This story is part of our news archives, prior to July 2010.
Following are excerpts from LIT by Mary Karr ’76, Happy by Alex Lemon ’00, and Insatiable by Erica Rivera ’01, along with Q&As with each author, conducted by Elizabeth Foy Larsen. Enjoy.
/ alex Lemon
/ Elizabeth Foy Larson
From the book LIT. ©2009 by Mary Karr. Reprinted
by arrangement with Harper, an imprint
of HarperCollins Publishers.
Without Daddy, the wide plain
of Minnesota was a vast and empty canvas,
me a flealike pin dot scurrying across.
So I sought the favor of all my male professors,
becoming the kind of puppyish suckup
I’d hated in high school, Getting to class
early, I got my hand in the air.
The white-haired psychology prof, Walt
Mink, was a tall barrel-chested man whose
polio-withered leg gave him a slightly heaving
walk he never slowed down for. No
doubt, a knack for tending the troubled—
including the occasional too-many-mushrooms
psychosis—kept him moving at that
clip. Specializing in brain psychology, he kept
labs full of pigeons and rats to teach conditioning
theory in intro psych. In a sleep lab
he sometimes ran, he wired kids up to a high
I’d signed up for his freshman seminar,
“Paradigms of Consciousness,” under the delusion
that consciousness was code for drugs—
the sole subject in which I had a leg up. Early
on, he spotted me pulling bobby socks on
my hands after class. Having lost the leather
mittens Daddy bought me at GI surplus—
stiff leather with Korean script on the inside
tag—I’d taken to wearing footwear.
He said, This another fashion trend I’ve
let slide by?
Chronic mitten loser, I told him.
My department collects strays, he said.
Stop by my office tonight. We’ll see what we
But during the day, the prospect slid back
and forth in my skull like a BB. Why did he
want to see me at night?
Leaving my library job, I faced sparse
snow on the ground, scraped at by winds like
straight razors. It was cold, you betcha. So I
loped over to the science building, where the
gleaming labs with black counters and curvy
gas jets creeped me out.
There was warm amber light spilling from
Walt’s doorway. I craned around the door,
and he waved me through. In a green towel
on his lap, he held a white lab rat, stretched
on her side, taking sips of air while her fidgeting,
thimble-sized offspring—pink as young
rosebuds—were nursing. She’d given birth
earlier, he said, and seemed to have some
kind of infection. Can you hold her so I can
maneuver this eyedropper? he said.
I sat down in a side chair, and he eased the
wriggling small weightlessness onto my lap.
It was puzzling to me, his tenderness
for that rat, since where I grew up, rats were
target practice—nutria rats as big as terriers
with their bright orange enamel fangs. You
went to the dump with a .22 or a pistol to
pick them off. Doonie had given me a nutria
rat skull one Valentine’s Day.
She just had a rough time delivering today,
Walt said. I was at home and kept thinking
about her. Wondering how the babies
He fixed the eyedropper between her
teeth and eased out a half drop, dabbing off
her whiskers with a tissue. Then he idly ran
his thumb along her muzzle. Watching that,
I couldn’t live another instant without unloading
into his care my whirling insides. My
every woe came spilling out. No money to go
home. No place to stay over Thanksgiving.
A boy I liked, then didn’t, then did. Plus the
four jobs I held down were eating me alive—I
couldn’t keep up. Walt handed me one pink
flounce of tissue after another.
Worst of all, the only reason I’d come
there was to write, but I’d refused to sign up
for a lit class, being too ill read not to shame
myself. At a freshman mixer early on, I heard
kids hurling around like fastballs opinions
about Russian novels it had taken me a
week to figure out the characters in—I had
to make a chart in back. They were talking
Dostoyevsky’s blah-blah and the objective
correlative of the doodad. They’d studied in
Paris and Switzerland. The closest I’d come
to speaking French was ordering boudain
sausage from the take-out window of Boudreaux’s
What small whiz-kid luster I’d given
off in grade school had gone to mist starting
my sunglassed junior year. I knew some
Shakespeare plays, and I’d read a couple great
books till their spines split. But I’d never had
to form an opinion about any of that. I’d just
blink at it like a bass.
Instead, I’d signed up for classes related
to linguistic philosophy, for which I had even
less talent. In Walt’s own seminar, we were
reading neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer—a brick
I broke my brain on.
Walt would help me with all that, he said,
adding, Come in to talk if you’re feeling bad.
From bawling so hard, my eyes were squinty
as a boxer’s, and my salty face felt drawn up
as by too-tight pigtails. But the deep calm
Walt gave off had stilled me inside. I stared
down at the mice, each small enough to fit
into a sugar spoon.
Finally, I said, I thought you were here to
put stuff in our heads.
Unless we deal with what’s already in
there, he said, I can’t accomplish that.
In the hallway, Walt reached into a cardboard
box of lost clothes and fished around
till he raised up a pair of gray suede gloves.
Sliding my hand in one, I felt the silky
warmth of rabbit fur. I’d have felt too greedy
taking them myself, but he nudged me on.
I was in the hall when he called me back
to him, saying, One more thing.
By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
Mary Karr ’76 When The Liars’ Club and Cherry author
Mary Karr arrived at Macalester in 1972, she was 17 years old and
“thin and malleable as a coat hangar wire.” The privileged campus was
light years away from her hardscrabble Texas childhood. Her struggle
to reconcile those contradictions is at the heart of the first chapters
of LIT, her latest memoir.
Q: How did your time at Macalester affect you as a writer?
A: The first intellectual work I ever did was there. Everybody was
so smart and well read—I was actually too scared to take English
classes. I was in a freshman seminar called “Paradigms of Consciousness,”
which I signed up for because I thought it would be
about drugs, the only thing I knew about. Walt Mink, Chuck Green,
and Gerry Weiss were my professors for that course. They took in
strays, particularly Walt and Gerry, and I was such a lost duckling.
I’ve stayed involved and interested in neurology, thought, and the
nature of memory and consciousness. I’m still thinking about the
questions they asked me about mind and the nature of the brain
some 30 odd years later.
Q: Why do you think [the late psychology professor] Walt Mink
had such an impact on his students?
A: As a professor I feel called to live up to his standard. There was a
student in our class who had a crew cut, sort of paramilitary—the
guy was clearly a little dented. I don’t know what he was doing at
Mac in the ’70s. Walt said, “It’s my job to put things in my students’
minds, but I can’t do that unless I understand what’s in there first.”
I said, “What about that guy? He’s just nuts.” And he explained that
no, he was an interesting person who felt very strongly about things.
Walt taught me not to take personally even the most difficult student.
If they ride in wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood, it’s my job to meet
them where they are and create an environment where they are accepted
in the classroom.
Q: This is your third memoir. Do you think there will be another?
A: When I wrote The Liars’ Club, the proposal covered most of what’s
in all three of these books. That was my initial idea. I don’t really make
a long-term plan about what direction my writing is going to take.
Right now I would like to write something about memoir that is like
E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel or John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction.
I would like to do a serious book about the genre that is in some way
both instructional and critical.
Q: There is so much material in one life. How do you decide what
theme you’ll focus on when you’re writing?
A: It changes over time. I thought this book would be about the guys
I dated, my marriage, and my search for love. I was calling it “Tropic
of Squalor” as a joke. But it very quickly became clear that that’s not
what the story was. I always say that the antagonist of a memoir has
to be some aspect of you. And [the book became about] that part of
myself that loved my pistol-packing, hard-drinking, peculiar, beautiful
mother and the part of me that was repelled by her. And how,
when I felt myself becoming like her when I started drinking, I made
peace with that. As a grown-up you have to reconcile parts of your
history that you don’t like so much.