AMERICANS WANT O.J., Scott Peterson, and Michael Jackson to confess, but they’re not going to. What we’re left with is people we wouldn’t otherwise have heard of, confessing their guts out. They do it in the form of the confessional memoir, a genre that has been flourishing for at least a decade, though its roots go all the way back to Saint Augustine and Rousseau. In Saint Augustine, sin was sin, and it needed to be dealt with by confession and conversion. In Rousseau, sin was replaced with the idea of childhood innocence. Such sentiment is the true father of the confessional memoir, a term that is actually something of a misnomer. The typical protagonist-narrator of such books does not confess his or her failings or sins (a word that rarely appears in these intensely secular books) but instead reveals dark family secrets, sensational “dysfunctionalities,” and, best of all, criminal sexual acts committed against the memoirist.
They keep on coming. A recent Time review of a couple of freshly minted confessional memoirs invokes some celebrated precursors in the listen-to-my-pain sweepstakes: Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (father-daughter incest), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (the wailing woes of everybody’s favorite dirt-poor Irish family), and Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors (a boy’s abuse by a pedophile). Oddly, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club is not cited, although the book was a big deal in 1995, winning some prizes and rising to number two on the New York Times best-seller list.
Now, ten years later, Karr’s story of her working-class upbringing in “Leechfield,” on the Texas coast near Port Arthur, is being reissued, which seems a bit odd, since the book is readily available. Perhaps Penguin Books’ aim is to put the “classic” stamp on this spunky tale of down-home histrionics. Or perhaps it’s to lay the groundwork for the third volume in the never-ending Karr-crash saga, Tropic of Squalor, due out later next year.
To justify the reissue of her first memoir, Karr has penned an introduction. I had high expectations for this, as I hoped to learn something about the origins of the book and what works might have influenced it. Karr can be pretty good when she is writing about something other than herself; her introduction to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Writings (Modern Library, 2001), for example, is