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Kathryn Harrison’s Family Secrets

The author of 'The Kiss' returns with essays about a difficult upbringing.

disq / Shutterstock

When Kathryn Harrison published The Kiss in 1997, many reviewers criticized the book for attracting readers more for its shocking subject matter—it detailed a four-year-long incestuous relationship Harrison had with her biological father—than for its literary merits. (One wonders if this could ever have not been the case.) “This is obviously an awful story in life,” Mim Udovitch wrote in New York Magazine, “but in art, even gothic and dreadful pain is only as interesting as what the artist brings to it. Harrison brings a mannered, accomplished technique… What she fails to bring is any sense of rigorous engagement with her material.” 

Whether or not this was true of The Kiss is debatable. The book inspired so much preemptive pearl-clutching that it quickly became all but impossible for readers and reviewers alike to take stock of its merits. The criticism some reviewers leveled at it is also familiar to anyone who reads similar denunciations of today’s confessional writers. “Our once-hidden shames have become publicity hounds,” James Wolcott lamented in his review. “Some memoir-writers are legitimately trying to clarify for themselves and the reader the experience of a cruel upbringing or an unfortunate twist of fate; others are simply peddling their stories for fame.” According to Wolcott, Harrison fell into the latter camp. The Kiss, in his estimation, was “trash with a capital ‘T.’”

More recently, personal essayist Leslie Jamison exploded knee-jerk reactions like Wolcott’s in her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” writing that “people say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but what’s that ‘just’ about? A cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want.” This was the response that greeted The Kiss and continues to greet works by similar writers: not just memoirists Rachel Cusk, Daphne Merkin, and Katie Roiphe, but writers like Melissa Broder, Emily Gould, and Audrey Wollen, who began their careers online and found enormous audiences there. The medium has changed, but the critical response hasn’t. If a female writer asks for attention, her detractors will often find a way to claim she writes for no other reason.

It’s easy to see how the title of Harrison’s new book, True Crimes, may reflect the “crime” of asking for attention that Jamison describes. A collection of essays written over the course of the last decade, the book deals with cancer, dementia, debt, incest, motherhood, and murder—which is to say that it is also about family life. The book’s subtitle is “A Family Album,” and reading it is very much like flipping through the photo album of a family you have never met. The faces of strangers grow familiar, until you are sensitive to a touch, a glance, a weary smile, and all that it may mean. The essays in True Crimes appear out of chronological order, and the experience of reading the book forces us to realize that some stories are too complicated to tell simply—that claiming to know where and when to start would, in itself, be a lie. That this approach holds true for a family narrative is hardly surprising. What is surprising is how much Harrison can show us through the random, revelatory moments her essays cull.

Random House, 240 pp., $28.00

True Crimes opens with “A Tale of Two Dogs,” an essay that takes place nowhere near the beginning of the family narrative we will come to know, but instead during a vacation Harrison takes with her husband and children. Their trip to Italy was, Harrison writes, “a perfect holiday, until I ruined it abruptly one night in the middle of dinner.” Harrison “ruins” the vacation with a mysterious illness that turns out to be a life-threatening bout of hyperthyroidism, and the rest of the essay is nauseous with guilt. Harrison, first irradiated with the pills she takes to poison her overactive thyroid, and then weakened by the treatment’s aftermath, finds herself driven mad by the family’s new Lab puppy. He barks and howls and scratches the children and, Harrison writes, “disprove[s] a conceit I’ve long cherished about animals and myself: that I can love any animal indiscriminately, without reservation.” But she can’t love Max, and we know that by the end of the essay that this lack of love, treated as a twin infirmity, will prove devastating to someone.            

The essay might be the book’s hardest sell; it lingers with the reader in part because Harrison does not ask the reader to regard her with either forgiveness or disgust. We are asked, only, to see what she sees. Throughout the rest of the book, as she explores the other snapshots in her “family album” of the book’s subtitle—the self-centered mother, the eccentric grandparents, the largely absent father whose sexual predations Harrison detailed in The Kiss—she requires the same efforts on the reader’s part. We are never asked to share her anger, to validate her decisions, or to absorb her pain. In the end, this makes it all the easier to do so. 

Like all great memoirists, Harrison also knows that the real magic happens when the reader is lulled into thinking they’re reading something ordinary. Then a phrase or a sentence or a conclusion will appear that is shocking partly for its beauty, and partly for its inevitability: how could we not realize that we were moving toward this all along? It’s hard to think of other memoirists who match not just Harrison’s unsparing clarity of vision, but her empathy for both her loved ones and her tormentors (a combination of qualities that is also necessary if a writer is to show us a life, as Harrison does, in which those two categories are impossibly enmeshed). Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff certainly come to mind, but it is yet more intuitive to compare Kathryn Harrison with master magician Ricky Jay: We don’t know what we’re seeing until we’ve seen it.          

There’s nothing less than truthful here: only a powerful familiarity, on Harrison’s part, with both the tools of the trade and the stories she uses them to tell. The book moves us not forward through time, but deeper and deeper into the complexities of Harrison’s life as a child, as a young writer, and eventually as a mother. The most powerful lines thrum with a powerful empathy, both for her subjects and for all the iterations of her self we glimpse in these essays. Of her husband’s reluctance to tell the children that their beloved grandfather is dying, Harrison writes, “He wants to preserve a part of us, our family, that doesn’t know what we know.” Of her own emotional state during her father-in-law’s illness, she tells us, “I catch sight of myself in a shop window and see that I look as I feel, exhausted and strung-out, like a child who’s lost the hand she was holding.” Of her mother and grandmother’s lifelong enmity, and the legacy of debt they used to express it, Harrison writes:

By the time I could identify the arena of their conflict, my mother and grandmother were practiced adversaries, performing an indefinite object lesson in the disparate misuses of money. Offered as love, and withheld as punishment. Dangled as bait. Bestowed in company. Withdrawn in secret. It could be made to seem plentiful, as plentiful as water—which, my grandmother said, was the way my mother spent it, like water—and, just as suddenly, it could dry up. It could bind one person to another; just as easily, it could pry them apart.

True Crimes is shot through with stories of Harrison’s glamorous, careless, frightened mother, who squandered the money that should have been her daughter’s, and seemed to hoard the love her daughter craved. The story Harrison tells of her childhood is filled with scarcity and desire and random, dazzling abundance, and the anxiety that defines a child’s life when familial love gushes at one moment and dries to dust in the next. Harrison’s mother died of cancer when Harrison was 24—long before, we are led to believe, she had a chance to understand the mother she was losing, and in fact had never really had. In the book’s penultimate essay, Harrison writes of how her youngest daughter’s ravenous affection has allowed her, at last, to empathize with her own mother. “I’d wanted to eat my mother alive,” she tells us, 

to possess every last little bit of her. I wanted so much more than I ever got, and losing her as I did would always inspire grief. But now it wasn’t so much for me as for my mother, whom I forgave without trying, my rancor like a pulled tooth. I kept looking for it, just as I’d feel, with my tongue, for that missing part of me.

In perhaps the most stylistically masterful essay collected here, and the one that gives the book its title, Harrison describes her graduate school obsession with true crime novels. Her fascination, she writes, went beyond a love of bad writing and into a search for the version of herself she did not yet know she was mourning. Harrison begins as anyone would: by telling us of her father’s destructive power over her, and letting us imagine him in the dark figure of the killer, wondering whether “he takes [the victim] apart for the sheer pleasure of destruction, of going on living after he’s watched the blood run out of her veins.” But identity is never so simple, or else these stories would be easier to tell, and these traumas easier to forget. Harrison shuffles the deck yet again, and this time she emerges as the killer, the force of oblivion who must break the innocent girl’s life in two. “The only way to get away from my father,” she writes, “the only way I knew, was to leave her behind, the girl he stalked and stole… she was stupid about love, that girl, and she never knew when people were lying to her.”

In this essay, Kathryn Harrison shifts in one moment from the persona of the dead girl to that of the killer, and finally to the detective who tries to understand a story she can never truly know, despite the fact that she lived it. There is no coherent narrative, no before or after that makes sense, and this essay’s greatest strength is its acceptance of that form of loss: not of a time or a self, but of the belief that there is, in the end, a truth still to be found. In the stories Harrison tells, the detective can only hope to find a few fragments. The book’s essays offer their own fragmentary approach to truth. They also offer us the chance to learn that, when it comes to certain stories, this is the only kind of truth we can ever know.

“A single strand of pale hair caught on a thorn, lifting in the air and gleaming for a moment in the sun,” Harrison writes, in the essay’s last gutting moments. “Don’t miss it,” she tells us. “If you’re a homicide detective, that’s how hard you have to look.” The same is true for writers, and in this sense, Harrison is doubly gifted: She is able both to see her world with painful clarity, and to share this clarity with us.