Remember when it took some digging to unearth secrets? When guilt and, repression were still powerful enforcers? In the aftermath of Freud and Jung, the unconscious seemed like a rich treasure bed, a sunken Atlantis of racial myth and murky memories, a crumbling Edgar Allan Poe estate choked with moss. To read one of Freud's case studies is to descend a spiral staircase where steps are broken or missing, dreams contain puns, and puns yield clues to primal events, usually involving some sexual eye-popper. However mistaken Freud's treatment may have been of "Dora" and the "Wolf Man," his case studies survive as detective literature, owing to the ingenious brainwork that he lavished against his patients' resistance. An element of play, a dogged glee, peeps through his struggle to free them of their fetters. In his analysis of "Dora," Freud modestly denied that he employed magical technique. Unlocking secrets was mostly a matter of being receptive, he claimed.
He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore. And thus the task of making conscious the most hidden recesses of the mind is one which it is quite possible to accomplish.Read More Archive Pieces From our Series: 100 Years, 100 Stories
Now the problem is the opposite: getting people to put a cork in it. What was once quite possible to accomplish has become impossible to stop. Since the 1970s, the deluge of pop-psych bestsellers, celebrity confessionals and tabloid talk shows has made Freud's intellectual heavy-lifting seem as antiquated as washing by hand. Even our deepest, darkest secrets seem shallow now—easy pickings. Our once-hidden shames have become publicity hounds. It's as if our psyches are no longer labyrinths or flooded basements, but well-lit TV studios where we swivel in the guest chair, awaiting our cue. The recent rash of personal memoirs and autobiographical novels (Bastard Out of Carolina, The Liars' Club, Drinking: A Love Story, The Blue Suit, Prozac Nation, Autobiography of a Face) bear witness to this desire to show one's pain in plain sight. Some memoir-writers are legitimately trying to clarify for themselves and the reader the experience of a cruel upbringing or an unfortunate twist of fate; others are simply peddling their stories for fame. Either way, we're approaching saturation agony overload. I have three writer-friends currently working on memoirs. This summer the Iowa Writing Series is offering a weeklong workshop in "the powerful form of crisis memoir," in which students are asked to bring manuscripts of their own "survival stories."
With so many memoirs covering so many addictions and afflictions, the confessions have gotten kinkier and more gossipy, as writers add extra salsa to stand out from the growing herd. In the last few years we've had Michael Ryan confess to molesting the family dog in Secret Life, Daphne Metkin getting spanked in The New Yorker, the English writer Blake Morrison describe getting an erection while putting his young daughter to bed in As If (her rounded buttocks, etc.); and soon we will have Naomi Wolfs Promiscuities: An American Girlhood and Katie Roiphe's memoir about her sister and drugs. But no crisis memoir has attracted more fireflies than Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss. Prefaced with a quotation from Francois Mauriac (classy dead French writer), this is a book that gift wraps its sordid secret in a Tiffany box. It's incest with a twist, trash with a capital "T."
Harrison is the author of three novels, Thicker than Water, Exposure and Poison, along with numerous magazine articles about herself for Vogue. For one of the Vogue pieces, a testy complaint about being treated as a bimbo just because she happens to be blond ("as if ... in demonstrating both intelligence and blondness, I had broken some unspoken rule"), Harrison posed in fish net stockings and a tacky dress slit thigh-high. The irony seemed lost on her. Her husband, Colin Harrison, is an editor at Harper's and the author of a breathless literary thriller called Manhattan Nocturne. He has also signed a reported million-dollar two-book deal. Their star-quality as a literary couple has made them attractive bait in the piranha tank of pop journalism.
Before the publication of The Kiss, Harrison granted interviews to Mirabella and The New York Observer and refused to talk to Vanity Fair, which ran an unsympathetic piece by Michael Shnayerson. Then the English press got into the act. Nearly every article mentioned that an excerpt from The Kiss was due to run in The New Yorker, a bona fide indicator of the book's "buzz" value. But then the excerpt was aborted, an ominous sign. All this preliminary fuss has made the Harrisons understandably wary, and not just because they seemed to have lost control of the hype.
"Literary" writers such as the Harrisons often grumble that in the current showbiz climate they are reviewed not for the content of their work or the craft of their prose, but on the basis of sidebar issues: the size of their advances, the parties they attend, even their looks. (In the '80s, Gordon Lish seemed to be running a modeling school out of Knopf.) Writers now have to fret about being fashionable enough for the fickle press, but not so trendy that they provoke a backlash. And, given the touchy subject matter of The Kiss, the Harrisons had even more cause to feel targeted. "Colin and Kathy understood from the beginning that the book was going to be a magnet for a lot of small-hearted speculation," the novelist Bob Shacochis told the Observer. So many meanies out there! Since we don't wish to appear small-hearted, let's humor Colin and Kathy (and Bob). For the first half of this review, let's make our minds a perfect blank and focus on the book itself, on the text. Let's pretend we stumbled on the work unawares.
The first thing that strikes one about The Kiss is how airbrushed the writing is, how fade away. Its sentences leave wistful little vapor trails of Valium. The opening chapter, a brief flash-forward that finds Harrison and her father journeying together out West, has the mock-simple rosary-bead rhythm of a Joan Didion litany. "We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we've never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us." The tourist spots that they visit have a movie-location desolation that's also Didionesque.
Increasingly, the places we go are unreal places: the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon—places as stark and beautiful and deadly as those revealed in satellite photographs of distant planets. Airless, burning, inhuman.
Posed in front of these supersized postcards from perdition, these two are ready for their close-ups: "Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands. He tips it up and kisses my closed eyes, my throat." Back in the car, they quarrel and weep, going from motel to motel, lovers on the lam, worming through the dusty soul of America.
But if her father is a Humbert, his daughter is no Lolita. The shock revelation in The Kiss—and, presumably, its selling point—is that the father-daughter incest it recounts is not childhood exploitation, but a consensual act between two adults. It began when Harrison was 20, and old enough to know better. Harrison's father, a preacher, left home when Kathryn was only six months old, insisting later that he was driven away. (He remarried and started another family.) Kathryn was raised mostly by her mother's parents. It was tense around the house; when her mother went out on dates, her grandmother howled like an animal. When Kathryn was 6, her mother moved out of the house to a nearby apartment, depriving her of the presence of both parents. The anger and the resentment that Harrison feels toward her wayward mother is later manifested as anorexia.
An uneasy relationship with food is the standard example in cases such as my mother's and mine. At 15, when I stop eating, is it because I want to secure her grudging admiration? Do I want to make myself smaller and smaller until I disappear, truly becoming my mother's daughter: the one she doesn't see?
Her father does see, and how. He sees from the depths of his muddled being. At the age of 20, Kathryn meets the father whom she has barely known in an awkward family reunion of which mother makes three. Her slatternly mother being chronically late, Kathryn meets her father alone at the airport terminal.
"Don't move," he says. "Just let me look at you."
My father looks at me, then, as no one has ever looked at me before. His hot eyes consume me—eyes that I will discover are always just this bloodshot. I almost feel their touch. He takes my hands, one in each of his, and turns them over, stares at my palms. He does not actually kiss them, but his look is one that ravishes.
Training his personal high-beams on her, his eyes "burn like no other eyes I've ever seen before or since. Burn like a prophet's, a madman's, a lover's." Shades of Fu Manchu! "Always shining, always bloodshot, always turned on me with absolute attention. Intelligent eyes, enraptured eyes, luminous, stricken, brilliant, spellbound, spellbinding eyes." Alright, already!
The affair begins days later, with their goodbye kiss at the airport terminal—a kiss that begins as a proper one on his part but becomes a Roto-Rooter tongue probe, "wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn." Stunned, she watches his plane take off, "the thrust that lifts its heavy, shining belly into the clouds," an image that you don't need to be Freud to figure out. He bombards her with phone calls and letters, pleas to meet him. She shouldn't, she mustn't, but she must, she does. Soon they are saying goodbyes at different airports, which are yet all the same in their antiseptic dolor.
Our protracted goodbyes are consumed along with magazines and junk food by the weary, bored travelers who surround us, slumped in molded plastic chairs.
Do we resemble each other enough that people suspect we're father and daughter? Do we sit too close to one another? Does his hand on my arm betray his intent? And why do we cling so, as if our parting will be as final as death?
At first surmise, Harrison's lapsing into an affair with her father seems a desperate attempt to sunbathe in the attention always denied her by her mother. ("Her eyes, when they turn at last toward me, are like two empty mirrors. I can't see myself in them.") It's also a sexual cat fight. When Harrison was in college, according to The Kiss, her mother insisted that she be fitted with a diaphragm and accompanied her to the gynecologist's examining room. The doctor informs them that the hymen needs to be broken before the fitting can be done. "You don't want me to that, do you?" he asks. Yes, the mother says. And so, writes Harrison, "This doctor deflowers me in front of my mother," inserting one green dildo after another until there's blood.
It was the doctor's hand, but her mother's decision—her mother took her virginity. Thus Kathryn's affair with her father is a form of retaliation—a return jab. "Through my father I have begun at last to penetrate my mother, to tear away the masks that divide us." Her father is a stand-in for her mother; he has "disconcertingly visible" breasts and lovely feet. Though he may need one of those male bras from "Seinfeld" ("the mansierre"), he's quite comfy in his flesh. Harrison: "For women like my mother and myself, careful listeners to society's normative messages of beauty and gender; a body such as my father's and his utter lack of self-consciousness over it are as subversive and disquieting as is his readiness to weep."
Bordering on camp, the loss is the oddest piece of kitsch, going from melodrama about hypnotic burning eyes to women's-magazine pap about "society's normative messages," from overblown omens ("every day the sun rises and sinks over the Grand Canyon, each time filling it with shadows the color of blood") to cardboard dialogue out of a drawing-room drama: "When I look at you," Harrison's father tells her, "I wonder if I, too, must not be handsome." (Take off your-gloves, Count, and stay awhile.) Harrison's sentences carry a high instep as she treads through the fallen petals of her past. "The dizzy rapture of starving. The power of needing nothing. By force of will I will make myself the impossible sprite who lives on air, on water, on purity." It's bad Sylvia Plath.
Perhaps the passage that best captures the book's weird precocity comes when Harrison visits her grandfather (her father's father), and he, too, makes a pass at her. His pass deflected, gramps takes her on a tour of his greenhouse:
The small glass structure is filled with color, as if every hue in this dry, gray city has been drawn into the vibrant box. In it, my grandfather is a magician, and his smile tells me he knows this. As I walk behind him and watch his hands gently turn a beautiful bloom toward my notice, do I remember the linguistic connection between orchids and male genitalia? Do I say the word silently to myself, orchidectomy, and define it as a surgical term for the removal of the testicles? I think, actually, that I do.
This book is so self-consciously writerly that when Harrison traps a cockroach under a glass we instantly grasp that this is no ordinary house bug, this is a metaphor for her condition. "I watch how it must relentlessly search for the seam, the tiny ridge or rill in the glass that might offer some hope of climbing, penetrating, escaping. But there is nothing about the glass that it understands." She, too, feels bewildered and trapped by transparent forces.
But it's one thing to be a small child at the mercy of adults, and another thing to be an adult participant yourself. Her father may have peppered her with wheedling phone calls and letters, but he wasn't looming at her bedroom door, taking advantage of his size and his age. Their affair wasn't a sordid domestic situation, it was a complex operation. She had to make travel arrangements to bunk with dad, then cover her tracks with lies. The conscious upkeep required for this relationship gets lost in the mental haze that Harrison maintains on the page. She sets the psychological framework for the incest, but she absents herself from the activity itself, depicting herself as a somnambulist, a white zombie.
When her father lifts her nightgown to perform cunnilingus (about as explicit as the book gets), Harrison disassociates from her body as the scene unfolds like some primitive rite. "Neither of us speaks, not even one word. The scene is as silent, as dark and dreamlike as if it proceeded from a fever or a drug." Overtime, her mind erases the tapes. "In years to come, I won't be able to remember even one instance of our lying together. I'll have a composite, generic memory." It is true that childhood victims of sex abuse often reflect a mind-body split as a method of dealing with the trauma, but in this case you feel Harrison is doing an astral float in order to preserve some core of innocence. After all, if you're the glassy-eyed victim of a fever or a drug, you're not truly responsible for your actions; you're the victim, the pawn of outside agents. But Harrison speaks of "enchantment" and "enslavement," as if she were a fairy princess. The very title of The Kiss suggests that this is a Sleeping Beauty story—except in reverse, in which the kiss is not awakening but dumb-founding.
As the shame-spiral deepens, the sex becomes riskier, stagier, a sacred mortification of the flesh, with Kathryn and her father copulating on the floor of his church office. "I tell myself that if I give myself over to him to be sullied, then by the topsy-turvy Christian logic-that exalts the reviled, I'll be made clean. I will if I can just do it willingly, trusting in the ultimate goodness of God, and the way in which he sometimes takes unexpected and even repugnant forms, like beggars and lepers, like Saint Dymphna's father. How could she have been martyred without him? How could she have been glorified?" The questions she ought to asking at that moment are, "Suppose somebody catches us? How are we going to explain this?"
Real-life complications seldom impinge on the book's bummed-out fairy-tale trance. I found myself pondering the awful possibility of her becoming pregnant by her father, something right out of Chinatown ("my sister," slap, "my daughter"). Like John Huston in that film, her father is a monster—angry, bullying, hypocritical—but he isn't a recognizable monster. He doesn't take shape on the page as anything but a toxic blob. To obscure his identity, and perhaps to make him more universal, Harrison doesn't even furnish it with his first name, or make up a new one for him. (Did she call him "Dad" in bed?) There's never an offhand, clinching anecdote about their meals and trips together, or a realistic scrap of conversation. He speaks only in rhetoric. "Is it possible that you don't realize my devotion? You say I'm disrupting your studies, but don't you see you've wreaked havoc in my heart!"
Common to narratives of dysfunctional life is the revelatory moment of hitting bottom. After having sex on the office floor and in her grandmother's house, after having dropped out of college, fallen ill and pondered suicide, Harrison hits bottom when she and her father meet at a welfare hotel in Brooklyn where they have sex and he takes nude Polaroids. "I feel that in my own story I've at last arrived in the dirty place I belong," she says of this Trantula Arms. After her grandfather dies, she kneels by his corpse in the morgue and kisses his cheek, a kiss that "begins to wake me, just as my father's in the airport put me to sleep." (What symmetry!) Sleeping Beauty finally snaps out of her coma when her mother dies of cancer, and she pays vigil by her corpse, caressing the dead body as an erotic object and realizing at last that "the spell is broken, her death has released me." No longer needing her father to get at her (defunct) mother, Harrison finally ends the affair, her father fading shabbily into the ether.
In the years that follow, Harrison will be able to achieve some perspective and get past the blight. She marries, has children.
In our marriage we've made a place for my father and what happened between me and him. It's a locked place, the psychic equivalent of a high cupboard, nearly out of reach.
My children touch my face, my hair. They kiss me. To them I am perfect and beautiful.
But one has to step back from this happily-ever-after tableau and ask: Is the publication of The Kiss a responsible act? Does it truly provide Harrison with "closure" and end the cycle of misery? Or might it perpetuate another round?
The rationale given for writing The Kiss is that the incestuous affair between Harrison and her father so clouded and dampened her psyche that only directly addressing the issue would do. Her agent told The New York Observer that she advised Harrison to put aside the family saga novel that she was writing and tackle this obstruction as nonfiction. "It was my feeling that ... she needed to exorcise what happened with her father. Not that it was blocking her, but it was preoccupying her." Having been granted permission to say the unsayable, Harrison could hardly rein the words in her head, writing The Kiss "in one of those strange periods of white heat." The Kiss reads more like dry ice than white heat, but never mind. The point is: just because she wrote it doesn't mean she had to publish it.
It is assumed today that all secrets are bad, that withholding them is unhealthy; secrets denied the clean light of day will only fester. Yet the celebrities and near-celebrities who write or dictate tell-all books seldom find themselves purged and at peace. Instead, like Roseanne and Patti Davis, they feel compelled to toss out more red meat in even gaudier sequels. The truth is that some secrets may have a healthy purpose, providing a buffer zone or guardrail against a careless and uncaring all-impinging world: Secrets are an integral part of privacy, a personal identifying mark or a family bond. "Deeply experienced people—this continually impresses me—will keep things to themselves," the narrator of Saul Bellow's novella The Bellarosa Connection remarks.
For a writer, secrets are more than material; they are intellectual capital that accrues power and interest by being nursed in solitude. (Bellow's narrator speaks of secrets being converted into burnable energy.) To fling them out too freely is to vulgarize them, and to risk injuring those most intimately involved. There is a big difference between getting something out of your system and putting it on the market. Harrison herself claims, "I was never trying to figure out what I was going to get from this book. Really, I just wanted to write it." Why not wait, then, and give the manuscript time to cool?
It's not as if she hasn't broached the subject before. As Michael Shnayerson damagingly documented, some of the big set pieces in The Kiss (an incident involving kittens, the gynecological deflowering) are reprised from Harrison's first novel, Thicker than Water. Shnayerson concluded that "this is not a case of a novelist taking some bit from her past that appears in one book and reexamining it in the next. This is a wholesale lift." And the scenes in which her father takes photographs of her on the road recall her second novel, Exposure, which also featured a hovering, seductive shutterbug. Tonally, The Kiss is the same as Thicker than Water and Exposure. Harrison isn't following the lead of Philip Roth and saying, in effect, "You've read the novels—now for the facts behind the fiction." The Kiss doesn't read as a tonic antidote or a frank revision. It reads as yet another costume jewelry display of rapt sensibility. Shnayerson speculated that the reason Harrison chose to publish is one of expediency: she wanted to make a killing, to cash in on her catharsis. "Literary fiction" has become a dread phrase in publishing, and the sales of Harrison's novels have only been so-so; but a juicy memoir is where the money is. It is certainly true that opportunism oozes from every pore of The Kiss and its launch.
But I think that Harrison's decision to publicize her past is animated by something more, and even worse, than the desire for a best-seller. It's an acting-out unconsciously intended to inflict discomfort closer to home. For Colin and Kathryn Harrison have two children, a son and a daughter. It is the daughter, Sarah, on whom she dotes in print. In articles for women's magazines, Harrison stresses how beautiful her daughter is. In Vogue, she recalled sitting with another mother and watching their daughters play. "They are only six, but already we know that mine will spurn and hers will suffer." Last summer Harrison wrote her most intimate article concerning her future heartbreaker of a daughter. It was called "Tick," and it appeared in The New Yorker.
In retrospect, "Tick" served as an ugly little appetizer for The Kiss. It concerned an incident at the Harrisons' summer house, when the daughter was 5. Harrison is brushing Sarah's hair. "I brush longer than I need to. The tangles are out and the brushing soothes me with its repetitive motion, like sewing or sweeping or fucking, late-night, too-tired-to-fuck fucking." When I originally read this passage, I was puzzled as to why Harrison had sexualized the prosaic act of brushing her daughter's hair, and disturbed by how she had sexualized it in language that suggested joyless, slugged grinding.
Now, in The Kiss, we read how Harrison would sit at the vanity table as her mother brushed her hair. Harrison's long blond hair was a source of great pride to her: "a symbol of me," "an obvious symbol of sexuality." Her hair is the first feature her father fawns over when he sees her after all those many years. When her mother falls ill, Harrison decides to have her Rapunzel locks chopped. "Within the haircut are, of course, love and anger: a hostile capitulation. I make my hair a sacrifice to my mother's vision of the daughter she wanted, a relic of the girl who lived to please her mother ..." (Harrison scholars should note that she told the same anecdote in an article in Vogue, September 1994. No one can say she doesn't recycle.) Sarah's hair, her "beautiful braids," is a living talisman, a seductive snare. Just as Harrison displaced her mother in her father's bed, she is destined to be sexually upstaged in time by her own beautiful daughter.
The hard brushing that she gives her daughter's hair suggests the resentment that she feels; and this amorphous resentment sharpens into focus when Harrison discovers a tick in her daughter's hair. The tick is pale and engorged. Using tweezers to extract the tick by its head, Harrison, repulsed yet fascinated, doesn't dispose of the parasite in the toilet, as most people would do. She decides to torture it, searching for steak knives like some backyard barbecue Lady Macbeth, but settling for an odd implement that looks like a nut pick. With ruthless precision, she amputates the tick's legs, studying its defensive posture and marveling over its determination to live; then locates the steak knives and really goes to town, debating whether to aim "for that tiny anus or whatever that little hole is," or run the point of the blade straight through the sucker.
Harrison's reaction to the tick is so extravagantly fierce, fanatical and steel-edged that it's clear this is no average tick. This is a symbolic insect, like the cockroach in The Kiss. Residing in the nest of sexuality, the tick is the embodiment of lurking evil. Harrison's true mission surfaces when she confides that her real purpose in poking holes into the tick is to pop it open and release her daughter's blood. "The reappearance of my daughter's stolen life will qualify as redemption," she claims, fatuously. But whose redemption? Her daughter is bawling somewhere in the house; redemption isn't on her agenda. Stolen life? All the tick drew was blood.
No, it was Harrison's life which was stolen, by her abandoning parents. And in going after that bulb of blood that the tick has become, Harrison is out to break her daughter's hymen, as her mother broke hers. She's left frustrated as the tick refuses to cooperate. Only when she pulps the tick's body does she realize that "Sarah's blood has turned to excrement." The unspoken lesson of "Tick" is, eros ends in shit.
Not only did Harrison write about her daughter within such a graphic, triad-scientist scenario, she also denied her daughter the decency, the solace, of anonymity. Accompanying Harrison's article, The New Yorker published a photograph of Sarah Harrison on her mother's lap. She looks unhappy in the shot, squirming, pouty, perhaps about to cry. Surely such a gross invasion of the child's privacy wasn't necessary. Rereading "Tick" after reading The Kiss, however, I can't help but feel that these two productions constitute a narcissistic act on Harrison's part intended to invite misery and humiliation upon her children, especially the daughter, as misery was visited upon her. (Narcissistic, because Harrison craves the public spotlight as deeply as she did her father's heat-seeking eyes.)
Discussing the possible impact that The Kiss and its resultant publicity might have on her children, Harrison has resorted to weasel words. She told The New York Observer that "my life as a writer is quite separate from my life as a mother, and I know this is an issue I'm probably going to have to address with my children, and I'm waiting for my cue from them." Probably have to address? You mean, as if this were a storm that might blow out to sea?
Similarly, she told Mirabella that "I would like them to be as little aware of it [the incest] as possible. ... I don't want it to be thrust on them when they're not ready." Well, publishing a book and giving interviews to Mirabella and the Observer isn't exactly a protective-bubble policy. If Harrison is so concerned about her children being "ready," why not wait and publish the book when they are older, and better able to absorb the news? Why, in short, would you tell the entire world something before you tell those whose happiness and well-being matter most? She is the one doing the thrusting. And she may not even be telling the truth now. In the Mirabella interview, Harrison admits that "I wanted my father, let's just say that. And I got him." It is a statement of intent and initiative completely at odds with the narration and the tenor of The Kiss, where she is a meek passive vessel adrift and her father the pirate who boards her. No seduction is ever truly one-sided. Harrison's remarks in Mirabella suggest that The Kiss may be another form of fiction.
In the days of Dick Morris, we should hardly be surprised to see content-providers sacrificing personal considerations to further their cockamamie careers. Colin Harrison, for his part, has written an article for Vogue on what it's like to be married to a woman who had incest with her father. Of course, when you have something intimate and painful to share, what better venue than Vogue? It didn't take much arm-twisting, a Vogue editor informed Mediaweek. "Colin was willing, and he wrote something that is quite beautiful and sturdy." Colin himself told Mediaweek that "this is the first piece of journalism I've written about her, ever. But it wasn't a hand-wringing situation by any means, because I'm extraordinarily proud of her. That's my overriding emotion in her: pride." The combined smarm of Colin and Kathryn Harrison is enough to drive one backwards. The Kiss will be soon forgotten, but the Harrisons have secured their place as the Sonny and Cher of dysfunction.
A final note. Among the luminaries bestowing a blurb on The Kiss is the psychologist and saint Robert Coles, author most recently of The Moral Intelligence of Children. The Harrisons don't know any better, but doesn't he?
James Wolcott is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.