Study Guide

Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison Essay - Critical Essays

Harrison, Kathryn

Introduction

Kathryn Harrison 1961-

American novelist and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Harrison's work through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 70.

Harrison received a measure of critical praise for her first three novels, Thicker Than Water (1991), Exposure (1993), and Poison (1995). However, her fourth book, a memoir entitled The Kiss (1997), in which Harrison details a lengthy incestuous relationship she had with her father, met with widespread criticism that was largely sparked by its controversial subject matter. Harrison had previously fictionalized this relationship in her novel Thicker Than Water. While The Kiss has been faulted by many commentators for its titillating confessions and for what they see as a rehashing of an earlier work, other critics have lauded the memoir's stark intensity and lyrical prose.

Biographical Information

Harrison was born in 1961 to Edward and Carole Lang, in Los Angeles, California. Her parents separated when Harrison was young, and shortly after, her father remarried. Harrison attended Stanford University and later the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. When Harrison was twenty years old, she entered into a consensual incestuous relationship with her father, an affair that began with a single kiss, which served as the inspiration for the title of Harrison's memoir. For four years, Harrison and her once-estranged father maintained a sexual relationship, always meeting far away from Harrison's college and her father's community where he had a family and worked as a preacher. The affair ended when Harrison's mother passed away. Harrison has worked as an editor at Viking Publishers in New York. She was awarded a James Michener Fellowship in 1989 and a New York Foundation for the Arts' artist fellowship in 1994.

Major Works

In Thicker Than Water, Harrison depicts the dark side of what seems to be a glamorous Los Angeles lifestyle. Isabel, the story's narrator, is part of a wealthy yet highly dysfunctional family. She endures a childhood fraught with neglect and abuse, an adolescence encumbered by psychological problems, and a young adulthood marked by her mother's death and an incestuous relationship with her father. Exposure centers around a woman struggling with issues from her childhood and her relationship with Edgar, her father. Edgar is a successful photographer who uses his young daughter as a model for sexually suggestive and morbid photographs. In Poison, Harrison chose to set her novel in seventeenth-century Spain and again addresses themes of illicit eroticism and the mistreatment of women. By intertwining the tales of two very different women, Maria Luisa and Francisca, Harrison underscores her recurrent themes by contrasting a strong, assertive character with a meeker, repressed character who is forced to live under bleak circumstances. Harrison's most well-known and controversial work, The Kiss, is a memoir that recounts her four-year consensual affair with her father while she was in her early twenties. Harrison returned to historical fiction with The Binding Chair (2000), which focuses on two women, May Cohen and Alice Benjamin. May is Shanghai prostitute who has fled the confines of her stifling first marriage after being wed to a wealthy Jewish client from her brothel. Alice, May's niece by marriage, is an independent and rebellious youngster who defies her family's attempts at a traditional upbringing. The novel follows the two women through their struggles and concludes with Alice travelling to the French Riviera to become a ward of her aunt.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Harrison's first three novels was generally favorable. Reviewing Exposure, Wendy Smith wrote, “Harrison, who even in her first book displayed exceptional artistic assurance and control, has crafted a multi-layered text. … the delineation, in superbly modulated prose, of a woman's painful, tentative journey toward self-knowledge.” Critical assessment of The Kiss has varied widely. Many reviewers panned the memoir as a publicity stunt or as Harrison's attempt to exact revenge on her mother. Jonathan Yardley referred to the book as “trash. … not an artful word in it.” Tobias Wolff entered into a spirited public debate with Yardley concerning the work and the merits of the memoir genre as a whole. Wolff complimented the courage it took Harrison to write The Kiss and commented that “[t]he truth is that they are using her as a target of convenience for their animus against the genre she's working in—the memoir.” Looking beyond the initial controversy, Joanne Kaufman hoped that “[p]erhaps The Kiss will serve as the means by which Harrison can finally exorcise her demons and begin to broaden the terrain of her fiction.” Reviewers were again divided in their response to The Binding Chair. Several critics remarked that Harrison's prose was scintillating, while others found the events depicted to be too gruesome and reminiscent of her previous works. Some commentators noted in their reviews of The Binding Chair that perhaps the mixed critical reactions to The Kiss caused Harrison to lose sight of what her readers expect from her, and thus lose faith in her own abilities as a novelist.

Principal Works

Thicker Than Water (novel) 1991

Exposure (novel) 1993

Poison (novel) 1995; published in England as A Thousand Orange Trees

The Kiss: A Memoir (memoir) 1997

The Binding Chair: or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society (novel) 2000

Criticism

Vince Passaro (review date 14 February 1993)

SOURCE: “Private Eye,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 14, 1993, pp. 3, 7.

[In the following positive review of Exposure, Passaro praises Harrison's prose, comparing it to the works of novelist and journalist Joan Didion.]

Kathryn Harrison, on the heels of her disturbing and elegiac first novel, Thicker Than Water has written a second, Exposure that plays off a newsworthy subject and creates an intense portrait of an artist's (and a father's) capacity for exploitation and betrayal.

The novel's damaged and unraveling heroine is Ann Rogers, daughter of a renowned photographer, Edgar Rogers, who made his fame with morbid, suggestive and visually stunning black and white pictures taken of her when she was a child and a blossoming teen. The similarities of Ann's situation to that of the children of the increasingly notorious photographer Sally Mann instantly suggest themselves: Mann takes beautiful and rather unnerving photos of her children—many of them, like Edgar's of Ann, elaborately posed recreations of actual domestic moments, often involving death-like postures and various bruises and wounds. Childhood sexuality recurs also as a motif. A great deal of controversy has arisen about these photos; Harrison's novel, aside from its considerable literary merits, contributes to that ongoing debate in tangential, dreamlike ways.

That Ann has been severely damaged by her father remains the emotional fulcrum on which the novel propels itself, although Harrison leaves room for an interpretation in which it was the man's joyless distance and brutal disregard, rather than his art, that did his daughter in. Most likely it was both. The story takes place when Ann is an adult, marginally coping with her father's suicide, which occurred when she was 19, her marriage and her career—she too is a photographer, and a partner in a successful videotaping outfit hired for weddings and such. She is also a diabetic, addicted to speed, a compulsive and very high-end shoplifter; her eyesight is going, a particular frightening side-effect of her condition, given what she does for a living, but this is not enough to get her off drugs or make her take minimal care of her health. She is falling apart at her job and letting her marriage slide into a chasm of secrecy and alienation. We observe her, through a series of third-person fragments, during the weeks leading to a major showing of her father's work in the Museum of Modern Art, a show which will mark the first time many long-suppressed photographs—the most sexually explicit ones, of Ann as a teen-ager, masturbating, making out with her boyfriend, et cetera—will be seen. The show...

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Kathryn Harrison with Patricia A. O'Connell (interview date 1 March 1993)

SOURCE: “Kathryn Harrison: Her Harrowing Psychological Novels Are Fiction, but Seem Vividly Real,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 9, March 1, 1993, pp. 33–34.

[In the following interview, O'Connell offers a positive assessment of Exposure, and Harrison states that the events dramatized in her first novel, Thicker Than Water, are entirely fictional.]

Kathryn Harrison's critically acclaimed first novel, Thicker Than Water, was a gripping story of incest, fatal illness and emotional deprivation. Her second novel, Exposure was called “harrowing but spellbinding” in a PW boxed review (“Fiction Forecasts,” Nov. 30); the...

(The entire section is 2064 words.)

Wendy Smith (review date 7 March 1993)

SOURCE: “Shooting His Daughter,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 23, No. 10, March 7, 1993, p. 7.

[In the following review, Smith offers a positive assessment of Exposure, but notes that the novel misses the chance to explore the larger social issues raised by its troubled heroine's life.]

Although it opens with Ann Rogers slipping on her shoplifted green suede skirt in the back seat of a Manhattan taxi, then shows her scoring three grams of crystal methedrine from the receptionist at her successful video business, Exposure is not—thank God—a simple tale of overprivileged angst. As in her first novel, Thicker Than Water, Kathryn...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Jeffrey Ann Goudie (review date July 1993)

SOURCE: “When Fiction Meets Fact,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 10–11, July, 1993, p. 34.

[In the following excerpt, Goudie argues that narratives of childhood sexual abuse—such as Exposure—have social significance even when they do not succeed artistically.]

I mentioned to a colleague that I was reviewing two novels revolving around the sexual abuse of children. “Novels?” he responded, with surprise. To render this social issue in fiction would seem the ultimate challenge; Susan Palwick's first novel, Flying in Place and Kathryn Harrison's second, Exposure both illustrate its difficulty. Both suffer from being too driven...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Judith Dunford (review date 4 June 1995)

SOURCE: “Love and Death, High and Low,” in Chicago Tribune Books, June 4, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review, Dunford offers a generally positive assessment of Poison, noting that Harrison's prose is often too stylized.]

Fans of Kathryn Harrison's last novel, Exposure, a psychological study as up-to-date as the chilling Metropolitan section of the daily paper, may be surprised by Poison. Harrison has moved backward in time, some 300 years.

Poison takes place in late 17th Century Spain. Long past its Golden Age, the country is in economic and political decline; the Venetian ambassador writes home in 1690 that Spain is...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)

Ron Hansen (review date 18 June 1995)

SOURCE: “The Faithless Priest and the Obsessed Harlot,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, p. 8.

[In the following positive review, Hansen argues that Poison is an elegant example of well-written historical fiction—a genre that typically portrays the contrasts and similarities between a past era and the current one.]

In 1679 Marie Louise de Bourbon, the niece of Louis XIV, the Sun King, married Carlos II, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs, in the village of Quintanapalla, Spain. She and Carlos were both 18. The princess was tall, beautiful and vivacious, fond of frolics and horseback riding; the king was short, ugly and gloomy, given to...

(The entire section is 919 words.)

Nicola Humble (review date 23 June 1995)

SOURCE: “Endless Torments,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4812, June 23, 1995, p. 26.

[In the following positive review of A Thousand Orange Trees (the British title for Poison), Humble notes that the novel focuses on the connection between beauty and cruelty.]

Set in seventeeth-century Spain, A Thousand Orange Trees twists together the stories of two women born on the same day, whose lives are devoured by the bloodthirsty Spanish state. Francisca de Luarca, the daughter of a Castilian silk-grower, is arrested by the Inquisition after a love affair with a priest and is tortured as a witch. Marie Louise de Bourbon, the niece of Louis XIV, is...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Roz Kaveney (review date 28 July 1995)

SOURCE: “Fate in Frocks,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 363, July 28, 1995, pp. 40–41.

[In the following excerpt, Kaveney offers a generally positive assessment of A Thousand Orange Trees.]

Kathryn Harrison's last novel dealt with kleptomania and photography in uptown New York. In A Thousand Orange Trees, her new heroines have neurosis in common with the earlier one, but are unlike her in being doomed without reprieve. Francisca bears a priest's child and ends on the racks of the Spanish Inquisition as a witch; Marie, the queen fails to produce a child and is poisoned by mother-in-law. Some centuries, women just can't win.

...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Taki (review date 29 March 1997)

SOURCE: “Incest Chic,” in Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8800, March 29, 1997, p. 53.

[In the following review, Taki offers a negative assessment of The Kiss, and states that he doubts the truth behind the events recounted in the memoir.]

There are very few taboos left in the world—especially here in the Home of the Depraved—incest being one of them. No longer. Random House editor, Harry Evans—yes, our very own little Harry, hubby of Tina—has extolled The Kiss: A Memoir as a masterpiece, while one Phillip Lopate in Vanity Fair calls it lyrical and dry. Other slimebags have gone even further. Words such as uncanny, heartbreaking, fearless,...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Rhonda Lieberman (essay date 1 April 1997)

SOURCE: “Double Exposure,” in Voice Literary Supplement, Vol. 42, No. 13, April 1, 1997, pp. 10–11.

[In the following excerpt, Lieberman offers a negative assessment of The Kiss, finding Harrison's effort an unworthy contribution to the memoir genre.]

In this era of “realness” and recovery—when our two favorite national pastimes are voyeurism and shopping for an identity—who should be surprised that the memoir has emerged as the literary genre of the '90s? While the self-exposé of the famous person is a beloved genre, what is new is the legion of “normal” people sounding their lives for a marketable hook, like guys with metal detectors...

(The entire section is 1390 words.)

Kathryn Harrison with Nicci Gerrard (interview date 13 April 1997)

SOURCE: “Father, We Have Sinned,” in Observer, April 13, 1997, p. 17.

[In the following interview, Harrison reacts to the critical controversy and personal attacks prompted by the publication of The Kiss.]

When Kathryn Harrison was 20, her father kissed her. He pushed his tongue inside her mouth, “wet, insistent and exploring.” And with that kiss, she says to me, she “crossed a line, like a line of fire.” She became unspeakable. Now 35, she has written an appalling memoir: “a bridge of words back to the place to which I can never return. But I didn't know that people would hate me so much for it.”

For several years, Harrison had an...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)

Selina Hastings (review date 19 April 1997)

SOURCE: “The Sins of the Father,” in Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8803, April 19, 1997, pp. 38–39.

[In the following negative review of The Kiss, Hastings applauds Harrison's courage in publishing her controversial memoir, but argues that the work is stilted and poorly written.]

The story Kathryn Harrison tells in The Kiss is so terrible that I felt guilty at being bored by it. The experience of her miserable childhood and her incestuous relationship with her father is appalling in every detail, and yet she recounts it with such portentous solemnity, in such a laboriously elevated style that I entirely failed to be moved.

When Kathryn...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

Joanne Kaufman (review date 20 April 1997)

SOURCE: “Novelist Kathryn Harrison's Memoir of Her Affair with Her Father,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 20, 1997, p. 3.

[In the following negative review of The Kiss, Kaufman states that the distance and vagueness of Harrison's narrative voice weaken the memoir's hold on its readers.]

There are lots of really swell ways for authors to market their works these days: Concoct an elaborately clumsy piece of fiction but swear on a stack of Publishers Weeklys that it's non-fiction (check out Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra). Slap between covers what is essentially non-fiction, call it fiction and credit it to Anonymous (Joe Klein's Primary...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Brooke Allen (review date May 1997)

SOURCE: “Devouring Love,” in New Criterion, Vol. 15, No. 9, May, 1997, pp. 64–69.

[In the following excerpt, Allen offers a negative assessment of The Kiss, suggesting that Harrison’s real motive behind writing the book was the author's hatred of her mother.]

Just what does it say about the New York literati that the book that has made the single biggest splash this season is a thin, poorly written volume, chockablock with bathos and cheap melodrama, dealing with the author's incestuous affair with her father? Magazine editors and media pundits have fallen over one another in their rush to book Kathryn Harrison and either tout or fulminate against her...

(The entire section is 1769 words.)

Lisa Alther (essay date July 1997)

SOURCE: “Blaming the Victim,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 10–11, July, 1997, pp. 33–34.

[In the following essay, Alther discusses the critical reaction to The Kiss and how it has changed the perception of the memoir genre, particularly as practiced by women.]

The Kiss is a disturbing and moving memoir about Kathryn Harrison's four-year love affair with her father, which began when she was twenty. In spare, flat prose that mirrors her numb state of mind at the time, Harrison documents the dynamics of the deadly triangle consisting of herself, her remote mother and her frantic father, who was ejected from the household by his...

(The entire section is 1506 words.)

Suzanne Moore (review date 15 August 1997)

SOURCE: “How Was It for Me?” in New Statesman, Vol. 126, No. 4347, August 15, 1997, pp. 44–45.

[In the following review, Moore offers a mixed assessment of The Kiss, arguing that a memoir can only be effective if the reader is persuaded to feel a connection with the author.]

The subject that obsesses us at the end of this long century is subjectivity itself. “How was it for me?” we continually ask ourselves. Such navel-gazing could be attributed to the fragmentation of modern life, the end of ideology, the collapse of the grand narratives or any postmodern, premillennial panic that you care to theorise. We cannot know or be certain of anything outside...

(The entire section is 737 words.)

Sue Halpern (review date 25 September 1997)

SOURCE: “The Awful Truth,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 44, No. 14, September 25, 1997, pp. 13–15.

[In the following excerpt, Halpern compares specific passages from Thicker Than Water and The Kiss, noting the similarities in the subject material.]

The response to Kathryn Harrison's memoir, The Kiss … illustrates how one's expectation defines one's reception—how what a book is called determines how the reader reads it. The Kiss, as everyone knows by now, is about Harrison's four-year affair with her father, a pastor, which began when the author was twenty. The book is written in a cool, hypnotic monotone, as if the writer were...

(The entire section is 1428 words.)

Ruth Scurr (review date 12 May 2000)

SOURCE: “Shoeless in Shanghai,” in Times Literary Review, No. 5067, May 12, 2000, p. 21.

[In the following review, Scurr offers a negative assessment of The Binding Chair and suggests that The Kiss was an unfortunate turning point for the worse in Harrison’s career.]

Kathryn Harrison had published three novels before The Kiss (1997), a memoir about her incestuous affair with her father, brought her notoriety. She was admired for breaking “the last taboo.” But she was also suspected of attempting to catapult a decent but unremarkable novelistic career into a more glamorous stratosphere. Grounds for this suspicion could have been located in...

(The entire section is 831 words.)