The Last Taboo

A interview with Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss .

July/August 1997

Reading time min

The Last Taboo

Courtesy of Random House

Confessional memoirs have become such a publishing standby that even the most intimate revelations are losing the power to shock readers. Not so with Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, which set off a full-scale literary scandal when it hit bookstores last spring.

In spare, almost trancelike prose, Harrison, '82, tells the story of a four-year affair with her father, a Protestant minister she'd met only twice growing up. The sexual liaison began when Harrison was a 20-year-old junior at Stanford. Though never mentioned by name in the book, the University is the setting for much of the story.

Critics and op-ed writers damned The Kiss as "slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical" (Washington Post) and praised it as "remarkably courageous and well-told" (New York Times). What led Harrison to write this book? What was her reaction to the media firestorm it ignited? How would airing these secrets affect her writing in the future?

We asked Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar at Stanford's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, to explore some of these questions with Harrison. Yalom has spent much of her academic career teaching and editing women's autobiographies. And as a past board member for a San Jose incest survivors treatment organization, she had more than a scholarly interest in Harrison's story. Excerpts:

Yalom: What were the psychological effects of writing The Kiss for you?

Harrison: A tremendous relief in many ways because my relationship with my father was one that I had kept secret for more than 15 years. That was costly to me. I don't think it is possible to keep such a large portion of your life or your heart secret without erecting a sort of general barrier inside yourself that has to be maintained at psychic cost. It's a relief to have spilled the beans.

Yalom: Hemingway used to say that his Corona typewriter was his psychiatrist. How was writing the book different from exploring this subject with a therapist?

Harrison: Well, I have at times seen an analyst, but the work that I have done with a therapist has not been in any way separate from my writing life. It's more true about me to say that I discover who I am, that I understand myself on the page first, and the therapeutic process can be something that precipitates that or provides some kind of lubricant to that process. But for me, the real exploration of self occurs through writing. It always has.

Yalom: So would you say this book is both a psychological and a literary breakthrough?

Harrison: For me, definitely. I knew my mother was a very important person in my life, but I didn't really understand the magnitude of my rage with her. Nor the extent to which that played into my relationship with my father. That for me was the most frightening thing to deal with.

Yalom: Some kind of deflating took place at the time of her death. And also, I gather it was the beginning of the process of psychological reconciliation for you, of some kind of forgiveness of her.

Harrison: It took me many years to accept my relationship with my mother. A good seven or eight years past her death, I was still refusing to acknowledge what it all added up to. All my life I had an idea of what a perfect mother would be and I measured my poor mother against it, and she always came up short. I think having my first child when I was 10 years older than my mother was when she had me, understanding how relentless children's needs are, thinking about my poor mother at 19 and the kind of relationship she had with her mother--all these things made for a great deal of compassion for her.

Yalom: Are you hoping your father will read this book?

Harrison: I don't know. I know so clearly who I was when he knew me, and how helplessly silent and inarticulate I was, and how I wasn't able to convey even a fraction of what's in the book. I think there was a good deal of bewilderment on his part occasioned by my unforthcomingness.

Yalom: What do you mean by your unforthcomingness?

Harrison: I was so unable to tell him what was happening. Not that I don't think that he should have been able to add up a lot of the pieces, but I wasn't able to talk to him, I think, because of the somnambulistic qualities of the relationship for me. There was so much I wasn't acknowledging for myself, so it would be very difficult to put it into words for somebody else.

Yalom: That dreamlike quality is one of the strong points of the book. It is certainly a way people disassociate themselves from a reality that they can't fully acknowledge.

Harrison: Yes. It took me a long time even after I stopped seeing him to be able to put the pieces together. There's a point in the book where I report going to see a psychiatrist, and I say: "Well, I'm not working right now, and I stopped going to school and I don't really have a job." And I finally got to this one point--which I told him as if it was just another thing--that I was sexually involved with my father. I think it took me about four sessions with him to start putting those things together. To sort of make a fabric of suicidal thoughts, eating disorders and incest.

Yalom: Do you think of your father, well, to use the legal term, as the perpetrator, even though you were older than most female victims of incest?

Harrison: I don't know; it's sort of a tidy container of a word, and I feel that so much of what I've done over the past years has been to try to untangle this real complex of betrayals and desires and needs and hurts that involve not just me and my mother and my father but also my grandparents on both sides.

Yalom: The publication of The Kiss unleashed a terrible backlash in the literary world. In last Sunday's New York Times, Brent Staples really put his finger on the reason. He said your most aggressive critics have condemned you for telling the truth about a "viscerally disturbing subject."

Harrison: Yes. I think there are some truths that you can tell that offer some comfort; and there are other things that you can tell, and they are disturbing. I never thought I had written a book that would be embraced across the board. I know that if I had written that book I would have failed on my own terms. I lived through this, I know what it is like, I know that a lot of what's in there is disturbing. It's not going to go away.

I was committed to not glossing it over, and I was committed to not portraying myself as a victim because I think there is this very insidious aspect to our culture right now in which victimhood is almost equated with identity. People begin to think of themselves as children of alcoholics or whatever. Within that understanding of the self is a sort of slipping away from taking responsibility in a situation. It is only through taking responsibility that you can find any freedom.

I'm not trying to take too much on my shoulders. I'm not saying I wasn't the child, or that I wasn't victimized to some degree by my father and by the whole situation. The more important truth for me was that there was a burden of responsibility that I needed to take, and as long as I fled from that I couldn't find any freedom. That's one of the things that really bugs people.

And the other thing that bugs people is that I haven't been broken by this. We have this real understanding of the cost of breaking a taboo. There has been a great cost in my life, and it's going to be something that I feel for as long as I'm alive. I know the pain that came out of this relationship, and I know well what scars remain. But I don't wear them in a way that would make people feel more comfortable.

Yalom: That's a very good way of putting it.

Harrison: I'm not unmarried. I'm not incapable of sustaining a relationship with a man. I'm not childless. I'm not in a mental institution. I don't have an I.Q. of 74. I don't have any of the things that would make people feel better about the person telling the story.

Yalom: Will your next book be fiction or memoir?

Harrison: I'm writing this book about my grandmother, and in some ways that's kind of a prequel to The Kiss. It is sort of a hybrid; it is not completely memoir or biography but it's not fiction either.

Yalom: Well, it's very peculiar because we still have our best-seller list divided up into fiction and nonfiction, and there are some books that straddle the two domains. It will be interesting to see where your next book is placed.

Harrison: Yes. I have no idea. Every once in a while, I pick my head up from my desk and think, what is this? It's not a very useful question to ask myself at this point, so I have to shove it aside and keep going.

Yalom: How do you think The Kiss is going to change your life as a writer?

Harrison: I've written three novels that have dealt with this relationship in one form or another. I was working on a novel that I put aside to work on this. The novel was going completely awry because, while I didn't want to write about this anymore, I found that it was still intruding in some way.

I'm sort of waiting to see what sort of effects it has. I know I'm a writer, and this is how I navigate through time and through my life. So I know that I will continue to write, and I know that this relationship has had a profound effect on me, and in some ways I think it informs my vision of the world in a permanent way.

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