Kathryn Harrison knows what it feels like to cross the line. After the publication of her memoir The Kiss, she went from being a writer of well-reviewed midlist literary fiction to a public pariah. She became chief scapegoat of a culture of confession run amok, the highbrow spawn of Jerry Springer. The central disclosure of The Kiss—that at age 20 she had an incestuous affair with her father, whom she hadn’t seen since infancy—unleashed a media juggernaut that could have permanently derailed Harrison’s career, not to mention her life.
But three years later, Harrison is the picture of serenity. Ensconced in the parlor of her giant Victorian house, Harrison exudes a cool confidence. She’s recently given birth to her third child, and she is not only on her feet but giving an interview with baby Julia glued to her breast as the dog begs to be fed and the doorbell rings. Her air of efficiency suggests a certain creative overcompensation: Having spent a less than average childhood in a not-quite-nuclear family (raised by Grandma, illicit romance with Dad), she has surrounded herself with the trappings of domesticity. Harrison sees stability—or at least the veneer of stability—as part of her job as a parent. She explains sensibly: “If I just lay down in the trash like I sort of feel like doing, the children would be wildly anxious and resentful. You have to keep all the balls in the air and manage everybody’s needs.”
She may present a portrait of Park Slope perfection, but the fascinations that are byproducts of her vida loca surface in conversation. She’s a Cronenberg fan and an aficionado of old medical books (“things like leeching”) and it seeps into her work. In the 1993 novel Exposure, the central character is a self-cutter; 1995’s Poison bubbles with blood; and her latest novel, The Binding Chair, or A Visit From the Foot Emancipation Society (Random House), revolves around foot binding—a Chinese ritual in which young women’s feet were bound and mutilated to make them erotically appealing to men.
Harrison attributes her fixation on all things bloody to a car accident at age five. “My grandfather was driving me to school and wrecked the car,” she says. “My mother had moved out maybe six months before and I was completely bereft. I cracked my jawbone and there was blood all over my face—and my mother just materialized. She had been driving to work, saw the car, and pulled over. I began to bleed, and my mother, who had disappeared, reappeared!” Foot binding, she says, is connected to the blood lust: “It’s bandaging, it’s about destroying or compromising the flesh.”
The Binding Chair started out as the story of Harrison’s grandmother, who grew up in Shanghai. Because her grandmother died some years ago, Harrison turned to historical research to fill in the gaps. “I came across this old text on the erotic pleasures of the bound foot, and it insinuated itself into my head in a way that was impossible to resist. It was a readily exploitable metaphor because everyone in the book connects to each other based on their particular damage.”
The book’s heroine, May, is a brazen, modern character—imagine a crippled, Chinese Courtney Love. She evades her fate by escaping from the house of her cruel first husband on the back of a servant and becoming a prostitute. One of May’s clients is her future husband Arthur, a member of the Foot Emancipation Society (an antifootbinding group), who finds himself in the grip of his own perversity: “The last loop of cloth fell away from May’s foot and revealed a warm claw of flesh, luminous and slick and folded in upon itself. It wriggled slightly, and he let it go, then grasped it again. . . . Arthur’s head felt hot inside. The thought sickened him, but he wanted to take the misshapen foot in his mouth. To swallow it, her, whole.”
In all of Harrison’s novels (and of course in The Kiss), damaged female characters abound. But May’s ailment is unusually overt—she is a woman effectively castrated by the male world, a female eunuch. Her drama sometimes feels schematic, like a scenic detour into Women’s Studies 101, in which a forgotten woman’s history is disinterred and dissected.
Harrison admits to an exhibitionist streak—of her five books, two are semiautobiographical novels and one is a soul-scraping memoir—but sees fiction writing as a more subtle process than just oozing onto a page. “May isn’t me, but when you write a novel you tend to fracture yourself into various bits and use them. She’s vulnerable and damaged and she’s not going to let anybody know that. And she’s manipulative. She’s probably an amalgam of aspects of my personality and my grandmother’s. My grandmother was very manipulative. . . . Even if we weren’t talking I felt this great sucking presence from the other side of the couch! My mother became an incredibly defensive person who was hidden inside a psychic fortress to keep herself safe from her mother. And I grew up with that same woman.”
A lot of writers veer away from making connections between their life and art. But Harrison’s childhood seems like her touchstone: All roads lead back to the family romance, so to speak. At one point in our conversation, Harrison mentions that she’s always been terrified of twins—a fear stemming from her problem with personal boundaries—and goes on to disclose one of her very first memories. “I remember my mother and my grandmother fighting, and my consciously drawing a magic line: This is you, this isn’t me, this is me, this is not you,” she says, mechanically drawing borderlines in the air.
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.’ ”
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.