For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘alcoholism

Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 2009, 386 pp.

I heard about the book on an NPR interview with the author, and picked it up on a whim when I saw it on the clearance rack at the bookstore for $2.50. It was not an easy read, because Lit tells the story of Karr’s descent into alcoholism and her long, slow journey to recovery. Karr is a poet, and her prose carries the density and rich vocabulary of her other literary craft.

The book tracks a downward spiral into a life controlled by the need to drink, beginning when Karr is 17 years old and living as a runaway in San Francisco and continuing through her college years, graduate school, marriage and motherhood. Thinking back, (I completed reading a few weeks ago), the first half of the book is hard to recall. It is blurry, muddled and full of memory-impressions that are vivid but do not unfold in a clear narrative. This parallels Karr’s descent into drink.

The memoir turns when she begins the road to sobriety, even though the journey is rife with setbacks. Her journey out of alcoholism reminds me of a maze. You know you’re headed somewhere, but you don’t know where it is or how to get there. Dead-ends are everywhere that make you double back and start again. You feel lost and alone. There are haunting images of her attempts to care for her son, and finding herself out of control again.

I was surprised to discover that this book was a journey into prayer and Christianity for Karr. Her struggle to find faith was the most compelling part of the book for me. Her sponsors and advisors in her recovery tell her again and again that she needs to find her higher power and learn to pray, but she resists because she can’t believe in God. A doctor who is also in recovery tells her:

Faith is not a feeling. It’s a set of actions. By taking the actions, you demonstrate more faith than somebody who actually experienced the rewards of prayer and so feels hope. Fake it till you make it. (217)

Karr is worried about money, so the doctor instructs her to pray for money:

Then pray for it. Just pray every day for ninety days and see if your life gets better. Call it a scientific experiment. You might not get the money, but you might find relief from anxiety about money. What do you have to lose? (219)

I found this so familiar to my own experience of prayer. Unlike Karr, I have had the feelings before, and still do from time to time. But prayer is far more about discipline, openness and relationship than it is about feeling something.

One more section of conversation about prayer:

Deb says, Mary’s reluctant to get down on her knees because she doesn’t believe in God.

I add, What kind of God wants me to get on my knees and supplicate myself like a coolie?

Janice busts out with a cackling laugh, You don’t do it for God! You do it for yourself. All this is for you… the prayer, the meditation, even the service work. I do it for myself, too. I’m not that benevolent.

How does getting on your knees do anything for you? I say.

Janice says, It makes you the right size.

Lit is powerful as an inside perspective on what it’s like to build a self around alcohol, only to discover you’re lost—then to recreate a new self in sobriety. Beautifully crafted, this is an interesting read for anyone who’s been down this road of addiction and recovery, or loved someone who is somewhere on it.

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1998, 243 pp.

Charming Billy was not the light, quick vacation read I was looking for when I checked it out from the library. Instead, it was an intense, pain-stakingly constructed look inside the life of an alcoholic, told from the perspective of his closest friends. It was a work of art, deep and poignant.

The story begins at Billy’s funeral luncheon, with all his friends and family gathered around for a formal meal at a restaurant. They all begin to talk about his life. The novel unpacks, ever so slowly, what happened to Billy—how he went from a jovial young man who was the life of the party to an alcoholic who could end up nearly dying in a ditch. The narrator is the daughter of Billy’s best friend Dennis. Dennis has witnessed Billy’s entire life, and he was especially close during the critical turning points of tragedy, betrayal and misfortune. We rarely hear the tales in Dennis’ own voice, but eventually all comes into the light. The story is revealed like scraping a coat of paint from a window pane—with each stroke, you can see just a tiny bit more, until everything becomes clear.

The title is evocative and accurate. Billy is indeed a charming guy, even through his addiction. The novel itself seems to “charm” him, summoning his character and history out like a venomous snake in a basket. It was an intense read. I would recommend it to anyone seeking insight into the lives of alcoholics, their families and friends. McDermott captures the tension between wanting to aid someone in the grips of addiction as illness, and the desire to punish them for their bad decisions in hopes it will inspire better ones. She details the struggles of family and friends who love Billy even as they watch him self-destruct, and the sense of helplessness and weariness they share.

In one scene, the priest visits the home of Billy and hears his wife Maeve share her sense of hopelessness that all her love did not make any difference. The priest responds:

We could all tell ourselves tonight that we didn’t do enough, Maeve. I had the thought myself when Dennis called me the other day and told me Billy was gone, and how they found him. I thought, Dear Lord, what could I have done? We could all of us say today that if we loved him it was a poor sort of love, or else his life wouldn’t have ended as it did. But you know, if I said it to you, Maeve, if I said that I failed him, … or if any one of Billy’s friends said it, you’d be the first to tell us it wasn’t true. And you’d mean it. And you’d be right. Billy succumbed to an illness we couldn’t cure in time. It wasn’t a failure of our affections, it was a triumph of the disease. That’s the very thing you would tell any one of us and it’s the thing you have to believe yourself. Of course, it mattered. Everything you felt, everything you did for Billy mattered, regardless of how it turned out.

It’s good to hear such positive words from a priest, even a fictional one.

That’s how the whole novel goes. Just hauntingly simply and real. Billy may have been charming, but alcoholism never is.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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