ABOUT THE BOOK
We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we’ve never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.
A “man of God” is how someone described my father to me. I don ‘t remember who. Not my mother. I’m young enough that I take the words to mean he has magical properties and that he is good, better than other people.
With his hand under my chin, my father draws my face toward his own. He touches his lips to mine. I stiffen.
I am frightened by the kiss. I know it wrong, and its wrongness is what lets me know, too, that it is a secret.
In this extraordinary memoir, Harrison transforms into a work of art the darkest passage imaginable in a young woman’s life–an obsessive love affair between father and daughter that began when Harrison was 20 years old. Exquisitely and hypnotically written, “The Kiss” reveals a shocking truth, a story both of taboo and of family complicity in breaking taboo.
“Harrison’s novels, including Exposure (1993) and Poison (1995), are rooted in a deep and abiding sorrow, and now readers learn its source. Controversial even before its publication, this exquisitely written and emotionally wrenching account of her love affair with her father is an act of astounding courage, integrity, and catharsis. Harrison’s parents were teenagers when they married, and she was less than a year old when they divorced, a breakup encouraged by her high-handed maternal grandparents, who, after her selfish and unloving mother moved out, ended up raising her. Her father, a preacher, remained a distant and enigmatic figure until she left home for college, then he surged into her life like a biblical plague. Starved for love, Harrison became utterly enthralled by her father’s terrible hunger, and was, for all intents and purposes, lost to the world. This is a riveting memoir, a tightrope walk performed with grace and daring. As Harrison exorcises her demons, she reminds us that it’s a thin line between love and possession, sanity and madness.” –Booklist
“Only a writer of extraordinary gifts could bring so much light to bear on so dark a matter. I will never forget this book.” — Tobias Wolff
“This is a writer at the top of her form.”– Mary Gordon
“A powerful piece of writing, a testament to evil and hope.”– The New York Times
” Powerful. Remarkable for both the startling events it portrays and the unbridled force of the writing.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A mesmerizing true tale that in this talented novelist’s hands takes on the mythic proportions of a Greek tragedy.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This book offers an account of a moral victory — the re-emergence of a thoughtful, disciplined, knowing sensibility.” — Robert Coles, author of The Moral Intelligence of Children
“Every now and then a book comes along that disturbs, disrupts, and polarizes the public in new ways.” –Los Angeles Times
LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES
SUSIE LINFIELD, Susie Linfield teaches cultural reporting and criticism at New, York University’s department of journalism
Every now and then a book comes along that disturbs, disrupts and polarizes the public in new ways. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” was such a book, as was Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s “The Bell Curve.” (This used to happen with films, too–“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “Shoah”–but that, alas, seems to be a thing of the past.) In such cases, it is not just the work itself but the author too–and, in particular, his motives, integrity and moral vision–that are scrutinized and interrogated. The debates over such books can turn highly unpleasant, yet they are, generally speaking, a good thing, for they force readers and critics to confront their most cherished ideas and even, sometimes, develop new ones.
Kathryn Harrison’s “The Kiss,” a memoir of her incestuous relationship with her father, is the latest, and perhaps the best, example of such a polarizing work. To call it controversial would be a laughable understatement; it has been the object of almost apoplectic fury. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley, who is one of the country’s most prominent book critics, has written three vitriolic pieces on “The Kiss,” calling it “slimy,” “repellent,” “revolting” and “shameful”; Liz Smith, who is one of the country’s most prominent gossip columnists, has also weighed in with a somewhat more concise, if no more restrained, “Yuck!”
Between Yardley and Smith, a wide range of critics (often, though not always, male) has damned the book, while several, such as novelists Francine Prose and Susan Cheever, have praised it. Harrison has been accused of dishonesty, opportunism, careerism, greed, exhibitionism, narcissism, selfishness, coyness, self-plagiarism and–the ultimate insult–bad mothering. (In olden days, one suspects, she would have simply been called a whore and a witch and promptly dispatched to the nunnery or the stake. Apparently, though, such words–and such solutions–are no longer feasible.)
Harrison’s harshest critics–who have included Michael Shnayerson in Vanity Fair and James Wolcott in the New Republic–almost always cite her book as an example of the tacky, tell-all, television-based culture that, they fear, is engulfing us. A “growing number” of women memoirists, Shnayerson warned, are “baring the kind of behavior once kept secret even from close girlfriends”; even the best are “as of-the-moment as this afternoon’s ‘Oprah.’ ” But the question of how much women should tell about their emotional and sexual experiences–and of the appropriately Olympian tone to use when they do–is only tangentially related to the emergence of talk shows or tabloids; such questions are, in fact, far older–and more volatile.
Charlotte Bronte, for instance, was criticized for the unseemly, revelatory emotion of her work. As the literary scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun noted almost a decade ago, “When Matthew Arnold disliked ‘Villette’ because it was so full of hunger, rebellion, rage, he was at the same time identifying its strengths, but these were unbearably presumptuous in a woman writer.” And although now generally respected as part of the canon, the work of such poets as Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton was often regarded as too confessional, too personal, too angry, too sexy and too disgusting when it first appeared. (And a poem like Plath’s “Daddy” is still a shocker, even today.) Doris Lessing advised Kate Millett that “you cannot be intimidated into silence” when writing about the sexual truth of your life, but few writers are as sensibly courageous as Doris Lessing. The irony, of course, is that it is precisely when women reveal their most intimate experiences that they risk being viewed as unfeminine:
“. . . consider the fate of women / How unwomanly to discuss it!” the poet Carolyn Kizer wrote. So when Wall Street Journal critic Cynthia Crossen admonished Harrison to “hush up,” she was hardly suggesting something new. Crossen, Shnayerson, Wolcott, Yardley, et al. have simply taken the well-worn, if not quite venerable, demand that women writers be decent, tactful, dignified, protective and discreet–that is, silent, secretive, deceptive, frightened and reassuring–and put a modern, mediaphobic spin on it.
Still, the fact that some very good books (and poems) have been attacked for the same reasons–although, I suspect, with less venom–as “The Kiss” does not make “The Kiss” a very good book. What makes “The Kiss” a very good book is the spare lyricism of its prose, the emotional authenticity of its narrator, its unblinking look at some horrible (but not, I would argue, inhuman) things and the undeniably fascinating story it tells. Reading it, however, is neither easy nor pleasant; its harshness makes you recoil even as its vortex of emotions draws you in. It is an ugly tale, beautifully told.
The actual story is simple; the emotions are anything but. Harrison is raised in a volatile yet loveless home from which her father is virtually absent; when she meets him at age 20 (for only the third time in her life), he begins to pursue her with a demented intensity. She is the good girl who has spent her life desperately, and quite unsuccessfully, seeking the affections of her mother: Their joint project is “trying to make me into the child she can admire and love.” Sadly, Harrison is a smart girl, and she has learned her lessons–that love is evasion, self-denial, enslavement, capitulation–all too well. Now caught between a mother who snarls don’t-touch-me! and a father who demands touch-me!, she chooses the latter, exchanging one tyrant for another and regarding this, she dryly explains, as “an existential promotion.” What is so horrifying about “The Kiss” is not that we can’t understand this so-called choice but that, given the devastating clarity with which Harrison charts her emotionally parched landscape, we can.
And here, I think, is the source of much of the fury that has been directed against “The Kiss.” Jean-Paul Sartre has written that literature is a collaboration between author and reader; “The Kiss” turns us into collaborationists in the worst way. Harrison implicates us in grisly truths we don’t want to know (but we do, we do): How rage can parade as love; how heartbreakingly hopeless, yet entirely inevitable, are all attempts to transcend loss; how deep sorrow so often transmogrifies into deep viciousness, instead of deep compassion; how those who are most damaged by their parents are the least able to walk–or even crawl–away from them. (And how the gods must chuckle over that one!) “The Kiss” is Freud’s family romance played out with a vengeful literalness, and although the actions are certainly extreme, the emotions that underlie them are hardly unique. How, though, can we love a writer who brings us ever closer to–as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of Sylvia Plath–her “infatuation with the hideous”? By making us, forcing us, to understand (which, it seems necessary to add, is not synonymous with “approve” or “condone”), Harrison blurs the boundary between her perversion and our normalcy.
In her life, too–a life that has received an extraordinary amount of (sometimes speculative) attention since the publication of “The Kiss”–Harrison smudges this line, and that also seems to enrage. Wolcott, for instance, spent much of his long, witty, nasty review of “The Kiss” insisting, rather astonishingly, that Harrison is a lousy mother–precisely, in his view, because she has written this memoir. There is no doubt that if Harrison were a hermit, a bag lady, a drug addict, a prostitute, a nun or, best of all, a suicide–that if, in short, she had been permanently and obviously ruined by her transgressions or was spending her life atoning for them–the reaction to “The Kiss” would be far different. Of course, she may be a psychological wreck (there is no way for an outside critic to know), but she at least appears to be doing quite well, thank you: There’s the flourishing career, the successful husband, the two lovely children, the home in yuppie-heaven Park Slope. Inexplicably–audaciously!–Harrison’s life looks quite a lot like those of her critics, especially in her creation of a seemingly normal family. The emotional turf that was supposedly reserved for “nice” people has been invaded; the Maginot Line of respectability has not held. There goes the neighborhood!
Although “The Kiss” is certainly about incest, its central relationship is the one between Kathryn and her mother. (In fact, the affair is not actually consummated until fairly late in the book, although we know of it from the start.) And the maternal relationship depicted here is almost as disturbing–if not quite as transgressive or deranged–as the paternal one. Harrison’s mother (who, like her father, is never named) is an unfortunate, and dangerous, combination. In part, she is negligent (she moves into her own apartment when Harrison is 6, leaving her daughter, who is then raised by grandparents, to gaze at a beautiful frock and wonder, “If a dress like this was not worth taking, how could I have hoped to be?”); in part, she is cruel (she has Harrison deflowered by a gynecologist–while she watches). Not surprisingly, her daughter grows into an equally unfortunate, and no doubt more dangerous, mixture of obsequiousness–she is “the thin girl, the achiever, the grade-earner, the quiet girl, the unhungry girl, the girl who will shape-shift and perform any self-alchemy to win her mother’s love”–and rage. Harrison makes clear that she enters the relationship with her father in part to get back at her mother, to break both her mother’s heart and will. And it works: The book, and the affair, end with her mother’s death from cancer at age 43.
This is not the self-portrait of the author as a nice person. It is, in fact, every mother’s–every woman’s–nightmare. When it comes to her mother, Harrison is the owner, in her own words, of “a fury so destructive that I would take from her what brief love she has known, because she has been so unwilling for so long to love me just a little.” It is Harrison’s bottomless anger–and her ruthlessness, her eagerness for revenge, her scorched-earth policy–that have, I suspect, so frightened certain critics. Her stance toward the reader, too, is boldly unapologetic–she is not ingratiating, or even particularly likable, not, apparently, interested in being one of those “close girlfriends” of whom Shnayerson writes.
Even scarier than Harrison’s skill in betraying her mother is her ability to betray herself. Her mother’s cruelty and her father’s craziness may seem foreign, bizarre, unbelievable to some readers, but Harrison’s capacity as a young woman to blur her own vision, deny her own feelings, negate her own needs and disavow her own knowledge will seem eerily, creepily, sickeningly familiar to many. Harrison herself recognizes that this is her fatal flaw, the sine qua non of her tragedy, the origin of her sin. “Years later,” she writes, looking back on a suicide attempt, “what will strike me as more damning than my self-destructiveness is my capacity for secrecy, my genius at revealing so little of my heart–and thus the risk that I, too, could end up a woman as trapped within herself as my mother.”
Although its subject matter is certainly shocking, “The Kiss” is an essentially old-fashioned book. It is not particularly smart, analytic, clever or fun; its pain is unalleviated by either the sweetness of redemption or the anesthesia of irony. ” ‘King Lear’ is almost intolerable, if it’s done well,” film critic Pauline Kael once observed; one might say “The Kiss” is done all too well. Far from conveniently plugging into the Zeitgeist, its unalloyed wail of anguish is pre-modern, not post.
Several critics have voiced the belief–which, in their case, is really a hope–that “The Kiss” is too far outside normal experience to attract many readers. (Similarly, throughout the book, Harrison expresses the fear that what she has done is “unspeakable.”) They may be right, though I doubt it. This is the story of a young girl with a fifth column lodged firmly in her heart and of the terrible places it leads her. Precisely for that reason, I suspect, it will be read by women of all ages–and their mothers and their daughters of all ages, too–long after “Oprah” is off the air, and long after Harrison’s sputtering critics have hushed up. Like all good literature, “The Kiss” illuminates something that we knew already, while also teaching us things we had not even suspected.
Susan Cheever, The New York Times Book Review
The past is a dangerous place. One look backward can turn you into salt, or cause the loss of the woman you love. For a writer, memory is treacherous and precious at the same time. Every now and then, though, a writer looks back with such bold clarity that it’s as if we were living right along with the story. The work reverberates with similarities to our own experience, and with differences from our own experience, so that in the end it gives us a new way of looking at the world. Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, ”The Kiss,” is a book like this.
”A voice over the public-address system announces the final boarding call,” Ms. Harrison writes of her father’s departure after a weeklong visit when she was 20 years old — the first time she had seen him in 10 years. ”As I pull away, feeling the resistance of his hand behind my head, how tightly he holds me to him, the kiss changes. It is no longer a chaste, closed-lipped kiss. My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn. He picks up his camera case, and, smiling brightly, he joins the end of the line of passengers disappearing into the airplane.”
This is the kiss in the title of Ms. Harrison’s powerful, disturbing new book, the story of an affair she had with her father when she was a college student with a slender body and long, long blond hair and he was a stocky, handsome middle-aged preacher. ”In years to come,” she writes, ”I’ll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain.” But this story is not about her body or brain, it is about her soul, the soul of a young girl and the terrible injury inflicted by the man who should have been its protector. Writing in affectless prose that reflects the shutdown in her feelings, Ms. Harrison describes with submerged fury and sadness what it means to be a daughter and how it feels to be a young girl yearning for a love that probably doesn’t exist even in a perfect family. ”It’s too late for you,” her father says near the end of the book, after they have slept together in a string of tacky motels and he has finally persuaded her to move into a bedroom off the kitchen in the house he shares with his new wife and children in the small town where he is a respected church leader. ”You’ve done what you’ve done, and you’ve done it with me. And now you’ll never be able to have anyone else, because you won’t be able to keep our secret.”
The story of an intellectually powerful man and his consuming desire to ravish an innocent, almost preconscious, young woman (sometimes his daughter) has often been told — Zeus, Lewis Carroll and Humbert Humbert come to mind — but Kathryn Harrison turns up the volume, making this ancient immorality tale a struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between God and the Devil. ”God gave you to me,” her father tells her when she argues, but even in despair she clings to another God, the God of maidens and children. ”When my father says the words I’ve dreaded — ‘make love’ is the expression he uses — God’s heart bursts, it breaks,” she writes.
It isn’t the shocking part of this book — the incest, the love affair — that gives it force. There’s a lot packed into these few pages: the story of a young girl whose narcissistic mother and absent father create a desperate, undirected longing; Ms. Harrison’s rush of recognition and relief when she meets her father and sees that many of her gestures, features and even thought patterns are inherited; the dreadful paternal kiss that puts Sleeping Beauty back to sleep, a horrible enchantment in which the prince turns into a frog. ”I’m . . . captivated by him,” Ms. Harrison writes. ”I’ve never really known who my father was, and revelation is inherently seductive. There is, too, the fascination of our likeness, that we resemble each other in ways that transcend physical similarities.”
Most of all, the book brilliantly, heartbreakingly lays out the helplessness of being a young woman, that sleepwalking quality that characterizes those who have little idea of sexual power or sexual responsibility, who feel invisible. In this story, becoming a woman — experiencing the change from being a little girl to being a big temptation — is a trauma that numbs. Ms. Harrison’s description of the psychic hunger that drives her to anorexia and then to bulimia is worth a dozen textbooks on eating disorders. ”You want thin? I remember thinking,” she writes. ”I’ll give you thin.” In one of the book’s many terrifying scenes, her mother watches while her gynecologist systematically breaks Ms. Harrison’s hymen with a graduated series of green plastic penises so that she can be fitted for a diaphragm. ”Is it because he was her obstetrician, the man who delivered me, that he imagines this is somehow all right?” Ms. Harrison asks.
The real shock is that this is a book with a happy ending. Its heroine is now an adult, a responsible, loving mother and wife and a woman who has mastered the difficulties of writing (she is also the author of three novels). There are many moments in the story when she seems lost, when the extent of her betrayal — of her mother, of her grandparents, of her own talents and ambitions — feels irreparable. Somehow her freedom from the thrall of her father comes through the death of her grandfather and her (finally) beloved mother. Ms. Harrison cuts her long Alice in Wonderland hair and gives it to her dying parent. ”Well,” her mother says from her hospital bed, ”it’s about time.” Her father is outraged; she is saved. Even God can’t change the past, Aristotle said, but with enough skill and courage we can look back on it and mourn, and rejoice, and understand.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times
Why do human beings commit incest? In her appalling but beautifully written memoir, ”The Kiss,” Kathryn Harrison, the novelist, isn’t primarily concerned with analyzing what happened between her and her father. She interweaves a series of dire events that occurred during the first 25 years of her life, jumping back and forth in time yet drawing you irresistibly toward the heart of a great evil.
Her narrative is spare and stark, written in a present tense that perfectly conveys how her experience happened ”out of time as well as out of place.” ”We meet at airports,” she begins, plunging the reader straight into the hell of the incestuous affair. ”We meet in cities where we’ve never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us. . . . these nowheres and notimes are the only home we have.”
Then she goes back to the start of her experience, when she first meets her estranged father as an adult. ”My father looks at me, then, as no one has ever looked at me before.” Having not seen her since 10 years earlier, when she was 10, he is enthralled by her resemblance to him. When she drives him to the airport, he kisses her goodbye and ”pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn.”
She writes: ”In years to come, I’ll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. The kiss is the point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralyzed. It’s the drug my father administers in order that he might consume me. That I might desire to be consumed.”
You read on, for once dreading instead of looking forward to the inevitable consummation. You are stunned by the author’s imagery of despair: the cockroach she traps under a glass the last night of her father’s first visit, when she discovers that he is sleeping with her mother. The ”dim, drowned light” in the basement apartment she rents when his obsessive attention forces her temporarily to withdraw from college after her junior year. The Polaroids her father takes of her naked: ”The expression on my face, flat and dispossessed, is one I see years later in a museum exhibit of pictures taken of soldiers injured during the Civil War.”
The reader’s defense to this onslaught can only be to try to understand. And Ms. Harrison, while not analytical, spins a complex web of clues involving narcissism, repressed desire, her mother’s emotional inaccessibility, her father’s hunger to recapture the past and her own need for substantiation.
She writes: ”From a mother who won’t see me to a father who tells me I am there only when he does see me: perhaps, unconsciously, I consider this an existential promotion. I must, for already I feel that my life depends on my father’s seeing me.”
But if any single emotion lies behind what happens, it is rage. The author feels rage at her mother’s coldness, and avenges herself by possessing what her mother claims still to love. Her father feels rage at having been banished from his marriage, and avenges himself by possessing what survives of it.
”The greatest blindness we share, my father and I, is that neither of us knows how angry we are,” she writes. ”It’s perhaps because I cannot admit my fury that I don’t see what he hides from himself. And he, long practiced in self-deception, doesn’t see my anger either.
”Whatever passions we feel, we call love.”
What remains inexplicable is how Ms. Harrison survived not only incest but also rejection by both her parents as a young child, which led in turn to bouts of anorexia, bulimia and suicidal depression. How, given such a history, could she have become an academic star, a successful novelist and a wife and mother? How could she have survived at all?
Knowing that she did survive, one grasps at hints in ”The Kiss” that her mother’s parents, with whom she lived, gave her the necessary love and security. Yet she characterizes her maternal grandmother as a selfish, manipulative woman, and she writes that her grandfather rejected her when she reached puberty. In the end, the mystery of her healthy survival remains a flaw in her memoir.
Still, ”The Kiss” is a powerful piece of writing, a testament to evil and hope. You wonder only if its power is too concentrated. In it Ms. Harrison has reworked the material she treated as fiction in her first two novels, ”Thicker Than Water” and ”Exposure.” At the end of a praising review of ”Thicker Than Water” published in 1991, the novelist Scott Spencer asked astutely if that novel’s autobiographical elements hadn’t overwhelmed its art. ”Are we witnessing the beginning of a brilliant career or a bleeding soul’s attempt to bind itself in a tourniquet of words?” he asked. ”Can a novel ring too true for its own good?”
In ”The Kiss,” Ms. Harrison effectively reverses the terms of this question, and makes you wonder if a memoir can ring too artistic for the truth.
Gail Caldwell, THE BOSTON GLOBE
You could almost hear the chorus of indignation, mostly tenor and below, accompanying the pre-publication frenzy surrounding this memoir. Good God, went the collective gasp, how could she do such a thing? Gossipized in Vanity Fair and abroad, “The Kiss” promised to cross the last frontier of confessional writing in its description of an incestuous relationship between novelist Kathryn Harrison and her father. The precipitate response has been swift and mostly merciless (and, perhaps tellingly, mostly from men). Berated for being calculating and exploitative, pitied for her new role as “Manhattan’s circus freak” (The Irish Times), Harrison has already acquired an au courant notoriety for a book few people have even seen. Playing to an audience already squirming in their seats, Random House moved up the publication date of “The Kiss” by more than a month — and that still wasn’t enough to satisfy Newsweek, which jumped the gun by several weeks with its review.
The outcry has focused upon detail as well as motive: If Harrison had indeed had a sexual relationship with her father when she was a young woman, how specific would she be in her recollections, written almost two decades later? And why would she tell all, or in fact much of anything? The woman is a wife and the mother of young children, after all. Was “The Kiss” written for the money, as some reports have suggested, or from some dark version of the longing for catharsis that every writer knows? Its taboo subject notwithstanding, was it a “real” memoir (read: literary) or did it represent a new nadir in the realm of auto-pathography, telling a story better left untold?
Much of this line of questioning is irrelevant and disingenuous, and has about it the whiff of keeping the ladies quiet. We rarely, for instance, ask whether William Styron did it for the money when his memoir on depression and alcoholism appears. Nor do we wonder (in print, anyway) whether Philip Roth is trying to excavate personal demons by attributing them to the blackguard characters of his fiction. When poet Michael Ryan wrote his 1995 memoir, “Secret Life,” recounting childhood sexual abuse and his own ensuing predatory impulses, most of the response in the press praised the author for his candor as well as his literary ability. Women writers too often receive another kind of scrutiny, particularly when they go public with an exceptionally naked version of the truth.
Perhaps more germane, much of the content of “The Kiss” has been told before, through the translucent veil of fiction in Harrison’s first novel, “Thicker Than Water” (1991). No such quasi-artistic armor exists in “The Kiss,” which is a searing, deadpan chronicle of a horrid story: For several years, beginning when Harrison (her married name) was 20, she had a blinding, all-consuming sexual relationship with her biological father, who had left her and her mother when the girl was an infant. A minister who had remarried and fathered two more children, he visited his first daughter only twice during her childhood, then reappeared when she was in college, nearly to destroy her life. “Every day is a drowning,” she writes about her psychological state in the midst of their liaison. “Except for brief spasms of weeping that leave my face as wet as if I actually have, for a moment, broken the surface of some frigid dark lake, I feel nothing.”
That present tense tells you something of the immediacy of Harrison’s recollections, which unfold with a riveting sense of doom. The father Harrison describes — he remains unnamed, and she has been out of touch with him for years — is an emotional monster: a man who sobs with desire for his daughter, sends her more than 800 pages of love letters and insists that she has replaced God in his pantheon of worship. The unstoppable force of his seduction is the chief momentum of “The Kiss,” which after a while begins to take on the numbing internal logic of the damned. But readers of Harrison’s novels (particularly “Exposure” and “Thicker Than Water”) won’t be surprised by the near-hopeless story recounted here; her fictional women endure their own hells, including what can be manifest symptoms of sexual abuse, from shoplifting to exhibitionism and bulimia. Harrison’s self-destructiveness included deliberately cutting herself and a few halfhearted suicide attempts; the real wonder while reading this book is that she survived to build the life she has.
But before her father arrived to take his daughter into such perilous waters, there was an original betrayal, or void, that left her vulnerable to such devastating need: a mother who shunned her, wounded her continually, and left her when she was 6 to be raised by her maternal grandparents. The girl of course worshiped and loathed the mother she could never fully have, finally turning all that unmet yearning into a vacuum of loss filled by her father’s overpowering attention. The ensuing contract of destruction they made together was a partnership in mutual desperation, aimed at a woman who had rejected them both. Harrison already suffered from the self-loathing and good-girl perfectionism of a deeply neglected child; her father, for his part, was dangerously ill with his own set of problems. This is the vortex into which he led his daughter: “I’m afraid you may be frightened by this admission,” he wrote her, “but I have ruined an entire box of envelopes substituting your address for mine and mine for yours.” Described here with the wrenching neutrality of a set jaw and not a little charity, Harrison’s father emerges, even on his best days, as a walking personality disorder — his own life defined by black holes of need, narcissism posing as love, and boundaries as murky as a Louisiana swamp.
Harrison had the good sense to write “The Kiss” with the most bare-bones approach imaginable, letting the awful force of her story dictate its lean style. Devoid of prurient detail, it is a spare, painful book that saves its most dramatic words for the day she capitulates to her father’s need, when “God’s heart bursts, it breaks. For me it does.” How do you ever come back from a moment like that?
It would be wrong to call “The Kiss” redemptive or transcendent, and it rarely strives for any poetic reach beyond its own dark perimeters. But there’s little indication that Harrison wanted or expected that kind of literary outcome from writing this memoir, which is really a kind of logbook of private horror and survival. I wouldn’t presume to know why Harrison chose to tell this story, or whether it will bring her infamy or six-figure deals. Because the young woman she describes is so fragile, so mercilessly plundered by the man she should have been able to trust, I do hope it has finally brought her some peace.
Editorial Notebook; Hating It Because It Is True
By BRENT STAPLES
Autobiography was once dominated by famous people who summed up their lives near the end — largely to beat biographers to the punch. The best-seller lists and the Oprah show tell a different story today. The market is teeming with tenderfoot memoirs by ordinary Janes and Joes, many of them scarcely out of their 30’s. That readers consume these books by the gross makes it clear that the memoir is seizing ground once held by the novel. The presumption that only a novelist’s gift can transform life into literature has clearly been put to rest.
Younger novelists have joined the memoir trend. But hard-core traditionalists have denounced it as a blight on literature and a turn toward self-indulgence and exhibitionism. This is curious indeed, given that novels and memoirs are often so closely related as to be interchangeable. First novels in particular are often no more than thinly veiled personal histories. In addition, the best memoirs use fictional techniques — and could easily pass for novels if the writers wanted to call them that. In other words, what distinguishes many memoirs from fiction is that memoirs own up to being true.
The rivalry between novelists and memoir writers came into focus earlier this month, at an Authors Guild forum in Manhattan. The moderator was Frank Conroy, whose 1967 memoir “Stop-Time,” the story of a fatherless boy’s struggle through adolescence, was one of the first nonfiction works to ratify a child’s-eye view. Mr. Conroy helped introduce into nonfiction the stylistic and narrative strategies traditionally found in novels. The book attracted a cult following, and paved the way for several acclaimed works, including Geoffrey Wolff’s “Duke of Deception,” his brother Tobias’s “This Boy’s Life” and Mary Karr’s “Liars’ Club.” The best memoirs could be called nonfiction novels. As these books have succeeded, writers who once would have couched personal histories as fiction have stopped dissembling.
Speaking at the forum, the historical novelist Thomas Mallon said that novels were inherently about “larger truths,” while memoirs were about personal ones. But what’s obvious is that the devilish little girl in “The Liars’ Club” is every little girl. That she bears the author’s name makes her no less compelling or universal.
Some novelists declined to participate, perhaps because they viewed memoirs as an inferior form and wished not to say so publicly for fear of causing a stir. The novelist William Gass has no such fear. His blistering essay “The Art of Self,” published three years ago in Harpers, has become a flashpoint for memoir haters and practitioners. For Mr. Gass, biography is only acceptable when produced by some mythical neutral observer. He sees memoirs as “tainted with conceit” and the impulse to preen for posterity.
But novelists suffer this ailment as well. Even the most respected of them have kidnapped enemies into their pages, trashing spouses, lovers and rivals — while hiding behind the label of fiction. Memoir writers drop the pretense, which makes the narrative more honest and often more compelling.
Ideas that breeze by as fiction can cause explosions when presented as fact. The novelist Kathryn Harrison proves this case. She was praised for her novel “Thicker Than Water,” which told of an incestuous affair between the central character and her father. But the same story has brought venom and vilification when presented as fact in her memoir, “The Kiss.” Some critics took issue with Ms. Harrison’s craftsmanship, suggesting that she had thoughtlessly repackaged old material to make money. But the most aggressive critics seemed to condemn her for telling the truth about such a viscerally disturbing subject.
It has become popular to dismiss memoir as a way of peddling misery to a voyeuristic public. But what’s at play here is a prejudice that regards fiction as more literary than nonfiction narrative writing. That may have been true in other times, but given the stylistic kinship that now links novels and memoirs, that prejudice is no longer supportable. BRENT STAPLES