content warning: The Liars’ Club includes scenes of childhood trauma, including emotional violence and
This week and next, we’re reading and discussing a classic memoir from the “memoir boom” that happened
in the 1990s: Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995). For this conversation, please read and write about the
first 8 chapters—that’s Part I of the memoir. (In my version, that’s through page 174.) For next week, you’ll
finish the memoir.
Along with Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Liars’ Club helped to popularize
memoir, and it helped to correct the notion that only celebrities or statesmen* should write about their lives.
* (I use the gendered term purposefully; women were supposed to be too self-sacrificing to be interested in
writing about themselves. Eyeroll.)
The Liars’ Club is notable for its dark humor, its tragicomic sensibility, and its vivid East-Texan-oilfieldsworking-class voice. (Pay attention to that voice, since authorial voice is one of the elusive things we’ll be
working on in our own creative nonfiction writing!) It includes characters that are among the most unique
and awe-inspiring of any in literature; in her Introduction to my version of the memoir, Karr writes about
discovering a bullet hole in her mom’s kitchen tiles.html)
Lecia didn’t miss a beat, saying, “Mother, isn’t that where you shot at daddy?”
And mother squinted up, slid her glasses down her patrician-looking nose and said, very blasé, “No, that’s
where I shot at Larry.” She wheeled to point at another wall, adding, “Over there’s where I shot at your
Which tells you first off why I chose to write The Liars’ Club as memoir instead of fiction: when fortune
hands you such characters, why bother to make stuff up? (xi)
Karr is funny but also fearless, writing directly about being raped as a child and about her mother’s mental
illness and violence—something she had her mother’s blessing to write about, which is an interesting story
by itself (Links to an external site.). (Mother’s response: “Hell, get it off your chest….If I gave a damn what
anybody thought, I’d have been baking cookies and going to PTA.” Haha.) It also reminds us that the adult
author, Mary Karr, has a different relationship with her mother than the little girl, Mary, as depicted in the
book. Karr tells her story with great compassion and empathy for her parents—but without misrepresenting
how difficult and scary her childhood sometimes was.
Personally, I adore all of the characters in this book, but my favorites are Mary and her sister Lecia. Sibling
relationships are super interesting to me, and I absolutely love how Karr describes the two sisters in all
their childlike adorableness and bossiness and rivalry. (See the photograph at the beginning of Part II,
which in my version is on p. 175.)
As you read, please pay attention to the following (and you may write about these in your post, too, if you
how does Karr begin? what do you make of the opening scene, both what it includes and what it leaves
out? Why does she begin in the messy middle rather than the beginning?
memoirs of childhood always include at least two different “I”s: the older, wiser narrator (adult Mary Karr,
who understands everything already) and the younger child character (Mary, who often misunderstands
things or at least has gaps in her knowledge). What do you make of Karr’s technique to put the reader into
the mindset and perspective of the younger character so that we see things from the child’s perspective?
Mary Karr is both a memoirist and a poet (Links to an external site.), and she has said that she got her
storytelling from Daddy and her poetic mind from Mother. Where in the memoir do we see Daddy’s
storytelling and Mother’s poet/artist sensibility? Can you see evidence of both in Karr’s writing