Crawling Skin and Ambiguity: The Kathryn Harrison Reading

This is possibly the most difficult article I have written since I was learning the five-paragraph hamburger style essay (so you’d better enjoy it, damn it).

In April, the acclaimed author Kathryn Harrison gave a reading of her non-fiction work as part of the Lane Lecture Series. I was interested in hearing a well-established author speak about her work, and pleased at the opportunity for self-sanctioned procrastination during a school night. But I was vastly unprepared for the raw, disturbing power of Harrison’s writing – two accounts of her experience when, as a Stanford undergrad, she began a four-year sexual relationship with her hitherto absentee father.

It was a bit humorous, actually, how unprepared I was to be plunged into such a staggeringly overwhelming experience. I mean, that’s a lot. Especially when I had assumed that Harrison would read from her most recent work, Enchantments, a novel about Rasputin’s daughter. I left feeling like a cartoon character zapped with lightning, head charcoaled and reeling slightly. So, when I sat down to write this article and try to encapsulate the experience, my first impulse was to turn to humor, the life raft of the overwhelmed, the old crutch.

I began brainstorming titles like, “A guide to what to do when you go to a reading you think is going to be about an Alaskan tent singer and winds up being about father-daughter incest”. Or maybe, “An audience guide: wondering what all those white-haired grandmotherly-looking women who read The Seal Wife for their book club are thinking about all this sensational sex”. Not very funny. Very overwhelmed. I tried to think of jokes somehow incorporating the bizarre fact that Harrison was so articulate that she almost never said “um”, even during the post-reading Q&A. I counted. She said two. But no good jokes came, only some sad speculation about my own ineloquence during my PWR2 days. Besides, it wasn’t a very funny reading.

Harrison read three scenes in her memoir, The Kiss, and then an essay called “True Crime” about her relationship with her father, which will be published in an upcoming volume. She explained that she rarely reads from The Kiss. The essay, which she thinks of as an unattached epilogue to the memoir, was the first she had written about her father in seventeen years. In other words, this was rare.

Her memoir describes her obsessive affair with her father, complicated relationship with her mother, and the family’s past. Harrison began with a narration of her early life.  Her teenage parents separated almost immediately after her birth, and Harrison was left in the care of her maternal grandparents so that her young mother could begin a new life, visiting Harrison as she pleased. Harrison was a dutiful student and eventually matriculated at Stanford, where she studied English and Art History.

Professor Tobias Wolff praised Harrison’s “sculpted prose,” which is characterized by poignant images and emotional devastation. The memoir is written in a detached present tense, as if the numb, traumatized narrator wants the reader to experience each moment with her. For example, Harrison read about the day her mother left (Harrison was six). In her mother’s closet, where some dresses left behind still hung, “I duck under the skirt of one and let it fall around me like a yellow tent, a tent the color of the sun and smelling of flowers. I push my face into the smooth fabric, a hundred times more lovely than any other thing in this house. If a dress like this was not worth taking, how could I have hoped to be?”

When she was twenty years old, her father came into her life with full force: “Father.  The word made flesh”. Throughout her childhood she had idealized her father, who was not be there in person to disappoint with even the most trivial flaws, and desperately craved his love. In the last section she read from her memoir, her father kisses her goodbye at the airport – a strangely sexual kiss that greatly disturbs Harrison, and foreshadows the events to come. “Its wrongness,” the narrator says, “lets me know, too, that it is a secret”. The moment is written like a love scene.  In fact, take out the father-daughter personalities and it is indistinguishable from the beginning sparks of a romance between strangers: “With his hand under my chin, my father draws my face toward his own. He touches his lips to mine.”

And that was when, were I a cartoon character, the first bolt of lightning would have really jolted me. No wonder Harrison’s work has been the subject of not only literary praise, but pop-culture fascination (appearing on Oprah being the gold standard for entering popular consciousness). I tried to sneak a look at the white-haired book club ladies, but they were directly behind me.

Nothing Harrison read verged into the sexually graphic, yet it made my skin crawl. I felt disquieted – like a voyeur who has seen too much.  But I was touched by the text’s bravery. Harrison said that her writing is a space “in which [she] can be totally naked in front of strangers”.  Nina Schloesser, a Jones Lecturer in Stanford’s Creative Writing department, said that she “was moved by [Harrison’s] dignity and courage” in dealing with such an enormous topic.

Though utterly unlike anything most of us have ever experienced, the memoir is strangely relatable. It is chilling when Harrison’s father tells her that he can show her who she is, precisely because that’s exactly what we all want to hear. How many twenty-year-olds really know who they are, or where their lives are going?  Hell, I didn’t even know what my major was sophomore year. It’s not inconceivable to imagine that should your father, absent and idealized your whole childhood, suddenly parachute into your life and have such a seemingly penetrating insight (no pun intended), it could be disarming. Just as Harrison as writes of a desert she once visited, becoming immersed in her writing is disorienting. “If you fell asleep, you’d wake in a place you had never seen before”.

Harrison’s essay, which is much more forcefully narrated by a voice no longer numbly detached, and which she transitioned to next, continued to unsettle me. Harrison explained that it was an incredibly challenging and different writing experience, “or as different as I am as a person.  Perspectives shift, even when eyes remain the same”. The return to the material seems to have been prompted by her older daughter turning twenty – the age at which Harrison met her father.  “The essay is a construct that allows me to admit love for a past self I’d helped destroy…I had to maintain control over difficult material while feeling conscious sympathy for the girl at the center of the piece: the dead girl…If the piece was to be any good it required my forcing myself to reinhabit the years I gave to my father – to be, for as long as it took, unarmored.”

The essay explores Harrison’s current love of true crime dramas in which police attempt to solve the murders of violated young women. Though dryly disparaging of the genre, she is obsessed, particularly with pouring over the forensic images of female corpses. The narrative is interwoven with stories of Harrison and her father. The prose is so vivid that I wasn’t sure if I was more upset by the descriptions of mutilated female bodies or the coercive relationship she experienced.  We learn that as a college student, her father would pose her nude for photographs. When Harrison was allowed to arrange her own portraits, as a sort of bargain with her father, she would always pose as a corpse – once even climbing into a coffin.  Harrison also briefly mentions her suicidal thoughts at the time. (“If sex didn’t equal death, the two were inextricably bound”.)  She would lie inert when intimate with her father to let him know that she had not acquiesced happily.

Surprisingly, the narrative never explicitly connects these points. Harrison avoids overt cause and effect, forgiveness or blame, and instead treats her subjects with incredible tenderness. The portrayal of her father is further complicated by the text’s speculation that being absolved of responsibility for Harrison and her mother inspired in him helpless rage and a warped manhood, instead of freedom. It lets the reader make connections and draw conclusions. Without the text itself acting as a guide, I was not sure how I was supposed to feel. Empathy?  Yes. Horror? Yes.  Ambiguity? Lots of it. Literature, while deeply invested in creating empathy and powerful emotion where there was none before, is not very interested in telling its readers what to think.  Shannon Pufahl, the Nancy Draper Lecturer in Creative Nonfiction, explained that non-fiction, as with any literature, avoids moral certainty.

When asked what returning to Stanford was like, Harrison described how saturated the campus is in memories for her. “I’d been back twice, for my 10th and 25th reunions, drawn to the campus, and scared of it. Both times I dipped into it, and straight out of it, from the remove of San Francisco. I stayed in Palo Alto this time, and walked around the school this past week, as I hadn’t since I graduated, in 1982, to see if certain spots retain their capacity to return me to my twenty-year-old self, often visited at school by her father. They do.”

This brings us to the sticky problem of conclusions. Just as Harrison’s writing avoids a conclusive emotion, it is hard to know how to leave my own readers. As Pufahl pointed out, when approaching a text as difficult to grapple with as Harrison’s, the question at hand is whether there is value in the discomfort one feels. And I did feel that something incredibly important and fundamentally human was being plumbed in Harrison’s work. So, what I would conclude with is this: get Harrison’s memoir, look out for her new book. The experience and the complications it brings up are both valuable and unsummarizable in any sort of pithy article closing.

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