What Some People Do In The Name Of Love

We were brutally woken at dawn yesterday by thunderous hammering on our front door and yelling. It sounded like a raid, but when Mr Litlove went rushing to the window it was just youths and they (he? I never did ask) went away. I admit I was terrified. It didn’t help that my recurring nightmare of late is of being inside the house whilst it is being broken into – not exactly fun to think that was coming true for a few minutes. Because our house fronts directly onto the street we’ve had people (men or young boys) knocking on the windows and doors late in the evening when they are on their way back from the pub. But we’ve never had anything quite so pointlessly sadistic happen before. Who would want to do such a thing?

theKissWell, one of the many great qualities about reading is that you usually find within the pages of a book a whole lot of people much worse off than yourself. Having been meaning to read Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss, for weeks now, I finally got around to it on the weekend. It tells the story of Harrison’s incestuous relationship when she is reunited aged 20 with the father she hasn’t seen since early childhood. When it was published in 1997, it met with a mostly hostile reception, critics decrying the queasiness of such an honest account and reproaching the author for having written and displayed it in the public domain, particularly when she had children of her own.

Much more interesting was an article it spawned that argued such adult reunions were often fraught with sexual intentions. It’s known as Genetic Sexual Attraction and: ‘What is not well known is that in an estimated 50 per cent of cases the meeting is accompanied by strong feelings of sexual attraction.’ What the outrage also seemed to discount was that in Kathryn Harrison’s case, her fascination with her father was platonic, and he was the one who insisted on taking things further. As ever it amazes me that whenever sex comes into the story, it’s always the woman on whom the censure primarily and publicly falls. Very little seems to have been said about her father, except that maybe the poor man didn’t want his dirty laundry put on display; it might, after all, damage his reputation as a Protestant minister.

Harrison must come from one of the most dysfunctional families to have disgraced the literary page. Her parents were 17 when they met and had Kathryn, her mother an aspiring actress who found herself married to a man selling encyclopedias to try and make a living. Her mother’s wealthy and somewhat controlling parents intervened and insisted on a divorce when Kathryn was six months old. She was then brought up almost exclusively by her grandparents. Her mother did live with them for a while, but it was not a success. She was far too young to be interested in her own child, not to mention enraged by all that had happened to her. Kathryn was well aware that any love she received was conditional, for instance on Kathryn being able to learn to speak and read French, something she found at six and seven almost impossible to do. However, when as an adolescent it was her weight in question, she found it all too easy to stop eating. The search for admiration was also a rebellion. ‘You want thin? I remember thinking. I’ll give you thin. I’ll define thin, not you. Not the suggested one hundred and twenty pounds but ninety-five.’ She would suffer from periods of anorexia and bulimia from then onwards.

When her father re-entered her life while she was in college, his upfront and outspoken fascination with her was as hypnotic as it was disturbing. ‘I don’t know it yet, not consciously, but I feel it: my father, holding himself so still and staring at me, has somehow begun to see me into being.’ When she drove him to the airport to see him off, he kissed her, changing their relationship irrevocably.

In years to come, I’ll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. The kiss is the point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralyzed.’

This is a literary way of saying that her father blackmailed her emotionally into a full affair with him. He would argue that God had given her to him, that God was revealed to him through her body and her love and that she was everything to him. He would write endless letters and call her up to three times a day.

”How am I” he says when he calls, and he says this because how he is depends utterly on how much I love him. Without me, there is no meaning, purpose or pleasure in his life.’

For the neglected daughter of an emotionally-withholding mother, this was hopelessly binding stuff. When love threatened not to exert its power over her, her father was equally ready to use his anger too:

 “Well,” he says, and he folds his arms. “You’ve done what you’ve done, and you’ve done it with me. And now you’ll never be able to have anyone else, because you won’t be able to keep our secret. You’ll tell whoever it is, and once he knows, he’ll leave you.”

As is usual when the mind is held hostage, the body speaks. Kathryn suffered from a whole panoply of symptoms. First a bad case of shingles, then depression and insomnia, bulimia and finally pneumonia. The latter she succumbed to when she had moved in with her father and his second family – her father’s second wife in full awareness of what was going on between them but so controlled by Kathryn’s father that she accepted it. In all this sorry story, it’s the complicit nature of the adults around Kathryn that’s most upsetting. They are all too self-obsessed or weak or distracted to offer her any help at all.

This is a horrifying book, but I didn’t find it a depressing one. It is an amazing testimony to the human spirit that Kathryn Harrison went through all she did and somehow managed to emerge the other side. Not that she says a great deal about the healing process. Her grandfather dies, and then her mother dies at 41, and it is as if an evil enchantment has been lifted. In a moment of perspicacity, Kathryn understands that it was unacknowledged anger towards her mother that was responsible in part for bringing her and her father together. It was the love she ended up feeling for her mother that broke the spell.

I quite understand how people might look at a book like this and think it isn’t their cup of tea. But I’m less sure why anyone would want it censured. After all, it’s denial and wilful blindness that cause most of the worse emotional abuses, or at least allow them to carry on unhindered. Unfortunate as it is, there is a dark side to humanity, one that acts out time and time again. We can be sanctimonious about it, and wish it out of our sight. But I don’t think it will ever go away unless we look at it without flinching, and consider the circumstances that cultivate it.




32 thoughts on “What Some People Do In The Name Of Love

  1. I remember reading The Kiss many years ago and finding it very powerful. Her fiction is excellent, too. I agree absolutely with your last paragraph – we are none of us defined in black and white but many shades of grey, some darker than others. By labelling such behaviour monstrous we push it aside as if it’s nothing to do with us rather than find ways in which to combat it.

    • Susan, I found this a very powerful book indeed and wish I’d said more about the quality of the writing in the review. She has the kind of prose that is as smooth as silk and I shot through this book in a matter of hours. I completely agree with what you say about shades of grey. Thank you also for the fiction recommendations – I haven’t ready any of her novels and would like to try one.

  2. Such a thoughtful review Victoria. I don’t know that I could read something so painful, but it’s right that we remind ourselves what people are capable of doing in the name of so-called love.

    • Everything I’ve read seems to suggest that it’s ‘love’ that validates the worst behaviour! I didn’t find this book too awfully painful to read because the prose is very lovely and simple and the account moves swiftly. I felt held away from the situation somehow. But it isn’t exactly cheery subject matter, that’s for sure!

    • Thank you! And that’s very astute – it IS something I’ve been thinking about. My first thought was to electrify the door and windows like they do fences for cattle, but Mr Litlove tells me that’s illegal. Which is a shame! But a camera near the door might well help.

  3. Undoubtedly this is a terrible story but I do find the issue of Genetic Sexual Attraction interesting. It has always struck me as fascinating that in John Ford’s circa 1630 play, ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore’ the playwright presents the incestuous relationship between the brother and sister as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The term may not have been coined back then, but they clearly understood the concept of GSA.

    • I hadn’t thought at all about that sort of drama but you are quite right! So much that was accepted about human behaviour has become taboo. I suppose the price we pay for civilisation is a reining in of instinct. Thank you for that insight.

  4. I think the GSA idea is in Bring Up the Bodies, too, when Cromwell is musing on how Anne and her half-brother weren’t raised in the same household, although his musing is (as always) pretty disingenuous.

    • Well, both The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal suggested it would be better if it hadn’t been published (the WSJ in particular said she should ‘hush up’), and the Christian press was as you may imagine about it. I read on Slate that the furore that greeted its publication was akin to ‘a witch hunt’. I promise you I wasn’t using the term lightly!

  5. I’m always frightened of being in the house when it’s broken into also. I think about it a lot. It would be so scary, and even in my imagined version of the scenario, I can’t think what best to do about it.

    This book sounds tremendously upsetting. My skin crawled a bit just reading it — what an awful situation to be in.

    • We clearly have very similar fears! Thank you for the solidarity. I tend to run through in my mind what I might do differently – particularly after nightmares as I find that helps settle them. But this one I haven’t managed to fix yet either, which may be why it keeps recurring. You do feel for Kathryn Harrison in her memoir because she really had nowhere to turn, and that seemed like almost the worst part to me.

  6. Your writing is so sensitive and lyrical and absolutely clear which is a fine combination. And this: ‘There is a dark side to humanity, one that acts out time and time again. We can be sanctimonious about it, and wish it out of our sight. But I don’t think it will ever go away unless we look at it without flinching, and consider the circumstances that cultivate it.’ is so true and so very hard to do.

    • That is a very good word ‘beastly’; it’s exactly what it was! Thank you, Harriet. And it’s a beautifully written memoir that I found really engrossing.

  7. Oh I remember when this book came out and the buzz was all about what a terrible person Harrison is. I felt sorry for her. Clearly she was a victim in the situation but because she was nominally an adult and a woman she gets the blame. I think it incredibly brave of her to have written this book.

    • Hear! Hear! I completely agree and think she was very brave, too. There’s an interview in the back of my copy with her and she says the bad press was useful because it stopped her trying to please anyone with her writing, which she said would have been a really bad old habit to fall back into for her. I thought that was remarkably brave of her too!

  8. It does sound like a skin-crawly type book, but you write about it beautifully. This one is probably not for me, but I think I will check out the library for some of her fiction.

    • I haven’t read any of her novels and after this I must say I’d like to try them, too. She does write very beautifully – simple language with extraordinary clarity.

  9. It’s so much easier to just sweep things like this–both what happens and those who write abot it–under the carpet. No sense in anyone being made to feel uncomfortable, right?! I remember when this came out and the stir it caused. I have read some of her fiction (and think she’s a very good writer), but I never did get around to picking this one up. Not sure this would be for me either, but I think she’s a brave soul for laying it all bare like she does–so much more healthy than anyone really imagines I think.

    • I completely agree – I think it’s brave of her, too, to write about it, and she’s very clear in the interview in the back of my book that she absolutely had to write about it for her own wellbeing. I do think it’s being forced to hide sadness away that does the damage. I read a quote somewhere (as usual can’t remember the source!) that said something like: it’s only the feelings we bury alive that live forever. You’re spot on that it’s about not making other people uncomfortable, and there’s definitely a category of literature that sets out to tell stories that disturb us for our own good, I think.

  10. I was so kee on hearing yout thoughts on this. Incest is a topic that makes me extremely uncomfortable but I’m still going to read this.
    I think it’s great that she wrote about it and I hope that means she was able to leave it behind. It does sound so horrible.

  11. Wonderful review of a book I read many years ago, and also found fascinating and moving. I agree, it’s difficult subject matter, but so tender and true to Kathryn’s experience, and she writes in a way that welcomes the reader into her troubled heart. Having had a difficult relationship with my father, where boundaries were blurred and his absence from my life made my love for him full of yearning, I fully understand how Kathryn can have fallen into the trap of her father’s control. She was a child neglected of love and so to have a charismatic man come into her life and make her feel so adored must have been very seductive. But how damaging that it was her father. It’s terrible the things we do. I agree, how stupid people are to blame her for her words when she was just a child, and a vulnerable one at that. It is so short-sighted to turn away from those things that make us feel uncomfortable, rather than try to understand them and learn from them to better ourselves and our behaviour. This is why books like this are so important as they show the human condition at its most primal: a father and child who have been starved of each other, finding their way, but making grave mistakes through it. Of course, the father should have protected his daughter and taken advantage of her, but he was probably equally struggling with his own loss and desire for love, connection, fulfilment, whatever drives people to do what they do.

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