Sunday, January 12, 2014

Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss


The final reading for my upcoming online essay course is the memoir The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison.  When The Kiss was published over 15 years ago, it was just the beginning of the industry's obsession with memoir, particularly memoirs about obsession.  Because of the subject matter, Kathryn Harrison's book had generated a lot of heat and outrage before publication, with the strongest opinions often coming from people who hadn't actually read the book.  I had hosted a reading or two with Harrison and really loved her writing and her manner, and was shocked only briefly when a friend who had read the manuscript earlier told me that her new book, The Kiss, was about an affair she had with her previously absent father when she turned eighteen.  The shock dissipated pretty quickly, because anyone who had read her earlier work--the novels Thicker Than Water and Exposure--couldn't really be surprised that elements of her own true story had been disguised in those.

At a party one night, I remember a group of writers respectfully expressed their disgust with The Kiss and declared that they would never write a memoir. Ever.  And yet, now most of them have.

What is brilliant about The Kiss, and makes it worth studying, is the way in which Harrison crafts this brief, incredibly personal story.  What makes it compelling is not the secrets she reveals about herself or her own family, but the understanding she generates from the reader.  It ultimately isn't so much about incest as it is about family, and the incredible trust we place in our own parents. You don't have to be a victim to understand her story; you need only have been a child.

The subject matter, obviously, turns many people off from the idea of reading this particular memoir.  But when they do, they inevitably tell me how deeply moved they were, and how beautifully written this tragedy is.

For more info on my essay course, go to Ruzuku.

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