How my old friends felt about my memoir.

The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 27 2007 7:30 AM

The Liar's Club

How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood—and what they said in return.

Click here to read more from Slate's Memoir Week.

The other week, Slate posed the following question to a group of memoir writers: How do you choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you?

The Liar's Club, Mary Karr.

As soon as you start to leave things out—to shape a tale—you're maneuvering the actual. Can I tell about the boy who raped me without investigating who may have raped him as a child (data that would certainly spin the moral compass a few degrees at least)? Not without dismantling history. Hence the innate scorn with which memoirists get treated—it's a scuzzy business at best, displaying your wounds in the marketplace, making close compatriots into "characters." How dare I? I did take a few precautions.

Every major character in both memoirs (still alive) was alerted to the project in advance and "warned" about scenes they might find troubling—i.e., I told my mother I intended to recount her psychotic break. I told my best high-school friend (Meredith) that I'd describe her cutting herself, as well as her brother's stint in jail. My pals who show up in Cherry were alerted as well—Clarice (from grade school), Meredith, John Cleary (the first boy I ever kissed), Doonie (the drug dealer), Stacy (an acid-taking volleyballer), along with two high-school boyfriends and my remaining family. While I didn't call them for "research" purposes, many told me stories I'd forgotten that wound up in print. Those folks are always thanked up front.

Maybe it's strange that—given my advanced age—I've stayed in touch with all these people through the years. Doonie, Stacey, Clarice, Meredith (until she died a few years back), John Cleary, and I remained (and remain) close. Definition: We continue to celebrate each other's birthdays, at least by phone call and Hallmark card. We speak at Christmas. Every few years, we visit. Many of these folks joined me at the Texas Book Festival in 2000 when Cherry came out.

Maybe this ongoing closeness made writing about them easier. Or maybe they're just tolerant individuals, which they'd have to be to associate with me for so long.

Once the manuscript was completed, I sent it to these primary characters for fear I'd misremembered or misrepresented them. The one small complaint I got was from a rock musician (an ex-beau) who worried that I said he'd smoked pot as a teenager—a scene he didn't deny but now found embarrassing. I offered to take the scene out but refused to change how I remembered it. He preferred it stay in.

The large complaint involved my friend Meredith. She asked that I take out the scene of her cutting herself with a razor. She didn't mind if I reinserted it in later editions, after her elderly mother died. To write it and blur the identity of the "cutter" seemed a fat lie to the reader—plus, it's a different kind of betrayal: Watching a stranger taking a razor to herself just differs—morally speaking—from watching a dear pal. So, I'd initially intended to cut the chapter altogether. Then "Stacey," our volleyball-playing pal, said she'd prefer to claim the cutting acts as her own. Stacey felt the scene was socially relevant and in some way "true" and that the book would suffer from its absence. This is the only intentional falsehood I've consciously constructed—other than fake names. It's the one time I've let literature rule over fact. And now that Meredith and her mother are both dead, I correct the score.

Oh, and the Liars' Club stories in that book (minus one I'd tape recorded) were sheer fiction, but since they deal with frozen farts and the like, I figured their historical accuracy would never be under dispute.

After both books' publications, several minor neighborhood characters and teachers wrote me or came to hear me speak. It tickled me that a number of the guys I surfed with at Meekham's Pier showed up at a bookstore in Houston. The oddest character participating was an old pal who'd vanished into the Witness Protection Program back in the late '70s. The greater complaint has been that I didn't use real names or the real name of our town. In other words, people preferred to be affiliated with their representations in the book. Some folks were pissed I left them out.

I'm certain that I've forgotten, blurred, or misremembered a zillion events, characters, and details large and small. Also, at this point in literary history, it's understood that memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt. That said, I believe a writer makes a contract with the reader to tell the truth. I try to stick with the stuff that's stuck hardest with me. And if I don't recall something I know the reader will wonder about, I announce it's been forgotten. In the one case when a family member differed not on facts but on their interpretation (my sister remembered a grandmother I found malign as a nice old lady), I told the reader as much (I added—not so slyly!— that the same sister also voted for Ronald Reagan: twice). Maybe I've avoided complaints due to my own character—not that it's stellar, but the converse: If someone's behaving like an asshole in my book, it most always tends to be me.

Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club and Cherry, is the Peck professor of literature at Syracuse University.