Kathryn Harrison had a succès de scandale in the late 90s with her memoir The Kiss, in which she recounted the four years of incestuous relationship she had with her father. Thinking to save that book for the program of creative non-fiction works I’m reading this year, I decided to try her out with a different memoir, The Mother Knot. It was 82 pages of dynamite that held me gripped as soon as I’d begun, and yet when I finished, I began to wonder about the last thing that should seem problematic with such a candid and upfront narrator – the truthfulness of the story.
The narrator is weaning the youngest of her three children when the memoir begins. At 26 months, her daughter is relatively grown-up for breastfeeding, but it is a wrench for her mother, and one that darkens her underlying mood. Not long after this, her 10-year-old son develops severe asthma, and in her extreme anxiety over his condition, Kathryn Harrison finds herself drawing dark and superstitious conclusions. Although she nurses him with an assiduity and attention to detail that could not be bettered, her growing belief is that somehow she is the cause of his illness:
It had been four months before my son’s hospitalisation that I’d stopped nursing, relinquished that cherished perception of myself as my children’s primal source of sustenance and love. Now the onset of my son’s asthma attack struck me as an indication of my new impotence. Worse and more irrationally, it seemed to reveal me as dangerous. I saw – felt – a black, destructive spirit, dybbuk or dervish, twisting out of my chest, a force of corruption that sprang from me and infected my son, choked and smothered him.’
Harrison is an intelligent lady, and she’s had a reasonable amount of therapy. She knows that her mindset is related to the complicated and dissatisfactory relationship she had to her own mother, who gave birth to her at 17 and then abandoned her to grandparents six years later. The pregnancy was intended to place some distance between Kathryn’s mother and her grandmother, a relationship that was itself fraught with possessiveness. Kathryn, her mother told her, was intended to be ‘a hostage’, someone to take her place and allow her the freedom she had never had. Understandably, Kathryn as a child found this reasoning hard to follow, aware only that she was unable to please her mother, despite the ballet, the Sunday school and the diets. She emerged from the relationship with an unshakeable conviction that she was bad, polluted and wrong. It didn’t take much in the way of crisis in her adult life to return her to that place of universal guilt, in which she could be responsible even for the illness of her son.
As a strategy of appeasement, she starts to starve herself again. Anorexia turns out to be the ongoing problem: ‘I admitted that anorexia was a maladaption; and I admitted, with chagrin, to more than two decades of remissions mistaken for recoveries.’ Like most anorexics, the practice has much less to do with body shape than it has to do with mental control and darkly divine sacrifice. ‘Would that it were as simple as vanity,’ she tells her husband, when he says, in an attempt at coertion, her how much less attractive she looks too thin. ‘I’d characterized my eating disorder as a shatterproof glass box. I was inside, alone and safe. I could see out, and nothing could get in.’ But a life devoted to the harshest form of self-control is taking its toll. Her doctor threatens her with hospitalisation unless she gets her eating under control, her therapist is losing patience with her, and she fears how angry her husband will be if she can’t take care of herself well enough to be the wife and mother their family needs. In extremis, she knows she must confront the ghost of her mother, dead these past seventeen years, and finally break free.
I’ve quoted the text as much as possible because Kathryn Harrison is an amazing writer. The prose is powerful, vivid, economical, the mysteries of the mind described with exquisite insight and acuity. For a brief memoir, this certainly packs an emotional punch although the touch is light. The arc of the narrative flies like a skimming stone, glancing off the most salient points of her story – her relation to her mother, the vortex of uncontrollable emotions that threaten to pull her down, the epiphany she experiences and the solution she discovers. It is all brilliantly done, and so neat and tidy, not a single word wasted.
This was, I felt, an amazing piece of storytelling. And yet everything that was so well done about it, took it further and further away from life as we live it, and crises as we actually experience them. Where was the resistance, the procrastination, the backsliding that attends every inch of fresh terrain won from the forces of negativity that run their lucrative rackets in the mind? Where were the months spent stumped and hopeless in the therapist’s chair? Deep-rooted problems are beyond stubborn to dig out, and they react poorly to just about any form of treatment. Like computers, minds have default settings, bizarre agreements that were made in the era before reason, or awareness of the true value of things, and they are the very devil to uproot.
But of course, none of this makes for good storytelling, necessarily. One of the best novels I’ve ever read about the therapeutic process is the highly autobiographical The Words To Say It by Marie Cardinal. When that book was translated into English, the translator felt justified in leaving a whole chunk of it out, on the grounds that it was repetitive. This was the point. The myths on which we base our sense of self have to be gone over again and again. And probably again. You may well ask, does it matter if we leave some of this out in the stories we end up telling about ourselves? And I think it does, because storytelling is not innocent, when it comes to the connection between identity and narrative. The tighter the story, the more beautiful it is, the less we want to unravel it. This is the way that those original stories of love and terror bind us in the first place. And then I worry that people in trouble might read this and view it as inspirational, wondering miserably why they are not capable of identifying and solving their problems as slickly. When the truth is that healing is a messy, graceless process, not an edited montage.
But… I would not be honest, either, if I denied what a well-written book this is, or how compellingly it reads, or how piercing its understanding of psychic pain. Read it for its insight and its honesty, but do not believe it is the full truth.