Kathryn Harrison: Cutting Beneath

“It’s brutal out there,” I greet Kathryn Harrison, after emerging from a sweltering New York City subway ride to Park Slope.

“It’s brutal in here, too,” the author replies. Her solid, high-ceilinged 1882 building has no air conditioning.

Kathryn Harrison knows from brutal—and not just in terms of weather. She survived a firestorm of controversy after “The Kiss,” her memoir about an incestuous relationship with her father, was published in 1997. The outcry was so widespread that even people who hadn’t read the book were enraged by it.

While “The Kiss” had its share of high visibility supporters, The Washington Post called it “repellent” and “trash from the first word to the last.” The Wall Street Journal asserted that Harrison would do better to “hush up”; People magazine named it one of the worst books of 1997; and The New Republic asserted that “just because she wrote it doesn’t mean she had to publish it.” The consensus was that Harrison was not only an irresponsible narcissist and bad writer but an unfit mother and a media whore to boot.

Harrison had launched her career with relative ease, and the critical response to “The Kiss” was her first professional experience with rejection. What bothered her most, she’d told me in an earlier interview, “was that people said, either implicitly or explicitly, ‘This isn’t something you should be writing about,’ or, ‘This is not material that books should be made of.’ I found that appalling, because I really think that’s what writing is for.” And she has no regrets. “I was very clear about why I wrote it, as a human being and as a writer. It was the right thing for me to do, and I don’t know what could have convinced me otherwise.”

Today, Harrison, at 44 the mother of three children and 11 books, is wearing a light-green, low-cut tank top and an Indian print skirt of orange hue, her bare feet sporting darkly polished toenails. With her streaked blond hair artfully disarranged, she looks as glamorous as her black-and-white publicity shots, but in color, she’s more vibrant and a bit less forbidding. Her thin face and waistline may be a throwback to earlier anorectic days, but her tan and muscled forearms speak more of the glowing health associated with the outdoors and exercise.

I am ushered into the living room, which is littered with crayons, paper, scissors and toys, and am given permission to use the bathroom—though Harrison first has to check the toilet. Her 5-year-old daughter, Julia, doesn’t always remember to flush, she explains.

I expect no less candor from someone who has written about such intimate experiences as incest, childbirth and her children’s battles with head lice—but I’m pleasantly surprised to find disorder in the home of one whose prose is so relentlessly precise and controlled. Harrison seems every bit as comfortable stretched out on the floor among her kids’ detritus as she would be sitting in the compact, orderly office on the top floor of the house where she does her writing. She clearly revels in her role as mother to 5-year-old Julia, 13-year-old Walker and 15-year-old Sarah.

I ask Harrison if she minds talking more about “The Kiss.” After all, it’s been eight years, and she’s written plenty of new stuff’ since then. No, she says, because “I don’t necessarily believe that my own arc of discovery is over. There are aspects to the topic that remain mysterious to me and probably always will.”

Harrison had originally told much of the story of “The Kiss” in her first novel, “Thicker Than Water,” which was well-reviewed when it appeared in 1991.Yet she ultimately found the fictionalized story to be unsatisfying. “I felt a hostility toward the novel that sort of crept up on me in the years after its publication,” she explains. She felt that on some level she had “conspired with the rest of the world to lie about incest.

“Having gone through a relationship like the one that I did, and being indelibly marked by it, to continue to act as if it hadn’t really happened was uncomfortable. It became increasingly important for me to say that this is my story, not a story I’m making up about someone else.”

So, while the novel was a “tentative step” in dealing with this charged material, it wasn’t enough. “I went through a process of discovery of what it’s like to guard something so carefully.” What Harrison learned is that “you can’t sort of cordon off one little piece of your history. You end up developing something inside you that people can bump up against—a sort of only-so-far-and-no-further wall within your psyche.” Her husband, the editor and novelist Colin Harrison, noticed this as soon as they began dating. “He said, ‘There’s something you’re not telling me. I don’t know what it is, but I feel it.’ ì knew exactly what he meant.”

Later, as a mother, she realized that “my children would bump into the same thing” and that, being children, they would egocentri-cally interpret it as a rejection. “I felt that, as a human being wTho has relationships with other human beings, I couldn’t afford to keep that secret. It was too costly”

The book was born in a meeting with an editor to discuss a stalled novel. To her own surprise, Harrison found herself blurting out, “I don’t even want to write this book. I want to write a nonfìc-tion book about me and my father.”

On the street a few minutes later, she thought, “I must be out of my mind.” But she went home and immediately got to work. “I was totally on fire in that way that you are sometimes, and it lasted for as long as it took to write the book. I’d reached a window of clarity about what had happened in my own mind. At that moment, I felt that I could tell the story as it was, without being particularly judgmental, and it was important for me to do that.”

During the writing process, the possibility of a public outcry was outside her radar screen. Instead, Harrison was consumed by her need to understand her own behavior. The effort was not about attributing blame but about “my vivisecting myself so I could see who I was and how I had ended up in a relationship like that.”

Vivisecting? “That’s the way I think of it, sort of laying myself open and dissecting myself while I’m alive.”

“And squirming,” I add.

“Or squirming as little as possible,” she laughs.”! understood that I had to overcome something within myself in order to tell the story. But I hadn’t made the step beyond my own psyche to realize that it was going to have an effect on other people. In fact, having disentangled myself from my father, who was this incredibly charismatic, forceful person, and doing whatever repair work I needed to on myself afterward—those were the huge battles for me. If any sort of act of will was required, it was in the experience as opposed to writing down the experience.”

Still, the writing was tough. “On the one hand, you have to draw closer to the experience than you were at the time, when it was so traumatic that you were always shielding yourself from it. Later, when you revisit an experience, you force your eye up against things that you averted your gaze from before, and you experience it more intensely than you had when it was going on. On the other hand, you are protected by the fact that it isn’t going on and you’re objectifying it. You’re purposefully crafting an experience into something else, which requires a kind of clinical dispassion and separation from it. So it’s paradoxical. You’re at once further than you ever were from the experience and closer to it.”

Through the writing process, Harrison gained a deeper understanding of her relationships with both of her parents, especially how her relationship with her mother enabled the incest to come about. Looking back now, she says, “I don’t feel shame about the sex; I feel shame about how angry I was. Having to own that level of murderous anger against my mother was the hardest part for me.”

When the manuscript was finally finished, Harrison showed it to Andrea Dworkin. “Prepare to be dragged through the mud!” her fellow writer warned. That’s when Harrison began to realize that she would have to face more than the struggle to put the story on paper. (Another clue came when she saw how carefully the publishers legal department vetted the manuscript.)

Harrison was politicized by the experience; she believes a male memoirist would have been treated differently. “The really negative, venomous responses broke down into classic responses to women who have transgressed sexually. One is you’re a bad mother. Another one is, essentially, you’re a whore or a prostitute because you’ve sold this thing about yourself to make money.”

I’m interested in Harrison’s reaction to the idea that she shouldn’t have told her story on account of what it might do to her children. “First of all, my relationship with my children is not something that I am receiving random advice on—from strangers.” She laughs, adding, “I know my children and they know me, and I wouldn’t lie to them, anyway.”

To the much bandied-about argument that there’s a difference between telling your children and publishing a story for the world to see, she says, “The issue is complicated. Do I want to have done something that causes them discomfort or pain? No. On the other hand, I know that if I prevent myself from being myself in the name of motherhood, that’s necessarily going to cause resentment. If I look at my children as the impediment between me and my work, that’s a real problem, too.

“So this is a very grey area. And most of the responses in terms of whether it was proper for me, as a mother, to let this be known about myself were facile. They didn’t take into account any of the complexities or deeper issues that I’d thought about very carefully.”

When I ask Harrison how she manages to be a writer and a mom to three, she laughs and says, “Well, you see the house. It’s messy behind the scenes a lot of the time. And I don’t get as much sleep as I need and sometimes the baseball uniform isn’t washed. …”

Before the kids were in school, Harrison hired a babysitter to give her time to write. Now she builds her work routine around the academic calendar, waking as early as 4 a.m. and working till 7 a.m., then again during the day while the kids are in school and sometimes after dinner, too. And while summer finds her at loose ends— “I’m very much keyed into the school schedule” —she clearly wouldn’t want to give up either role: “I’m a writer, I need to write; and I’m a mom. They’re both very important parts of my life. Sometimes they come into conflict and sometimes they don’t, but they’re both different expressions of me.

“I think it is really fascinating being a parent. I feel like so much of what I understand about life has come to me through having children.” At the same time, she feels “really lucky” to be able to make a living as a writer.

“Which also affects your children,” I suggest.

“Oh, absolutely. The fact that I have work that absorbs and gratifies me does free them from me in a way that’s good for both of us. If I had no work, I would be in danger of making my children my work and of being too invested in aspects of their lives that really belong to them.”

Conversely, as a writer, it’s a relief to have a family life. “It’s nice at the end of the day to have to turn off the word processor and leave my study. I think that without family and without people to answer to, I’d be in my study,all the time. I could really be a monster.”

Even without spending all her time in her study, Harrison has been prolific. Since 1991, she’s published six novels (“Envy,” “Thicker Than Water,” “Exposure “ “Poison,” “The Binding Chair,” “The Seal Wife”), four memoirs f’Seeking Rapture,” “The Kiss,” “The Road to Santiago,” “The Mother Knot”) and a biography (“Saint Thérèse of Lisieux”). Always looking to expand her repertoire, Harrison is currently conducting research for a true crime book about three murders that took place in Medford, Ore., in 1984.

Based on her description of the book, which involves a parent’s emotional abuse of a child, I can’t help remarking that the project is right up Harrison’s alley. I wonder what she’ll find challenging about it. “I think it will be necessary to keep a clear separation between my issues and the issues that existed in that family and for those people.”

Murder, abuse, incest … it’s clear that Harrison doesn’t feel that any subject should be off4imits to the writers. But is there anything that she does find offensive in other writers of nonfiction?

“Offensive? I’m offended by bad writing.” She laughs then pauses to think.

“I don’t like agendas that are not announced. I think the only true agenda for good memoir is to turn one’s eye on oneself with the hope of seeing, with the reader as a third party to that transaction. Therefore I’m offended by books that seek to present themselves in one particular light or another.”

What she’s looking for in a memoir is “to cut beneath the surface. My intent is not to put together a pleasing surface in the wav one would get dressed for a party. I want to do the opposite—to strip away the covering and see what’s underneath.”

Granted, most writers are working with unconscious agendas. But Harrison does “expect integrity and for people to be as consciously honest and open to discovering what they will inside themselves. I don’t think there’s any topic that is not OK or worth examining if there’s something to be seen and learned about it.”

About the Author

Catherine Wald

Catherine Wald is the author of The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 23 Top Authors (Persea, 2005).

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