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The penultimate chapter of this memoir details Karr's recollection
of a night she spent with her friends going to a seedy nightclub
at the age of about seventeen, so high on hallucinogens that she
was blanking out periodically. It felt like a dangerous place,
especially because when they walked in they were the only while
people there, and she saw people injecting themselves with heroin
in their necks. The experience frightened her even more than the
time she was arrested and detained in jail after being part of
a group who were caught in possession of a large bag of marijuana.
In my review of The Liars' Club,
Karr's previous memoir of her childhood, I expressed some doubt
about the detailed descriptions of her experience since it seemed
implausible that she could remember so much from when she was
so young. There is some reason to question the detail of her recollection
here too, not so much because of how long it is since the events
she describes, but rather because it seems she spent so much of
her teenage years stoned out of her brain.
I'm overcritical I suppose - Karr does not have much reason to
fabricate her past. But I just did not enjoy this memoir a great
deal, yet it received high praise from many reviewers when it
came out in 2000, and was listed as one of the best books of the
year by the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, US Weekly and
Amazon.com. So I'm looking for faults. The New York Times critic
is quoted on the inside pages saying, "Ms. Karr combines
a poet's lyricism and a Texan's down-home vernacular with her
naturally storytelling gift." I'm left wondering why I was
not able to appreciate the book as much as other reviewers.
One feature of the book that I found annoying is Karr's device
of addressing former herself in the second person with the benefit
or hindsight. She uses this device heavily; by the end she has
stopped using first person pronouns altogether. It's a device
that runs the danger of heavy affectation, maybe loved more by
adolescents than others. I remember it being used in the Marvel
comic book Black Panther
in the 1970s, the narrator addressing the main character personally.
I liked the approach a great deal when I was fourteen, but not
now. It makes Karr's narration smack heavily of a claim to be
older and wiser, and I hope she is, but it interferes with the
telling of her experience from her teenage perspective.
Her parents' are a little more stable than they were in The
Liar's Club, and Karr and her sister are more self-sufficient,
so she does not experience the same panic and desperation when
her mother or father disappears for days at a time. It is Karr
who is the wildest character in her family now. The blurbs on
the back of the book focus on her discussion of sexuality, and
it is true that she talks of her sexual feelings when she is a
pre-teen. But in fact the book does not say much about her sex
life as a teen, except to make it clear that she was sexually
active. The memoir is more about the group she hung around with,
their experiences with taking drugs, and how many of the people
she knew then ended up in jail or died young.
The book is also about her ambition to become a writer, and more
specifically a poet. Especially important for her were her friendships,
the most important of which were fueled by a love of literature.
Karr was well aware that she was smart and that she was able to
get away with skipping classes and still do well enough to get
into college. But despite her intelligence, it's not clear that
Karr has much to say about that part of history.
In reading a memoir of teenage life, I'm especially interested
in insights into what is normal, how teenagers develop their own
identity, how they are resilient enough to survive difficult experiences,
how they are labeled and categorized, and how their relationships
with their parents develop. We've seen that portrayed in several
excellent television shows, such as My So-Called Life,
Freaks and Geeks,
and most recently The Gilmore Girls.
There has been an excellent recent documentary series on life
in high school, American High,
which was rebroadcast on PBS. There are many novels focusing on
adolescence too, the most famous of which must be Catcher In The Rye.
But few of these works describe life in the 1960s or 1970s,
and so Cherry is an important contribution to the collection
of recent depictions of teenage life in that era.
One memoir of teenage mental disorder to which Cherry bears
comparison is Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted -
the two books are set in roughly the same period, although Karr's
is set in Texas, while Kaysen's is in the Northeast. Kaysen was
also somewhat wild, at least to the extent that she was sexually
active, but she was put into a mental hospital as a result. I
found Girl, Interrupted a far more interesting memoir than
Cherry, because Kaysen is a sparser, more reflective writer.
Nevertheless, partly because I know that other readers had far
more positive reactions to the book that I did, and partly because
it is such a distinctive work, I do recommend it.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.