Mary Karr is a very good writer, and she tells the story of her family for a couple of years when she is a young child (about seven and eight years old). Mary's older sister, Lecia, and her parents live in Leechfield, Texas, a small oil-oriented town that apparently smells very bad and makes people sick. Both of her parents are alcoholics. Her father is a functioning alcoholic and works at the oil refinery. Her mother is an alcoholic and also struggling with some hefty mental health issues. Her parents fight often, and her mother is completely unpredictable. Lecia and Mary have very few boundaries, and seem to run wild around the neighborhood for much of the book.
When Mary's grandmother dies, her mother comes into some money, and the family moves to the mountains of Colorado. Money, unfortunately, does not add any stability to Mary's childhood, and after about a year, her mother and father divorce. Her father moves back to Texas and pretty cleanly breaks ties with his daughters. It is a heartbreaking scene when he leaves them.
***SPOILERS AND OTHER DISTURBING THINGS***
Eventually her mother and father are reunited and the family moves back to Texas to live together. However, it isn't until many years later that Mary learns that her mother had two children before Mary and Lecia. These children were stolen away by her then-husband and in-laws. When Mary's mother finally found out where they were, she couldn't bring herself to tear them away from the stable home and family that was all they knew at that point. Karr tells us this illuminating story as if it were the reason for her mother's mental illness, and it definitely explains some of her mother's actions. However, there aren't enough details about her mother to really know what was going on with her mental health. Her missing children could have put her under enough stress to cause her mental health issues, or they might have been simply what she focused on when she was really sick.
Anyway, what still haunts me about this book is some of the trauma that Mary Karr survived. She was raped when she was 7 by a 13-year-old neighborhood boy. She never told anyone. It was horrifying to think that some poor little girl can be running around and playing one minute and then her innocence shattered so quickly--when she is barely capable of understanding what happened. And when she is 8, a man who is babysitting her when she is home sick from school forces her to perform oral sex on him. For some reason, this one bothered me even more, and I think it's because she remembers it in even more detail. I wanted to throw up while I was reading that scene.
However, what made me most regret taking this book backpacking is when Mary's mother has a full mental breakdown. I don't want to go into all the details, but Mary comes home from school and finds her mother in a horrible state. She and her sister are alone with her. It is like reading a horror story, but it is real and your own mother is the scary monster.
I can see why this book was notable and won awards. Karr is a good writer, and she hit topics such as mental health and sexual assault that are still not talked about openly today, but was even less so in 1995. Karr primarily discusses only those two years of her childhood and only a small glimpse into her adulthood. Her childhood years are often from the perspective of a child, so there is no grown-up introspection or analysis on how all of this affected her as she grew up. I cannot imagine that it didn't, and I did wish for a little more information on both Karr and her mother.
This was a very well-written memoir, and it is helpful to get a glimpse into people's experiences so different from your own. However, I found it so disturbing, I'm not sure I could recommend it to others.