The Magazine

Pants on Fire!

A Review of Kathryn Harris.

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