Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss

When Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir The Kiss was published, it caused quite stir, and rightly so.  Harrison was estranged from her clergyman father from an early age, and when he came back into her life as she began college, their relationship became sexual.

This dark memoir is certainly about incest between two consenting adults, but that is simply the covering for the deep level of one family’s dramatic dysfunction. Love and its absence guide Harrison through an act considered morally abhorrent, and illegal.  

Harrison’s narrative is bleak, and clearly illustrates that the sexual relationship is stripped of all pleasure.  Rather, it is a compulsion, an addiction for a love she never had and desires.  She says: “Like more prosaic addiction ­– to alcohol, to heroin – mine for my father consumed the rest of my life.  I take no pleasure in its satisfaction, and yet I cannot see beyond it, him to anything else, even myself.”

The incest is the symptom of deeper levels of need and hunger.  Rather than fully face the twisted dynamics of her family, the incest stands as a proxy.  It is so beyond the pale, so all consuming, that it allows Harrison “to avoid contemplating the enormity of what we’re doing – an act that defines me, that explains who I am, because in it is all the hurt and anger and hunger of my past, and in it too, is the future.”

So, this is not a book that anyone will enjoy in a conventional sense.  Really, it is a cautionary tale of how far the need for unconditional love can be twisted; although most people would not travel down Harrison’s path, we all make awful decisions to feel loved and wanted – even when the love, as in Harrison's case, is an illusion.

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