The Mother Knot


Shortly before her 42nd birthday in 2003, Kathryn Harrison embarked on a journey of self-discovery and renunciation, revisiting the themes of freedom and confinement that dominate her novels. The catalyst that catapulted Harrison into the familiar territory of anorexia and depression, she writes in ”The Mother Knot,” was her son’s hospitalization after a severe asthma attack. Asthma had also struck Harrison shortly after her mother left her when she was 6 years old, to be raised by grandparents. Haunted with misplaced guilt and fear, Harrison imagined a ”dybbuk” springing from her chest to infect her son. She initially identified this dark force as her own dead mother but, in the course of grappling with childhood demons during therapy, she unearthed the real dybbuk — herself. ”My mother, like Lot’s wife, had made the mistake of looking back,” Harrison concludes. Examining the past ultimately gave Harrison the chance to make peace with her inability to remedy her mother’s shortcomings with her own perfection. Harrison had her mother’s body exhumed and cremated — literally reduced to dust. The book’s struggle for causality seems strained at times; for example, when Harrison insists on finding a connection between her obsession with nursing her children and her mother’s rejection. Occasionally melodramatic, but unshakably honest, ”The Mother Knot” is a daring look at the complexities of a troubled mother-daughter relationship. Beverly Willett, The New York Times Book Review


“Harrison, the survivor of a fractured childhood and a damaging affair with her father, somewhat ameliorates her boundless psychic pain and corresponding anorexia and severe depression by writing searing memoirs, including Seeking Rapture (2003), and she has gathered an avid readership. She now continues her literary therapy by drilling to the very heart of her predicament, her long-suppressed fury at her unloving mother, a malignant rage undiminished by her mother’s death. A compelling and driven writer, …Harrison has succeeded in breaking the pattern of dysfunctional mothering perpetuated by her grandmother and mother, but as she struggles with fear over her son’s debilitating asthma, she realizes that she will never be well, nor her family free from anxiety on her behalf, until she finds a way to exorcise her mother’s smothering spirit. As always, Harrison manages to shock and awe her readers as she renders her own private hell universal and instructive.”–Booklist

“Harrison’s fascinating memoir nails a never-before-uttered psychological truth. A drama with her own child forces the writer to unknot—with great agony—the bonds that enslaved her to the memory of her own capricious mother, who almost manages—even from the grave—to destroy her only surviving child. This book should be required reading for anyone who ever had a mother.” —MARY KARR

“Mothers: They birth us, mold us, influence who we are and who we can become. Even in memory, their hold on daughters is complete. I loved The Mother Knot for its honest assessment of the ongoing impact this most primal of bonds can have on an adult daughter. In prose that manages to be both luminous and economical, in sentences that feel as effortless as breathing, Kathryn Harrison poignantly details the lengths to which one daughter must go, in order to finally let go.”—HOPE EDELMAN, author of Motherless Daughters

“I am not alone. Kathryn Harrison’s new memoir has revealed that poignantly, beautifully, the way the best literature always does. Sure, the details of her story are unique, but the haunting emotions that weave together daughterhood and motherhood are universal. I just couldn’t put The Mother Knot down.”—MARTHA MCPHEE

“The Mother Knot is a prose poem dedicated to performing a difficult task at which Kathryn Harrison always elegantly succeeds. Here, once again, she has found great beauty in limning hard truths. She is one of the most compelling writers I know, a true artist whose formidable talent is matched by her courage.”

“Kathryn Harrison’s new memoir, written with razor blades and honey, is a compelling mother-daughter study, full of truths about our lives. The book is moving and beautifully written.” —ERICA JONG



As we know from Kathryn Harrison’s earlier autobiographical writings, the trauma of an unhappy childhood she was rejected by her mother, who gave birth as a teenager left her with two overwhelming compulsions: to punish herself for her mother’s failings, and to protect her own children fiercely from any and all of life’s abuses. When Harrison’s 10-year-old son was stricken with severe asthma and genuinely needed her protection, the two compulsions became mutually incompatible.

This tiny memoir gives an anguished account of Harrison’s struggle to vanquish one side of her personality the neurotic, victimized child in order to liberate the other side, the mature, nurturing mother. Overcome by guilt and fear when her son fell ill, she gave way to the depression and self-lacerating anorexia that had plagued her earlier years. Harrison saw that to win this battle, she would need an exorcism, a slashing of “the mother knot” that had bound her emotionally since childhood.

The book’s searing climactic scene of a symbolic reverse childbirth tragic, comic, appalling, and touching is too complex, too literate, to be pinned with the facile label of “closure,” though that surely describes the outcome for which the author and her long-suffering therapists devoutly wished.



When acute asthma struck the 10-year-old middle child of Kathryn Harrison, the author fell into a “black hole” of depression.

As she descended into a seemingly inescapable pit of despair of anorexia and guilt, Harrison found that she must make peace with her own deceased mother, whom she refers to as a “dybbuk or dervish, twisting out of my chest, a force of corruption that sprang from me and infected my son, choked and smothered him.”

In this unsettling account, Harrison, author of the memoir The Kiss, the essay collection Seeking Rapture and several novels, shows in almost uncomfortably naked prose how thin the line is between sanity and madness.

Mental anguish was not new to Harrison. She already was sneaking a half-milligram of “stale Xanax” at night, a leftover prescription from four years earlier, when she was hospitalized for depression. But at the heart of this new attack of depression is an open sore between the writer and her mother, who left Harrison with her grandparents when she was 6. Her mother once told her the reason for her birth was to act as a “surrogate, a new daughter for her mother to manipulate, so that she herself could slip away.”

Later, as Harrison’s mother dies of cancer in her early 40s, she predicts to her daughter, “After I’m dead, you’re going to be very angry with me.” While juggling her family’s needs with a worsening state of mind, Harrison starves her body to such a dangerous level that her internist tells her that if she loses 3 more pounds, he will have her hospitalized and force-fed.

What rescues Harrison is ritual. With her husband’s blessing, she has her mother’s body disinterred and then cremated. “I’m not so much having my mother dug out of the ground as I am exhuming her from my own body,” Harrison tells her analyst. On a blustery March day, Harrison takes the ashes to a Long Island beach, where she walks out into the freezing water to let go of her mother.

The scene, which alternates between flashbacks and the present, reads with the emotion of poetry. “When the waves reached the middle of my thighs, enough of me immersed that I could claim to be in the sea with her.” Whether this moving ceremony allows Harrison to return to a peaceful state of mind is unknown. Indeed, more questions than answers remain at the end of this 82-page book.

Is her son recovering? Was this depression only a case of unfinished mother-daughter business?

As the book ends, Harrison watches her mother’s ashes spread across the sea. But has Harrison finally let her go?