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Harrison’s The Kiss

October 29, 2007

Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss is a confessional memoir of a woman’s incestuous affair with her father. The structure of the story explores the dysfunctional triangulation between the woman, her mother, and her father, complicated by her grandparents. In her early life the father is an absence, while the daughter competes for the mother’s affection in life. The father’s relationship to the mother has never been resolved, so when the daughter and father meet again when she’s in college, his desires for the mother are transferred onto her. Now he’s become a man of God, a preacher, with a new family of his own. The Kiss is the woman’s journey into a sexual affair her father initiated with bouts with mental health and anorexia along the way. The memoir is the account of a woman coming to terms with the evil betrayals of her past. Everything changes after that kiss.

I’m not sure the memoir was altogether successful for me. The writing is powerful and the story heart wrenching, but there was also a calculatedness that left me feeling manipulated as a reader. In many ways I think I have problems connecting with memoirs. I enjoy them when it is about someone whose work I admire, but often in contemporary memoirs I feel like people are exploiting their stories. There’s this expectation, especially in contemporary work, that people want a product that is going to directly help them. For me there’s a difference between exploring dark and difficult material as a means of discovering story and oneself, and exploiting it for the shock of the images. I want more transcendence or a transformation of pain (even if it’s only intellectual). It’s not about a happy ending or anything that glib. I don’t think there can be a truly satisfying happy ending and still fit the themes of this work. The work was difficult, so the ending must be difficult too. The work is not sensationalized by any means. That being said Harrison’s The Kiss is extremely well written and handles the elements of time well, but didn’t feel like a truly cathartic experience in the purest sense of the word.

For much of the first part of the memoir, the father is seen purely as a void, an absence. A hollow space where the abscess of who her father was is deposited. She speculates with emotional empiricism trying to discern her father through old cut up photos and stray references from her mother and grandparents. Her father is a question that she tries to fill up with all these facts, exploring the origins of her parents’ high school romance.

When she later gets together with her father she questions: “Do we resemble each other enough that people suspect we’re father and daughter? Do we sit too close to one another? Does his hand on my arm betray his intent? And why do we cling so, as if our parting will be as final as death?” (25). The novel uses foreshadowing and flashbacks effectively to frame their relationship, so that when the kiss and all that comes with it occurs, there is a sense of impending inevitability.

From the beginning the main character is so alienated from her self, supplicating her choices to her mother and eventually her father, that the story comes out as a disconnect between emotions and the body. A scene that exemplifies this is when her mother takes her for a diaphragm fitting. There is a disassociation between reality and the expectations of her family, a battle of wills and desires, a subtle warfare. Her mother buys her dresses that are too small as a hint that she needs to lose weight. Wanting to prevent a teen pregnancy (like her’s) her mother sets her up for birth control even though she’s not sexually active. She has become so anorexic that she no longer has her period. The mother takes her in, but the doctor responds, “Not without breaking her hymen” (42). “You don’t want to do that, do you?” Her mother decides that they will.

“He uses a series of graduated green plastic penises. When he withdraws the set of them from under the lid of a stainless steel surgical tray, I can’t believe what I see in his hands. The green is a green that exists nowhere in nature but that colors surgeons’ scrubs and emesis basins and other dire instruments I associate with illness and death. One after another he inserts them, starting with the smallest—no bigger than his little finger—until the second to last one comes out smeared with blood. This doctor deflowers me in front of my mother. Is it because he was her obstetrician, the man who delivered me, that he imagines this is somehow all right? (43)

The breaking of the hymen to prevent pregnancy is an absurd contradiction. This image is powerful and carries the first section of the book in many ways. It clearly illustrates the woman’s disconnect and perceived powerlessness. Her body has become a battle of wills. Her inability to tell her mother or the doctor no is underscored by a sense of power she exerts through her anorexia. She defies her mother in covert ways. Her story is about rage, and it’s this rage that thrusts her into her father’s path. Her rage fortifies her, spiting her mother through the affair with her father, while expressing her self-hate and desire to be loved by her father.

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