Kathryn Harrison

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"The Kiss: A Memoir"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie OCT 30, 2005)

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, is a powerful, beautifully written autobiographical work about her four year incestuous relationship with her sexually and emotionally exploitive father, her years with her dysfunctional family, especially her narcissistic mother, and ultimately, her story of survival. This is not a "tell-all," written to titillate voyeuristic readers. There is nothing graphically sexual written in this memoir of the author's childhood and early adult life. Pain, however, is found here in abundance, as well as courage.

When Ms. Harrison sought professional help because she feared for her life, (a potential suicide), and her sanity, she worked very hard to revisit her past, to learn about and understand the horrors she experienced, and to explore her family's dynamics, particularly those between her mother, father and herself. Although the subject of incest is a major taboo, the act - the crime - is much more prevalent in our society than one would imagine. Because there is so much shame attached to incestuous relationships, victims rarely divulge their dark secrets, and so documentation and accurate statistics are difficult to come by.

Kathryn's parents met when they were seventeen. They fell in love, and when the teenage girl became pregnant with Kathryn, the young couple married and lived with the disapproving maternal grandparents. Before the infant turned one year-old, her grandfather pressured her father, just a boy really, to leave and get a divorce so his wife could begin her life anew. Kathryn saw her father twice over the next twenty years. Her mother, who provided her child with almost no emotional stability, moved into her own apartment when Kathryn turned six, leaving her behind and no phone number or mailing address where she could be contacted. She did visit, however, and spent time with her daughter. Both grandparents raised the little girl, who was bright, gifted, and creative. She turned into a beautiful, but extremely troubled young woman, longing to be loved.

When Harrison entered college, her father, now an ordained minister, reestablished contact with her. He had remarried and had another family. Oddly enough, Kathryn's mother, who appeared to be still in love with her ex-husband, arranged for him to spend a week with their 20 year-old daughter and herself, and invited them both to stay at her small apartment. She vied with her daughter for the man's attention throughout his visit. When he left, Kathryn drove him to the airport. Ms Harrison writes: "A voice over the public-address system announces the final boarding call. As I pull away, feeling the resistance of his hand behind my head, how tightly he holds me to him, the kiss changes. It is no longer a chaste, closed-lipped kiss. My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn. He picks up his camera case, and, smiling brightly, he joins the end of the line of passengers disappearing into the airplane." She wonders if the weird, unsettled feelings she has are appropriate...if other fathers kiss their daughters like this. "In years to come," she writes, "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." This is the kiss of the book's title - a turning point in the author's life and in her relationship with her dad.

For twenty years, throughout her childhood and adolescence, Kathryn yearned to have a father, like other children. It is painful to imagine the ambivalence she felt after "the kiss," and the guilt she felt for that very ambivalence after their physical relationship began. This is a man, a minister of God, who tells his very vulnerable daughter, that he "was frightened when he felt that he loved me more than God, but the heresy was resolved when God announced to my father that He was revealing Himself to my father through me."

The most shocking aspects of Ms. Harrison's narrative do not deal directly with the incest, her father's criminal behavior, her mother's extreme narcissism, or either set of grandparents. What truly astonishes is the realization that this woman survived to become a relatively healthy adult, an extraordinarily gifted writer, and a loving mother and wife. There is much here that is hopeful and inspiring. I purposefully put off reading The Kiss until I had read some of the author's fiction. I wanted to keep the memoir in perspective and not allow it to color my opinion about her other work. I have read three of her novels so far and have become quite a fan.

There has been way too much publicity surrounding The Kiss, for all the wrong reasons, as far as I am concerned. Ms. Harrison has been accused of sensationalism, of writing about such a culturally taboo topic to make money, for not writing more from a victim's point of view - not portraying herself as sufficiently devastated, etc.. In an interview, the author said that one of the reasons she wrote this story, is because her first novel, where the heroine has an affair with her father, is deemed autobiographical by critics. The female character was/is totally unlike Harrison, and she felt as if she had "betrayed her own history." She wanted to set the record straight.

This searing account of an obsessive, forbidden love affair, in all its complexity, is brilliantly documented. There is a noticeable lack of affect in Ms. Harrison's sparse prose, demonstrating how detached she was from her feelings of rage, sadness and pain. She also discusses here her bouts with anorexia and bulimia, her attempts to reclaim her life and her quest for a personal identity. Not easy to read - but well worth the effort.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 73 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Kiss at HarperCollins

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About the Author:

Kathryn HarrisonKathryn Harrison was born in Los Angeles, California in 1961. Her parents were only eighteen when she was born and lived with her maternal grandparents who ended up raising her. As told in her memoir, The Kiss, Harrison's childhood relation with her mother was dysfunctional and she only saw her father twice in twenty years. Then, when she did meet her father she was manipulated into an incestuous affair that lasted four years. She also suffered from eating disorders for years.

She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1987, and from Iowa City moved to Brooklyn, New York, with Colin Harrison, whom she married in 1988. Her grandmother moved east and lived with them until her death, two months before her 92nd birthday. She got to see her first great-grandchild, Sarah, born in 1990. The Harrisons also have a son, Walker, born in 1992, and a younger daughter, Julia, born in 2000.

Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications.

She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their three children.

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