Kathryn Harrison

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Vince Passaro (review date 14 February 1993)

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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 sends her into a frantic period of dramatic self-destruction, culminating, just after the opening night party, in a grand larceny that is sure to get her caught and does.

Harrison weaves into this story a number of other narrative voices, first-person memories of Ann's childhood, court documents, letters and medical diagnoses, all of which point to Ann's profoundly unhappy childhood. The over-all effect of this cutting back and forth is appropriately disjointed and emotionally relentless, a narrative montage that mimics Edgar Rogers' photographs, obsessive and unsettling. Harrison's achievement resides in her coercion of her readers into seeing more—far more—of a painful life than we think we wish to see, a conviction that is itself belied by our fascination, our inability to stop looking, our refusal to turn away.

One of the bedrock strengths of Exposure is its corporal reality—Harrison mires Ann's psychic dilemma in a tangle of physical details; each of her crises relates in one way or another to her body. For her diabetes Ann must twice...

(This entire section contains 1122 words.)

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daily measure her blood sugar and continually modulate her diet against the insulin she takes by injection in her thighs. She often fails to do this, and her history is one of using her disease, when she's under severe emotional strain, as an instrument of near suicide. At the same time, being accustomed to dosing herself, it feels natural for her to treat her emotional incapacities in the same way she deals with her diabetes—fitfully, with speed, a quarter hit for low stress management, a half or full for anxieties higher on the scale. Her compulsive thievery too has a physical aspect; the clothes she steals become a kind of armor against a world she rightly sees as obsessed with looking at her; she makes herself a master of the quick change, often slipping off one outfit and putting on another in a moving taxi. She leaves the discards in the cab marking her trail.

And her central problem, her father, and his coldblooded use of her as an aesthetic object, denying her his love or even his basic friendliness as an equal human being, has an ultimate corporeal result his photographs, gigantic prints of Ann and her mother (who died, hemorrhaging, in childbirth), close-ups of a wrist or a breast or a slashed and blood-dripping leg. The show at the Modern, which has so spun Ann out of control, is a landscape of bodily obsessions, the viewers' eyes filled with Ann's limbs and grimaces.

Harrison also makes you feel the chemical ebb and flow of Ann's life, the almost hourly adjustments necessary to keep her functional. It is noteworthy, though, that she pays scant attention to Ann's monthly shiftings, her menstrual cycle and its hormonal hit squads. This absence matches up with a kind of sexual freeze in the book: everything Ann does, the snoutsfull of crystal math, the secreting of stolen objects, even the penetration of her body with hypodermics full of insulin, Harrison has charged with an underlying sexual tension and suggestiveness; but actual sex, desire itself, remains for Ann distant and strange. This, presumably, is Harrison's conscious method, accurate in terms of the abuse Ann has suffered. The body obsession of Exposure even taken to these extremes, or especially so (for that is its achievement), feels overpoweringly familiar and shameful.

In its frightening, fragmentary and almost hallucinogenic visions, Harrison's writing reminds you of a kind of 1970s sensibility, in which personal loss is devastating and unnameable, and the major routes of self-destruction are chemical and illegal. Exposure in turns recalled for me Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and Kate Braverman's astonishing first novel, Lithium for Medea both books of the mid-to-late 1970s. The clipped and ironic understatement also remind one of Didion, a sharp intelligence taking the measure, hopelessly, of an absurd and sinister universe. This personal universe, like the larger one, inexorably expands. It catches you in it and sends you bounding out into a limitless darkness, a fearsome void. That Harrison has accomplished this, twice now in as many tries, marks her as one of the most promising new writers of her generation.

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

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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 plot features methedrine abuse, compulsive shoplifting and parental neglect. When a former colleague from her days as an associate editor at Viking learned that Harrison's third novel would invoke the Spanish Inquisition and its aftermath, he wailed, “Oh, fine, another happy little book from Kathryn!”

In person Harrison, 32, is anything but bleak. Her favorite color and most of her attire may be black, but vivid purple socks break up the slender dark line of clothing from shoulder to foot. She laughs easily and talks with her hands. When she meets with PW in Brooklyn at her Park Slope brownstone, three-year-old daughter Sarah and eight-month-old son Walker contentedly share their mother's limelight.

Her husband, Colin Harrison, is a senior editor at Harper's magazine; they met at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1986. He is also a novelist: his first book was Break and Enter and his second, a corporate thriller called Bodies Electric, earned a star in PW's Feb. 22 issue. Kathryn says of their relationship: “People often ask, leaning forward with a look to invite confession, ‘So, what's it like to have two writers in the household?’ They imagine, I guess, that we're two fragile, bloated egos, each shredding the other's manuscript pages and sabotaging the rival's word processor. Actually, we're very supportive of each other. It helps that our talents and the sorts of books we write are quite different.”

In Exposure (a BOMC selection), she has written a very different book indeed. The novel alternates between Ann Roger's current life as a Manhattan videographer and flashbacks to her childhood as the subject of her famous father Edgar's photography, sometimes in sexually suggestive or morbid poses. Introduced with a rueful epigraph quoting Diane Arbus, the story is told stunningly through a variety of literary forms: straight narrative, interior monologue, photo legends, newspaper articles, court transcripts, correspondence, even the precise schedule of a private eye hired by Ann's husband to tail her when he suspects she's shoplifting and doing speed (a habit especially dangerous to her because she's an insulin-dependent diabetic).

The decision to portray Ann and her disintegration in this manner was a deliberate one: “I had a character who was going through crisis and change; although intelligent, she was not self-aware. I needed a number of mechanisms by which we could see into her, new angles for viewing her, because she's not good at telling us about herself.”

In the acknowledgements, Harrison thanks various people who helped her research material for this book—physicians, legal authorities, a photographer, people who are diabetics. She herself made numerous information-gathering trips to high-priced New York clothing stores in order to learn the mechanics of shoplifting and of outwitting security systems (human and otherwise). She also spent time in a darkroom.

The work of contemporary (and controversial) photographer Sally Mann is sure to be mentioned in reviews of Exposure, and Harrison is philosophical about the likely comparison of Edgar's photos to those that real-life Mann takes of her children: ‘The big New York Times Magazine piece about Mann came out when Exposure was in galleys; her work was not the catalyst for my book. I've always been interested in photography.” As, apparently, is daughter Sarah, who, upon arriving home from playschool, mistakes the PW tape recorder for a camera and shouts gleefully, “Take my picture!”

Her mother continues: “If I thought of any specific artist's work while writing Exposure it was Robert Mapplethorpe's. He photographed actions involving, for example, bullwhips, that the rest of us would consider quite intimate. I wrote about a photographer because I wanted a relationship between a parent and a child in which the former stole something from the latter, and the thing taken was somewhat slippery. What was it? Light recorded on photographic paper, when you get right down to it. And the story evolved from there, from Edgar's being a parent taking pictures of his child to his compromising her health in overextended studio sessions, then further to the point where he did steal photographs, those that resulted from his spying on her.

“Consequently, as an adult, Ann walks the fine line between being someone who is practically unlovable because she's such a fuck-up and someone whom you really want to throw your arms around. That's what human beings are, whether you're shoplifting expensive jewelry in Manhattan or stealing something minor from Kmart in the Midwest. She escaped her upbringing, but the issues for her as an adult are still the same.

She's impoverished on a spiritual level and is taking things to cover herself. Bergdorf's and New York City are just props, but the location and the stuff she steals do up the ante on the risk factor. She could get into real trouble with the law.”

Another midtown Manhattan institution that figures prominently in Exposure is the Museum of Modern Art, where a retrospective of Edgar's photography takes place, with Ann's approval. Feminist protesters wearing T-shirts bearing Ann's name picket the exhibit; they denounce the show as misogynist pornography. Harrison comments, “I'm not indicting all feminists, though I'm always suspicious of people who are very sure only they know what's really going on. Here these picketers are not a positive or generous force, they're just more people trying to exploit and appropriate Ann for their own selfish purposes.”

Her first novel, Thicker Than Water, has also been appropriated, in an oddly complimentary manner, by some reviewers. A number of critics were so struck with the immediacy and force of her work that they wanted to categorize it as memoir, not fiction. The author says the incestuous relationship forced upon the main character, Isabel, in that novel is completely a product of her imagination, although creator and protagonist do share some common history: childhood in L.A. with grandparents, nursing a mother afflicted with terminal cancer, British ancestors in the Orient (in fact, gracing her living room wall is a kimono Harrison inherited from her grandmother).

The dreams described in her books are likewise so real that one wonders if they spring from her own experience. When PW comments that some readers do not enjoy dream passages in fiction, she laughs. “I do many things in my books that seem inadvisable! Some of the dreams I dream on purpose for the character,” she says, admitting that she deliberately thinks about the character before she falls asleep, to encourage the dreaming process. “And sometimes I fall into a fugue state while I'm at my desk, and produce them. To work, they have to have a fey, surprising quality. Otherwise, it's almost as if the author planted a neon sign in the text that says: ‘Message! Key to Ann's character!’ which is incredibly irritating.”

Harrison writes her first drafts in longhand; the word processor comes later. “I never compose on the screen because, like a doubting Thomas, I can't deal with the sense of limbo that happens when the words roll up into nowhere. I also never edit on the computer, always on hard copy.”

Because her plots proceed in a nonlinear fashion, Harrison takes a similarly low-tech approach to structuring her fiction—laying out the pages on the floor of her study to arrive at temporary arrangements of chapters. She admits that it's “an agonizing task. I would love to sit down in a Dickensian fashion and just write chapter one, and so on. Some passages of my writing are obviously juxtaposed, so the power they gain from one another—that following this—adds up to more than the two pieces held apart. A lot is trial and error.”

Her husband begins reading her work when she's about six months into it. “Colin will tell me exactly what he thinks. And, because he has a much more organized, analytical mind than I do, he more readily catches the sorts of mistakes I miss. He'll say, ‘Oh, who's this guy? We've never met this person before and suddenly he's pivotal.’ He's like a trainer who watches my serve and says, “No, no, you'll never get the ball over the net with that approach.”

Harrison also acknowledges the valuable advice she receives from editor Kate Medina: “She's good with pacing and suspense. For Exposure, she said, ‘By the time we readers get to page 50, you have to bump up the stakes.’ She makes specific comments and suggestions, too—‘Wouldn't Ann be someone who … ?’ or ‘What about … ?’ She's a good counterweight to my own tendency, which is dark, probably more oppressive than is really marketable. Although I do write toward some sort of redemption or hope, my first draft of Exposure was pretty grim, and Kate said, ‘I can't take much more of this, and I don't think other readers will be able to, either.’”

Medina bought her work from ICM agent Binky Urban, who decided to represent Harrison while she was still at Viking. Harrison had already won a Michener Fellowship on the basis of a partial manuscript for Thicker Than Water, but still had no sense of her writing as publishable. Michael Pollan, a colleague of her husband's at Harper's (and also one of Urban's clients), and her Viking boss, Nan Graham, encouraged her to submit the manuscript to the high-profile agent. When Urban invited Harrison to come to her office, “I said to myself, she can't really want to insult me to my face, can she? I was eight months pregnant, so I felt like a ship arriving at ICM for that meeting, which was on a Thursday. The following Monday Binky phoned and said, ‘I've got this offer from Random House to preempt.’ I recall asking, ‘What do you think I should do?’ And Binky sort of barked at me, ‘I think you should take it.’”

Harrison's in-house publishing career ended not long after she returned to work from maternity leave. With too little sleep and too many responsibilities, she realized that one of her roles had to go. Full-time writing and family won. But she is grateful for her experience as a publishing insider, not only for the editorial skills she gained there and now applies to her own writing, but also for the broader “demystifying” knowledge of the industry she acquired: “I didn't go into my first publication with unrealistic expectations.

If you're not aware of the sheer volume of books coming out, you have no idea beforehand that it's not even 15 minutes of fame, it's more like 15 nanoseconds of attention that your work will get in the marketplace.”

Having been profiled for such periodicals as Harper's Bazaar and New York, Harrison will no doubt spend more than nanoseconds in the public eye. She has a national reading tour planned for Exposure, but otherwise she ignores most of the trappings of her chosen career. Of the vaunted writing program she attended, she says, “I liked it at the time, but I have a horror of the ‘Continuing Iowa’ syndrome.” Nor is she a joiner of writing groups. “I show my writing to as few people as possible,” she says. “It's basically a solitary career I've chosen, and by myself I have to construct an area of psychic energy, including internal feedback, in which to pursue my creative goals. I don't know how anyone gets any work done in a place like the Writer's Room. You really have to trust your own vision, enforce your own discipline.”

The effort is most rewarding when she gets letters from readers indicating that her writing has touched them. She does not regret that her life as a writer-wife-mother is far from the career she originally planned as a premed major at Stanford. Speaking fervently about the relationship between body and spirit, she says, “I'm not a doctor, so clinical diagnosis is not my realm. But both physical and mental illnesses are factors in my work. I hope that my imagination in some way illuminates the human condition.”

Wendy Smith (review date 7 March 1993)

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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 Harrison sets the personal story of a daughter's struggle to deal with the psychic consequences of a disturbed family life against a sharply sketched social landscape that enriches the individual drama.

A short flashback sandwiched between her taxi ride and her arrival at Visage Video shows 16-year-old Ann, for more than a decade the subject of her father's photographs, rejected as a model because her adolescent body too clearly displays the signs of adult sexuality. Edgar Roger's work (which inevitably brings to mind real-life photographer Sally Mann's controversial pictures of her children) has depicted his daughter naked, seemingly dead, scarred by marks of self-mutilation. His photographs of Ann remain so incendiary that in the summer of 1992 a woman sets herself on fire in the Museum of Modern Art's sculpture garden to protest its forthcoming Edgar Rogers retrospective.

Ann dreads the retrospective, although she has agreed to it as executor of her father's estate, and her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and self-destructive as the opening approaches. She is careless about her insulin shots, continues taking speed although it worsens her diabetes-related health problems, shoplifts so blatantly that she is arrested. Her husband, Carl, who restores historic buildings, can't tear down the wall of denial Ann has built around herself. “I am not a … renovation!” she screams when he tries to convince her that they must uncover the foundations of her pain and fear.

In counterpoint to the narrative of Ann's unraveling, Harrison unfolds the complex fabric of her relationship with her father. We see her as a child desperately trying to learn more about her mother, whose death while giving birth to Ann left Edgar incapable of happiness or love for anyone else. The photographic sessions bring no real father-daughter intimacy; instead they create a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere in which the aloof, mysterious artist manipulates a subject so alienated that she welcomes slipping into insulin shock, “the strange but increasingly familiar territory of her semiconsciousness [in which] the recording figure of her father became almost irrelevant.”

Ann thinks she can escape her father's frightening demands by submitting passively to his camera but never sharing her thoughts and feelings with him. But after Edgar's suicide in 1979—he gave himself a lethal injection in the director's chair on which she had stenciled “Papi,” taking six Polaroids of his death—Ann learns of the grotesque lengths to which he had gone to invade the areas of her life she tried to keep to herself. In the novel's most shocking moment, Edgar's dealer shows Ann an assortment of photographs her father had taken without her knowledge, images that violate the most basic notions of privacy and respect for individual dignity. This discovery sends the 19-year-old into an emotional and physical tailspin that foreshadows her 1992 crackup.

Harrison, who even in her first book displayed exceptional artistic assurance and control, has crafted a multilayered text that explores Ann's ordeal from a variety of perspectives. She takes us inside her protagonist's head for a first-person revelation of the emotional havoc wrought by a bizarre childhood, but she also creates judicial records, private detectives' reports, business correspondence, newspaper articles and psychiatric evaluations to delineate other people's responses to Ann's actions. These serve a dual function: They add a cooler, more objective tone to the intense narrative; and, through the clever use of minor factual inconsistencies and occasional comments that reveal an observer's ignorance, they remind us that the mysteries of creativity and the human heart can never be fully understood.

Unsettling questions about the limits of artistic freedom, parents' power over their children and men's attitudes towards women resonate beneath the surface of the text but are never explicitly explored, which is a shame. To my mind, Harrison's work would have gained intellectual depth and excitement if she had openly confronted the larger issues raised by Ann's life. It could be argued, however, that by concentrating on her attractive, intelligent heroine's personal dilemma she has written a more accessible novel, and it is certainly true that any regrets about what Harrison chose not to do are more than compensated for by the reader's pleasure in what she has accomplished: the delineation, in superbly modulated prose, of a woman's painful, tentative journey toward self-knowledge.

Jeffrey Ann Goudie (review date July 1993)

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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 by plot and pat psychology: reading the novels in tandem leaves one with the leaden sense that life is only too knowable—that it has all the mystery of a social services pamphlet.

Still, I feel uncomfortable when I criticize these two books, the first earnest but clumsy, the second a bit slick: both overexplained. I recall how I felt when I taught college composition and received themes on incest or rape in response to requests for personal narratives. In the face of such material, discussion of comma splices seemed trite, the assignment of a grade tactless. But if Flying in Place and Exposure do not quite succeed as art, they serve as evidence that women are writing and speaking of what was previously unspeakable. And that's important. …

Kathryn Harrison's Exposure is about a different kind of sexual abuse: voyeurism. Photographer Edgar Rogers has made his artistic reputation with pictures of his daughter Ann that stirred debate about whether art should know or respect boundaries of privacy. As the novel opens, Ann, 33, has become a videographer, creating tidy films of weddings and christenings out of messy real-life material. As a major museum retrospective of her father's work approaches, Ann has fallen back onto an old addiction, crystal meth—or speed—and an old compulsion, shoplifting.

The passages describing Ann's substance abuse and her stealing are convincing and gripping. The shoplifting sequences in designer corners of major department stores ring with authoritative detail, from the padlocks at the end of the plastic-sheathed cables that hold these expensive garments to the “imported tungsten shears” Ann uses to liberate the objects of her desire.

The texture of these sections, however, is overwhelmed by Harrison's heavy-handed treatment of the root of Ann's criminal behavior. Ann's beautiful mother died in their kitchen giving birth to her; Ann's father never transcends his grief. A photographer on a small West Texas newspaper, he is vaulted into fame and prestige with a chance photo of his five-year-old daughter asleep under some football bleachers, looking almost dead, or like a discarded piece of trash. The rest of Ann's childhood is squandered as her father's photographic model, always gaunt and lifeless. He poses her, mostly nude, until her developing breasts put a halt to her use as a model. As he coldly writes to his dealer: “Puberty meant that Ann lost what she had and became frankly rather than implicitly sexual, which is not interesting, and so I cannot take any more good pictures.”

As the retrospective nears, various feminist activist groups stage demonstrations at the art museum, in particular one group Harrison unfortunately names “‘Crusaders for a United Terrorist Sisterhood,’ or, more informally, CUNTS.” It is jarring when feminists make cameo appearances as objects of satirical derision in a novel that deals with an issue feminists have worked hard to bring to light. A young woman wearing only underpants and a T-shirt bearing Ann's name even sets her hair on fire to protest the upcoming exhibit. The pressure of this public outcry—feminists expressing for Ann what she can't express for herself—intensifies her self-destructive bingeing. A diabetic careless about her health, she becomes more reckless with her diet, her insulin injections and her substance abuse.

Exposure sags beneath too much explanation, which, in the end, amounts to fiction by mathematical or psychological formula. Harrison even includes a full psychological profile of Ann made by a psychiatrist, following a showy attempted theft of a big diamond ring from Tiffany's.

At novel's close, Ann is hospitalized, but her doctors allow her to continue the weekly volunteer work she's done for years—holding abandoned babies in the pediatric ward of Bellevue. The connection between this particular volunteer and the neglected babies is only too apparent.

As I read these novels I kept thinking that neither author had enough emotional distance from her material to produce the nuance of rich fiction. Perhaps as a culture we are not yet ready to make art out of such painful, newly exposed subject matter. On the other hand, maybe the sexual exploitation of children can never be transformed into art. For the power of fiction derives from its allusiveness and mystery, its ability to suggest what's unknowable; whereas the impulse when handling such disturbing material is to search for, and even labor, a definitive explanation.

Judith Dunford (review date 4 June 1995)

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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 “a series of unending calamities.” On the throne sits Charles II, the infantile, physically and mentally damaged consequence of constant Hapsburg intermarriage. He would die childless at 35, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs.

Relentless ethnic cleansing is taking place, 300 years since the first Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, persuaded their Majesties, Fernando and Isabella, that state security demanded the expulsion or conversion of Spain's Jews. The Inquisition, which had faded in other parts of Europe, was still rooting out lapsed Murranos, Moriscos, Moors, witches. Denounced people disappeared into the Inquisition's prisons, their shoes left behind as a sign.

Harrison is fascinated by doubles, by mirror images. In Exposure she probed the space between a woman's public and private histories. Here she gives us two women, one high, one low. One has a rapturous, forbidden love affair with a priest, the other lives in a world parched of human sympathy. Both are crushed by the anxiety, corruption and religious fanaticism that hang like a miasma over the country.

Francisca de Luarca is the daughter of a Castilian family of silk-worm farmers. Having little to begin with, they lose it all when Felix, the father, gambles on a new type of mulberry tree. When the leaves mature they are inedible; his silkworms starve. His wife, who pregnant or not overflows with milk, becomes a wet nurse. Eventually she attracts the attention of the palace, is brought there to suckle the sickly 7-year-old king whose lifelong diet will be bread sopped in breast milk. When she finally comes home it is to die, depleted and exhausted, of tuberculosis. At her deathbed is Alvaro, the thoughtful village priest. He fascinates Francisca, agrees after a time to teach her to read, as her mother learned to at court. Liberating her soul this way has dire consequences. He becomes the Paolo to her Francesca (Harrison is careful with names), and as in Dante, the day comes when they read no more.

Once at the Morgan Library in New York I saw a display of private love letters of some of the world's greatest writers. For the most part they were as flat and trite as any declaration of the inarticulate Christian de Neuvillette in the play Cyrano de Bergerac. Love, always a bright surprise to lovers, can be as interesting as a retreaded tire to readers. So Harrison's take is all the more remarkable—crystalline prose perfumed (but not too much; she knows just when to stop) with musky eroticism, bigger enough than life to carry you away. In a book full of memorable passages the love scenes of Alvaro and Francisca stand out.

Inevitably the pair grows careless. They are denounced, swept up by the Inquisition. Alvaro is put to death, Francisca made to wear the Sanbenito, Spain's scarlet letter, a yellow overgarment. Embroidered on the front in scarlet stitches are a quill and scroll representing Letters and a breasted serpent representing Lust; on the back an image of the devil pitchforking a woman into the Eternal Flames. Eventually the Inquisitors come for her, intending to torture out of her a confession that she and her dead mother are witches responsible for the fact that, in the palace, the queen is barren.

The unhappy queen is Maria Luisa, once Marie Louise of France, the niece of le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV. Raised in the splendors of Versailles, she is married at 18 to the adolescent king. The alliance is political; her only purpose is to breed another Spanish king. Although her husband is as impotent as he is repulsive, it is the queen who is called barren. The court tries everything—holy relics, the most modern medical attention—but it all fails. In her panic she feigns pregnancies and miscarriages with the help of accomplices and a few liters of pig's blood. Like Francisca, she is found out; poisoned, she is dead at 28, a sacrifice to the exigencies of the Crown.

If Harrison writes meltingly about sexual love, she does even better at sexual loathing of the hold-your-nose, close-your-eyes variety, and the mixture of disgust, longing, pity and duty in the couplings of Charles and Maria Luisa.

Where Poison is weakest is, appropriately enough, the mirror image of where it is strongest. The writing is not so much written as embroidered on the page (fittingly, since it is silk that threads the book together). As a result the characters sometimes freeze into figures in a tapestry, vivid in their way but often seeming posed, overly stylized. Perhaps this is what Harrison intended, to reproduce the unreal, nearly hallucinatory quality of the period. Yet it can distance the reader from a continuing sense that the characters are solid and alive.

Texture and realism in Poison come in the warp and woof of information generously included and wholly fascinating. The daily grind of silk-worm farming. How cocoons are unrolled, cleaned, dyed. How silkworms are killed without spoiling the silk. Silkworm eggs hatching in a little leather bag in the warmth between Concepcion's breasts. The silk house where you can hear the whir of the silkworms' jaws as they ceaselessly feed on mulberry leaves. Seventeenth Century medicine, as brutal and absurd in its bleedings and analyses of fluids as 20th Century medicine will seem 300 years from now. The excesses of the Inquisition—the cut-out tongues and tongue locks to prevent the further spread of heresy. The purple and white hoods of the Inquisitors through which only their eyes glitter. Most of all, the queen's slow death by poisoning:

Dr. Severo's touch is cool and dry. He kneels before Maria's feet, and he takes the left one in his hands. He runs his thumb along the top of that arch where one promising vessel protrudes stark and blue against her pale skin. The assistant lays a square of linen on the floor beside the basin. On it he places a fleam and a lancet kit containing four delicate, bright blades. … The prick of the lancet is expert, relatively painless, and on … the fourth try, her blood spurts out. Each beat of her heart sends a feeble jet that runs down her foot and drips warm as bathwater from her big toe and its neighbor.

Flaubert once marveled at how long it took him to shake off the smell of arsenic after writing Madame Bovary's death scene. Readers of Poison may feel the same.

Ron Hansen (review date 18 June 1995)

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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 paranoia and superstitions and so many everlasting illnesses that he confined his food to bowls of breast milk supplied by a platoon of healthy wet nurses.

With Carlos infirmities and probable impotence or sexual ineptitude, it is not surprising that the regents were childless during the 10 years of their marriage, but the fault was laid on the foreign wife who became hugely disliked by a people who regularly fought wars with France. In the afterword to her novel, Kathryn Harrison notes that on Feb. 8, 1689, Maria Luisa as she was called in Spain, fell from a horse and was put to bed. “At five o'clock on the morning of February 10, she awoke feeling suffocated and suffering a severe gastrointestinal upset. Her condition deteriorated rapidly throughout that day and the next, and she died on the morning of February 12. While it was never proved that the queen was poisoned, most historians assume that she was.”

Poison is a fantasy on the Queen's life and death told by the fictional Francisca Luarca, the daughter of a failed Castilian silk grower, as she is held in an underground prison during the Inquisition. King Carlos had made an official statement from the royal balcony in the Plaza Mayor: “‘The failure of Queen Maria Luisa to get with child,’ he said, ‘is due to sorcery.’” Within a day 17 witches were found in the royal residence, and all persons who'd been employed in the palace from the year of Carlos's birth until the present were investigated. Since Francisca's gracious and bountiful mother had been one of the child king's wet nurses and was now dead, the Luarca family fell under great suspicion and the Inquisition found out that Francisca often wandered far afield, which was at best unseemly, that she'd been taught to read for some possibly nefarious purpose and that her teacher was a faithless priest, Alvaro Gajardo, by whom she was pregnant and with whom she was obsessively in love. Either she was a witch, then, or a fool.

Alvaro's fate was certain: he would be tortured; whatever confession he made would be recorded. For the sake of his soul, he would be pressed to implicate whatever other sinners he could. But he would not betray me, he would do what he could to save me and our child. After they had as much as they needed, or as much as they could get, the Holy Office would excommunicate him, and the Church would then abandon Alvaro to secular justice. The Church sheds no blood, not even that of denounced heretics and seducers. Spain, however, would take her due.

Francisca's fate is less furious but no less painful. She could not be hanged or tortured while she was carrying a child, and she was thought to have been abused and led astray by a priest “so the Church could hardly punish me as it might any other harlot.” She is let free, then, to mother her son, to be feared and hated by townspeople, to grieve for Alvaro, to seek healing miracles at shrines and to live as a prostitute in the old silk house where “every swain and his father knew. I was there for the taking.”

But through it all she imagines Queen Maria Luisa; because she was born at the exact time Francisca was and was precipitously married in the Luarca family's hometown, Francisca thinks of her as a kind of twin and soul-mate, a female companion in misery. She fantasizes herself in the sorrowful palace, watching Queen Maria fight with her fierce mother-in-law, befriend the famous dwarfs of the Spanish court, avoid “the hour of wifely obligation” by playing late night games of trocero and piquet. “Was she stupid?” Francisca thinks. “Was the new queen entirely, even willfully naive? Without betraying any worry, Maria began to misbehave. She did things for which she would not be forgiven. She made the wrong enemies. Some people do.”

Kathryn Harrison's Thicker Than Water (1991) and Exposure (1993) were harrowing contemporary novels, so it's gratifying to find that in this book she's handled the forbidding obligations of historical fiction so well. Harrison acknowledges guidance in her research from such institutions as the Hispanic Society of America, the National Health Museum, the Prado and the Textile Museum Library, and none of that good learning has gone to waste. She gives elegant lessons in how silk is made, how human anatomy was fleetingly taught in the age of chirurgeons, how the aristocracy so sought loftiness that they often stood on stilts, how stinging blister beetles are ground into cantharidian powder, a poison whose tincture is known as Spanish fly.

Poison is a fascinating, feminist princess-and-pauper story, gorgeously written and hauntingly told. It is a tale of passion, hopelessness and thwarted ambitions in a harsh and hate-filled century that was, as in all fine historical fiction, quite different than and disturbingly like our own.

Nicola Humble (review date 23 June 1995)

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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 transported from her beloved Versailles to marry the childish and impotent Spanish king, and is tormented by his court when she fails to provide an heir.

The stories of both women's lives are narrated by Francisca, who has been taught to read and write—another sign of her witchcraft—by her priest-lover. In between bouts of Inquisitional torture, she waits in her prison cell, one of thousands in the “other city” hidden beneath Madrid, conjuring up memories of her past and dreams of the Queen's life. The narrative is patterned through similarities and near-connections between the two women. Francisca's mother was one of the wet-nurses who had suckled the sickly adolescent king Marie was to marry. The Spanish girl watches the secret wedding of the king and queen; Marie witnesses the trial where Francisca is condemned with many others as a witch. While Francisca endures the attentions of the Inquisitors beneath the palace, Marie is dying, poisoned, in the state apartments above.

Harrison blends fact, fantasy and speculation, fleshing out the bones of the past and clothing them in a net of images as finely woven as Francisca's father's silk: the thousand orange trees of the title, each planted in its silver tub, adorning the galleries of Versailles in the Queen's memories of home; the orange-blossom-scented blood continually pouring from the feet of the freak Estrellita, one of the Spanish court's many living miracles; the stinking pig's blood the Queen pours over herself to fake a miscarriage; and the fires which roast heretics.

Fragile emotions such as Francisca's joy in her short-lived passion, her detailed evocation of the beauty of silk, and the love both she and Marie feel for their lost mothers stand for the potential for happiness in a world dominated by violence, betrayal and despair. The Queen's favourite horse is put to death after she has a riding accident, her pets are destroyed on her mother-in-law's orders and her medical treatment as she lies on her deathbed is to be wrapped in the bleeding skin flayed from a living goat. Finally, she is murdered by the only person she trusts.

In her first venture into historical fiction, the New York writer Kathryn Harrison has avoided the traps of costume romance and dryasdust factual accuracy; revivifying her history with audacious feats of imagination, she triumphantly justifies her ambitious narrative project. In its unrelenting piling up of images of horror, this rich and complex novel is both harrowing and compelling, but it disturbs most of all in its insistence that cruelty is intimately related to beauty. The silkworms are killed in their thousands; the enchanting smell of the dead queen is the perfume pumped into her eviscerated body; and the ladies of the French court release their cherished birds of paradise in their dozens to dash themselves to death against the glittering mirrors of the Palace of Versailles.

Roz Kaveney (review date 28 July 1995)

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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.

This may sound like Mary Daly, but is actually more like Ronald Firbank. Harrison is interested in 17th-century Spain for the frocks as much as anything—Francisca's family are failed silk growers and even the Inquisition rustle round in silk. This is a highly decorative novel, not to its disadvantage, of a society of passion, decadent luxury and colourful poverty in which the depraved, pathetic Carlos II, the Bewitched, lies curled like a worm in an apple. Francisca and Maria share a sort of flippant gaiety that makes them grand.

Taki (review date 29 March 1997)

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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, amazing abound.

Mind you, it was bound to happen. After same-sex marriage taboos were removed by those nice guys, who think they know what's good for us small-timers, incest chic was next in line. ‘Boy, did I have a wild one last night, I've never seen Jocasta so randy. Ma and I woke up all of Thebes.’ The Kiss: A Memoir, in which the author Kathryn Harrison writes about the four-year affair she had with her father, has Big Bagel literati in a tizzy. Newsweek has called Harrison brave. I imagine in the sick mind of the Newsweek critic that the fact Harrison has a four-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter makes her even braver. We are, after all, living in the age of Clinton.

The bad news is that culture today is presided over by non-talented leftists who constantly push the limits of perversity and promiscuity. The good news is that, although the book has been publicized in one of the most successfully orchestrated campaigns, it is only the degenerate phonies posing as literati that are swinging 20 greenbacks for it. Needless to say, our very own Tina Brown in her very own weekly, The Big Bagelite, is excerpting parts of the Oedipal yarn her hubby published. It is, after all, a family magazine.

The horror of publishing such rot is not in the act itself—there are worse things happening daily, although I cannot think of some right now—but in what I suspect is an effort to normalize incest. Harrison voluntarily entered into an affair with her old man when she was 20, one she kept up for four years. Worse, she is revelling in it. She and her husband have become ubiquitous: Vogue,Vanity Fair, the Washington Post. She will obviously do all the talk-shows next, perhaps cry a little on Oprah, and then get invited to the White House.

I may be going out on a limb here—and I will defend my own case in a British court in case the slimebag sues—but I wonder whether she's really telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Now this is not as foolhardy as it seems, nor am I anxious to give la Harrison some of my drachmas. She already has her eyes firmly on the bank. Here is why I don't find her sleaze completely convincing.

The Kiss is presented as a memoir without a single date, location, or names other than the two slimy ones ever being mentioned. All the other principals of the story—like her step-mother, in whose house the affair began—are now conveniently dead. Better yet, many scenes in The Kiss—written in somnambulant tones and absurd victim-speak—have already appeared in Harrison's first and unsuccessful novel, Thicker Than Water. This was 1991. She told Publisher's Weekly that she had made the whole thing up. Six years later she is telling us that it really happened. Which story should we believe?

‘It is my conviction that secrets are more costly in the long run than honesty,’ says la Harrison. Especially as Harry Evans doesn't pay for keeping things secret. I say secrecy (once known as privacy) should have been a plus where her own children are concerned. (‘Mommy, was grandad a good f—?’) And there is something else she forgot. Decency. Have you absolutely no decency, Mrs. Harrison?

Rhonda Lieberman (essay date 1 April 1997)

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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 scouring the beach for change.

Like indie rock, the memoir offers potential validation and exposure to a wider range of voices. But that doesn't mean there's no filter in place to weed the hypable hit from the dud; the most Oprah-friendly memoirs reveal how this “democracy” is possible in a cutthroat marketplace. At a moment when the so-called grand narratives of family, faith, and nation—the myths that supposedly made sense out of experience—are disintegrating, the memoir proposes an “aesthetic” solution to the problem of living without a tribe, which automatically gives shape and/or meaning to the events in one's life.

As with any genre in an exciting state of mutation, the memoir form has been revitalized as it levels the difference between star and schlepp by broadening the range of lives deemed worthy of representation. And as such, it promises to restore something like the sacred to real lives. While the big goal for the noncelebrity writer had been, up to the '60s, the Great American Novel, the current ambition is less artistic and more identity-based. Indeed, while authors used to claim that characters based on reality were wholly “fictitious,” the new trend is to be out and proud with one's “nonfictional” status.

The recent trend toward memoir makes sense in the age of the Web, in which authority is “decentered,” the means of literary production are dispersed, and everyone is a potential publisher of his or her own life story (cf. the trickle of exhibitionists posting their diaries on the Web). The aesthetics of this new inclusiveness are familiar to anyone who has been following the art world, where “formal” issues have been eclipsed by questions of “identity” and the quest for the Masterpiece has been replaced by an acceptance of pieces with less grandiose agendas.

When writing his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, Truman Capote predicted that fiction and nonfiction would eventually merge, “coming into a conjunction like two great rivers.” The recent enthusiasm for the memoir has proven him right, with a '90s twist that reflects our talk-show culture's taste for the confessional. The New Journalists of the '60s (Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy, Gay Talese, and Capote himself) used the dramatic, subjective techniques of fiction to give reporting the immediacy of the first-person point of view, and to reflect a moment when the “objective” authority of the news was put in question. Having questioned their own “authority” for years, both journalism and are helped sow the seeds for our current acceptance of anybody's point of view as equally valid, as long as it has an audience. While the “nonfiction novel” is the legitimate spawn of real evolution in both reporting and High Art, Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss reflects the worst possible conjunction: the lund talk-show confessional mounts the high horse of “serious” prose—a truly yucky spectacle—like a naked Sally Jesse scurrying to wrap herself in the demure robes of literature.

The much hyped The Kiss is a J. Crew version of Marguerite Duras in which the author tells of her consensual love affair with her dad, conducted over four years when she was in her early twenties. The action seems to take place against a background as generic as a shopping mall, upon which the oedipal freak show is projected. The obscene story surges on with admirably constructed momentum as the rest of the world seems to fall away, and Daddy/Mommy/Me act out the emotional truth of a world as solipsistic and as out of context as the cases we see each night on Jenny Jones.

The Kiss opens up with a whopper, an inappropriate tongue in the mouth from Dad, a minister, when he picks up his estranged college-age daughter for one of their creepy family visits. If you're the type who stops to look at a car wreck you will inevitably read on, with the same sense of queasy complicity. Lest one confuse the sensational content of The Kiss with anything vulgar, the tone of the writing is affectedly spare, as if to reassure you that you're not reading trash. “‘God gave you to me,’ he says. When the preacher in my father speaks, I lose what's left of my power to defend myself.”

This reader, too, felt violated as Harrison set out her oedipal soft-porn-fest with the craftsmanship and virtuosic lack of irony of Martha Stewart arranging a casual country brunch that just happens to be ready when her TV guests drop by.

The family romance is conducted on road trips, in motels, by letter, by phone, and tape-recorded greetings. Father takes daughter to see his parents, each separately remarried. Remembered by his son as “sexually magnetic in his youth,” and now dying of prostate cancer, Grandpa nevertheless makes a pass at the author: “My father betrays neither surprise nor disapproval. Maybe it's genetic.” Dad even seduces Harrison when he takes her to Grandma's house: “His mother's house! I think the words over and over aware that such a setting for his advance cannot be insignificant, but not understanding its meaning.” Eventually, when “my father offered to support me for a year while I [wrote],” Harrison moves in with him and his second wife, and uses an office at his church.

The author struggles with her longing for and anger toward her “selfish” mother, who had her when she was very young, left her with her grandparents, and moved into an apartment nearby; the mother had an unlisted phone number but visited frequently. And Harrison's also ambivalent about her manipulative father who, if this stuff is true, is such a mess that any child of his deserves kudos for mastering even minimal coping skills, and could certainly be indulged for the relatively minor sin of histrionic writing. Going one better than the most overachieving therapy patient, as she explores the mesmeric hold that immature parents wield so well, she seeks to locate and disentangle herself in a prose poem of martyrdom.

In years to come, I'll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion. … 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.

By the end of the saga, you feel like you've been trapped in an elevator with a narcissist confident that the mere display of her naked emotional wares is a big turn-on. In a timely move that merits a Literary No-Shame Award, The Kiss has Harrison repackaging material that in her 1991 novel Thicker Than Water was said to be “a work of fiction.” When the same characters turn up in The Kiss they are “openly autobiographical.” With much of the descriptive flesh melted away, the latter book is pared down to fully foreground the trauma: the emotional mechanics of literal incest. Incest functions in this newer, improved version as sugarcoating for the medicine of literature.

A few years back, in his film Spanking the Monkey, David Russell dealt with incest between mother and son with wit and depth, and expressed the suffocation of the nuclear family, trapped and folded in upon itself in the suburbs. The Kiss reads more like a symptom of the problem than a fully worked-through treatment, like the Oprah guest who has survived, “forgiven,” but is still bereft. The author's considerable craft has the effect of merely gentrifying her prurient subject, serving up the horror with the technical panache of those Joel-Peter Witkin photos of anatomically unusual persons in artistic mise-en-scènes. While some admire this aesthetic, others will think The Kiss is an upper-middle-brow freak show.

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

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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 affair with her father (she never calls it abuse, instead she calls both father and daughter “dishonourable,” “treacherous”). He was a preacher who had been absent since she was six months old, was still desired by her mother (who also abandoned her when she was five) but was snipped out of family photographs by her grandmother, so becoming the black hole into which all her longing for love could be sucked. When they finally met, he put his tongue in her mouth and she did not resist him; several weeks later, in a dim and unbecoming room, he put his tongue between her legs while she lay as in a dream, helpless and compelled. Finally, he penetrated his daughter; she lay beneath his substantial flesh (he, the preacher, is “word made flesh”), inert, obliterated, willing. He literally possessed her: every time he took her, she was depleted until there was almost nothing of her left to save.

She left college and rented a basement room. They met in places where no one would recognise them, places Lolita might have gone to with her father-lover. They both felt rage toward her mother, his wife, by whom both felt abandoned: she became the shadowy third in their hellish triangle, the real object of desire. When the mother died, the daughter could leave the father and start to reclaim the remains of her life. “I poured gasoline on the house of my childhood,” says Harrison, “and set a match to it. I wanted to destroy it all; me too.” The Kiss, which has created a furore in America (“witch-hunt,” Harrison corrects me wryly), is written in the present tense so that, like a novel, it invites the reader to collude with what is happening, though we devoutly do not wish for the sexual consummation. It is stark, with a dream-like quality that has led critics to suggest that, in writing it, Harrison has simply re-experienced the unmetabolised, dissociated despair of that past (“Yeah, well, that was mild compared to the abuse that came after”). It is also unequivocally, almost oppressively, literary, folding together episodes of deprived early childhood and terrifying early adulthood in eerily beautiful prose, making exposure and self-viscerating confession into an art form. Harrison has been accused of extreme cynicism, of queasy bad taste, of jumping on the bandwagon of the confession-fest, of treating the world as her shrink, of being a bad wife, bad mother bad woman, of even, she says, “almost having the affair so I could write about it—now that's cynicism.” Even her looks have been turned against her: when I meet her, she is slim in blue jeans, ash blonde hair falling onto her blonde suede jacket; with a narrow head and wide, wrap-around lips. Her gaze is grey and level; her hands graceful. “This Kathryn Harrison of the media,” she says, “well, I know I'm quite polished, but it's not me; I don't recognise her.” Harrison is less bruised than she had expected by the hostility: “The level of hysteria is strangely useful,” she says. “It enables me to think it says more about them than about me.” But she understands the deep ambivalence any reader will have on reading The Kiss. “It is antagonistic; it had to be. I was writing about something very bad, dangerous.” Just as the affair was not something she chose, though she takes responsibility for it, incest is not a subject she chose: “It chose me; it was a book I had to write. I had been writing about it in concealed ways always, and I've gradually been drawing closer to its heart. My first novel (Thicker Than Water) was about an incestuous relationship between a father and daughter, though it was cloaked and warped by fiction. I felt squeamish about it afterwards, as if I'd betrayed myself, my history, which was so much more complicated and complicit. Yet it was the only thing I could write at the time; I wasn't ready.” In the next two novels (Exposure, about a damaging father-daughter relationship, and A Thousand Orange Trees, a historical novel about a forbidden love affair between a young woman and a priest during the Spanish Inquisition), the engine of her fiction is yet again the terrible, obsessive secret of her life. Reading them, especially in hindsight, one feels the disastrous throb of personal experience.

She was working on her fourth novel: “It wasn't working. I found myself saying, to my horror, that I didn't want to write this book; that I had to write about my father.” She describes “a sudden window of clarity, honesty. I was able to admit I was really culpable; that I wasn't just manipulated but manipulating. I knew that if I walked away from that clarity, there would be a spiritual cost. Also, I had the feeling that while I didn't write about it, it remained our secret. That meant he was still present. Writing would be getting rid of him at last. My father is no longer in my house.” This is close to writing as therapy; the addictive, self-propelling self-exposure that has made confession into a new and troubling genre. But Harrison says: “I never write just for myself. I write for a reader. Writing is my only way of knowing myself. I take pride in The Kiss. It is a good book, though I know it's hard. Although I've exposed myself walked naked before the firing squad I stand behind it. As art, it shields me even as it makes me vulnerable. “Also …” she continues, holding up a hand to ward off my but, “I know how terribly complicated motivation is. I like to be visible. My mother would never look at me as a child.” Her mother never saw her and her father consumed her with his gaze; her mother made her feel as if she did not exist and her father told her she only existed when he saw her “and I like to be seen. I have a terror of being invisible; I look in mirrors to make sure I'm still there. This book makes me visible.” She laughs ruefully. “Very visible.” Words have saved her: she is writing for her life.

In many ways, the memoir feels like a long letter to the mother who betrayed her and whom she betrayed; whose death released her, but whom she did not forgive until many years after. In a bizarre episode in The Kiss, Harrison recounts how her mother insisted, before she went to college, that she, a virgin, be fitted for a diaphragm. The doctor inserted plastic green penises into her vagina as the mother watched, until the hymen broke and blood flowed. The daughter was in effect deflowered by the mother before she was penetrated by the father: f–ed up by both.

Yet the book's love story is that between mother and daughter. The only really erotic moments occur between them when Kathryn cuts off her waist-length hair and gives it to her; when they meet in the kitchen in their nightdresses and brush against each other, girlish after all those years of treachery; above all, with uncanny neatness, when the mother is lying dead and Harrison caresses the soles of her feet, breathes in the smell of embalming fluid, kisses her face and fingertips touches her as she was never allowed to in life. Harrison still misses her; is still “in love. She is the creature who continues to seduce me.”

The father is alive and Harrison will not disclose where he is. She has not seen him for a decade and never wants to again. She has a “compassion” for him, his wrecked and twisted life, but does not forgive him. “I can't, perhaps I never will.” She cannot remember the sex in their affair (“Oh, I know the facts, but I can't remember what it felt like. I'm anaesthetised; I think I'm not ready to face that”), and thinks that, anyway, sex was just a mechanism for a far greater betrayal. “He seduced me into betraying the people I loved; he so easily cultivated my anger against my mother. He returned intending to possess me completely, and he believed that I was his.” Harrison has a husband now, Colin (writer, support, confessor, analyser, mate), and two children. Many critics think it unacceptable that she has exposed them as well as herself. She does not think she will always be “that woman” for the world, or for her son and daughter. She knows her revelations will be hard for them to bear when they grow older (they are seven and four), but believes it is preferable to keeping the secret fenced in, a no-go area for intimacy. She has, as she says, survived.

“Am I irretrievably damaged? Perhaps. I feel set apart. I feel a great deal of remorse and pain, and yet I also feel, finally, that that is connected with my humanity. I behaved with great dishonour, but I am not a monster. I know who I am now. I think I'm a good mother. I've learnt to” she hesitates, grimaces “like myself.” Images of hunger collect in The Kiss (Harrison says she is the “most ravenous person I know, so hungry for love”), and of starvation (young Kathryn is starving, anorexic, bulimic; these are her only means of flight). Also the death of feeling. When a shark tears someone's leg off, she says, they often feel nothing.

“The pain is so great you can't feel it life is just leaking out of you and the shock is so huge it feels like nothing. My father was that shark, and I was in the water and I was dying.” The shark's gone, but with The Kiss so fine, nauseating and troubling that even now I can't decide what I thought about the act of publishing it, she is still in the deep dark waters he left in his wake.

Selina Hastings (review date 19 April 1997)

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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 Harrison was six months old, her parents divorced, she and her mother moving in with her grandparents. Her mother, a cold, discontented woman, was incapable of showing affection and coped with her chronic depression by spending much of the day asleep under a satin eye-mask. A little more than five years later, she leaves to live on her own in a nearby apartment, calling round regularly to see her daughter but refusing to reveal her address, unwilling to be troubled by childish illness or anxieties.

Emotionally neglected, Kathryn does badly at school, starves herself, drops out of college. Then when she is 20, her father, seen only twice during her childhood, arrives on a visit. A pastor of German extraction, he is a commanding presence, tall, and with a disconcerting sense of familiarity towards his now beautiful daughter, with whom he quickly becomes obsessed. For her part, she falls painfully and precipitously in love, both longing for and dreading the sexual element fast developing in his overwhelming attentions towards her. When he is due to fly home, she drives him to the airport, and it is there that he kisses her, not as a father but as a lover:

My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn.

From that moment there is no going back. Her father pursues her, telephoning daily, jealous, selfish, demanding, eventually insisting that she allows him to make love to her to prove that she is completely his. Bewitched and helpless to reject him, Kathryn capitulates, but subconsciously resisting, she, like her mother, uses sleep as a drug, becoming comatose as soon as her father touches her, falling into a narcoleptic trance when she hears his voice on the telephone.

The reader has to accept the reality of the power of this horrible man, who eventually exercises such control over his pathetic victim that she is made to move into his house, living like a poor relation with his second wife and young family. Her descriptions of him, however, are rarely such as to make it easy to understand the fascination. His flesh is waxy white, his eyes behind spectacles forever brimming with self-pitying tears, and he is corpulent, his stomach bulging over his belt, his breasts as big and soft as a woman's.

The few actual glimpses we are given of this monster are vivid and shocking, and in startling contrast to the rest of the book. Written in a contrived and monotonous present tense, it is largely drained of life by a deadening feeling of self-consciousness, by an effortful attempt at fine writing that fails to come off. Kathryn's mother's eyes, for instance, are ‘unplumbed pools of sorrow into which I can tumble and drown’; a bedroom is decorated in ‘understated fugues of beige.’ Places are described as vague visual impressions, people as two-dimensional archetypes. No doubt the author needed to distance herself from the anguish of the actual, but for the reader the results are disappointing.

In spite of this, however, Kathryn Harrison deserves our admiration. The Kiss must have taken enormous courage to write, and I was relieved to discover that the author, now a promising novelist, lives in New York with a husband and children of her own—safely out of reach, I fervently hope, of her brute of a father.

Joanne Kaufman (review date 20 April 1997)

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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 Colors). Give potential customers something extra for their money by outfitting the book with a CD—it's got a good beat and you can read to it (a la Joyce Maynard and Laura Esquivel)! Or (with, perhaps, a certain amount of cynicism) put forward a memoir that traffics in the salacious and/or sensational, and become the subject of magazine and TV feature stories, in the manner of critically acclaimed novelist Kathryn Harrison.

The Kiss chronicles the affair, 16 years ago, between Harrison, then a college student, and her minister father. The product of a perfervid romance between two 17-year-olds who married in shotgun-wedding haste and divorced with dispatch, Harrison was raised mostly by her grandparents, Mom having decamped to live her own life, Dad, whom Harrison saw only twice during her childhood, having been summarily forced out of the picture.

It was in the garden … that my grandfather told my father that it was over between him and my mother. … My grandparents thought they could end it, erase my mother's unfortunate mistake. There was the baby, of course, the life that sprang from my mother's rebellion … there was me to consider, but I was a cost they'd accept. He, however, had to go.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Harrison had a troubled childhood and adolescence—nightmares, anorexia, bulimia. It was a landscape bordered by her narcissistic grandmother, her self-centered, withholding mother, a sometimes-endearing grandfather who became increasingly uncomfortable with Kathryn as she passed through puberty, and by her shadowy, letter-writing father. When she sees him at 20 for the first time in 10 years, “my once-bobbed hair long, and my flat chest filled out, my father's eyes are fixed on me; he tears his gaze away with reluctance. This kind of besotted focus is intoxicating, especially for a girl schooled in self-effacement and taught that virtue believes more in its ugliness than in its beauty. … I don't know it yet, not consciously, but I feel it: my father, holding himself so still and staring at me, has somehow begun to see me into being.”

He has bloodshot eyes, he's overweight, he sleeps with Harrison's mother the first time all three of them are together (despite, the fact that he is remarried with children), then talks about it in most ungallant terms with Harrison. “‘I didn't do it because I wanted to,’ he says. Humiliated on behalf of my mother, and shocked that he would betray her this way, I look not at him but at my plate.”

That indiscretion doesn't begin to prepare Harrison for the indiscretion at the airport as her father prepares to return to his other family. He “pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent. … 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.”

What draws the two of them together in this unholy alliance is “her,” Harrison's distant mother, her father's elusive former wife; they are united in their love for a woman who can't, won't love them back. The affair, which is preceded by countless fulminations by Harrison's father that “God gave you to me,” is played out at scenic points of interest and truck-stop motels across the Southwest, and it ends only with the death of Harrison's mother due to bone cancer.

Unfortunately, The Kiss which reads rather like a fever dream, doesn't probe as deeply or as far as Father's tongue. While the story is set forth in the present tense, accruing to it an unsettling immediacy, Harrison has (understandably) so distanced herself from the events she recounts that the book's impact is greatly blunted. The reader wants, needs, what feels spontaneous; the reader gets something studied, carefully literary.

More problematic, The Kiss is told as though through a scrim; innuendo rather than specifics is the coin of the realm here. In so saying, one feels like a greedy voyeur (of course, one feels like a voyeur by the very act of opening the book), but the fact is, if you're going to commit to telling the story Harrison has chosen to tell, either tell it and tell it in detail or don't publish it.

What this memoir confronts as fact has utterly informed Harrison's three novels. Thicker Than Water which at the time the author insisted was purely a product of her imagination, covers precisely the same ground as The Kiss if in more textured, graphic fashion. The potent Exposure deals with a woman haunted and almost undone by the erotic pictures taken of her in childhood by her celebrated photographer father. Poison is about a woman who has an affair with a priest (a different sort of father). Perhaps The Kiss will serve as the means by which Harrison can finally exorcise her demons and begin to broaden the terrain of her fiction. If so, it will have been worth it for the reader, certainly for Harrison.

Brooke Allen (review date May 1997)

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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 new memoir, The Kiss.1 A single issue of The New York Observer contained three pieces on it, including a parody; the ever-topical New Yorker made a bid to publish an excerpt in its pages. (New Yorker readers were deprived of this treat when Random House pushed The Kiss's publication inconveniently forward.) Kathryn Harrison and her husband, Colin, a writer and editor, have eagerly encouraged the feeding frenzy, Kathryn by giving soulful interviews and striking sexy poses in the mags, Colin by writing a ludicrously solemn exclusive for that serious, sensitive publication Vogue on his relationship with his wife and how her sordid past has affected—no, enriched—their marriage.

In recent years, so many people have claimed some sort of victim status, whether in print or on “Oprah,” that a slight backlash has occurred, and poor-little-me authors have taken note and changed their tune. Even Fergie, the Duchess of York, has in her recent memoir taken care to place the blame for her disgrace (at least overtly) on no one but herself: “I pinned on my scarlet letter—mine would be a T, for toe-sucking,” she writes, not without grim humor. Ms. Harrison tries to play the same game. She is aware that the fact that she was twenty years old at the time she began sleeping with her father deprives her of victim status in the eyes of many, and she is careful not to shirk her share of responsibility in the matter. “There are no heroes and no villains in this story,” she says righteously.

Wrong. In the narrative as Harrison presents it, there are only villains—or rather, irresponsible, self-obsessed people. The central figure of this particular family drama is Kathryn's mother, whom the child loves obsessively but who eludes her until the very end. She gave birth to Kathryn while still a teenager, and split up with her husband not long afterwards; soon, finding motherhood demanding and exhausting, she abdicated much of the responsibility for child-rearing to her own mother, a neurotic woman whom Harrison describes as screaming uncontrollably whenever her sexy daughter went out on a date.

At one time during Kathryn's early childhood the mother lived alone in one apartment while the child and her grandparents lived in another. As time went on, however, the family appears to have grown closer, perhaps because the mother herself began to grow up. At any rate, mother and daughter were close enough to act out the traditional mother-daughter power struggle, a universal, even banal scenario which Ms. Harrison seems to see as unique to her own situation. “Even at the age of seven I understand … that my mother's love for me (like her mother's for her) depends on my capitulation.” So what else is new? Mothers have always been like that, and will be to the end of time.

It is not too surprising to discover that once Kathryn hit adolescence, she struck out at her mother through anorexia. “You want thin? I remember thinking, I'll give you thin. I'll define thin, not you.” She has reclaimed her sexuality from her mother, and her mother, she claims, is furious. “The one thing she can't stand about my being so thin is that I don't menstruate: I lose my capacity to get pregnant, to be in a danger of the kind that precipitated the abrupt fall from grace she endured. … she takes me to doctor after doctor, accompanying me into the consulting room and even the examining room.” Perhaps—just perhaps—Harrison is right to interpret her mother's feelings as rage, but it seems to me that a mother who watches her child waste away might be genuinely, and desperately, worried.

The mother's next iniquity is to insist that her daughter be fitted for a diaphragm. The doctor says that it can't be done without breaking the girl's hymen; the mother insists; the doctor proceeds to insert a graduated series of plastic dildos into Kathryn's vagina, until one comes out smeared with blood. Symbolic rape by the mother seems to be a popular theme these days; the young Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat featured it in her pretentious, overrated (but highly praised) book Breath, Eyes, Memory. In Harrison's case, it is likely that her mother meant, however misguidedly, to protect her. But Harrison treats the incident with narcissistic melodrama: “What was murdered that day: girlhood, hope, any notion of being safe anywhere, with anyone.”

When Kathryn's lecherous father reenters her life after a gap of ten years, Kathryn, now twenty, is more than ready for him. Their mutual rage against the rejecting mother has focused their attention on one another; without actually discussing it, they realize that a sexual alliance between father and daughter is the most efficient way of hurting her. At the airport, upon his departure, he gives Kathryn the by now famous kiss: “My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth; wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn.”

Oooh, grody to the max! Kathryn is (no kidding) disturbed by the incident; when she asks her boyfriend back in college whether he thinks it was weird, he yells “Yes, it's weird! Of course it's weird! It's wrong!” Wise words indeed, but after such a display of horse sense the boyfriend, inevitably, is history, and the mesmerized Kathryn embraces her destiny. Her wish to possess, devour, and destroy her mother, however, is not quelled. When her mother lies dying of cancer, Kathryn never quits her side: “You're always there, aren't you?” the mother asks, a little nervously it seems; “‘Yes,’ I say,” writes Harrison. “Even when I'm with him, I'm standing by your bed. Especially then.” All this comes to a final climax in a nasty necrophilic scene at the funeral home where the mother's corpse is reposing. Kathryn asks to be left alone with the body, and when the undertaker leaves she lets loose. “I reach under the bottom half of the lid for the catch to unlock it but find none. I slip my hand down as far as I can, past her knees, past the hem of her white dress. I want to touch and know all of her, want her feet in my palms.” It almost makes you feel sorry for poor Mom.

In an interview sent out with the review copies of The Kiss Kathryn Harrison is quoted as saying, “The Kiss was a book I couldn't avoid, rather than one I set out to write,” and refers to “the implicit dishonesty of keeping a secret such as this.” The concept of honesty, and Harrison's courage in being so very honest, is also stressed in the quotes that Random House has chosen to adorn the book jacket. Philip Lopate writes of the author's “consummate artistry and honesty”; Tobias Wolff marvels at “the courage it took to write this book”; Mary Karr, the author of a more intelligent family memoir, lauds Ms. Harrison's “bravery,” while Mary Gordon, the perpetrator of an execrable one (of which more later), asserts that she is “fearless.” Robert Coles (who since he endorsed the book has recanted on his puff, claiming that he didn't know Ms. Harrison had children) called the book “a moral victory.”

These statements would seem to imply that honesty is always, under every circumstance, a good thing. “The truth shall make you free,” as the Gospel of John tells us. Yet we would all do well to leaven this thought with Oscar Wilde's extremely sensible remark that “the truth is rarely pure, and never simple.” All the people who have been bowled over by Harrison's incredible honesty—including Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the daily New York Times and Susan Cheever in the Times Book Review—really ought to remind themselves that there is honesty, and then there is indiscretion, and they are not the same thing at all. Incest is hot, as Harrison surely knew, and such a very, very honest book about such a very hot subject was sure to find a place among the literary crowd equivalent to that which the Jon Benet Ramsey murder investigation has assumed for readers of The National Enquirer.

For Harrison's own sanity, she may well have felt that the book was one that demanded to be written. But as James Wolcott pointed out in his review of The Kiss in The New Republic, there is a difference between needing to write the book and needing to publish it. What greater good is Harrison serving by making many thousands of people privy to an intimate and shameful story that should really be between herself, her husband, her analyst, and, if she has one, her God? The public does not need to know, and neither, assuredly, do the Harrisons' children. If Harrison were really courageous, as her supporters assert, she would have fought her demons in private and protected her children at any cost.

Aside from that issue, which has been well worked-over in the press, there is an even deeper hypocrisy at work in The Kiss, a pretense that to write such a book is not an act of hostility but one of love, in particular love for her mother. Harrison dedicates the book to her mother (“Beloved: 1942–1985”) and ends the narrative with a smarmy postscript in which she dreams that her dead mother appears and the two finally express the love they had never expressed in life. But the reality is that the daughter's hatred still rages, exorcised neither by the affair with the father nor by the mother's early, painful death. If Kathryn Harrison felt real love for her mother, and had come to terms with their relationship, she would have resisted the temptation to expose the beloved's coldness, her withdrawal, and her husband and daughter's betrayal of her. The Kiss is an act of hate, superficially against a predatory father, but in fact against a mother who, for all her myriad faults, seems to have done as well as she was able.


  1. The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison; Random House, 224, $20.

Lisa Alther (essay date July 1997)

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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 domineering parents-in-law when Kathryn was six months old.

Harrison's mother moved out when she was six, leaving the child in the care of these grandparents. Harrison saw her father only twice before she was twenty. She grew up harboring like a fatal virus a hunger for parental acceptance and a rage at having been abandoned. These emotions play themselves out in her tortured entanglement with her father, who had by then remarried and become a minister in a distant town.

As a child, Harrison stood over her mother by the hour, watching her sleep: “I make any noise I can that might rouse my mother but that can't be judged as a direct and purposeful assault on the fortress of her sleeping. Because for as long as my mother refuses consciousness of me: I do not exist.” In contrast, when the twenty-year-old Harrison encounters her father, his eyes “burn like a prophet's, a mad-man's, a lover's. Always shining, always bloodshot, always turned on me with absolute attention.” Clearly, in his eyes she exists at last. So much so that when he bids her farewell, he pushes his tongue into her mouth, “wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn.” The kiss, the kiss of the title, Harrison will eventually come to think of as “a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. … It's the drug my father administers in order that he might consume me. That I might desire to be consumed.”

Almost as interesting as The Kiss itself is the way in which it has been reviewed. Reading a dozen of the most “important” reviews and interviews, I noticed that only three were written by women. Yet had I been a book review editor, I would have assumed that few men could accurately assess the damage done to a daughter by a mother's rejection and a father's inappropriate form of acceptance. In fact, the most perceptive piece I have seen is by Cathleen Medwick, writing in Mirabella. Medwick identifies the mother as Harrison's primary object of desire; of the father, she says he “hardly exists for her.” Harrison and her father use their affair as a desperate bid for the mother's attention and as a way to punish her for her seeming rejection of them both. Once the mother dies, the affair ends.

Meanwhile, the male reviewers have been staging a food fight. Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post maintains that the book is “trash. … not an artful word in it.” Michael Shnayerson in Vanity Fair accuses Harrison of writing the book simply to garner publicity and fortune (as though other writers are pure and shining creatures who at all times concern themselves solely with Art). James Wolcott, who calls Harrison and her writer husband “the Sonny and Cher of dysfunction,” maintains in The New Republic that Harrison is a wicked mother for publishing the book, thereby visiting upon her own children the misery she herself experienced as a child. Robert Coles, who gave a glowing jacket blurb, recanted it in The Observer upon learning that Harrison has children of her own.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times, at the end of a perceptive and generally favorable review that calls the book “appalling but beautifully written,” does a judo throw, claiming that “the mystery of her [Harrison's] healthy survival remains a flaw.” His assumption seems to be that if someone actually undergoes such an experience, she will be left too traumatized to tell the tale. Yet every fourth woman one meets has been raped or beaten or has experienced incest, and most survive with at least the semblance of health. Telling the truth about what one has undergone—whether in therapy, to a friend, on the written page, or in the confessional—is one way people struggle to recover from trauma, and The Kiss bears the hallmarks of just such an attempted exorcism.

Lehmann-Haupt also insinuates that Harrison is a spin doctor for her own life, wondering “if a memoir can ring too artistic for the truth.” But the boundaries between fiction and memoir have always been blurred. Everything a novelist writes can be considered autobiographical, in the sense that a writer must know about what he or she portrays, whether through direct, fantasized, or researched experience. And everything a memoirist writes is, to some extent, fiction. When someone makes the decision to tell this story rather than that one, from this point of view rather than that, a lived situation sheds some of its complexity and begins to take on a false coherence. The difference between memoir and fiction lies primarily in the contract with the reader. The novelist says, “What I'm about to tell you may or may not have really happened.” The memoirist says, “What I'm about to tell you really did happen—and to me.”

Frank McCourt, who himself wrote the best-selling memoir Angela's Ashes, about his impoverished Irish Catholic childhood, complains in The New York Times that Harrison “should have waited until he [her father] was dead. … In some ways, there's a feeling of subconscious vendetta and it makes me queasy.” But why shouldn't Harrison enjoy some retaliation against a father whose irresponsible behavior has damaged her, perhaps irreparably? (Consider the disordered sensibility she displays in a recent New Yorker piece about torturing a tick she finds in her daughter's hair.) And why is it that whenever women describe their experience of life in a public forum, they are automatically accused of being bad wives, mothers, or daughters, while if they nurse their wounds in silence, they are accused of being hypocrites and martyrs?

In fact, one of the virtues of The Kiss is that there are no true villains. Each person in the triangle is presented as acting out of overwhelming need, pain and narcissism. Surely the real issue is not whether Harrison should have published this book, but rather how such a destructive situation could have evolved in the presence of so many alleged adults. Harrison's story poignantly reminds us of how vulnerable children are—even at twenty—and of how much they crave parental acceptance and protection. It also reminds us that adults who are themselves still children, emotionally speaking, have no business undertaking parenthood.

So why do these male reviewers seem so outraged by this book that they need to throw hissy fits all over the printed page? Tobias Wolff, one of the few to defend Harrison (if only because he initially gave her a rave jacket blurb and because he himself has written a powerful memoir about his abusive stepfather), claims on the op-ed page of The New York Times that these fits aren't about Harrison's book per se: “The truth is that they are using her as a target of convenience for their animus against the genre she's working in—the memoir. All of them preface their attacks on her with expressions of suspicion or downright contempt for the personal writings that have recently found favor with readers.” In other words, it may be the phenomenon that a prominent New York editor predicted to me several months ago—Memoir Backlash.

Apart from Wolff's and McCourt's memoirs, the most successful ones in recent years have been written by women—the Delany sisters' Having Our Say Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, among many others. Historically, with few exceptions, women writers have gravitated towards some variety of realism. Through fiction or memoir they have attempted to understand life and its injustices and to communicate their findings to others, rather than to distract attention from these injustices via stylistic pyrotechnics. Systematically excluded from the garde, most women have felt little need to protest its conventions by joining an avant-garde.

The recent popular success of memoirs is a surprise, no doubt an unpleasant one for the guardians of high culture. But the venom generated by Harrison's book signals more than just a backlash against the memoir as a genre, or against women as its primary practitioners. It is a well-known psychological phenomenon that those who react most fiercely against something are those who are unconsciously drawn to it, homophobia being one bratant example. Could those so intent on suppressing and demolishing The Kiss be titillated by its incest? If not, why the overkill? Why not just the normal hatchet job visited upon women writers who are daring and gifted?

Suzanne Moore (review date 15 August 1997)

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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 ourselves; it is all just too confusing. As the grand narratives shatter into millions of smaller ones, all crying “me, me, me,” myriad voices whisper: “I may not be a novelist but I know what I'm like.”

This belief in the subject as the only viable subject, the self as both author and authored, is not a purely literary phenomenon. Television likes authored documentaries in which quirky presenters give their entirely personal views. The art world likes self-revelatory bad girls such as Tracy Emin and Sam Taylor Wood; newspapers are brimming with the “new solipsists” who write of nothing but themselves, or just of nothing; music loves its self-made stars such as Liam Gallagher, who acted like a pop star long before he ever was one. We are in thrall to “attitude,” whatever that means.

It is possible to read all this as incredibly liberating, allowing a plurality of voices that have not been heard before. Or it is possible to see it as the symptom of a supreme crisis of confidence in which no one can speak for anyone outside themselves, in which everyone emotes but no one thinks any more.

The memoir is hardly a new form, but at the moment it seems as though everyone who has had any experience of anything from cutting their toenails to giving birth feels compelled to write one. There is an element of undergoing therapy in public in much of what is published. These are the true self-help books. In the age of Oprah we know that speaking up, spitting it out, will help us “come to terms” with our pasts. But there is also the voyeuristic thrill of watching others who not only wash their dirty linen in public but also point out filthy stains of particular interest. A psyche-babbling culture, combined with media intrusion, has made a mockery of the old divide between private and public.

Despite the excesses, I still feel that this has been a good thing, because those who resent it most are usually the most powerful—and power rests, as we know, on a ruthless separation of the personal from the political. Whether this always makes for good writing is another issue. I have read too many dire feminist novels involving incest or eating disorders in my time and I think that much of this stuff would be better left unpublished. Writing it down may well do the author good but inflicting it upon others is an act of sadism by committed masochists. Anyway, these days the people making money out of rewriting their pasts are the boys, who just seem so much jollier than we do, perhaps because they get a round of applause for merely admitting that they have emotions at all. … The thing about the laying bare of personal pain is that you have to like or want to connect with the person displaying their life before you.

This was part of my difficulty with Kathryn Harrison's book The Kiss, which is an easier book to admire than to like. It is the beautifully written tale of the affair Harrison had with her father when she was 20. Never feeling good enough for her narcissistic mother, she ends up seduced by her monstrous father. With chilling intensity she describes how the destruction of his internal barriers destroyed hers, and how the affair was a way of trying to penetrate her mother by using her father. In the jargon Harrison is the victim, yet there is something about this memoir that suggests a need to exonerate herself. Is she not culpable? Does an unhappy childhood or even the obvious psychoanalytic interpretation excuse what she has done? Does the quality of her writing cover up the narcissism she has inherited from both parents?

Sue Halpern (review date 25 September 1997)

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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 unattached to the events she records (and therefore not culpable). “We spend our nights in motels not so much sordid as depressing. Sordid has a style and swagger these places lack, rooms with curtains cut from the same orange fabric as the bedspread, ceilings of plaster textured like cottage cheese,” she writes. And, in the book's most sexually explicit passage:

… He lifts the hem of my nightgown. He doesn't speak, and neither do I. Nor do I make any attempt to stay his hands. Beneath the nightgown I am wearing no underpants, and he opens my legs and puts his tongue between them. … What he does feels neither good nor bad.

The writing is so painstakingly flat and uninflected, so reported, that it seems to detach the writer from her own willfulness. It is, deliberately, amoral.

When The Kiss came out this spring, critics complained that it was both meretricious and poorly written, and in a rare moment of collective outrage castigated both author and publisher for the opportunism in bringing the book to market. Other critics, citing a number of recent books by male authors revealing their defiance of sexual taboos that did not meet such opprobrium, accused these critics of sexism, among other sins. Meanwhile, the author's husband—perhaps opportunistically, perhaps not—took to the pages of Vogue to defend his wife. His main argument: The Kiss was a book Kathryn Harrison said she had to write, and who was he to deny her? What is interesting about this justification is that it suggests a compulsion: not only could Colin Harrison not stop his wife, she could not stop herself.

And the manifestation of a compulsion may be exactly what The Kiss is, for it is not the first book she's written that chronicles the affair and other family pathologies. Harrison's first novel, Thicker Than Water, tread that fertile ground six years ago. But writing about it once, apparently, was not enough. Harrison came back to the affair, though not to portray it differently. Indeed, the two books share a lot: images, conversations, paragraphs. (One critic, in fact, accused Ms. Harrison of “self-plagiarism.”) What is different, though, is that one book is a novel, the other a memoir. One is supposed to be fiction, the other fact.

From the novel, Thicker Than Water:

When I was fifteen, my mother made me get my first diaphragm. … My mother was in the examining room when the doctor broke my hymen so he could fit me properly for the device. He used a series of graduated green plastic phalli. First a tiny little boy sized one, then a larger and larger one, until he withdrew one whose shaft had been discolored by a smear of blood. My mother leaned against the wall, watching.

From the memoir, The Kiss:

He uses a series of graduated green plastic penises. … One after another he inserts them, starting with the smallest—no bigger than his little finger—until the second to last one comes out smeared with blood. This doctor deflowers me in front of my mother.

From the novel, Thicker Than Water:

In line at the salad bar he pulled my plate out of my hand and let it fall to the floor and shatter, cherry tomatoes rolling between my feet. When he thus had the attention of all the diners he said loudly, “You're a slut, just like your mother.” One entire family turned around in their seats and looked to see who I was.

From the memoir, The Kiss:

My father leans across the table. His face is the same shape but much larger than mine, seemingly larger than other men's. At close range, it seems planetary. “You,” he says, too loudly for a restaurant, “are a slut just like your mother.” Everyone who hears turns to see who the big man is talking to with such righteous conviction.

When it was published, Thicker Than Water received many favorable reviews. The writer, who was thirty years old, was praised for her use of language, which was at once direct and distilled, and for her command of the material. But one review in particular, by Scott Spencer, writing in The New York Times Book Review, is especially prescient: “The first two words of Thicker Than Water are ‘In truth,’ and as the novel plunges into a woman's painfully frank and unsparing revelations about her miserable childhood, and her struggle to awaken from its dank, hypnotic spell, this reader felt, at times, that he was reading a harrowing, fully imagined work of nonfiction.” And so, it turned out, he was.

What is interesting about this comment in retrospect is that neither Mr. Spencer nor any of the other reviewers who suspected that Thicker Than Water detailed real events chastised Ms. Harrison for writing about the affair. No one argued that it was exploitative or potentially damaging to her children or that her rendering was meretricious. No one suggested that she should not have written it or, at least, if she had to write it, that she should not have published it. No one said anything of the sort because the story was told behind the veil of fiction. As long as there was the slightest possibility that the story was not true, veracity could be the object of speculation, not the subject of criticism. As long as the story was just a story, no one needed to consider its impact on the family or the author's motive in publishing the book. As fiction, both the writer, and the reader, were protected.

Call it something else, though—nonfiction, true crime, autobiography, or the murkier “memoir”—and the reader cracks the binding with certain (and different) assumptions. Knowing that the events are really “real” raises questions of culpability, intent, and motivation. Not only is the writing—the telling of the story—under scrutiny, the writer's life is, too. The outrage people have expressed about Ms. Harrison “outing” herself has as much, and maybe more, to do with her real-life behavior vis-à-vis her father (and mother) as they do with the content or style of her book. Calling the book a memoir afforded them this liberty: the life as well as the work are fair game. One suspects that Ms. Harrison knew this and that this, in fact, was one of the reasons she chose to tell the story again, in this form. In the vitriolic controversy that occurred after The Kiss came out, greed, notoriety, and revenge were each suggested to be the author's motivation for writing and then publishing the book. If so, it would not be the first time a book was drawn from any of these wells. But more likely, The Kiss first came from a deeper place—the need to lay bare—that only a book that has no pretense can get at.

Still, in a curious way, the impulse works to Ms. Harrison's disadvantage. The Kiss is a stronger book than its predecessor precisely because it gets at its subject more directly. Forget subplot, forget ancillary action—this book has one subject, one narrative line, and it clings to it almost desperately. There is no relief from the story, no diversions, no humor, nothing to keep the reader from getting sucked into Ms. Harrison's reality. And that is the problem. It is another seduction—this one of the reader. In the beginning this feels all right—it is, in fact, what good books do—but some time later the author's confession begins to seem manipulative. The somnolent, distant voice through which she makes that confession, and which at first contributes to its authenticity by suggesting how truly damaged Ms. Harrison has been by the affair, is so self-consciously “written” as to be suspect. In another context its mesmerizing quality would be an achievement. In this one though it cannot help but raise questions of trust. And trust is essential to the enterprise of nonfiction, even to memoir.

Ruth Scurr (review date 12 May 2000)

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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 fact that Harrison's first novel, Thicker Than Water (1991), had a plot strikingly similar to her later memoir. The uncharitable interpretation of The Kiss is much more interesting retrospectively than it was in 1997, when it seemed mean-minded and cynical. Harrison's new novel, The Binding Chair, recounts the life of a victim of Chinese foot-binding, a Shanghai prostitute who marries an Australian client in 1899 and ends up on the French Riviera in time for the Jazz Age. It compares unfavourably with Harrison's earlier historically inspired novel Poison (1995, published in the UK as A Thousand Orange Trees,) and suggests not only that she is an irritatingly sensationalist writer, but that The Kiss may also have damaged her perception of herself as a novelist.

Poison was set at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and the Marquis de Sade was coyly included in Harrison's acknowledgements. It lacked the literary grace of Jenny Diski's Nothing Natural, but the torture and transgressive sex were at least woven into an interesting story. In contrast, they protrude obscenely from The Binding Chair, where the narrative is more eccentric than the kind that commonly links the scenes in a pornographic video or novel, but no less insubstantial. One explanation for this arises from the frequency with which sex and sexual imagery appear in the novel. In Chapter Three, for example, five-year-old May appeals to her father to release her from the binding chair. He refuses and reflects that “after all, he himself enjoyed marriage to a nimble and delicate woman—a woman whose whole foot he could take into his rectum, even as her left hand cupped his testicles, her right squeezed the shaft of his penis, and her mouth wet his glans. There was a price for luxury. …” I find it hard to believe that this account details a historical motivation for foot-binding, and harder still to imagine how evidence for it could be collated. At the end of Poison, Harrison very carefully explained which parts of her novel were directly borrowed from history and which had been imaginatively elaborated. The Binding Chair includes no such explanations and the presence of two further scenes centred on anal sex tips the balance towards imaginative licence.

But imaginative licence counts for little in this novel. Harrison is audibly impatient with her own story, always hurrying on to the next sensational scene and brusquely dismissing the finer details. May runs away from an abusive marriage, carried on the back of a servant to whom she promises her jewelry. This has the compelling, if limited, logic of a fairy story. However, it closely follows a scene in which an older May and her niece witness a young girl being slowly and publicly cut in half as a punishment for running away from marriage and bringing disgrace to her family. Why wasn't May pursued and punished? Harrison dismisses these questions: “Probably [her husband] was grateful for the peace that returned once May had gone.” She is more interested in describing how May, despite running for her life, took the time to stop at her parental home and urinate over her grandmother's tiny silk shoes.

Still more ludicrous is the scene in which May's future husband starts to unbind her feet expecting to find a perfect miniature foot inside the wrappings, instead of the broken, rotting (allegedly erotic) reality. In some characters this ignorance could be credible. Arthur Cohen, however, is a member of the Foot Emancipation Society. Harrison quickly explains the surprising lacuna in his knowledge: he missed the society's indoctrination meeting and the lecture from the surgeon who explained the crippling fractures of the binding process. He missed both events, did not bother to question his fellow missionaries and still made it to Shanghai? The tendency to slovenliness culminates in a ridiculous scene in Fortnum and Mason's where May, carried in a makeshift sedan chair, improbably deputed by her family to visit her nieces who were only sent to boarding school in the first place because of her own corrupting influence, inadvertently causes a riot, rather in the mode of Paddington Goes to the Sales. Bad novels are rarely interesting. But the trajectory of Harrison's literary career is. Her promising start was overshadowed by a harrowing memoir in which she displayed her own sexual disturbance. Now she writes as though her public wanted and expected nothing but sex from her. It's not true.


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