The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

kissThe Kiss came recommended as a powerfully told memoir, the artful representation of a shocking story that does not rely upon its sensational nature to make an impact, but showcases the author’s craft. All this is true, and I am left feeling very impressed and somewhat reeling, from both the story itself and the writing.

Kathryn Harrison was raised by her mother’s parents, her mother an on-and-off presence in her life who never gives her the love she longs for. She meets her father only twice while she is growing up; his third visit, when she has just turned 20, marks the beginning of a new stage. When he kisses her goodbye at the airport, the air goes electric, and they begin an incestuous affair that will last years and cause the rest of her life to wither. Their relationship is obsessive and controlling: in other words, awfully unhealthy, even if they were not father and daughter; and it will damage her forever.

Clearly there is shock value, and the potential for merely prurient appeal. But Harrison does not let the salacious subject matter carry her book. She examines her troubled childhood, her need for love, her search for herself, and sees in hindsight the way she was preyed upon. Her father is a preacher, who argues that God wants them to be together sexually.

I never question his sanity; although I will come to the point where it is less painful to regard my father as crazy than to conclude that he has been so canny in judgment of my character and its frailties that he knows exactly what language to use, what noose of words to cast around my neck.

She studies her story, and muses on it, and the result is a work of craft, not of voyeurism.

It is still disturbing, make no mistake. You will shiver and flinch, because she doesn’t turn away from the ugly bits – and they don’t all involve her father; there is also the one with the kittens, and the scene in which Harrison’s unloving mother takes her to a doctor to have her hymen broken with medical implements. (Seriously.) But it is also, strangely, beautiful. As a writer, I am here to take notes and see how she does this thing: tells this horrifying story with grace and insight and art. I don’t really understand it, although I hope to.

Rating: 8 photographs.

4 Responses

  1. I reviewed this book, too. All in all, a creepy read, for sure.

  2. […] on The Kiss, I came to The Liars’ Club intrigued to see how the masters do this work. I have a special […]

  3. […] in my series of not-new-but-still-important creative nonfiction readings (see The Kiss and The Liars’ Club)… Kathleen Norris’s essay collection, Dakota, is brilliant. I […]

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