The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 18. Truth Hunger: The Public and Private Burning of Kathryn Harrison

Lying is done with words, but also with silence.

Adrienne Rich,
“Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”

It takes an obsessive streak that borders on lunacy to go rummaging around in the past as memoirists are wont to do, particularly a fragmented or incendiary past, in which facts are sparse and stories don’t match up. I don’t know if memoirists are lied to more often as kids or only grow up to resent it more, but it does seem we often come from the ranks of orphans or half-orphans-through-divorce, trying to heal schisms inside ourselves. Like everybody, I suppose, people we loved broke our hearts because only they had access to them, and we broke our own hearts later by following their footsteps and reenacting their mistakes.

This earmark of a memoirist no doubt applies to every human being on the planet. But many of us undertake exploring the past precisely because it is so foggy and tenuous in its truths.

Or maybe memoirists’ families and platoons and empires actually did blow apart more spectacularly than their less-scarred or less-likely-to-write-about-it counterparts. But being an orphan oddly frees you to speculate and wallow around in memoryville without any correction from outside. The minute our non-memoir-writing counterparts start wondering aloud about this or that event in the past, the memory police—either a tidy matriarch with a chronological photo album or somebody at the VFW—rushes in to say, “That’s not how it happened.” (Robert Graves was in the same regiment as poet Siegfried Sassoon, and in the latter’s copy of Good-Bye to All That in the New York Public Library sit marginal notes arguing the veracity of many points Graves made.)

In my house, say, the recording angels stopped regularly filling photo albums when I was about four. Certificates of divorce and marriage and death never got saved. It’s all rumor and guesswork.

Mary McCarthy in Catholic Girlhood claims losing her parents had broken the chain of “collective memory” that binds the more solvent family. Without a solid history, she and her brother spent a lifetime discussing the past, bent like a pair of bloodhounds to sniff out the old trails. That ongoing dialogue helped to fuel her work for a lifetime before she set pen to paper.

The very difficulties [of researching our story] have provided an incentive. As orphans, my brother Kevin and I have a burning interest in our past, which we try to reconstruct together, like two amateur archaeologists, falling on any new scrap of evidence, trying to fit it in, questioning our relations, belaboring our own memories. It has been a kind of quest.

Having gone through the profound discomfort of writing from personal history, I don’t think most writers amble into this arena to cash in on some grisly past, nor to settle scores, nor to jack up every hangnail into a battlefield amputation. Truth summons them, as it summons the best novelists and poets. And it’s not only memoirists who get it wrong. “What is the novelist’s sentimentality,” Tobias Wolff once said, “—whether expressed in unearned cheer or unearned cynicism—but a lie of the heart.” Most memoirists are driven to their projects for their own deeply felt psychological reasons. As Yeats said, “Mad Ireland hurt me into poetry,” so most of us have been hurt into memoir.

The memoirists I know don’t cleave to veracity so as to keep kinfolks from suing nor to avoid landing on Oprah blinking and sweating once they’re unmasked. For most, knowing the truth matters more than how they come off telling it. They’ve spent lifetimes plumbing the past—weighing, questioning, digging around in the old days long after their former companions have sallied forth into tidy forgetfulness or private versions of personal history in which they star as heroes.

Kathryn Harrison was inwardly scalded into writing one of the bravest memoirs in recent memory, only to be blistered by the press for it. (No man I can think of ever took such a public butt-whipping.*) What sin did she commit? In The Kiss, she breaks a universal cultural taboo—at age twenty, she’s seduced by her long-lost preacher father, entering into what she calls an affair with him.

In choosing to digest fully her fractured past, Harrison was possessed of a gnawing hunger for clarity. Because she paid such a high price for exposing said past—the ad hominem attacks on her remain the nastiest I’ve ever seen—her complex motivations warrant a look.

I posit that her reasons are identical to those of long-venerated memoir masters like Richard Wright, Mary McCarthy, and Vladimir Nabokov—to get the story right.

Like some of us, Harrison at first set out to tell her story in fiction, books she’d later rue as untrue and feel honor-bound to correct. Before The Kiss, the subject of incest insinuated itself—“it kept intruding”— into her first three novels. But she particularly hated how, in her first, she located the daughter squarely among the innocent.

I wrote The Kiss in many ways as a response to my own first novel, Thicker Than Water, which was held to be autobiographical. The woman in the story, Isabel, has an affair with her father, but Isabel was younger than I was at the time. She was more passive, sweeter, more of a victim. When I finished that book I wanted to disown it. I felt I had betrayed my own history. I was dishonest in a way that has been inordinately painful to me over the years.

Fiction, rather than bringing events into sharper focus for Harrison, had blurred them further. She was driven to make it right—not squinting-through-your-eyes-looking-through-your-fingers right, but right as only ruthless scrutiny can make it.

She felt fiction had so falsified her tale that “I’d obeyed the cultural silence to keep quiet about incest.” So for those who think a writer can flip a switch and go from nonfiction to novel based on social convenience, I’ve got some bad news. Your psychological proclivity determines which better fits your story. That decision grows from the nature of your character. Autonomy in such choices is a fairy tale.

Of course, fiction can be ruthlessly honest—or it can smear Vaseline on the lens and obscure. A real novelist tells the greater truth with a mask on. I once suggested to Don DeLillo that he write a memoir, and he recoiled. But even black-belt proser Martin Amis undertook his memoir, Experience, about his author father, Kingsley Amis, from “a desire to speak, for once, without artifice.” For some subjects, fiction won’t do. To free herself from the topic as an artist, Harrison turned to memoir. “It wasn’t a decision, it was a helpless act.”

Before and during the book’s creation, Harrison spent five years in analysis. Folks don’t undertake that process to make up a pretty bedtime story starring themselves, but to find out what the hell happened. When Harrison announced the move to nonfiction to her husband, he said, “I feel like the chemo has begun.” To finish the book, she did a slog of sixteen-hour days over six months. “In therapy, the window had come open, and I didn’t know how long it could stay that way.”

So many reviewers deemed her motives venal, but if you deduct the cost of mandatory therapy to get through the story in her heart before undertaking the book’s writing, she’d have made more money working a deep-fat fryer, which might have also been more fun.

But with such personal reasons for writing, why publish it at all?

To understand, you’d have to marshal some empathy for any rape or incest survivor. It’s through shame and silence that a perpetrator seeks to capture someone else’s soul, sentencing her to lifetime collusion with him. “On top of everything else,” Harrison told me, “I was supposed to keep my mouth shut forever.” Either she published her story or remained complicit with her seducer, which meant actually being allied with him against herself. Publishing the book was a way to reclaim “what was left of me.”

Harrison is a study in the courage a book can demand from its scribbler. From page one, you can hear her resolve to treat her young self—to my eye, anyway—to fairly unblinking scrutiny. The voice has the brutal detachment of a traumatized girl in a dissociative state during a rape. Or like some doomed prisoner speaking from inside an iron mask. Which—psychically speaking—seems apt.

We meet at airports. We meet in cities we’ve never been to before. We meet where no one will recognize us.

One of us flies, the other brings a car, and in it we set out for some destination. Increasingly, the places we go are unreal places: the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon—places as stark and beautiful and deadly as those revealed in satellite photographs of distant planets. Airless, burning, inhuman.

Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands. He tips it up and kisses my closed eyes, my throat. I feel his fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck. I feel his hot breath on my eyelids.

We quarrel sometimes, and sometimes we weep. The road always stretches endlessly ahead and behind us, so that we are out of time as well as out of place.

She cuts herself no slack. It’s we meet, we quarrel, we weep. She speaks as an adult choosing, not as a girl with a gun to her head.

Rather than praise the obvious precision and grace of this prose, Vanity Fair’s Michael Shnayerson calls Harrison “a tease” for not making herself smutty enough. It’s a painful book but not a sexually explicit one—an almost impossible feat given the topic. (Actually, the most carnal scene in The Kiss paints Harrison’s disinterested mother standing alongside a gynecologist’s table as he deflowers the girl with increasing large penis substitutes so she can go off to college with a diaphragm, and not get pregnant at seventeen as Harrison’s mother had with her.) Shnayerson’s “Women Behaving Badly” rebukes those of us who had the temerity to write about sexual assault or other psychic travails at all.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley wrote three pieces lambasting Harrison: “It is a measure of the times that this book, slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical, is enjoying the rapt attention of the gods of publicity.” He accused her not only of fabrication (“Harrison claims”) but of financial motives: “This confession isn’t from the heart, it’s from the pocketbook.” In the New Republic, James Wolcott equated the book with reenacting Harrison’s abuse on her three children. (In fact, Harrison and her husband chose to bring the book out while the kids were too young to twig to the media furor.) Shnayerson and Yardley and their fellows all used the same patronizing and pious tone critics once brought to scolding Charlotte Brontë for her novels’ excessive emotion. How dare she!

It’s hard for me to comprehend reading Harrison’s story with zero feeling for the daughter, particularly one who doesn’t sugarcoat her own role. Not only does the father cudgel a young woman desperate for his love into a sex act; he also claims she’s his forever because he’s polluted her: “Nobody will ever want to touch you after what I’ve done.” (He actually hopes she’ll bear his child so it’ll be 75 percent him!) Who could wish silence on a woman who’d had such a run-in?

Harrison may have written to reclaim her own future, but by breaking the silence about incest, she no doubt rescued countless others. Rather than vilify her, critics should’ve given her a medal for public service.

away over 1,200 finished pages of my last memoir and broke the delete key on my keyboard changing my mind. If I had any balls at all, I’d make a brooch out of it.