Bound, Not Gagged

Kathryn Harrison Speaks Out About Public Scorn, Private Obsessions, and Her New Novel

One of her critics' prime accusations is that Harrison blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction too much: Thicker Than Water, Harrison's first novel, was about a girl sexually abused by her father, and the second, Exposure, was about a woman whose father photographed her naked. When The Kiss came out, many complained that Harrison's novels were just thin variations on her life story. Which they were, albeit well-written ones. But because of the charged nature of Harrison's experience, one can't help but see her as a woman returning obsessively to some primal scene, picking at scabs.

Harrison says now that if she'd written Thicker Than Water "10 years down the line when people were writing more confessional books, maybe I wouldn't have written it as a novel." She came to dislike it "for the ways in which it had cloaked my experience. Isabel, the narrator of that novel, is a more innocent version of myself, more of a victim than I was. The father is more of a prosaic bad guy than I understood my own father to be." That sense of self-betrayal, she says, was the impetus for writing her memoir.

But Harrison got caught in the backlash against confession, and The Kiss served perfectly as a target. "I expected that a number of people would come down on me for what I had done: Kathryn Harrison is a reprehensible person, she is amoral. I didn't expect to be attacked for having chosen to write about it," she says, seeming genuinely puzzled. "And I was foolish enough to believe that people could say, 'This is a distasteful subject, but at least the book is well-written.' "

Kathryn Harrison may present a portrait of perfection, but the byproducts of her vida loca surface in conversation.
Kathryn Harrison may present a portrait of perfection, but the byproducts of her vida loca surface in conversation.

She was accused of a exhibitionism and a naïvete about sexual abuse. Most of all, critics were angry that she published the thing with her father (not to mention her children and her husband, Harper's editor Colin Harrison) still living. "People said, 'Write it, but put it in a drawer.' If I had been planning to put it in a drawer, there would have been a lower standard imposed on the book—in terms of honesty, every single thing I wrote I had to stand behind."

A part of Harrison obviously revels in her role as provacateur. The media onslaught "was exhausting," she says, "but I have no regrets about publishing the book. It was a real lesson in projection. I was in a position to have people explode in my face! I would just stand back and say, 'Whoa! What is going on with you?' It was as if the book had this mechanism for lancing boils!

"People really don't like gray areas," she smiles. "I looked at my father, mother, and myself as human beings . . . who made a big mistake. We fucked up! But in telling it I didn't want a person in a white hat and another in a black hat. So it is ambiguous, and it does make a lot of people uncomfortable."

Harrison shifts her baby, who has started to giggle in her sleep. "The other part of it," she continues quietly, "is I just seem a little too much like everybody else. If I weren't married, if I didn't have children, if I'd written it from my locked cell—if I were marked in some way that was visible, people would have been more comfortable."

It does seem to weaken one of our last taboos—what's the point of the incest prohibition if you break it and turn out OK anyway? "Of course I am marked by it, but it's private, I don't wear it like Hester Prynne's scarlet letter."

It remains to be seen how The Binding Chair will be received by the literary community. After being chastised for spilling her guts in The Kiss, Harrison has returned to a genre—the quiet world of historical fiction—that allows her to mine her trademark preoccupations in relative safety. Though Harrison's prose is as controlled and precise as she herself is poised and articulate, the book overflows with a cast of troubled characters struggling to keep their guards up. And the drive toward self-revelation is most alive in May, who refuses to live out the remainder of her life with an awful secret unspoken. The Binding Chair leaves us wondering where Kathryn Harrison's overheated obsessions might take her next.

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