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    Contributors | September 15, 2015

    Mary Karr: IMG Memoir Tutorials with Mary Karr, Lena Dunham, and Gary Shteyngart

    Editor's note: It's been 20 years since the groundbreaking memoir The Liars' Club sent Mary Karr into the literary spotlight with its phenomenal... Continue »
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      The Art of Memoir

      Mary Karr 9780062223067

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2 Beaverton Literature- A to Z
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Lullaby Cover



Author's Note

The medical examiner kept the photo covered with a sheet of paper, and he said, "I'll pull the paper back very slowly."

He said, "Tell me to stop when you've seen enough."

In 1999, the examiner said, my father had been at the top of an outdoor stairway when someone shot him. The bullet entered through his abdomen, bursting the diaphragm as it traveled up into the chest cavity where it collapsed both lungs. This is all evidence stated in court, bits of forensic detail put together after-the-fact by the detectives. After the shot, he dragged himself — or someone dragged him — inside the apartment at the top of the stairway. He lay on the floor next to the woman he'd just taken to a country fair. He must've died within a few minutes, the police say, because he was not killed by a gunshot to the back of the neck. What the police called "execution style." The way the woman was.

In December 2000, a jury in Moscow, Idaho found Dale Shackleford guilty of both murders. As part of victim's rights law, the court asked me to make a statement about the extent of my suffering caused by this crime.

As part of that statement, I had to decide: was I for or against the death sentence.

This is the story behind the story in Lullaby. The months I talked to people and read and wrote, trying to decide where I stood on capital punishment.

According to the prosecution, Shackleford returned to the scene of the murders several times, trying to start a fire big enough to mask the evidence. It was only when he broke a window to give the fire some air that the building burned. As the second-floor apartment fell into the first floor, a mattress fell on my father's body, shielding it so only the legs burned to nothing.

The photo under the sheet of white paper is what was left under that mattress.

The lack of soot or smoke in the throats of both victims proves they didn't burn alive. Another test, for increased carbon monoxide in their blood, would be conclusive, but I didn't ask about it. You want to quit while you're still ahead.

The medical examiners showing me the evidence after the trial is over. I've given my statement in court and been cross-examined. Just the two of us looking at the sheet of white paper, we're in a back office with no windows. The rooms crowded with shelves full of books and bulging file folders. The medical examiner says few families ever want to see more than the first half-inch of an arson victim photo. He slides the paper aside until a sliver of photo shows, very slow, the way you can only see the sun move when it's either rising or setting on the horizon, and he says, "Tell me when to stop, and I'll stop."

When I reach for the paper, I say, "Just show me." I say, "I'm sure I've seen worse."

He lifts the paper, and my first reaction is how my Dad would hate the way they'd wasted a good sheet of plywood, cutting it into an angled, irregular shape to carry his burned body. The body is face down, the legs burned down to stumps. The skin is gone and the muscle is burned black, the muscle sheathes ruptured with red showing underneath. My second reaction is how much it looks like barbecued chicken, crusted black with sauce under the crust.

A year before this, my sister's husband had died young, of a stroke while they worked in the garden. At the mortuary, she went into the viewing room, alone. A moment later, she stuck her head out the doorway and whispered, "It's not him. They've made a mistake." My Mom went in, and the two of them circled the open coffin, squinting and looking, trying to decide. Alive, Gerard had been so funny and bossy and active. It felt silly to cry over this object.

Long story short, I'd worked in hospitals. I'd been a crime reporter. I know a dead body is not the person. Looking at the barbecued mess that had been my father, all the drama evaporated.

Still, did I want the man who did this to die?

In court, it came out that Shackleford had a life-long history of physically abusing women and children. He'd lived most of his life in mental hospitals and jails. The woman Shackleford had shot point-blank in the neck was his ex-wife. She'd gone into the prison system to teach legal skills, and taught him to be a para-legal. Using these skills he'd learned from his victim, he'd already filed an appeal to his murder convictions.

He told the court that he and a group of white supremacists had built and buried anthrax bombs in the Spokane area, and if the state killed him those bombs would eventually explode, killing thousands.

He told the police that I was harassing him, sending him things in the mail at a time when I didn't even know his name.

The prosecution team started calling his kind of grandiose yarn a "Shackle-Freudian" lie.

But still, did I want this man to die?

A friend of mine told me Karl Marx's theory that in order to commit a crime, you must make your victim your enemy. You justify crime after crime by making more people your enemy until you're left alone. You're isolated in a world you've decided is entirely against you. At that point, Marx said, the only way to bring the criminal back into humanity is to capture and punish him. His punishment becomes his redemption. It's an act of kindness.

Another friend, a Buddhist, said how every life requires the death of so many other things. Plants, animals, other people. This is life. Life is death. We can only hope to make the best use of the lives we live at the cost of so many others. He said, a terrible person should not be allowed to continue taking the lives of any other living things.

With all this on my mind, I finished the final re-write on Lullaby and sent it back to New York by next-day Fedex on September 10th, 2001.

What had started out as a dark, funny book about witchcraft became a story about the constant power struggle that is life. The struggle between generations. Between people and animals. Between men and women. Rich and poor. Individuals and corporations. Between cultures.

On a trivial level, the book is about my neighborhood's struggle to deal with a local woman who opens every window and blasts every sunny day with her record collection. Bagpipes, Chinese opera, you name it. Noise pollution. After some days and weeks of her blaring noise, I could've killed her. It got impossible to work at home. So I traveled, writing on the road.

A month later, the State of Idaho sentenced Dale Shackleford to die.

While I was on book tour, my neighbor packed her huge stereo and million records and disappeared.

I wrote the court, asking if I could witness the execution.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 4 comments:

rewjr, July 6, 2011 (view all comments by rewjr)
I discovered Chuck Palahniuk in an article on Wikipedia. I started with Lullaby and couldn't put it down. I finished in about a day and a half and started on Diary, the next book in a trilogy. Lullaby was funny, frightening, engrossing. I have recommended it to more than one friend as I will Diary.
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lupoman, December 31, 2008 (view all comments by lupoman)
This bizarre tale of a lullaby that is lethal when spoken is probably one of the best stories this author has written. It's darkly humorous with many twists and turns, and is also a quick read. Bravo! five stars
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Clark, July 26, 2007 (view all comments by Clark)
This is one of the best books I have ever read. Chuck Palahniuk is one of the most skilled writers in the field today. His style is unique, in a class of its own. If you have not read this book yet, now is the time.
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(19 of 28 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Palahniuk, Chuck
Anchor Books
Horror - General
Horror fiction
General Fiction
fiction;horror;novel;satire;contemporary fiction;dark humor;magic;dark;contemporary;death;nihilism;american;humor;literature;sids;palahniuk;chuck palahniuk;fantasy;culling song;mystery;murder;thriller;sudden infant death syndrome;journalism;power;incantat
fiction;horror;novel;satire;contemporary fiction;dark humor;magic;dark;contemporary;death;nihilism;american;humor;literature;sids;palahniuk;chuck palahniuk;fantasy;culling song;mystery;murder;thriller;sudden infant death syndrome;journalism;power;incantat
Edition Number:
1st paperback ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
July 2003
Grade Level:
8.14x5.26x.59 in. .45 lbs.

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Lullaby Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$9.95 In Stock
Product details 272 pages Anchor (UK) - English 9780385722193 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Somewhere inside the book's frequently hilarious flippancy there is an authentic urgency....Like Kurt Vonnegut, Mr. Palahniuk juggles nihilism and idealism with fluid, funny ease....[W]ith this fourth novel, Mr. Palahniuk further refines his ability to create parables that are as substantial as they are off-the-wall."
"Review" by , "The latest comic outrage from Palahniuk concerns a lethal African poem, an unwitting serial killer, a haunted-house broker, and a frozen baby. In other words, the usual Palahniuk fare....Outrageous, darkly comic fun of the sort you'd expect from Palahniuk."
"Review" by , "[Lullaby shows Palahniuk is] capable of tenderness as well as outrage....It's a fun ride, but what separates this novel from Palahniuk's previous work is its emotional depth, its ability to explore the unbearable pain of losing a child just as richly as it laments our consume-or-die worldview."
"Review" by , "Lullaby is a very funny novel. Palahniuk, author of the cultish Fight Club, has a clever and precise way with repetitive prose riffs and shorthand wisecracks. He is a macho stylist."
"Review" by , "Lullaby can be tedious and even confusing, but it redeems itself. The novel ultimately intertwines and explains its twists while presenting a chilling theme with malevolent characters — characters you eventually find yourself understanding."
"Review" by , "Hilarious satire, both supernatural and scatological....But the chief significance of this novel is Palahniuk's decision to commit himself to a genre, and this horror tale of both magic and mundane modernity plants him firmly in a category where previously he existed as a genre of one."
"Review" by , "Though he tells it with verve, [the story] quickly begins to sound awfully one-note, if not downright repetitive....Palahniuk's comic touches, though, do work their occasional magic....Palanhiuk hasn't delivered a coherent or inventive enough vision to make believers of us. The details are marvelous to behold, but that big picture really is missing."
"Review" by , "[The] plot outline barely hints at the range of the author's thematic obsessions....Characteristic for Palahniuk, the novel's setup is more subversively engaging than the follow-through, though his writing remains so deliriously rich in ideas and entertaining in its stream-of-conscious riffing that conventions of character, plot and plausibility seem like comparatively empty anachronisms."
"Review" by , "It's great. It's better than great. It's edible, this story is juicy, delightful, funny, wicked, smart, silly....With Lullaby, Chuck Palahniuk delivers what can only be described as a complete critical assessment, cut down, body slam of the banality of modern critical thought. With this novel, he tears everyone a new one, and smiles while doing it."
"Synopsis" by , From the author of the New York Times bestseller Choke and the cult classic Fight Club comes a cunningly plotted novel about the ultimate verbal weapon, one that reinvents the apocalyptic thriller for modern times.
"Synopsis" by , Ever heard of a culling song? It's a lullaby sung in Africa to give a painless death to the old or infirm. The lyrics of a culling song kill, whether spoken or even just thought. You can find one on page 27 of Poems and Rhymes from Around the World, an anthology that is sitting on the shelves of libraries across the country, waiting to be picked up by unsuspecting readers.

Reporter Carl Streator discovers the song's lethal nature while researching Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and before he knows it, he's reciting the poem to anyone who bothers him. As the body count rises, Streator glimpses the potential catastrophe if someone truly malicious finds out about the song. The only answer is to find and destroy every copy of the book in the country. Accompanied by a shady real-estate agent, her Wiccan assistant, and the assistants truly annoying ecoterrorist boyfriend, Streator begins a desperate cross-country quest to put the culling song to rest.

Written with a style and imagination that could only come from Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby is the latest outrage from one of our most exciting writers at work today.

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