Disturbing Memoir "The Kiss" Asks More Than It Answers
"All in the family" doesn't begin to describe the tortured ground covered by Kathryn Harrison's new memoir, "The Kiss," a chronicle of the author's brief, incestuous love affair with her minister father, which began when she was twenty and lasted four and a half years.Memoirs such as these have been heralded by many critics as the "salvation" of the publishing industry. The blockbuster success of authors like John Grisham, Anne Rice, and Stephen King have steadily crowded out smaller books, authors, and presses. Some argue that this has created an industry pyramid-with little room at the top. Memoirs create an instant and broad readership, with their talk-show friendly, confessional, tell-all style. Harrison, for example, has recently been interviewed on NPR, and was the subject of an emotional segment on "Dateline" NBC. A recent "Vanity Fair" article also profiled Harrison, along with the authors of "Prozac Nation" and "Girl Interrupted"-both of which deal with young women's individual battles with mental illness. But even readers who've become desensitized by such media scandals as Woody Allen's pornographic polaroids of the barely post-pubescent Soon-Yi will surely find much discomfort in the subject matter of "The Kiss."There are even certain parallels that have a "ripped from the headlines" quality. Harrison recounts an episode of getting re-acquainted with her father as she enters young adulthood (he's been absent since her infancy), "He wants to take pictures. "Naked ones," I call them, as opposed to the word on which he insists: nudes. But "nude" implies art..." It's clear that Harrison understands the distinction, while her father obviously did not.Despite the horror of the subject matter, this book could not be described as especially sensational. The language is not lurid, and the specifics of the affair are mostly limited to the eponymous kiss. Still, it's hard not to flinch when she uses phrases like "lover's quarrel," for example, to recount a disagreement with her father. When Anais Nin tackled this same subject (in "Incest") it was from an erotic perspective, but Harrison takes a decidedly more psychoanalytical approach. "Kirkus Reviews" describes it as having "the mythic proportions of a Greek tragedy." While this might be overstating the case, it's true that "The Kiss" re-hashes the Electra complex with an eye for detail that has generally been reserved for the somewhat more literarily fascinating story of Oedipus. Harrison's father calls her Beatrice in his love letters, begging to be guided "on the journey down through the dark circles of his soul, just as Dante's beloved in the "Divine Comedy" revealed to the poet what for so long had been hidden." In reality, Harrison has more in common with the Beatrice of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"-a daughter whose love and ability to love is systematically compromised and eventually poisoned by her impassioned, but demented father.As much as the title might suggest otherwise, it is clear that for Harrison, this memoir is as much about her mother as her father. She writes in matter-of-fact tones, "I am six when my mother moves out and leaves me." She is left to the care of her grandparents, but her mother's influence remains indelible and omnipresent. In the relatively brief time they spent together, it's clear that Harrison's mother probably suffered from clinical depression ("My mother sleeps...For as long as she lives with us, in her parents' house, she sleeps whenever she can. She sleeps very late every day, as much as six or seven hours past the time when I get up for breakfast.").If the incipient mental illness (at best, depression; at worst, psychosis) hadn't already rendered Harrison's mother incapable of any meaningful attempts at maternity, her capacity for selfishness and cruelty would have. She moves out and leaves no address or phone number (though she "visits"), unwilling to be bothered with the daily constraints parenthood would impose on a woman whose first priority is not to let her sexual prime slip away unheeded. Remembering a rare "family" visit at the age of ten, Harrison recounts perfectly how her estranged parents' obsessive love for each other made her feel: "I am, as I have been from my birth, the inevitable compromise of my parents' privacy." The book is a worst-case scenario of what happens when people who should not have children do.The affair is as much about Harrison's mother as it is about her father. Although it is she, and not her father, who ultimately comes to terms with this (and ends the relationship).In the tone of someone who's been through years of therapy, Harrison duly describes the ensuing psychological scars imposed by her twisted family relationships-most notably, eating disorders. "An uneasy relationship with food is the standard example in cases such as my mother's and mine. At fifteen, when I stop eating..." She then goes on at some length in typical talk-show ready dysfunction lingo about the sociological roots of anorexia in society and in her.In interviews, Harrison almost apologizes for her mother's abandonment of her. When asked if she's a better mother as a result of their relationship, Harrison responds, "I'm a better mother to my children than my mother was to me, but when my first child was born I was ten years older than my mother was when she had me. There are not too many 19-year-olds who are capable of responding to the relentlessness of a child's needs." But while immaturity might excuse certain parental shortcomings, there is nothing in this book to explain or excuse or rationalize the behavior of Harrison's parents.In the end, "The Kiss" asks more questions than it answers-at least for readers, if not the author. From a psychological perspective, undoubtedly Harrison needed to write it. Did anyone outside her family need to read it? That may be questionable. Is it art or is it "Oprah"? Again, debatable. One thing is certain, this book is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Confession may be good for the soul, but as any good Catholic will tell you, a little goes a long way.