I hesitate to say this essay follows my reading of Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir, The Kiss because the book’s infamous headline subject is the affair she had when she was twenty with her father. To my mind, the memoir’s real subject is the story of a girl who grew up almost unloved and who came to terms with a weak mother. As such, it is striking and moving, as well as beautifully written. But on finishing, I was left with a feeling that all memoir fails, and must fail, in a crucial way.
Kathryn’s mother was unduly influenced by her parents, who forced her husband to leave when Kathryn was only six months old. Kathryn’s subsequent childhood was marked by her mother’s recurring desertions, sometimes for days, sometimes for months on end. Her mother was occasionally physically violent toward her and routinely psychologically harsh. Utterly self-absorbed, she made such a habit of being late to everything that her parents, Kathryn’s grandparents, gave her the wrong times for events in the hope she’d accidentally show up on time.
Despite the many incidents of neglect and cruelty that Harrison the author details, she asked us in the concluding sections to put aside such judgments and feel for her mother as a sentient human being. The two women have reconciled, as we see in a passage where her mother is hospitalized:
Sometimes, when she’s afraid she’ll die that very night, I spend it in the hospital with her. I sit in the chair by her bed or I stand beside her as I keep watch over her and over the little jet that delivers oxygen to the green tube that snakes up her nose. Once, she takes my hand. Eyes closed, she gropes for it, she calls my name. “Are you there?” she says.
“Yes,” I say.
“You’re always there, aren’t you?” Her voice is not even as loud as a whisper. Like a ghost’s, it’s made of air.
“Yes,” I say.
After all the suffering her mother has inflicted on her, how could this be? We get only hints. One suggestion is that both women tacitly came to understand that Kathryn’s father treated them equally callously. But there’s no exploration of a parallel that, in context, is just too weird.
I’m more persuaded by hints that Kathryn saw in herself the very faults she’d long recognized in her mother: “[W]hat will strike me … is my capacity for secrecy, my genius at revealing so little of my heart–and thus the risk that I, too, could end up a woman as trapped within herself as my mother.” The flaws Kathryn sees in herself were acquired, one way or the other, from her mother; they weren’t merely coincidental. But they were human failings, and shared recognition of shortcomings can bring two people together.
Still, the glimpses Harrison gives us of her love for her mother after their reconciliation suggest she was trying to compensate for, or apologize for, or even somehow cover over, the portrait in the earlier part of the memoir. It’s as if she felt her earlier portrayal was jaundiced and that she wanted to make up for it. And understandably so. Connections between family members are so powerful that they render us unwilling to expose our closest relatives to public censure, even if we habitually hurt them ourselves.
Critics who saw a new narcissistic low in The Kiss did Harrison an injustice. There’s nothing gratuitously lurid in her depiction of her affair with her father. The boundary-destroying first kiss is told to us in detail, but it had to be.
A more valid criticism is that this part of the memoir falls short of what we expect from the genre. Against Harrison’s childhood and mother narrative, the incest part feels like a detour, though it had to be told. Except for two visits and an artificially formal correspondence, her father was entirely absent after Kathryn’s first six months until she was twenty, when he made his first advances. Even when he became all too present in her life, shame about the affair and her self-destructive drive at the time precluded Harrison from seeing and portraying her father in three dimensions. The cost is the lack of any sense on the readers’ part of this man, a minister and lord-and-master of his church, as anything but a manipulator of affection, loyalty and religious faith.
Readers can appreciate why Kathryn’s father’s advances caused her to become ill and isolated and to drop out of college. What I, at least, couldn’t fully grasp is why she submitted. True, she was rejected by both parents and treated distantly by her grandparents, which made her father’s belated turnaround a powerful attraction. But she was no fool. She knew it came with transgressive eroticism. She writes of his first, invasive kiss:
In years to come, I’ll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. The kiss is the point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralyzed. It’s the drug my father administers in order that he might consume me. That I might desire to be consumed.
From here on, Harrison portrays herself as an innocent victim of her assaultive father. I agree she was a victim, but I don’t trust Harrison the author’s repeated claims of resistant passivity.
Memoir is a treacherous form. Its nature is to put actions into context, and context supplies explanation. Harrison’s skillful weaving together of scenes from the past and present is designed to provide that context. No question, the past influences the present, but we aren’t fully conscious of that process as it occurs. The role of the past comes into the discussion when we try to explain ourselves to ourselves or others. Had Harrison told the story of the affair in a straight narrative, without weaving in past hurts, it would have been difficult for her to sustain the storyline of resistant passivity.
The law draws a dividing line between the relative innocence of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. This line can be applied crudely and harmfully, but the general proposition is valid. At twenty, Kathryn was an adult and accountable for her actions. Even if I concede, as I do, that her father’s role in her life was disproportionate and that he took the initiative, her mental faculties were sufficiently developed for her to remove herself or fight. In short, she consented.
I don’t condemn Kathryn the person. I get why someone who is at first a victim can adapt by cooperating. Based on her later writing, the affair left deep scars, and I have no doubt it caused her terrible stress. I didn’t read her memoir with a presumption that all incest is evil. On the contrary, the very complexity hinted at in Harrison’s memoir suggests incest might merit nonjudgmental autobiographical and fictional treatment. My objection is solely to her manipulation of artistic technique to disguise the truths that memoir promises.
By contrast, Kathryn’s portrayal of her mother is three-dimensional. But do the book’s closing scenes of love between mother and daughter overcome the grim impression that the bulk of the memoir creates?
A paradox about thoughtful memoirs is that after all the reliving and recriminations, the author might well come away having undergone a catharsis and loving the flawed human being even more. No reader can possibly feel this love the way the author does. No matter how skilled the author, no matter how three-dimensional their characters, the power of love is intimately connected with physical presence, ongoing or remembered. No memoir, however successful, can restore that presence.
Suppose we readers had met Kathryn’s mother while she was still alive. Within seconds of meeting her, we would have intuited certain things about her that we can’t even after reading Harrison’s two hundred pages. The same is true in art. People might claim they feel they know the woman in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” but had they met the good lady, so much else would have become apparent. She might have spoken with a renaissance Italian woman’s equivalent of Donald Trump’s diction, cancelling out all the attraction of enigma. Or she might have had a warmth of personality that banished all thought of the abstracted mood da Vinci captured.
People who populate memoirs might take comfort from this divide between life and art. Any resemblance, as the standard disclaimer says, is purely coincidental. Well, not purely. In memoir and often in fiction, authors draw on real life. In Lesley Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly (2016), I was sad to find just how much the lives of the people behind Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) were scarred by his portrayals. It seems Hemingway was happy to offend. But if they felt he hadn’t done them justice, they were right. He couldn’t have. To the extent his novel was a disguised memoir, it confronted the limits of that genre.
Authors use the people they’ve known, along with their experiences, to give life to their mental landscapes. In a parallel process, readers of memoir and fiction look for insights into their own mental landscapes. Resemblance to actual people is, at most, incidental.
On finishing a memoir (or a roman a clef like The Sun Also Rises) and coming out from under an author’s spell, readers might appreciate this fortunate failure.