Memoirs of Trauma

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Susie Linfield (review date 11 May 1997)

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SOURCE: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 11, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following positive review, Linfield praises Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss and rebuts the negative appraisals of several other critics.]

Every now and then a book comes along that disturbs, disrupts and polarizes the public in new ways. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was such a book, as was Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, Phillip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve. (This used to happen with films, too—Bonnie and Clyde, Last Tango in Paris, Shoah—but that, alas, seems to be a thing of the past.) In such cases, it is not just the work itself but the author too—and, in particular, his motives, integrity and moral vision—that are scrutinized and interrogated. The debates over such books can turn highly unpleasant, yet they are, generally speaking, a good thing, for they force readers and critics to confront their most cherished ideas and even, sometimes, develop new ones.

Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, a memoir of her incestuous relationship with her father, is the latest, and perhaps the best, example of such a polarizing work. To call it controversial would be a laughable understatement; it has been the object of almost apoplectic fury. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley, who is one of the country's most prominent book critics, has written three vitriolic pieces on The Kiss, calling it "slimy," "repellent," "revolting" and "shameful"; Liz Smith, who is one of the country's most prominent gossip columnists, has also weighed in with a somewhat more concise, if no more restrained, "Yuck!"

Between Yardley and Smith, a wide range of critics (often, though not always, male) has damned the book, while several, such as novelists Francine Prose and Susan Cheever, have praised it. Harrison has been accused of dishonesty, opportunism, careerism, greed, exhibitionism, narcissism, selfishness, coyness, self-plagiarism and—the ultimate insult—bad mothering. (In olden days, one suspects, she would have simply been called a whore and a witch and promptly dispatched to the nunnery or the stake. Apparently, though, such words—and such solutions—are no longer feasible.)

Harrison's harshest critics—who have included Michael Shnayerson in Vanity Fair and James Wolcott in the New Republic—almost always cite her book as an example of the tacky, tell-all, television-based culture that, they fear, is engulfing us. A "growing number" of women memoirists, Shnayerson warned, are "baring the kind of behavior once kept secret even from close girlfriends"; even the best are "as of-the-moment as this afternoon's 'Oprah.'" But the question of how much women should tell about their emotional and sexual experiences—and of the appropriately Olympian tone to use when they do—is only tangentially related to the emergence of talk shows or tabloids; such questions are, in fact, far older—and more volatile.

Charlotte Bronte, for instance, was criticized for the unseemly, revelatory emotion of her work. As the literary scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun noted almost a decade ago, "When Matthew Arnold disliked Villette because it was so full of hunger, rebellion, rage, he was at the same time identifying its strengths, but these were unbearably presumptuous in a woman writer." And although now generally respected as part of the canon, the work of such poets as Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton was often regarded as too confessional, too personal, too angry, too sexy and too disgusting when it first appeared. (And a poem like Plath's "Daddy" is still a shocker, even today.) Doris Lessing advised Kate Millett that "you cannot be...

(This entire section contains 2119 words.)

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intimidated into silence" when writing about the sexual truth of your life, but few writers are as sensibly courageous as Doris Lessing. The irony, of course, is that it is precisely when women reveal their most intimate experiences that they risk being viewed as unfeminine:

"… consider the fate of women. / How unwomanly to discuss it!" the poet Carolyn Kizer wrote. So when Wall Street Journal critic Cynthia Crossen admonished Harrison to "hush up," she was hardly suggesting something new. Crossen, Shnayerson, Wolcott, Yardley, et al. have simply taken the well-worn, if not quite venerable, demand that women writers be decent, tactful, dignified, protective and discreet—that is, silent, secretive, deceptive, frightened and reassuring—and put a modern mediaphobic spin on it.

Still, the fact that some very good books (and poems) have been attacked for the same reasons—although, I suspect, with less venom—as The Kiss does not make The Kiss a very good book. What makes The Kiss a very good book is the spare lyricism of its prose, the emotional authenticity of its narrator, its unblinking look at some horrible (but not, I would argue, inhuman) things and the undeniably fascinating story it tells. Reading it, however, is neither easy nor pleasant; its harshness makes you recoil even as its vortex of emotions draws you in. It is an ugly tale, beautifully told.

The actual story is simple; the emotions are anything but. Harrison is raised in a volatile yet loveless home from which her father is virtually absent; when she meets him at age 20 (for only the third time in her life), he begins to pursue her with a demented intensity. She is the good girl who has spent her life desperately, and quite unsuccessfully, seeking the affections of her mother: Their joint project is "trying to make me into the child she can admire and love." Sadly, Harrison is a smart girl, and she has learned her lessons—that love is evasion, self-denial, enslavement, capitulation—all too well. Now caught between a mother who snarls don't-touch-me! and a father who demands touch-me!, she chooses the latter, exchanging one tyrant for another and regarding this, she dryly explains, as "an existential promotion." What is so horrifying about The Kiss is not that we can't understand this so-called choice but that, given the devastating clarity with which Harrison charts her emotionally parched landscape, we can.

And here, I think, is the source of much of the fury that has been directed against The Kiss. Jean-Paul Sartre has written that literature is a collaboration between author and reader; The Kiss turns us into collaborationists in the worst way. Harrison implicates us in grisly truths we don't want to know (but we do, we do): How rage can parade as love; how heartbreakingly hopeless, yet entirely inevitable, are all attempts to transcend loss; how deep sorrow so often transmogrifies into deep viciousness, instead of deep compassion; how those who are most damaged by their parents are the least able to walk—or even crawl—away from them. (And how the gods must chuckle over that one!) The Kiss is Freud's family romance played out with a vengeful literalness, and although the actions are certainly extreme, the emotions that underlie them are hardly unique. How, though, can we love a writer who brings us ever closer to—as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of Sylvia Plath—her "infatuation with the hideous"? By making us, forcing us, to understand (which, it seems necessary to add, is not synonymous with "approve" or "condone"), Harrison blurs the boundary between her perversion and our normalcy.

In her life, too—a life that has received an extraordinary amount of (sometimes speculative) attention since the publication of The Kiss—Harrison smudges this line, and that also seems to enrage. Wolcott, for instance, spent much of his long, witty, nasty review of The Kiss insisting, rather astonishingly, that Harrison is a lousy mother—precisely, in his view, because she has written this memoir. There is no doubt that if Harrison were a hermit, a bag lady, a drug addict, a prostitute, a nun or, best of all, a suicide—that if, in short, she had been permanently and obviously ruined by her transgressions or was spending her life atoning for them—the reaction to The Kiss would be far different. Of course, she may be a psychological wreck (there is no way for an outside critic to know), but she at least appears to be doing quite well, thank you: There's the flourishing career, the successful husband, the two lovely children, the home in yuppie-heaven Park Slope. Inexplicably—audaciously!—Harrison's life looks quite a lot like those of her critics, especially in her creation of a seemingly normal family. The emotional turf that was supposedly reserved for "nice" people has been invaded; the Maginot Line of respectability has not held. There goes the neighborhood!

Although The Kiss is certainly about incest, its central relationship is the one between Kathryn and her mother. (In fact, the affair is not actually consummated until fairly late in the book, although we know of it from the start.) And the maternal relationship depicted here is almost as disturbing—if not quite as transgressive or deranged—as the paternal one. Harrison's mother (who, like her father, is never named) is an unfortunate, and dangerous, combination. In part, she is negligent (she moves into her own apartment when Harrison is 6, leaving her daughter, who is then raised by grandparents, to gaze at a beautiful frock and wonder, "If a dress like this was not worth taking, how could I have hoped to be?"); in part, she is cruel (she has Harrison deflowered by a gynecologist—while she watches). Not surprisingly, her daughter grows into an equally unfortunate, and no doubt more dangerous, mixture of obsequiousness—she is "the thin girl, the achiever, the grade-earner, the quiet girl, the unhungry girl, the girl who will shape-shift and perform any self-alchemy to win her mother's love"—and rage. Harrison makes clear that she enters the relationship with her father in part to get back at her mother, to break both her mother's heart and will. And it works. The book, and the affair, end with her mother's death from cancer at age 43.

This is not the self-portrait of the author as a nice person. It is, in fact, every mother's—every woman's—nightmare. When it comes to her mother, Harrison is the owner, in her own words, of "a fury so destructive that I would take from her what brief love she has known, because she has been so unwilling for so long to love me just a little." It is Harrison's bottomless anger—and her ruthlessness, her eagerness for revenge, her scorched-earth policy—that have, I suspect, so frightened certain critics. Her stance toward the reader, too, is boldly unapologetic—she is not ingratiating, or even particularly likable, not, apparently, interested in being one of those "close girlfriends" of whom Shnayerson writes.

Even scarier than Harrison's skill in betraying her mother is her ability to betray herself. Her mother's cruelty and her father's craziness may seem foreign, bizarre, unbelievable to some readers, but Harrison's capacity as a young woman to blur her own vision, deny her own feelings, negate her own needs and disavow her own knowledge will seem eerily, creepily, sickeningly familiar to many. Harrison herself recognizes that this is her fatal flaw, the sine qua non of her tragedy, the origin of her sin. "Years later," she writes, looking back on a suicide attempt, "what will strike me as more damning than my self-destructiveness is my capacity for secrecy, my genius at revealing so little of my heart—and thus the risk that I, too, could end up a woman as trapped within herself as my mother."

Although its subject matter is certainly shocking, The Kiss is an essentially old-fashioned book. It is not particularly smart, analytic, clever or fun; its pain is unalleviated by either the sweetness of redemption or the anesthesia of irony. "King Lear is almost intolerable, if it's done well," film critic Pauline Kael once observed; one might say The Kiss is done all too well. Far from conveniently plugging into the Zeitgeist, its unalloyed wall of anguish is pre-modern, not post.

Several critics have voiced the belief—which, in their case, is really a hope—that The Kiss is too far outside normal experience to attract many readers. (Similarly, throughout the book, Harrison expresses the fear that what she has done is "unspeakable.") They may be right, though I doubt it. This is the story of a young girl with a fifth column lodged firmly in her heart and of the terrible places it leads her. Precisely for that reason, I suspect, it will be read by women of all ages—and their mothers and their daughters of all ages, too—long after "Oprah" is off the air, and long after Harrison's sputtering critics have hushed up. Like all good literature, The Kiss illuminates something that we knew already, while also teaching us things we had not even suspected.


Carolyn Alessio (review date 27 April 1997)


Trudy Bush (essay date 21 May 1997)