


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