News Archives

This story is part of our news archives, prior to July 2010.

surfer, swimmer researcher 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.

Read
Mary Karr / 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 tech EEG.

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 can find.

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 were doing….

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 Fat Boy.

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.

book cover litBy 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.