The Magazine

Pants on Fire!

A Review of Kathryn Harris.

Mar 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 27 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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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?