“I want to surrender but have no idea what that means.”
- Mary Karr, Lit
My grandfather carved the pews in the church before I was born. I was raised in a Catholic household that grew exponentially more devout and more ideologically extreme with each passing year. As a kid, I used to pretend to give homilies in the basement chapel of the nun’s house after school. My father was a deacon who stood in for the priest on sick days. Sunday school turned into chastity workshops turned into youth camps, pro-life rallies, and theology classes. In some ways, the church was my destiny—a fate that I existed in so comfortably, no one suspected I would reject it as soon as that opportunity arose, including myself.
I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that within an hour of my first undergraduate philosophy class, I was no longer Catholic—not that I had a major epiphany or anything. It was simply the first time I had been encouraged to think about the world from a different perspective in all of my 18 years on the planet, and it opened the flood gates for a whole lot of anger, emotional poetry, and even (eventually) independent thought. At 26, I am no longer an adamant atheist, but I’m still excited to exist in the secular world as a non-religious person. And I am even more excited to exist as a non-religious writer, free of the idea that my words might “save” someone. Which is why I was surprised when, recently, I found myself acting like a religious person.
My boyfriend discovered Mary Karr’s 2009 memoir, Lit, in a used bookstore in Seattle. “I heard it’s about being an English student and drinking a lot,” he said. “You’ll love it.” Skipping the preface, I was halfway through the book before I discovered that the title contained a third layer of meaning—conversion. To Catholicism. Or, as Mary Karr herself put it in an interview with The Paris Review, being “lit by baby Jesus.”
In Lit, Karr’s conversion is fuelled by a desire to get sober. While many find the use of faith-based principles in AA questionable, there’s no doubt that it worked for her. “Yield up what scares you. Yield up what makes you want to scream and cry,” says one of her AA companions. She thinks of The Wizard of Oz, a classic story about faith: “Surrender, Dorothy, the witch wrote in the sky. Surrender, Mary.” Only a week after Karr starts praying, she receives a $35,000 grant to write a book. A few months later, she’s sober. Another year later she’s Catholic. And then, some time after that, she’s the famous author of her first memoir, The Liar’s Club. “Call it self-hypnosis, prayer, whatever. To skeptics I say, Just try it. Pray every day for thirty days. See if your life gets better,” she says. “If it doesn’t, tell me I’m an asshole.”
A few years ago, I might have stopped reading at the part where Karr first gets down on her knees, “becoming the right size” to surrender to a higher power. But instead of feeling betrayed by this turn of events, I was intrigued. I read on: how could a woman I admired so ardently—a woman who was smart, funny, successful, and who had once dated David Foster Wallace—submit to the same set of beliefs I had spent the whole of my adult life arguing against? What was the draw? What were the stakes? Only a week later, I found myself lying in bed whispering Hail Marys to fall asleep, Karr’s words ringing in my head: “Just try it…See if your life gets better…tell me I’m an asshole.”
The anxiety attacks started in the summer of 2013, following my graduation from a master’s program in Montreal. With no immediate or long-term plans for the future, I frequently found myself unable to breathe, especially before bed. The physical act of lying back on a pillow seemed too vulnerable a position to take when there was so much left undecided, unplanned. I practiced deep breath exercises and did yoga, but breathing continued to feel unnatural, like attempting to walk again after a long convalescence. I had never experienced anything like it before.
My mother’s name is also Mary. One day, at the pinnacle of this psychological crisis, I phoned her to ask for advice; I was crying because I was too afraid to leave my apartment, lest I panic in public. It should be noted that, since my hasty departure from Catholicism, my parents and I have been engaged in something like a Cold War concerning faith, and this “war” requires that I appear extremely successful and happy at all times. This was the first time I had confessed anything resembling a struggle to my mother. She told me, of course, to pray.
The Hail Mary is meant to be repeated. It’s short. It’s not very elegant and it doesn’t have a lot of symbolism. “Hey Mary,” it’s saying. “You’re the best kind of woman. You bore the Son of God. Would you mind praying for us so we don’t go to hell?” There’s not a lot of room for interpretation.
To her credit, I don’t believe my mother viewed this as a “told-you-so moment” in our relationship. But that’s what it sounded like to me and I am ashamed to say that I hung up on her, yelling “Useless!” at the phone as it hurtled towards the floor. But my mother, who I now understand to be a severely anxious person herself, was giving me the only advice she could.
I did not pray, but I eventually became myself again, settling into the routine of full-time employment and reuniting with my diary. I didn’t write a single word that summer; my hands were frozen by doubt. I still have panic attacks, but they are much fewer-and-farther between. The one I experienced shortly after finishing Lit was unexpected, though in retrospect, predictable.
I was living alone for the first time in three years, in a city I had only recently started to inhabit, and I was scheduled to get on a plane in a few days. All of these scenarios require an uncomfortable amount of introspection about life and the future, while no amount of introspection can affect their outcomes. So when I found myself breathless once again, I surrendered to another Mary—the one who is supposedly a mother to us all.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst woman and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now at the hour of our death. Amen.
The Hail Mary is a prayer that is meant to be repeated. It’s short. It’s not very elegant and it doesn’t have a lot of symbolism. “Hey Mary,” it’s saying. “You’re the best kind of woman. You bore the Son of God. Would you mind praying for us so we don’t go to hell?” There’s not a lot of room for interpretation. It’s the saying of it aloud that’s the point, the hypnosis. No Catholic says just one Hail Mary; you say Hail Marys in multiples of three, or else you say a whole rosary—the Catholic version of prayer beads requiring five sets of ten Hail Marys interspersed with other short prayers. Whether or not you believe your prayers are being heard by an omniscient being, saying fifty Hail Marys basically tricks your brain into letting go of your troubles and fears. It has the same effect has counting sheep: relaxation, and eventually, sleep.
The Catholic Church is distinct amongst other forms of Christianity for its devotion to Mary. While most simply focus on Jesus, or God, or even the Holy Spirit, Catholicism is the only one with mommy issues; large chunks of theology are devoted to a fantasy of flawless motherhood, a woman whose behaviour all other mothers are supposed to aspire to. Though Catholicism is hardly kind to women, it is the only faith to consider praying to Jesus’s mom as powerful as praying directly to Jesus, to claim visions of her, to name their cathedrals “Our Lady of Such and Such”, and to build shrines that worship her, sometimes amassing pilgrims from all over the world. As Pope Francis (a.k.a Cool Pope) said at World Youth Day in 2014, “Mary is more important than the Apostles, than Bishops, Deacons, and Priests.” He is rumoured to say the rosary three times a day.
Given my Catholic upbringing, I could recite the Hail Mary from memory by the time I was three, much to the delight of my mother. But I didn’t distinguish between Mary the Mother of God and Mary my own mother. In fact, I thought I was praying to my mother until some prissy girl in Sunday School corrected me (she would also be the one to blow out the candle of my belief in Santa Claus). Realizing my mistake was somewhat devastating; I bit back tears at the revelation that my mother was not an omniscient, immortal, implausibly understanding and perfect woman. She was often late picking me up from ballet practice, for instance. And one Christmas, my toys from “Santa” were wrapped in bath towels from our linen closet. As I entered adolescence, a particular brand of Irish stubbornness fuelled passionate and furious arguments between us.
As a child, Mary Karr witnessed her own mother’s psychotic break. The scene is the climax of Karr’s first memoir—her mother wielding a butcher’s knife, building a bonfire out of Karr’s and her sister’s clothes and toys in the kitchen. An alcoholic artist on her seventh husband who also periodically abandoned Karr and her sister throughout their childhood, Karr’s mother is presented in Lit as a sort of anti-mother—a woman uninterested in any of the conventions of motherhood or femininity, often resentful of her daughters’ existence. Yet, “She was seductive and mercurial and given to deep doldrums and mysterious vanishings, and I sought nothing so much as her favor,” says Karr in a later interview. A mother herself, she cares for her son Dev with a vigor her own mother pointedly lacked. Karr, it seems, is acquainted with the fantasy of perfect motherhood all too well.
Though many women have certainly wished away the faults of their own mothers, perhaps we don’t actually want perfect mothers. Perfection lacks complexity, difficultly, and reward.
So, it’s almost no surprise that Lit is as much about Karr forgiving her mother as it is about her conversion to Catholicism. In fact, converting is forgiving her mother. Every conversion narrative typically includes a final “miracle” that pushes the convertee into the realm of belief, and for Mary Karr, that miracle involves a furious shouting match with her mother, followed by a reconciliation, itself prompted by reading passages from the Bible that her mother had underlined seventy-plus years before. “As miracles go,” says Karr, “it may not even seem like one. But it feels as if God once guided my mother’s small hand, circa 1920-something, to make two notes I’d very much need to find seventy years later—a message that I could be made new, that I am—have always been—loved…Mock that experience as random chance if you like, but from then on, I start to arrive in the instant as never before…”
In that moment, Karr recognizes herself as inextricably linked to her mother, a woman she simultaneously hates and adores. “I knew we were born to be together a long time ago. Maybe you do now, too,” her mother explains. Most women, even those with mothers who failed to build bonfires out of our clothes, can relate to the experience of having to eventually accept the fact that we are like the women who bore us. For me, that moment has been happening ever since I read Lit and found my long-still tongue clumsily asking a mystical virgin to take care of me. My mother and I no longer share a religion, but I have inherited her fear of the unknown, and like her, I sometimes need help letting go.
Karr never mentions Mary as part of her conversion to Catholicism even though it seems an obvious draw for a person whose life has been so consumed by the absence, literally or psychically, of a mother. But maybe it’s too obvious. Maybe the idea of asking a mother for something and receiving comfort in return is too foreign to her, or too simple. Or maybe one mother is enough. Though many women have certainly wished away the faults of their own mothers, perhaps we don’t actually want perfect mothers. Perfection lacks complexity, difficultly, and reward.
Karr notes that she’s impressed by Catholics, not for their “ritual of the high Mass,” but for “their collective surrender.” “If I can’t do reverence to that,” she reflects, “how dead are my innards?” Throughout Lit, she discusses the concept of “surrender”, mostly in terms of how difficult it is, what kind of practice it involves. Lit itself was an act of surrender for her. She wrote it three times before submitting a manuscript to a publisher. “The book felt impossible,” says Karr in The Paris Review, “I had to surrender the outcome. But surrender is hard for me. I’m a willful little beast.”
I started writing this essay by skimming the pages of Lit for passages I had already underlined, wherein Karr describes how shocked she is, every time, that praying seems to be working out for her. For example: “The primal chattering in my skull has dissipated as if some wizard conjured it away” or “My head’s actually gone quiet. Some sluggishness is sloughed off.”
After that night of spontaneous, panic-induced prayer, I did sleep better. My chest loosened and my lungs expanded. The “primal chattering” in my head ceased briefly. Though I felt like a hypocrite whose secular foundations had been thoroughly shaken, I unofficially accepted Mary Karr’s challenge to pray for 30 days or tell her she was an asshole. I only lasted 7 days, and I never made it beyond a few Hail Marys. I am not a Catholic again. And I still don’t really believe in god. But I can’t tell Mary Karr she’s an asshole because, whether or not it’s the power of positive thinking, it appears that my life did get better. I got a promotion and a raise at my day job, boarded a plane without freaking out (twice), and my landlord decided not to increase the rent this year. Hail Mary, full of grace.
It seems as if I may have once known how to surrender, but perhaps I had forgotten when I decided to unburden myself of any religious tendencies. When I was saying those Hail Marys, I wasn’t thinking about a woman in a blue robe saving me from hell; I was thinking about Mary Karr saving me from returning to that suffocating summer by teaching me how to surrender again—to the unknown, to the unplanned, to my mother, and to the holes in my own self-sufficiency. Now, whenever I discover anxiety clogging up my lungs, I whisper, “Surrender Dorothy. Surrender Shannon.”