Kathryn Harrison: 'I did
Kiss and tell
Just as Brookside's Nat and Georgia make a sharp exit into incest heaven, KATHRYN HARRISON's controversial account of a love affair with her father refires the whole debate.
Words: Stephen Naysmith Photograph: Marion Ettlinger
KATHRYN HARRISON HAS not seen her father for twelve years. She may never see him again. and says she can’t afford to. She says the same thing about her ex-lover. but then. they are the same man.
Incest has always fascinated audiences. From Oedipus‘s fated dalliance with his mother to Brnnksiile‘s Simpson siblings Nat and Georgia. we are drawn and repelled by the breaching of this fundamental taboo. Hence the fuss surrounding the publication of The Kiss - New York author Kathryn Harrison's memoir of a love affair with her father — a fuss the author describes as ‘weird'.
In a steady stream of newsprint. Harrison has been accused in America of cashing in. of publicly humiliating her children. ages five and seven. and a New York Times review described her work as ‘The kiss of death for literature‘. Possibly as a result. her British publishers Fourth Estate are wary of who interviews her.
‘I didn‘t expect some of the really hysterical rants.‘ says Harrison. ‘perhaps naively‘. Perhaps. ‘There’s an intolerance of complexity and ambiguity. people like things to be in black and white.‘
This is certainly not a black-and-white case ofchild abuse. Harrison herself rejects the role
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of victim. or even ‘survivor’. The affair began sixteen years ago when she was twenty — an adult — after a farewell embrace from her father at an airport became a passionate kiss. ‘lt is no longer a chaste. closed-lipped kiss.‘ she writes of the experience. ‘My father pushes his tongue into my mouth: wet. insistent. exploring. then withdrawn.‘ Harrison claims she consented to the relationship.
The Kiss tells how isolation in early life led Harrison to embark on a relationship as much
'I have deathbed fantasies where my father and I say whatever we need to say. I have a desire for some sort of resolution' Kathryn Harrison
about possession and rivalry as love and affection. Her father and mother divorced when Harrison was six months old and her mother abandoned the six-year-old Kathryn. leaving her with her grandparents without providing even a contact address.
When Harrison met her father for the first time in ten years. it was against this background of craving for love and affection that the kiss goodbye begins an obsessive relationship. In the book. she describes entering a dreamlike state where only her
father matters. severing ties with friends and dropping out of college. She was already vulnerable. having suffered from the eating disorders bulimia and anorexia.
Now married — to writer Colin Harrison. father of her children — Harrison has effectively come clean with The Kiss. after her first two novels. which both dealt with the affair. The first. Thicker Than Water. was virtually the same book. bttt fictionalised. At the time she strongly denied they were autobiographical. ‘l was too frightened to admit it.’ she says now. ‘I was disgusted with myself for that. It had become a stumbling block. but I‘m no longer distracted by it.’
Self-disgust is a key theme in The Kiss. The author describes finding a fine dress left by her mother: ‘lf a dress like this was not worth taking. how could I have hoped to be'?’ Harrison is only now overcoming these emotions. ‘There is less and less self-disgust.‘ she says. ‘I had a real split consciousness at the time.’
The most surprising aspect of The Kiss is that her father. who is unnamed. is not the focus. ‘lt‘s more about my mother than my father.‘ says Harrison. The father. manipulative and beguiling. is sketched in. compared with Harrison‘s mother. depicted with furious resentment.
Harrison‘s rage permeates the book. At one point she describes it as white hot: ‘She will have been dead for years before my anger becomes cool enough to touch.‘ It tends to obscure almost everything else. For all the revelations on offer. much remains hidden. Details are deliberately vague and the story is told entirely in the present tense. Despite this. the book lacks immediacy. Harrison justifies it as emphasising her numbed compliancy at the time: ‘I wrote that way because that is what the relationship was like. I was numbed and shocked.’
In fairness. the style does illuminate her mental state during the affair. and anyway. the book has greater ﬂaws — it abounds in cliches and simplifications. some aimost too trite to credit. (‘an the shock of a snog with Daddy really be compared to that of falling off your bike'.’ It is in The Kiss.
The insights into l'larrison‘s anorexia. bulimia and self—harm are fascinating. and every so often the book is truly chilling. such as when she reads love letters her father wrote to her mother. ‘The ones written to me are written in the same language. the language of desire. of possessiort.‘ she writes. ‘The ones to me include identical lines from poems and songs.‘
The affair with her father ended when her mother died of cancer. freeing Harrison from the battle for dominance within the relationship. ‘I didn't imagine I would be a wife and mother.‘ she says now. ‘My actions will have serious repercussions in my whole life.‘
Hence her claim that she can no longer afford to have contact with her father. '1 have deathbed fantasies. where the two of us say whatever we need to say. I have a desire for some sort of resolution but that is possibly a fantasy.‘ she admits.
The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison is published by Fourth Estate at £14.99.