By Kathryn Harrison
Random House; 224 pages; $20
Writers routinely plagiarize themselves, but rarely on the scale that Kathryn Harrison does in The Kiss. A memoir about her incestuous relationship with her father, it reprises her first novel, Thicker Than Water (1991), in which a woman named Isabel recounts an incestuous relationship with her father. Writers regularly perjure themselves, too, though here again, Harrison’s brazenness is unusual. At the time, she swore that Thicker Than Water was “completely a product of her imagination.” Now she says the story is completely the product of her unconscious. “The Kiss was a book I couldn’t avoid, rather than one I set out to write,” writes Harrison in a press release for reviewers. “There was an internal imperative to deal with the subject now, and that need was confirmed by my husband Colin’s and my desire that it be published as soon as possible–before our children were any older and more aware of the media around them.” Is The Kiss a case of opportunism in a book market mad for memoirs, or a case of exhibitionistic masochism? The answer, of course, is both. Harrison is the latest specimen of a newish literary vogue that might be labeled “the feminine perverse.” Those who chart this psychologically and sexually unsettling terrain are not supposed to be specimens of wholesome equilibrium themselves. On the contrary, their biographies are a key to their authority in this realm of love gone awry. By proving that she is on intimate terms with the abnormal, Harrison joins a company of women that includes such fiction writers as Mary Gaitskill (a onetime stripper) and Amy Bloom (a therapist), as well as a burgeoning array of memoirists personally acquainted with the dark heart of Freud’s “family romance.”
Harrison’s twin books are a disconcerting guide to a neo-Gothic family drama with proven drawing power in our post-feminist era. Familiar characters line up in the foreground: There’s the abusive father, the indifferent mother and, in the middle, the masochistic daughter. The action is not original either. (It is echoed in Bloom’s new novel, Love Invents Us, for instance, although the narrator there succumbs to a teacher rather than a father.) Raised by wealthy grandparents in Bel Air comfort, the narrator of both novel and memoir endures a barren childhood and anorexic adolescence, yearning desperately for a mother who has brutally rebuffed her since birth. Her mother, in turn, yearns for the déclassé husband whom her parents had forced her to divorce, soon after she had had her baby daughter at 19. This man reappears and instigates an obsessive affair with his now college-age daughter.
There the similarity between Harrison’s two books ends, and the difference between them exemplifies a different form of incest: that between literature and psychotherapy. How intimate can the two get before congenital defects begin to show up in their offspring? In Thicker Than Water, Harrison moved away from trauma toward art and produced fiction with the disorienting strangeness of truth. (One critic ventured that it might be “too true for its own good.”) In her memoir, Harrison has put art at the service of trauma and emerged with something that has the feel of neither. The Kiss loses sight of the two most important elements of Harrison’s story: the monstrosity of her mother and the mystery of herself.
You might expect Harrison’s problem as memoirist to be that she abandons the ranks of survivors for those of victims. In fact, it’s the opposite. In Thicker Than Water, Isabel is an enraged victim who realizes that her mother, not her father, is the real object of her fury. At the heart of the novel is an intimate portrait of maternal sadomasochism. Isabel’s mother is warped by her own fury at a tyrannically manipulative mother, and both women are worthy descendants of Henny, Christina Stead’s classic study in chilling maternity in The Man Who Loved Children (1940), with her eyes of “unloving beauty” and her disgust at the “darn muck of existence.” By comparison, Isabel’s father is peripheral. When he appears two-thirds of the way into the book and rapes his daughter, the shock is easily overshadowed by the abuse that has come before. During Isabel’s babyhood, her mother slipped objects–a toothbrush handle, a pencil, “nothing too big … nothing that would break me, really”–inside “the pink folds” of her infant vagina.
In the essay that introduced Stead’s novel to the United States, Randall Jarrell observed that in “the bosom of the family, everything is carried far past plausibility.” He went on, “[W]e never understand the normal better than when it has been allowed to reach its full growth and become abnormal.” The appalling infant abuse in Thicker Than Water is presumably not drawn from Harrison’s life (no baby is violated in The Kiss), and even for Isabel, the memory exists as half-dream. But luridly conceiving of herself as the ultimate victim is how Isabel saves herself. Beyond cure, she is driven to create a self, and to give imaginative shape to the selves around her. At its best, Thicker ThanWater is a merciless record of the implausible and inescapable claims of blood, and Isabel, a compelling reminder that to understand one’s family is not necessarily to forgive it.
The Kiss, on the other hand, is a quest for a cure. Harrison is “no longer satisfied by working through the material in terms of fiction,” she explains in her press release. It seems the time has come to move beyond victimhood and emerge a survivor. Yet, the confessional experience doesn’t prove much of a liberation.
Where Isabel had a distinctive voice, Harrison has two, both lacking inflection. She speaks first in the tones of a dazed co-dependent who purports to be recovering the memory of her affair. Scenes surface in disjointed fragments, in the present tense: “I feel his fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck. I feel his hot breath on my eyelids.” This is not an “authentic” trancelike state, as one psychoanalyst suggested in a Vanity Fair article about Harrison. The “detached, somnambulant voice” is too studied for that–and too often interrupted by the second voice, which is more explicitly self-conscious. It is this other, more clinical persona who gives the shards of experience a therapeutic cadence. “In the dark I touch my body until I know by heart the map of my hunger,” chants a lyrical Harrison of her anorexic self. Five sentences later, the second Harrison intrudes: “I starve myself to recapture my sexuality from my mother.”
W here Isabel spoke bluntly of rape and of revenge on her mother, Harrison presents herself as complicitous in an all-consuming passion for her father. It is he who dominates the drama, or at least him whom she tries to bring into focus. She fixates on their affair as it unfolds after a family reunion during her junior year of college. She is fascinated by this long-lost figure. He in turn is enthralled by her. Then, as he says goodbye at the airport, he pushes his tongue into her mouth. Fevered phone calls follow, and they begin to live for the intensity of their meetings. Yet this man with “trembling hands and hot eyes” is never much more than a stock figure. By day, he is a fanatical preacher; in secret, he is a demonic lover. Harrison’s mother, on the other hand, is sketched in the more manageably terrible proportions of a Bel Air malcontent, always looking for trouble. (The only scene of maternal assault replayed in the memoir is Harrison’s teen-age visit to the gynecologist; she is dragged there by her mother, who orders the doctor to break her hymen and fit her for a diaphragm.)
It’s Harrison herself who fills the frame. Yet even she keeps dissolving into a blur, the formulaic rhetoric of recovery seeping in to replace her: “Like a more prosaic addiction–to alcohol, to heroin–mine for my father has consumed the rest of my life.” The once self-destructive keeper of dark secrets becomes both a model patient and her very own doctor. In an orgy of brave self-blame, Harrison manages to assume responsibility and absolve herself at the same time. She accuses herself of masochism, of being unable to separate emotional nourishment and punishment. She accuses herself of narcissism, of needing to see herself reflected in someone’s obsessed eyes: “[M]y father, holding himself so still and staring at me, has somehow begun to see me into being.” She is most impatient with the passivity that permitted such subjugation. But Isabel understood that her passivity was also the source of her power: Her inscrutable remoteness tormented her tormenters.
Harrison diagnoses and forgives, but the empathy she summons for her parents seems as facile as her self-denigration. Her father’s rapacious love for her allows her to understand why her mother rejected her as a baby: “I learn what it was to be [my mother],” she says, “to be so young and vulnerable, to have to protect herself from a ravenous love that she was afraid would consume her, steal her from herself.” A family that is devoured together is empowered together? This is a daughter who pardons too much.
Harrison’s memoir ends with a dream of reconciliation with her mother, and it is the survivor who gets the last word: “In this dream, I feel that at last she knows me, and I her. I feel us stop hoping for a different daughter and a different mother.” Such mercy, both sterile and sentimental, may make life easier (though not, one imagines, for her children). But it makes real artistry impossible.