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?
Well, 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.