Published: Sep 14, 2011
Category: Memoir 
Most of us excavate our secrets privately. And slowly. So did Kathryn Harrison  --- until, in 1997, she published “The Kiss,” an unsparing account of her predatory father and the sexual relationship he engineered with her when she was 20. “The Kiss” is an important book to many, and especially to Gretl Claggett  (left, in photo), who was abused when she was a child. This year, when “The Kiss” was republished, Gretl thought it would be good to check in with Kathryn Harrison (right, in photo) and see how she feels now about her book, her father and her life. I’m honored to publish Gretl's essay and her conversation with Kathryn Harrison.
In the early 1980s, Kathryn Harrison looked perfect on paper. Tall, thin and blond, she was an A student at Stanford. But during spring break of her junior year, just one week after she turned 20, her life unraveled.
She traveled home to visit her cold, rejecting mother and to meet her long-estranged father. This man --- a respected preacher who was far from respectable --- began to prey upon his daughter’s hunger for approval and connection. He wooed her with gifts and clandestine trips, then proclaimed she was his ordained right: “God gave you to me.” Gradually he convinced her that becoming his lover was the only way she could prove her devotion.
“I never question his sanity,” Harrison would later write, “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 his judgment of my character and its frailties that he knows exactly what language to use, what noose of words to cast around my neck.”
For four years she subjugated herself to his every wish, suffering all the telltale effects of trauma --- she dissociated, dropped out of college, shunned family and friends, battled anorexia, bulimia and suicidal depression. But it was the untimely death of her mother that steeled her to untie her father’s noose and reclaim her life.
More than a decade and three acclaimed novels later, in 1997, Kathryn Harrison published her memoir, "The Kiss." [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here . For the Kindle edition, click here .]
Certain songs can plunge us into the past, conjuring who and where we were when we first heard them. Books can do this too. "The Kiss" is one of those books for me. An original hardcover still sits on my shelf. Just holding it, I recall the solidarity my younger self felt with Harrison. For where she’d been, so had I. From before I can remember until I was 16, I was sexually abused by a family friend whom I called “Uncle.”
Minimizing the enormity of this betrayal, I told my therapist, “At least it wasn’t incest.”
“How do you figure that?” she asked.
Ah … So that’s why Harrison’s pitch-perfect prose resonated with my complex and often conflicted feelings; her courage inspired me to break through barriers of denial and shame, to speak my truth in spite of challenging consequences …
While "The Kiss" garnered fans like author Susan Cheever, who praised it in her New York Times review  for brilliantly capturing the “helplessness of being a young woman,” others attacked Harrison and her memoir --- even if they hadn’t read it. Author Luc Sante described this onslaught in Slate  as a witch trial: “Harrison has been accused of … everything short of having fucked her father in order to write about it.”
"The Kiss" was reissued this past spring on the heels of another memoir causing a ruckus, which Harrison reviewed  for The New York Times: Tiger, Tiger,  Margaux Fragoso’s graphic chronicle of her 15-year relationship with a pedophile who --- like Harrison’s father and most abusers --- was a master manipulator.
Beach book season behind us, it seemed like a good time to re-read "The Kiss" and interview Kathryn Harrison.
Gretl Claggett: Fourteen years after the book’s publication, how do you think people view incest and sexual abuse? And does that change the way they read your book?
Kathryn Harrison: I’ve been asked many times if things might be different if "The Kiss" were published today. I don’t think so. Even though there are many more memoirs and people talk openly about topics that were once forbidden, incest exists in sort of a bubble.
GC: Curious: the reaction to these books is more extreme than to books about alcoholism, drug addiction, cancer, genocide, torture, you name it.
KH: The stronger taboo is talking about incest, not committing it … How crazy is that?
It’s a scary thing for people to acknowledge. What’s someone to say: “Watch your husband; there’s something unsavory going on with him and your daughter”? Nobody feels he or she can say that.
During the period when my father had his hold on me, I was surprised by how many people sensed what was happening. I could see it in their eyes and almost read their minds: There’s something weird between her and her father. And then, immediately after, they’d back away from such a suspicion: My God, what’s wrong with me for even thinking that?
I hoped maybe someone would do something … but it never happened. It came to the point that I thought, I’ll never escape. I can’t get myself out, and nobody’s going to rescue me. Everyone knows but no one’s doing anything.
I’ll never forget being at my father’s church, standing with him after the service. A woman came up to him and said, “Stop making love to your daughter and talk to me.” She thought she was being metaphorical, I’m sure, but obviously something unconscious was going on.
GC: Why did you call your book "The Kiss"? Isn’t the kiss just … foreplay?
KH: It wasn’t for me. That initial violation was tantamount to rape because that was all it took to alienate me from the rest of humanity and divide me against myself. Afterward I kept telling myself, “That couldn’t have happened, because things like that don’t happen.” I began wondering if I’d made it up --- out of my need for love, attention. Had my relationship with my mother not been so damaging, had I not been so wounded already, I wouldn’t have been as vulnerable to what my father presented as love.
The greatest change in me --- from the person I was before my relationship with my father to after --- is consciousness. I felt I woke up when my mother died, as though someone had poured a bucket of cold water on my head. From that point on, I’ve been someone who’s relentlessly conscious in terms of trying to understand what I’m doing and why. I don’t think I’ve sleepwalked through anything else since then.
Our entire culture, though, is bent on anesthesia. In many ways, it’s connected to consumerism: “What’s going to be the next thing to help me to forget my human lot --- mortality?” One of my favorite books is Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death . Most people are dedicated to pursuing whatever might insulate them from the fact that we’re all going to die. We want to remain asleep, dead to pain --- the pain of mortality, or of acknowledging that next door some man may be raping his daughter, or whatever it is.
GC: Can a book like yours help us to wake up?
KH: I believe it’s valuable to have accounts that people present as truth rather than fiction, as I had in my first novel (Thicker Than Water ). Before I escaped my father, I looked for books about incest and couldn’t find one. Nobody was talking about it. I wrote "The Kiss" to save my life; it wasn’t an act of altruism. But now that the book’s out there, I’m glad, because I know it would have helped me to see that it’s possible to survive something like this. That this archetypal tangle of family dysfunction doesn’t exist in a vacuum --- it didn’t happen to me alone. Had someone asked me in the midst of it, “Is there anyone else on the planet in your situation?” I’d have answered “No.” It wasn’t conceivable that anybody would be doing this --- including me!
I navigated the world for ten years keeping my secret. If you’ve never done that, it doesn’t sound like such a big deal, and when the book came out, people said, “Fine, write it if you have to, then put it in a drawer.” But it becomes an untenable burden to live with a huge formative part of one’s life undisclosed. It’s damaging. It requires a great deal of energy to keep so large and toxic a secret. I don’t know if I could have written "The Kiss" without writing my first novel. As time went by, as I realized I’d obeyed --- colluded with --- the cultural directive to keep incest a secret, I felt increasing pressure to come clean. Isn’t it funny how all these phrases refer to being dirty or polluted?
I lived as though I was like other people, but I knew I’d been somewhere most people hadn’t gone, done what most don’t acknowledge and could tell a reader what it was like --- a report from the trenches, if you will. Living in a world in which a critical part of my experience was denied --- everyone paying lip service to the conceit that incest is limited to other people: poor, disenfranchised, ignorant, mentally ill, whatever, but not to an educated, middle-class American woman who hadn’t been raised by wolves --- left me increasingly angry as time went by.
A few people --- my best friend, my husband --- knew, but I understood myself to have crossed --- been pulled over --- a line. I existed in an alien netherworld, and I couldn’t return to the world of the living until I told people what had happened. Telling the story as nonfiction, owning it, was my only way back, the only way to reclaim my place among the rest of humanity. I don’t think I could have written any other books. I don’t know how I would have gone on with my life had I not done it.
GC: In a recent 20/20 interview , you said: “[My father] told me that I was ruined anyway and if I told anybody they would only revile me.” Perpetrators use these tactics to shame victims into secrecy. What was it like to finally speak out, then be barraged with the blame-the-victim backlash that followed the book’s original release?
KH: When I met my father, I’d been working on my fantasy of who he was for twenty years. That fantasy father eclipsed the real man. I don’t know how much I ever saw him --- maybe toward the end, as I was trying to extricate myself. Fissures were developing in me; I understood that I was imprisoned on some level. But I was also afraid because my father said, “You’re damaged goods. No one will want you. You’ll always be alone.” I believed him. I understood myself to be polluted and broken.
I went to such a low place with my father that I had only two choices: to sacrifice myself to his demands, or to reclaim myself. My willingness to please others had taken me about as far down as one can go. I’d capitulated to my father’s demands for sex to secure what I believed was his love. The girl who walked away from her father was not going to answer to anyone else before herself. I had integrity I’d never had before. I cared more about what I thought of myself than what other people thought of me.
In some ways, the virulence of the response to "The Kiss" was helpful. It was so over the top, I saw it had more to do with the person attacking me than with me. Also, nobody could say anything that I hadn’t already told myself. All the people who called me wicked and dirty, well, I’d heard worse from myself. I realized that what was happening on a cultural level was akin to an immune response, you know, like when you introduce a contagion to the body and the area gets red and inflamed, and that’s as it should be --- this is what breaking a taboo inspires. Too, I was very naïve when the book was published. I assumed journalists were honest. It never occurred to me that I might be quoted out of context, that a journalist might slander me. And I felt like, “Hey, I’ve been lying for fifteen years, and now I’m finally telling the truth and everybody’s mad and calling me a liar!”
But I was able to take good things from it. I broke out of my “good girl” box that I’d made for myself … and that was wonderfully liberating as a writer.
Let me ask you a question: Do you still feel polluted?
GC: I have my moments … but I’m not sure “polluted” is the word I’d choose. There was a long stretch of time --- with all the various therapies I’ve used through the years --- when I’d tell myself, “Once I do this, then I’ll be alright, then I’ll be ‘fixed’ and it will be over.” I’ve now accepted that recovery is an ongoing process. I have more compassion for myself and more resources to draw upon if those old feelings do rise up.
KH: I’m not seeing my analyst anymore. We finally got to the point where we said, “I think we’ve done all we can do.” But one day I was talking about pollution and she said, “You’re the one who’s decided you’re polluted. Nobody’s telling you you’re polluted.” Well, in my case, that wasn’t true, but I understood what she meant. And then she asked, “Why must you insist on this?”
I think I keep that connection with my younger self --- the idea of my pollution --- because it’s the only connection I have with my father. And, in spite of everything, I can’t help it: I still love him and always will.
GC: That you can love your perpetrator is tough for many people to understand …
KH: It wouldn’t be half as damaging if there wasn’t love in the mix.
You know, as many times as I came pretty close to killing myself, I don’t think I ever really wanted to. It still makes me laugh: my father had a handgun and taught me how to use it. I knew where he kept it and loaded it sometimes when I was alone … But then I’d think, I’ll be damned if I use my father’s huge phallic object to kill myself. If I commit suicide, it can’t be with so obvious a metaphor --- his gun! The writer in me refused to end the story of me like that.
GC: When did you last have contact with your father?
KH: About seven years ago, when my husband’s father died. He and I were very close, and for seventeen years I had this wonderful father figure in my life, for which I remain grateful. My father-in-law loomed so large on my horizon that, it wasn’t that I forgot about my father --- I wrote the book during that period --- but I didn’t think about him as a person who had anything to do with my current life.
When my husband’s father died, I thought, Oh God, I have a dad, and he’s my only living relative besides my children. And despite my rage, I wrote saying that I understood I was never going to have any contact with him again, but it did make a difference to me that I had a father out in the world, and I asked that if he were ever gravely ill or had died, someone would let me know …
The response I received, six months later, was seriously crazy: one paragraph long, no salutation, not even signed. I’d spent fifteen years in analysis working hard to reassemble myself, and I assumed he must have been doing the same thing --- trying to put himself back together too. But no, he thinks he’s fine. He blames me for ruining his life, said he never wanted to hear from me again, and I’d be the last person anyone would ever contact for any reason. It was hateful.
Probably behind my question somewhere was that fantasy of the deathbed scene where he’d say something, I don’t know what it would be …
GC: Try this: “I’m sorry for ruining your life.”
KH: That would work. But really, the only thing I wanted was for him to acknowledge that what he’d done, what he’d chosen for us, was not in my best interest. I didn’t want an apology. I just wanted a reality check. Some kind of validation that he understood the consequences of his demanding sex from me. But he doesn’t.
GC: Some people call your relationship with your father a “consensual affair.”
KH: There’s no such thing as consensual sex between a parent and a child --- it doesn’t matter how old the child is.
A part of me sometimes gets stuck thinking: I was 20, it was my fault as much as his … Because if I were responsible, it’s less frightening, you know. I do take a certain amount of responsibility for what happened --- I know that in the moment, I wasn’t conscious of all my motivations. It required my mother’s death to begin to approach the damage and anguish wrought by our relationship and to realize, in retrospect, how angry I’d been with her --- how much of what my father and I named passion of a loving kind was really passion of a furious, destructive kind.
When you’re 20, you think you’re a grownup and know everything. I remember my husband making a comment about my father being almost 40 and I 20 and that it was like “shooting fish in a barrel.” My husband said this when he was about 40: “A 20-year-old woman? Please, it’s so easy to manipulate them.”
GC: In the late ’90s, concerns were raised about the effect the book would have on your small children. They’re now 21, 19 and 11. How and when did you address it with them? Has there been fallout?
KH: My older daughter discovered it on the Internet, as one might imagine. It was something I’d dreaded, not because I believed what people had said --- that I was a bad mother and my children were unlucky to have me --- but because this is something no one wants to have to share with their children. It’s a heavy, stark, unfortunate chunk of history.
My hope was that eventually my children would understand that it’s possible to make terrible mistakes, to have your life completely fall apart and ultimately pick up the pieces and move on. That’s a valuable lesson, because at some point in my children’s lives, things will go awry and they’ll have to pull themselves back up by their bootstraps. But that was my intellectual analysis of the situation.
When my daughter found out, I was doing laundry --- I remember it exactly --- I was pulling clothes out of the hamper and she was in her bedroom one floor up. She called out “Mom,” and her voice sounded a little strange, and then she said, “Is memoir nonfiction?” She was a sophisticated reader for a 12-year-old, and I knew exactly what she was talking about. I was sort of surprised that I didn’t throw up, because I really thought I was going to …
I went to her room and said, “Yes, it is nonfiction. Why?”
And she told me what she knew …
On an emotional level, I was afraid my children would see me as an alien, ugly monster and would reject me. Of course, that’s not what happened … It’s hard for me to tell you what she said without crying --- so I guess I won’t even try not to --- but what she said at the end of our conversation was: “Does it still hurt every day?”
It was clear her biggest fear was for me. My happiness.
That was the last thing I expected.
If you’re a survivor and need support or want to speak out: The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673) and Online : Please note, the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline is accessible through RAINN's website. It provides crisis help via an instant messaging style interface by trained RAINN staff.
To learn about preventing child sexual abuse: Darkness to Light  and Stop It Now!