The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 20. Major Reversals in Cherry and Lit

The idea that the looker affects the sight is taken for granted in every field of scientific enquiry today, but one needs to be clear about what it does (and does not) mean. It does not mean “everything is subjective anyway,” so that no clear and truthful statements can be made.

Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New

Warning label: For decades, lecture audiences have questioned me at length about the roller-coaster reversals of my second and third books, Cherry and Lit. I know nobody else’s reversals intimately enough to set them down. Some of this I’ve glanced past in other writing, and while repeating myself is anathema, the lessons belong here. Whether you’re a practitioner or not, if you can’t suffer another word about my own work, feel free to bound over this to the next chapter.

With my second and third books, I overturned my comfy takes on the past as I’d never done in Liars’ Club once I began it as nonfiction. In both later books, I kept bumbling into holes in my theories about my teen and early adult years, long-held ideas that had zero evidence in fact.

It started with Cherry’s first chapter as I tried to render saying a weepy good-bye to my old man before heading out to California in a truck full of surfers and heads. All my life, I’d relied on the premise that Daddy had abandoned me a decade before I took off. So I was shopping for a scene to show the reader his abandonment and perhaps dab a tear from my living eye as I did so.

But I could find no scene to exemplify his abandonment. I’d be at work, and he’d bring me a supper plate wrapped in foil. He’d offer to make me breakfast in the morning or to take me squirrel hunting or fishing; I’d say no. I was the one who shrugged his hand off my shoulder. I was the one who kept quiet Mother’s dalliances with a cowboy on a Colorado vacation. I was the one about to head for the California coast.

Of course, he drank like a fish, and his emotional stoicism made him the strong, silent type. And he ignored my mother’s madness in ways that didn’t protect us from her. But he never said he’d be somewhere for me and didn’t show up, and he hated like hell when I left home.

That about-face took me by storm, though. I’d spent decades discussing his abandonment in therapy, and it was true he’d drunk himself off a barstool when I was just twenty-five. But the view that he’d ever left me was tacit hogwash—a convenient lie I’d told myself to salve my own guilt about leaving him.

The other bubble that got burst in Cherry was the long-held conviction that I’d been supersmart as a teenager—a real brainiac. But foraging around, I found zero evidence for this. I bailed out of advanced math after tenth grade. My grades sucked—I got a D in art. For every great book I read (Anna Karenina), I took in ten crap counterculture tomes (Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice or Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book).

If I wasn’t smart, where on earth did I get this idea? Well, compared to the dope dealers I hung out and later roomed with—guys who did serious prison bids and who died young (knife fight, AIDS, gunshot to the temple, carbon dioxide in the garage)—I was a genius. Mostly, though, I was a fan of eggheads—my best girl pal was the smartest in school. She and two guys I dated seriously aced the big standardized tests and sifted through scholarship offers by the mailbox full. I only posed as a smart person.

But that reversal—rather than being something I’d hide—actually buffed up my material, because it exposed the schism between who I’d wanted to be and who I’d actually been. That’s the stuff of inner conflict and plot.

The book had been a burr in my head for ten years. I wanted it to fill a hole I saw in the memoir canon. Not only did girls not write about sex in high school—other than assaults or aberrant sex—they hardly rendered adolescence at all. Many pole-vaulted from childhood to college.

Men’s coming-of-age memoirs were jam-packed with adolescent rebellion, including early erotics—Frank McCourt kept “interfering” with himself and was seduced by an older woman in Angela’s Ashes. The child Harry Crews boinks an older girl under a porch.

Watching a girl in the library behind bookshelves, Frank Conroy finds in a glimpse of breast that the world has become “suddenly harmonious.” His poetic language eschews the pornographic but makes a masturbation scene first tender, then terrifying.

With exquisite care I made the necessary adjustments and delved into myself. Hello old friend. Companion in the wilderness. Gift-giver.

I moved a few books and found her, or rather found a piece of her, neck to breast in white cotton. . . . In this state, one sees with the clarity of a mystic. A breast, a wrist, a curved hip become images of pure significance, passing directly into the tenderest part of the brain.

While he’s in this state of intense focus, the view shifts and he suddenly sees that she’s weeping in anguish: “I recoiled from the peephole as if a needle had pierced my pupil.”

His scene in the chapter “Losing My Cherry” shows him transformed by the process.

Her sex was no longer simply the entrance way one penetrated in search of deeper, more tangible mysteries. It had become, all at once, slippery—a lush blossom beyond which there was no need to go.

Afterward, I lay still, dazzled.

But there was no comparable passage I could find among the women memoirists I admired. They just skipped over desire—puberty and masturbation were swept past, and sex arrived at a decent age in clinical portrayals.

Except for the aberrant—Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings describes a childhood assault, complete with the guilt she felt about “the nice part”: “He held me so softly that I wished he’d never let me go.” But he’s only warming up to raping her so violently:

Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can and the mind of the violator cannot. I thought I had died.

Her sense of culpability mirrored my own, and my conviction that she was innocent helped me start to think I might be too. “Mr. Freeman had surely done something very wrong, but I was convinced that I had helped him to do it.” (When the rapist was freed early and found kicked to death behind the slaughterhouse, I felt a sick sense of justice.)

Yet when Angelou’s in college and sleeps with a boy, there’s zero description. Kathryn Harrison’s college beau is likewise never described in any intimate way—nor her sexual reactions.

Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood comes closest to the subject, but she has more erotic feelings when she buys a book: “I was tremendously excited by this act. It was the first expensive book I had ever bought with my own money.” Compare this to her impressions of the married man she drinks and makes out with in a hotel.

I grew a little tired of his kisses, which did not excite me, perhaps because they were always the same. . . . I was only precocious mentally and lived in deadly fear of losing my virtue, not for moral reasons, but from the dread of being thought “easy.”

Later, when in How I Grew she loses her virginity, she’s also completely without desire as she makes out with her guy in a parked car:

I was wildly excited but not sexually excited. At the time, though, I was unaware of there being a difference between mental arousal and specific arousal of the genital organs. This led to many misunderstandings. . . .

In fact, he became very educational, encouraging me to sit up and examine his stiffened organ, which to me looked quite repellent, all flushed and purplish. . . .

Of the actual penetration, I remember nothing. It was as if I had been given chloroform.

This writing is physically removed and clinical—“genital organs” and “penetration.” I presume it was the age she dwelt in, but I couldn’t find any clues to her having a body at all. It was like the film they showed us on such things in health class circa 1960.

Embarking on Cherry, I was prepared to overhaul all the tepid writing about puberty that women from the more prudent past had used to glaze over desire.

But the minute I hit the page, I saw the problem. Male adolescence is mondo celebrated in our culture—all of rock and roll exists to cheer on guys grabbing their crotches and humping mikes as preamble to reproducing the species. And men have all these great childish words—chubbie and woodie—that permit them to sound full of desire yet oddly innocent. There’s no comparable language for girls. Applied to a prepubescent girl, the standard nomenclature just sounds violently wrong. The writing I was doing to represent my early feelings actually made me feel like some Lolita luring pedophiles.

Finally, it came to me: as I’d been working, I’d unconsciously superimposed my thirty-something libido onto my child self. The feelings felt “untrue” because they were. What I’d been leaving out was the hazy, soft-focus obsession with being loved that really preoccupied my girl self—all the sappy romantic notions that formed the basis of my early fantasies were completely G-rated. Being boy-crazy was not being sex-crazy. I didn’t fantasize being boffed into guacamole. Rather, I imagined the boy I liked at the roller rink skating over to me during the couples skate with one red rose.

How unsexy that was—uncool in every way. Yet that became my challenge, to create the trance state that comes of writing a boy’s name on your notebook ten times or watching him on the football field, imagining he’ll run over to give you a hug.

I wound up trying to capture early-teen desire in the poetic, metaphorical way it had come to me then. There’s nothing porno about it, and yet it carries massive intensity. Also, I’d chosen Cherry as an ironic title: I felt—due to household upheaval and two childhood rapes—I’d lost my innocence long before I should have. But the more I wrote, the more I discovered that innocence had never left me, if you measure innocence as a capacity for belief—particularly a belief in love. What was mine in terms of hope and sweet longing had been with me all along—still, in some ways, is.

In Lit, I was also bedeviled by letting present knowledge block out clear memories of the past. I just couldn’t stop seeing my marriage except colored by our divorce, and I wrote the same pages over and over, not making stuff up, but canting the material one way, then another. At first I wrote events that cast him as perfect and me as a drunken slag. Then I wrote him as an icy WASP and myself as a tender heart. None of it rang emotionally true to me. I despaired. I even considered giving back the advance, which I’d have had to sell my apartment to do.

Then after meditation one day, when I’d prayed for the seventh month running for some glimpse of the truth, I had a vivid flash of us young and in love, floating in inner tubes down a Vermont river the week we met. How tender we’d been. The memory brought a stab of pain almost physical—I’d avoided writing about how in love we were, brimming with hope. It had been far easier to make glib, jokey remarks about how shitty a wife I’d been.

Dumb hope is what it hurts most to write, occupying the foolish schemes we pursued for decades, the blind alleys, the cliffs we stepped off. If you find yourself blocked for a period, maybe goad yourself in the direction of how you hoped at the time. Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.