Objectionable Content

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

What possessed me to click on the popup message Monday afternoon, I’ll never know. “Warning:” it said, “This image may contain graphic or objectionable content. Click to view image,” which I did without a thought.

LiarsClubCoverArtBut, unlike the previous photos of the Boston Marathon bombing—unsurprising pictures of stunned witnesses scurrying away, emergency responders exuding concern and duty, bloodied victims carefully tended—the picture The Atlantic had tried to warn me about inspired the same devastation in my gut as the morning I watched people stepping from the upper-floor windows of New York’s Twin Towers. I wept then as I wept Monday afternoon as I wept just the other day when I finished reading Mary Karr’s 1995 memoir The Liars’ Club—as I weep just about whenever I’m exposed to someone else’s excruciating, defining pain.

I shouldn’t have clicked, but I did, and perhaps some day I’ll be better for it.

I’d resisted reading Mary Karr’s book, suspecting what I would find, not wanting to share her pain, but I finally did. Perhaps some day I’ll be a better writer for it, but therein lies the personal challenge of Mary’s memoir.

I call her Mary, because she asked me to, when I interviewed her by phone a couple years ago. (Honestly, it felt darn awkward at first, my being raised in the South, but now that I’ve read her book, I’m more inclined to call her dawlin’ and feed her chicken soup.) Back then, she fessed up to being sick in her New York bed, trying to overcome bronchitis so she could climb onto a plane—challenging god once again to mess with her or not—and make her way out here to speak at Point Loma Nazarene College’s Writer’s Symposium By the Sea.

Her darkly iconoclastic humor pervaded the interview and reportedly her memoir, a bit of grace for me and my resistance. So last week I buckled down to read The Liars’ Club, because I suspected she’d written about the sorts of family things I’m writing about. I figured I’d be wading into the same treacherous Gulf waters in which Mary’s sister Lecia’s leg was whiplashed by a man-of-war and Mary’s youthful agnostic soul prayed to a god she “didn’t trust a prayer” to not let her sister die. It’s unlikely a prayer will pass my lips, as I drift between agnostic and atheist, depending upon the day’s news, but as Mary came to know her mother through the memoir, I hope to come to know my Great-Grandmother Ada Latta Rutter through my writing, her seeming boldness, her apparent decent into mental illness; to discern what it is she handed down to her offspring and theirs and theirs and mine.

I’ve put off writing this story for years, always finding something else, something safer, to hold my attention, to avoid the repercussions of blabbing, as my siblings would say as kids. Today, forty or fifty years beyond the blossoming recognition that something might be a bit off in our family, were I to seek their approval, I suspect few of my family members would be as supportive as Mary’s. She warned them about The Liars’ Club and quoted her mother as saying, “Hell, get it off your chest. … If I gave a damn what anybody thought, I’d have been baking cookies and going to the PTA.” Sounds a bit like my mother, although she at least tried to hand out milk in my school cafeteria—except she came dressed, as my peers described it, like a "Gypsy.” But Mother is a Bacon, not a Latta, and that’s another story.

Still, there is much in Mary’s story to scare folks away, as I suspect they might be scared from mine, those folks who don’t want to read of sorrow, no matter Mary’s riotous black humor (she describes sharing with neighbors her grandmother’s grotesque death from cancer—including that “the ants were crawling all over her arm,” then cuts to the revelation that it was all for effect, as she and Lecia were on the lookout for sympathy cookies and Kool-Aid), or her exquisite appreciation of Texas redneck culture when a neighbor shoots a rattler (“It’s nature itself, revered in other climates, that’s Leechfield’s best advertisement for firearms”), or the forgiveness Mary ultimately finds in the truth (“What Mother told absolved us both, in a way. All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we’d cobbled together out of fear”). It’s interesting that the book, written when Mary was a diehard agnostic, contains such suggestions of her coming conversion. And afterward, sixteen years later, at Point Loma, she said something that might explain her embrace of Christianity; it certainly explains the resolution of my challenge to reading her book. She said that when we take in somebody’s suffering, we are transformed by it.

I hope that’s true, I hope that’s true of the story I’m writing. I hope that’s true of any suffering. I suppose, had the Boston Marathon bombing not occurred Monday, had I not clicked when I shouldn’t have, had I not taken in the suffering, I might be writing something different about Mary Karr and The Liars’ Club. But that, too, I’ll never know.

Love, K-B