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Why Write a Memoir?

Kathryn Harrison talks with Yona Zeldis McDonough about The Kiss.

Harrison’s stunning and troubling 1997 book The Kiss — by now a staple on the reading lists of women’s studies and memoir-writing classes all over the country — has just been reissued by Random House with a new afterward by Jane Smiley. Essentially abandoned by both her parents and raised by her Jewish maternal grandparents, Harrison’s memoir, says its publisher, “transforms into a work of art the darkest passage imaginable in a young woman’s life: an obsessive love affair between father and daughter that begins when she, at age 20, is reunited with the father whose absence had haunted her youth.” Yona Zeldis McDonough, Lilith’s fiction editor, spoke with Harrison in Brooklyn in March.

Did you have any idea of the sensation The Kiss would cause when it was first published?

I was fortunate in being unable to anticipate the kind of response the book received. By 1997, I’d lived with the fallout of incest for 16 years, the last seven of which I’d been in psychoanalysis, working to understand how I had been so readily manipulated by my father. Why, at 20, I hadn’t protected myself from a man everyone around me perceived as dangerous.

When The Kiss came out it had been many years since I’d had the luxury of the perspective of those for whom incest remains taboo — I could no longer be shocked in the same way they could. I’d studied incest literally from the inside out — from the personal to the psychoanalytic to the literary and anthropological. It had become a topic of intellectual interest as well as one that I’d had no choice but to approach on an emotional and psychological level.

In her afterword, Jane Smiley describes it as breaking the spell: of silence, coercion, and shame. It took great courage to write this book. If I don’t see it as courage it’s because I didn’t see any choice in the matter. Courage seems less self-interested than what prompted me to write the book and seek its publication. For as long as my relationship with my father remained a secret, my father still owned and controlled me. There was no freedom from him in remaining silent. The book represents an essential step in saving myself from my father.

Do you think The Kiss helped start the present memoir craze? What’s your feeling about these confessional books?

I’m not sure I can credit my one book with the rise of memoir. Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club had been published, to huge success, as well as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments. Readers had discovered an appetite for stories of ordinary lives and all the readily available drama they contain. The subject matter of my memoir makes me one of the more notorious writers within the genre, and that may be liberating for others who want to tell stories that are outside of convention. The book can be received as permission to explore other impolite topics. Once the culture arrived at a degree of comfort in speaking about aspects of human life we used to consider almost unreachable by language — unspeakable — it was only a matter of time before writers turned their attention to alcoholism, infidelity, incest, addiction, physical abuse. The species has an impressive talent for self-destruction.

When The Kiss came out, there were critics who said that incest was not a subject for literature. I disagreed then, as I do now. Narrative offers a means of approaching and understanding what might not be appropriate cocktail party fodder but that we need, as human beings, to illuminate. How can we understand and unlock the prisons we make for ourselves if we refuse to examine them, turn away, shut our eyes?

Memoir attracts writers with difficult, often unhappy, stories that, once articulated, are borne differently, perhaps more easily, than they were when they remained uninvestigated and unshared. The reader bears witness to the writer’s experience even as the writer offers his own life up as a reference point.

When I was still entangled with my father, I looked for accounts of father-daughter incest, and found nothing other than Anaïs Nin and the odd case history (which was more helpful than Nin, whose reported experience was so unlike mine, so… apparently comfortable that I couldn’t approach it as nonfiction). A book like The Kiss might not be for everyone, but if the letters I get are indicative, it’s been a source of comfort and understanding for the readers who sought it out.

You have three children, two of whom are now in college. What has the impact of this book been on them?

My youngest is 10 now, and knows only that my father and I are estranged, as we had been for all my childhood. I’ve spoken frankly about what happened between my father and me with her older siblings, and I know her sister, now 21, has read it. The publication occurred when the older kids were 7 and 5, so it was easy to protect them from evidence of it — we had no TV, and we kept all print media out of their sight. That meant I could wait to speak to them about it until they had the capacity to begin to understand what I was telling them.

It was a difficult thing for me to share my history with my children. A part of me understands herself as indelibly polluted and therefore unlovable. Though the relationship has been over for 25 years, it retains its power to isolate me, to make me, as my father threatened it would, an untouchable. Cerebrally, I knew telling them was the right thing to do, just as I knew that to not write the book or seek publication on their account could have only inspired my resentment of them, as it was a story I needed to write and share. Revealing the relationship that had exiled me from the world was my only way back into the fold of human company.

Beyond the existence of the book, my children needed to know what had happened in my early life because it continues to have so profound an impact on me; for better and for worse, incest was a formative experience; it is with me every day. Were I to hide so large and influential a part of my history — myself — away from my children, they could only experience the evasion as rejection, their mother’s refusal to share herself, which would be more destructive.

I can’t be specific about the reactions of my older children because that is part of their private lives. My older daughter’s understanding of my past and my choice to write about it has changed from the point at which she discovered the book’s existence (on the Internet, when she was 12) to now, when she is in college, a sophisticated reader of all kinds of narratives. It was not an easy thing for her at first, to learn her mother had a public persona and that other people had known things about me that she did not — that was the aspect she seemed to find most upsetting. But she understands now what she didn’t at 12, and I think she’s both proud and protective of me, having dipped into some of the more vitriolic reactions to the book. My son has been less forthcoming about his feelings, but I don’t see any evidence of his remaining troubled by the knowledge — he’s a remarkably balanced and happy individual.

The Kiss contains some excruciatingly memorable scenes: one in which you describe prying open the sealed eyelids of newborn kittens whose eyes then become infected from the intrusion, another as a teenager in a gynecologist’s office, a third a conversation with your father in which you implore him to release you from the unholy union that binds you. All three scenes appeared in your novel Thicker Than Water, published six years earlier. Can you talk about your decision to revisit this material, and about the differences in using it in these two contexts, fiction and memoir?

As a young writer I had one story to tell, the family drama that began with my mother getting pregnant with me at 17 and ended 24 years later with her death and my escaping my father’s influence. In my twenties, everything I wrote addressed some aspect of that one story. Thicker Than Water, published when I was 30, was a typical first novel in that it was helplessly autobiographical. Once it was out in the world I was sorry to have fictionalized an account of incest. Unwittingly, I’d complied with the cultural directive to lie about what happened, to back off from a confession of incest and say, in so many words, that I’d made the whole thing up. I’d fictionalized the truth, betrayed it and myself.

I wrote two more novels, each of which dealt with aspects of my relationship with my father, neither of which assuaged my disappointment with my first book. And then, in 1995, when I was having endless trouble revising a novel-in-progress, I suddenly understood that the problem with the novel was that I had no interest in writing it. There was only one thing I wanted to write, and that was a correction to my first novel: a non-fiction account of my relationship with my father. A book that said, “this really happened, and it happened to me.”

I’d struggled for a decade with the fact that I had an “unspeakable” story to tell. I knew it was a story I wasn’t supposed to tell, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to develop as a writer, or do anything of value with the rest of my life, until I did.