God help the unsuspecting reader who picks up The Kiss on the assumption that Kathryn Harrison’s romantically titled memoir is some sort of literary valentine. Here’s the smooch the 36-year-old novelist, wife, and mother has in mind: ”My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn.” Whoa. This kiss is the start of a consensual affair the author had with her father, a Protestant minister, from the time she was 20 till she turned 24. The action, she goes on to write, was ”a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain.”
Smelling salts, anyone? Harrison has covertly described this incestuous relationship before, in her autobiographical first novel, Thicker Than Water (1991). But The Kiss is…something else. Despite its controlled and narcotized language and lack of graphic details, its non-fictive content is nothing short of explosive. And in the weeks before its publication this month, Harrison’s confessional — while eliciting blurbs of praise from selected fellow novelists (”like lightning in the heart’s dark tempest,” offers Bob Shacochis) — has rattled the composure of some of the most sophisticated book-chat types. The critic at The Washington Post called The Kiss ”slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical.” The Wall Street Journal‘s reviewer invoked her own grandmother’s language in urging the author to ”hush up.”
Harrison has no such plans. Talking volubly in a back room at her publisher’s offices with a brisk intensity that is the very opposite of slimy and repellent — urban and worldly is more like it — she is nonplussed. ”Some people say, ‘How could you have the bad sense or stupidity or whatever to write it down? Bad enough that it happened, but just shut up about it!’ It’s curious, that I didn’t expect that. It forces the book into sort of a political position that I didn’t even anticipate while I was writing it: Yes, we can write about anything.”
The author’s hands frequently rake through the thick, blonded chin-length hair that once, when her father loved it, flowed dramatically down her back. Speaking in matter-of-fact tones, she refers to the affair as ”the material,” and to the book as ”a piece of goods” — her best, she assesses. (Her three novels have all received good reviews.) ”I think a lot of [reviewers] are simply angry about my speaking the unspeakable.”
Well…yes. This woman slept with her father. And then told the world.
To put it another way, just because a writer can speak the unspeakable, does that mean that she should? Harrison’s mother is dead, but the unnamed father, with whom the daughter says she has not been in contact in ”10 or 12” years, is, last she heard, alive somewhere with his second wife and their children. (Her parents split up when she was an infant; her mother left her to be raised by her grandmother; the father saw Kathryn only briefly before coming to claim her when she was a college student at Stanford.) The author’s own children, a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son who live with their parents in Brooklyn, are young but won’t always be. Her husband, Colin Harrison, deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine, is himself a novelist (Manhattan Nocturne) but will henceforth also be known as the man who sleeps with the woman who slept with her father.
Colin Harrison, 36, assures that he is “quite proud of her for having written this.” As for their children, “They are quite young right now, and I think it will largely pass them by.” Might his daughter not suffer a special pain? “It may be difficult when she’s 14 or 18 or 22,” he considers. “But it will be good for her. It will be empowering, to use that terrible word.”
Kathryn says she wrote a memoir, rather than the fiction she was to deliver (part of a two-novel deal with Random House), because “the material itself had become more of a stumbling block than an inspiration. It was getting in my way as a novelist. I wanted to deal with it and then move on. It was sort of distracting, you know—what about this big thing over here?”
Whether she did, in fact, “deal with it” is hard to say, as Harrison offers little self-analysis in the book. In person, she does acknowledge a “lamentable lack of self-awareness” at the time. “Nobody said, you know, ‘Let’s have an affair because I think it would really destroy your mother and we’re both really mad.'” (Her mother did suspect the liaison.) “This was acting out in the most outrageous degree.”
Harrison’s critics would contend that, in penning The Kiss, she is simply continuing to act out. But certainly the instinct to tell life stories is an ancient one. After all, “Write what you know” has been the mantra of artists since prehistoric chroniclers daubed accounts of their hunts on cave walls. And other women unafraid to expose awful things have made some splash in recent years—think of Mary Karr’s vivid story of her own terrible childhood in The Liar’s Club, or Lucy Grealey’s account of growing up disfigured by cancer in Autobiography of a Face, or even Elizabeth Wurtzel’s loopy ballad of psychological disarray in Prozac Nation.
The Kiss, though, is different. It’s about a primal taboo. Biblical stuff. And what may be most unnerving is the treatment of the book by Harrison and her supporters solely as an aesthetic product—a thing to be marketed, with no moral weight attached. Kate Medina, Harrison’s editor, calls The Kiss “remarkable” and says of its content, “This kind of thing happens.” Random House president and publisher Harold Evans assays, “If it’s art, it’s art. You don’t tell James Joyce, ‘Don’t write Ulysses because you’ll be exposed as a voyeur.'”
Kathryn Harrison says that the process of writing The Kiss was like “the Novocain wearing off.” Now she’s mining her past even deeper, writing about her grandmother in what she calls a “prequel,” which seems to promise more glimpses into intense familial dysfunction.
The care she is lavishing on this latest “stumbling block” raises questions of whether the author really does want to move on. But at least her family benefits. “All the craziness gets poured into the work,” she says, and touches her hair.