The Magazine

Pants on Fire!

A Review of Kathryn Harris.

Mar 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 27 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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How did you while away the first half of your twenties? Did you study? Did you work? Did you hang around with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Did you meet up with your long-lost father and embark on a four-year sexual relationship that began in an airport, continued in motel rooms, apartments, and other intriguing places (Grandpa's house!) across the country, and ended only after a final year during which you took up residence in his house, surrounded by his second wife and children?


If that last question has set you to nodding vigorously, then you probably are well aware already that the publishing world has finally got the book for you. The Kiss: A Memoir, by three-time novelist Kathryn Harrison, has been the object of one of the most successfully orchestrated publicity campaigns in literary memory. Harper's magazine (where the author's husband, novelist Colin Harrison, is deputy editor) published a portion of the work over two years ago, and the New Yorker purchased rights to run an excerpt before publication. The Literary Guild and the Book-of-the-Month Club both bid on it and the latter won. The canny business reasoning behind all this scrambling for advantage now appears quite sound. For insofar as we are all either apologists for incest or deplorers of it, here is finally a book over which people will choose sides.


In the meantime the author herself, indeed the whole Harrison family, has become ubiquitous. There is Mrs. Harrison in the February issue of Vanity Fair, in a fetching black leotard and bolero jacket, the centerpiece of a study on the new wave of female memoirists. There she is again some weeks later in the Style section of the Washington Post, glamorously photographed with her husband and her father-in-law, headmaster of the prestigious Sidwell Friends School (where the President's daughter is enrolled). You wouldn't say these people shun publicity. Harrison pere brags to the papers that the book is "superb"; husband Colin is said to be publishing his reaction to the book in a forthcoming issue of Vogue; and the author herself, career in skyrocket, is reportedly now the head fiction judge for the National Book Awards.


Now, for the literary world to weigh in as decisively as it has here on behalf of any book is itself a spectacle worthy of some attention. This much would be true even if the subject at hand were not something so self- evidently spellbinding as the tale of the four-year sexual entanglement between an obese preacher/theologian and his anorexic Stanford-educated first child. But the multiple showcasings of Mrs. Harrison's memoir are if anything even more remarkable given the anorexic character of the text itself. In truth, this is one waif of a memoir. It weighs in at a mere 207 pages and has margins the size of fanny paddles. Per word, The Kiss could very well turn out to be the best-paying father-daughter incest story of our time.


It is also, to the complete commercial vindication of the parties involved, a book that has already summoned prominent and impassioned reviews. To endorsers and admirers, The Kiss is "uncanny" and "heartbreaking" (Tobias Wolff); "fearless and frightening, ironic and compassionate" (Mary Gordon); " amazing and terrifying" (Luc Sante); and -- somebody had to say it -- "a moral victory" (Robert Coles). "Lyrical and dry, with this analytical quality, " essayist Phillip Lopate enthuses in Vanity Fair. Christopher Lehmann- Haupt calls it "beautifully written" and counsels that "the reader's defense . . . can only be to try to understand."


Then there are the critics. "Slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical"; " incest chic" and "cultural rot"; "Ms. Harrison's conscience is conspicuously absent from her memories." This partial list, attributable respectively to Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, Suzanne Fields in the Washington Times, and Cynthia Crossen in the Wall Street Journal, is, one can safely imagine, only the harbinger of more denunciations to come.


The one thing that no one has yet managed to explain, however, is why we should believe that this story is true. To be sure, a certain skepticism has been ventured. As Crossen observed, for example, "some scenes" in the book " defy credulity"; and Jonathan Yardley did qualify his critical revulsion with an "if, by the way, anything herein actually happened as she claims it did."


These are sound points, but they don't go far enough. For the truth, and for all we know, the only truth, to be gleaned from the pages of The Kiss is that there is no compelling reason to believe that certain things happened as the author says they did, and several good reasons to surmise that they did not.


Let us start by taking The Kiss on its own terms -- i.e., as a first- person narrative of a series of traumatic happenings, all of them presented here without dates, times, names, or even, for the most part, locations, and in which all the other principals of the story, apart from the narrator and her father, are now dead. In any memoir, the narrator bears the burden of winning the reader's confidence; in a memoir like this, of the only-I-escaped- to-tell variety, that burden is quadrupled. So who is this narrator, anyway, and what, in the course of this memoir, do we learn about her?


For starters, her childhood and early adulthood seem to have been spent in extremis. In between and all around whatever else is happening in her life, she is stricken by (in alphabetical order only) amenorrhea, amnesia, anorexia, asthma, bulimia, dehydration, depression, insomnia, narcolepsy, pneumonia, rashes, and shingles. And that's just the technical stuff. There are also coughing fits, sore throats, an inability to breathe, suicidal longings, and acts of self-mutilation. Remember, this is a very short book.


Our first observation, therefore, is that this narrator is either a hypochondriac of the very first order or the single most physically afflicted human being since Job. How many of these awful things did she really suffer from? None? Some? All? Is it quibbling to observe that if everything she says is true, then she is asking us to rely on the objectivity, detachment, and accuracy of someone whose usual point of view is that of a hospital?


Quite apart from the problem of her physical state, there is the matter of her mental deshabille. Here is what we learn of her girlhood -- that is to say, the twenty or so years that precede whatever started with her father's kiss. She thinks that she is stalked by a ghost. She sucks dry ice because it makes her bleed. She tortures her fingers with a vise from her grandfather's workbench. She collects Seconal tablets from an unnamed source (Mom, is that you?) and hides them in her desk. She stays up late after Christmas and birthdays and other holidays so she can rewrap all her presents as if she'd never opened them. There are also numerous episodes of panicking and insomnia and, of course, a whole lot of throwing up. Even something as ordinary as a tape recorder strikes her mute with terror. (It is, you see, "a black casket with shiny steel hardware, the kind into which a magician locks a girl before he saws her in half.")


Harrison also, if what she says is true, has a flair for sadism. In what may be the single most emetic passage in all the book, she describes how, at the age of eleven, she becomes obsessed by a litter of newborn kittens because she can't bear the fact of "their tiny eyes that never woke to me." So she picks up one of them and yanks its eyelids apart till they stay open. She then collapses in a fit of weeping and guilt, and -- well, what would you do? -- goes and does the same disgusting thing to the eyes of all the other little kittens, too.


As Michael Shnayerson noted in his profile for Vanity Fair, this same scene is enacted almost verbatim by the child protagonist of Mrs. Harrison's first novel, Thicker Than Water. So is an episode in The Kiss involving a trip to a museum. So is a trip to Lake Havasu and the reassembled London Bridge. So is a vignette in a gynecologist's office where the main props are blood, sheets, and a series of green plastic phalluses.


Which brings us, colored phalluses and all the rest of it quite aside, to a curious fact. Immediately after publishing Thicker than Water, whose grisly hallucinatory details caused more than one reviewer to speculate about the novel's autobiographical origins, the author herself said she had made it all up. Thicker Than Water, according to a formulation appearing in Publisher's Weekly, was "completely a product of her imagination." So she denied that the incest story presented in 1991 was true, then five years later reproduces the same story -- "a wholesale lift," as Shnayerson puts it - - as a memoir.


However coherent this tale may appear as fiction, it fails to convince as non-fiction on several counts. Leave aside all the mental and moral vagaries of its morbid, physically ravaged, ice-sucking, vise-operating and kitty- tormenting narrator. Let us posit, for the sake of argument, that she has somehow miraculously emerged from these mortal torments with all of her necessary powers somehow intact. What then of all the other characters in this book? How do they conform -- or not -- to anything the human reader can recognize?


Though Dad is not presented in any detail, what little we do learn of him is simply baffling. He is a fat, bespectacled middle-aged man whose "heavy man's breasts are disconcertingly visible" and whose "burning" eyes are " always bloodshot." He "always" wears his socks to bed. He does plenty of other unromantic things, too, like taking dirty pictures, collecting guns and pens, and ranting all the while about God. He is not, in short, the kind of dreamboat that a beautiful and talented junior in college would sit by the phone for, with or without the added frisson of knowing all the while that he's her father. (Our narrator, by the way, is of course beautiful and talented. We know; she has other people say so all the time.)


All right, let's take that leap of faith. Let's say this particular beautiful and talented 20-year-old has a different view than most such women of what it is that makes a man enchanting. How are we to make sense of the idea that this same unappetizing man, one who moreover appears barking mad in his every appearance, works magic on the other women in his life, as well? One such is the narrator's beautiful and elusive mother, who is supposedly still smitten with him after all these years. There is also his second wife, another cipher, who is said to be helplessly in thrall to this same man.


And how about those Victorian British-Jewish grandparents who apparently raised her while her errant mother slept or disappeared? These people, we are curtly told, "have hurt me" and "still frighten me." Granny, for her part, makes a wig-flipping entrance on page 6:


My grandmother has a talent for screaming. Her screams are not human. They tear through the veil of ordinary life . . . and in rushes every black, bleak, and barbarous thing: animals with legs caught in traps, surgery in the days that precede anesthesia, the shriek of a scalded infant, the cry of a young woman raped in the woods, the long howl of the werewolf who catches her scent, who finds and devours what's left of her.


She's a scary piece of work, this Granny of The Kiss. What she does when she is not howling like a banshee is not always clear, but it is clearly meant to be very, very bad. She carps, she complains, she criticizes her beautiful and talented (hereinafter, "b&t") granddaughter. She is by turns " livid," "disparaging," "controlling," and overly fond of the family fortune.


If you were Red Riding Hood and this were your grandmother, what would you do? Leave her locked in the closet and make straight for the hills? Well, here is what Kathryn Harrison did: In 1995 -- less than two years before The Kiss was published Mrs. Harrison took her third novel, Poison, and . . . dedicated it to her.


And what, by the way, is wrong with her grandfather? He too is meant to be implicated by this book; indeed, it is his death that somehow kick-starts the process of "releasing" her from all that familial bondage. Grandfather's problem, in the main, is that he doesn't like being pawed by his teenage granddaughter. "When he hugged me, he didn't let our bodies touch, he made sure that my breasts and hips didn't press against him," she complains. He teaches her how to garden, helps her with her bicycle, keeps a nice Victorian roof over her head, sends her thousands of dollars when she drops out of school, and has something to do with the rounds of "school, camp, church, birthday parties, dental appointments and dance lessons" that our narrator cannot even so much as mention without shuddering. The monster!


You would think, based on what's known so far, that this particular girl would turn handsprings over a male progenitor who did things like this without even trying to pull her skirt up, wouldn't you? He certainly looks good compared to her other grandfather, the paternal one, whom she meets as an adult in the course of one of her trysts with Dad and whose first act, she notes indignantly, is to feel up her leg and make a pass. So one grandfather is faulted for not rubbing up against her, and the other one is faulted for wanting to. You might say our narrator is trying to have it both ways, grandfather-wise. And maybe even otherwise, too.


The alpha and omega of the whole twisted alphabet is of course Mom, striking and aloof, neurotic, neglectful, and above all -- how many of you guessed it? -- jealous of her b&t daughter. You see, the narrator does not really "want" her father; she wants her mother, or the mother-love she never had, or something like that. "The smell of her perfume, the glint of sun on her hair, the way that, in her small kitchen, our bodies sometimes inadvertently touch, separated by no more than the fabric of two thin nightgowns: any of these is enough to make me feel faint."


But enough of this low-rent sport. The good news is that upon the publication of Mrs. Harrison's memoir, the entire genre of the tell-all, done- all, made-for-TV confessional cash cow has reached what can only be its logical end. For years now, the public has swallowed everything and anything that our itinerant victim-prophets -- suicidal, narcissistic, and delusional though they may be -- have clamored to divulge. Never mind that you wouldn't leave a narrator like this one alone with the family turtle. Never mind that you wouldn't count on her to tell you without checking a calendar what day of the week it is. Your job is just to sympathize and believe.


In saying that The Kiss gives us no reason to do so, I mean only to observe that Mrs. Harrison has written a failed -- that is to say, an unconvincing -- memoir. I do not mean to suggest, as she herself once said, that she simply made the incest story up. For all we know, she actually did conduct an incestuous involvement with her father that began when she was an adult, and continued for some years. For all we know, she did these things and more. Any speculations to the contrary would be indecent.




Mary Eberstadt is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.