Harrison, Kathryn 1961-
HARRISON, Kathryn 1961-
PERSONAL: Born March 20, 1961, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Edward M. and Carole Cecile (Jacobs) Lang; married Colin Harrison (an editor and novelist); children: two. Education: Attended Stanford University and University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
CAREER: Writer. Former editor at Viking Publishers, New York, NY.
AWARDS, HONORS: James Michener Fellowship, 1989; artists' fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts, 1994.
Thicker Than Water, Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
Exposure, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
Poison, Random House (New York, NY), 1995, published as A Thousand Orange Trees, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1995.
The Kiss (memoir), Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
(Author of introduction) Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2000.
The Seal Wife, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Seeking Rapture: Essays and Occasional Pieces, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: With the publication of her 1997 memoir, The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison placed herself at the center of a firestorm of controversy. In this personal tale, the novelist tells the story of how with a passionate kiss her father started an incestuous relationship with her that lasted four years, until the death of her mother. What made Harrison's story different from other exposes of incest, and what raised the controversy, was that Harrison was twenty years old when the kiss occurred. Over the next four years, the once estranged father and daughter carried on an affair, secret meetings in places far from Harrison's college and her father's community, where he had a new wife and family, and a position as a preacher.
Harrison's frank talk about this incestuous affair drew immediate and pointed criticism. One line of criticism accused the author of using this serious breach of social mores to titillate the masses in order to sell more books, increasing her financial and literary capital. Jonathan Yardley's blunt assessment of Harrison's book represented this view. He wrote in the Washington Post, "The Kiss is trash from the first word to the last, self-promotion masquerading as literature." Other critics faulted Harrison for turning a cathartic confrontation of past demons into an exercise in raising the kiss-and-tell bar to absurd heights. "The point is," maintained James Wolcott in the New Republic, "just because she wrote it doesn't mean she had to publish it. It is assumed today that all secrets are bad, that withholding them is unhealthy; secrets denied the light of day will only fester." But, according to Wolcott, "There is a big difference between getting something out of your system and putting it on the market." Similarly, for other reviewers, The Kiss represented an act of narcissism and evasion of responsibility on Harrison's part.
Harrison and The Kiss were not without their defenders, however. "What's really going on in this memoir," suggested Diane Roberts in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "has to do with the shifty issues of power, possession, how families live and lie, how the role of parent is not God-given or inviolate, how a child can be both victim and collaborator." And, according to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, Harrison did not sidestep the issues of narcissism and responsibility. "Ms. Harrison," he wrote, "while not analytical, spins a complex web of clues involving narcissism, repressed desire, her mother's emotional inaccessibility, her father's hunger to recapture the past and her own need for substantiation."
Harper's Bazaar contributor Mary Gordon rejected the notion that Harrison's novel was just another kiss-and-tell expose contrived to appeal to the basest of human instincts. "The Kiss stands out from a welter of recent sensational memoirs because of the complexity of Harrison's moral views," she maintained; "her refusal to allow her carefully crafted 'I' the simple role of victim; and her near absolute avoidance of the prurient—the description of the kiss and another scene . . . are the extent of the sexual specifics." It is not "trash" in Roberts's view. Rather, she declared The Kiss "an extraordinary book," "exquisite" and written "the way a poet writes." Noted Lehmann-Haupt, "Her narrative is spare and stark, written in a present tense that perfectly conveys how her experience happened." Harrison stood by her effort to write about that experience and to publish it. As she told Gordon, "There is only one real incest taboo: talking about it. . . . The people who judge me about this book don't judge me for what I did, just for talking about it."
In addition to stirring a controversy among critics, The Kiss also confirmed in the minds of some reviewers that, despite the author's prior comments to the contrary, Harrison was mining her own family experience for the material for her first two novels. Los Angeles Times critic Carolyn See described the plot of Kathryn Harrison's first novel, Thicker Than Water, as "the story of a particular California nightmare: The child who is born in easy, even luxurious circumstances, and soon, way too soon, notices that her fate on Earth is to be discarded and loathed." Isabel, the protagonist of Thicker Than Water, is abandoned first by a father she's never met and then by her mother, who is not interested in taking care of a child. She is raised quietly by her grandparents in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles and subjected to regular and frequent visits from her mother, who abuses her. When her father appears late in her adolescence, he completes a pattern of sexual assault by raping her repeatedly over the two-year period during which her mother struggles with cancer.
Scott Spencer characterized Thicker Than Water in his New York Times Book Review article as "odd but beautifully written." The novel similarly struck other reviewers, who point to Harrison's lyrical prose, which encompasses such horrifying acts as incest and physical degradation. Sally Emerson explained in the Washington Post Book World that "it is . . . not so much the plot which is compelling, but the mesmeric writing and the control with which the author moves back and forth through different time frames." Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called the effect of Harrison's writing "devastating." Kakutani added that Thicker Than Water "is a story written in hallucinatory, poetic prose, yet a story that possesses the harrowing immediacy—and visceral impact—of a memoir." Similarly, Spencer commented: "[Harrison] has produced a beautifully written, unsparingly honest novel."
Spencer then wondered in his 1991 review of Thicker Than Water (six years before Harrison's public admission in The Kiss) if this first novel was more honest than the author was willing to admit. "The first two words of Thicker Than Water are 'In truth,'" Spencer wrote, "and as the novel plunges into a woman's painfully frank and unsparing revelations about her miserable childhood, and her struggle to awaken from its dank, hypnotic spell, this reader felt, at times, that he was reading a harrowing, fully imagined work of nonfiction. There is very little traditional narrative flow, yet the reader remains spellbound not only by the artistry of the writing but by its persistent and often horrifying matter-of-factness." Kakutani echoed this observation, writing, "There is almost no authorial distance between Isabel and her creator, almost no indication that this is a novel we're reading." Even so, as Kakutani found remarkable, the story successfully presents more than just the tragedy experienced by a child, "it also manages to wring from its heroine's story the hope and possibility of transcendence."
Harrison's second novel, Exposure, also centers on an abnormal relationship between a parent and child; in this case, a photographer-father takes eerily suggestive and morbid pictures of his daughter throughout her childhood and adolescence. Harrison told Patricia A. O'Connell in Publishers Weekly: "I wrote about a photographer because I wanted a relationship between a parent and a child in which the former stole something from the latter, and the thing taken was somewhat slippery." The main action of the story takes place during the weeks before a retrospective of Edgar Rogers's work is scheduled at the Museum of Modern Art. Through a variety of perspectives, including first-person monologues, court and private detective reports, and newspaper articles, Harrison constructs the demise of the daughter as she becomes addicted to crystal methedrine and begins to shoplift. The author explained this choice of narrative exposition to O'Connell: "I had a character who was going through crisis and change; although intelligent, she was not self-aware. I needed a number of mechanisms by which we could see into her . . . because she's not good at telling us about herself."
Critical response to Exposure was warm, both for the issue of artistic freedom versus artistic integrity the novel raises and for Harrison's unconventional method of exposition. Mindi Dickstein of the Chicago Tribune Book World remarked: "At their best, stories expose the secrets we live with but cannot utter, and the best writers preserve the unsayable nature of those secrets while capturing them long enough for us to gaze upon their mystery. Kathryn Harrison is such a writer." While noting that "at times Ms. Harrison is heavy-handed and comes close to making a didactic look-what-you've-done-to-this-girl argument," Howard Coale concluded in the New York Times Book Review that "Ms. Harrison does not allocate blame without a full analysis of all the ironies and all the nooks and crannies of responsibility." Washington Post Book World contributor Wendy Smith described Harrison's "accomplishment" in Exposure as "the delineation, in superbly modulated prose, of a woman's painful, tentative journey toward self-knowledge." Of her own work, Harrison commented to O'Connell: "I'm not a doctor, so clinical diagnosis is not my realm. But both physical and mental illnesses are factors in my work. I hope that my imagination in some way illuminates the human condition."
In her third work of fiction, Poison, Harrison achieves some artistic distance between herself and her work by setting the story in seventeenth-century Spain. Her blending of historical fact and fiction impressed a number of reviewers. "The historical novel is a vigorously evolving form," observed Laura Argiri in the Village Voice. "And Kathryn Harrison's Poison is a lively example of that evolution." For New York Times Book Review contributor Janet Burroway, "Ms. Harrison's voluminous research is everywhere evident, but so seamlessly matched by invention that the reader neither knows nor cares which is which." Ron Hansen offered a similar evaluation in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "It's gratifying to find that in this book she's handled the forbidding obligations of historical fiction so well."
Harrison's story follows two women, Maria Luisa and Francisca, who lead very different lives; even so, both women are consumed by a Spain in a period of decline. Maria Luisa (born Marie Louise de Bourbon, the niece of France's King Louis XIV) is an historical figure. She is sent from her homeland to become the queen to Spain's Carlos II and to bear him an heir. Carlos is a boy, retarded and crippled, who lives off of breast milk supplied to him by a team of wet nurses. The daughter of one of these wet nurses and a failed silkworm farmer is Francisca de Luarca. Maria Luisa fails to produce an heir for her incompetent or impotent husband and is poisoned. Francisca pursues forbidden love with a priest and is imprisoned. From her prison cell, Francisca becomes Maria Luisa's biographer, reconstructing the story of the queen, abandoned and destroyed in a strange land. "In a novel of less authority this might be clumsy," commented Burroway, "but in Ms. Harrison's hands it raises, instead, serious questions about the power of imagination and the nature of history."
Poison captures the events of Spanish history swirling around these two women as well as the public lives that they live in the Spanish capital; but it also offers insight into the intimate lives of women in the seventeenth century. For Francisca, there is love. And, in the opinion of Judith Dunford in Tribune Books, Harrison's portrayal of this love is "remarkable—crystalline prose perfumed (but not too much; she knows just when to stop) with musky eroticism, bigger enough than life to carry you away." For Maria Luisa, there is no love; there is only duty. "If Harrison writes meltingly about sexual love," added Dunford, "she does even better at sexual loathing . . . the mixture of disgust, longing, pity and duty in the couplings of Charles [Carlos] and Maria Luisa."
The result of Harrison's blending of fact and fiction to create the lives and loves of these two women "is a fascinating, feminist princess-and-pauper story, gorgeously written and hauntingly told," concluded Hansen. "It is a tale of passion, hopelessness and thwarted ambitions in a harsh and hate-filled century that was, as in all fine historical fiction, quite different than and disturbingly like our own."
Harrison's fourth novel, The Binding Chair, tells the story of a woman whose feet were crushed and bound per the Chinese aesthetic of beauty. May-li, the book's protagonist, had her feet ritually bound as a child. The ritual left her virtually a cripple, but her physical disfigurement is only an outward display of female subservience to men in nineteenth-century China. Following an unhappy arranged marriage, May-li flees and goes into prostitution. As a prostitute, she meets an Englishman and marries into his very Western family. Although she is cold and manipulative, May-li becomes a mentor to her young English niece, Alice.
Although Times reviewer Christina Koning said that Harrison accurately described Shanghai and the period, "conjuring up a wonderfully vivid image of the city and its inhabitants," the darkness and misery May-li faces becomes "a bit relentless." Other critics felt differently. Eleanor J. Bader, for example, asserted in Library Journal that even though the subject matter is brutal and tragic, Harrison is an "extremely gutsy writer" and The Binding Chair is "ambitious." Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman similarly said that Harrison is an "inventive" and "provocative" author. The critic also described the plot as "sinuous" and "surprising." A Publishers Weekly reviewer further called The Binding Chair Harrison's "best work to date. . . . [It is] intricately and elegantly constructed."
The Seal Wife also deals with a cross-cultural love affair. Set in Alaska during the early part of the twentieth century, the novel features a young American meteorologist who goes to Alaska to set up a weather station. In the mysterious, provocative land, Bigelow falls deeply in love with a silent Aleut woman who barely acknowledges him, and who ends the affair inexplicably. Hopelessly obsessed, Bigelow desperately desires to get the silent woman back. Critics generally responded to The Seal Wife positively. Donna Seaman, writing again in Booklist, called the love story "provocative" and the tale itself "delectably moody," while Vince Passaro of O: The Oprah Magazine declared the story "elegant and brief" and "profoundly reverent." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that "Harrison writes mesmerizing, cinematically vivid scenes."
Commenting on Harrison's writing in general, Maria Russo described her in the New York Times as an author who possesses "a real talent for conjuring farflung times and places." Relying on the themes of female oppression, victimhood, and martyrdom, Harrison has demonstrated an ability to describe the minute details of particular eras and the torment her characters experience throughout each of her novels.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 70, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 30, 1997, p. K12.
Book, May-June 2002, Kera Bolonik, "Keeping Secrets," p. 13.
Booklist, May 1, 1995, p. 1551; March 1, 1997, p. 1094; February 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Binding Chair, p. 1051; April 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of The Seal Wife, p. 1306.
Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1995, p.3.
Chicago Tribune Book World, February 21, 1993, p. 5.
Cosmopolitan, May, 1995, p. 44.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 13, 2000, Victoria Lane, review of The Binding Chair, p. 05.
Entertainment Weekly, May 26, 1995, p. 79; March 21, 1997, pp. 30-31.
Glamour, May, 1995, p. 172.
Guardian Weekly, July 31, 1994, p. 28.
Harper's Bazaar, April, 1997, p. 136.
Insight in the News, June 26, 1995, pp. 24-25.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2002, review of The Seal Wife, p. 209.
Library Journal, March 15, 2000, Eleanor J. Bader, review of The Binding Chair, p. 127; April 1, 2002, Colleen Lougen, review of The Seal Wife, p. 138.
Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1991, p. E3.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, p. 8.
New Republic, March 31, 1997, p. 32.
New Statesman & Society, July 28, 1995, p. 40.
Newsweek, February 17, 1997, p. 62.
New York, May 15, 2000, Daniel Mendelsohn, review of The Binding Chair, p. 70.
New York Times, April 26, 1991, p. C30; February 27, 1997, p. C18; May 26, 2000, Michiko Kakutani, "Willful Sensation yet Not Soap Opera," pp. B42, E44; April 30, 2002, Michiko Kakutani, "Sexual Obsession in Frontier Alaska," pp. B8, E8; May 5, 2002, Maria Russo, "Which Way the Wind Blows," p. 12.
New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1991, pp. 13-14; March 14, 1993, p. 10; December 5, 1993, p. 60; May 29, 1994, p. 20; May 14, 1995, p. 12; September 8, 1996, p. 36; March 30, 1997, p. 11; June 14, 1998, review of The Kiss, p. 32; May 21, 2000, review of The Binding Chair, p.9; June 7, 2000, Susan Hall-Balduf, review of The Binding Chair, p. 24; May 12, 2002, review of The Seal Wife, p. 26; June 2, 2002, review of The Seal Wife, p. 24.
O: The Oprah Magazine, May, 2002, Vince Passaro, "Love in a Very Cold Climate," p. 190.
People Weekly, May 29, 1995, p. 27; March 17, 1997, p. 33; May 15, 2000, V. R. Peterson, review of The Binding Chair, p. 59.
Publishers Weekly, March 1, 1993, pp. 33-34; March 6, 1995, p. 53; February 10, 1997, p. 71; March 15, 2000, review of The Binding Chair, p. 59; February 25, 2002, review of The Seal Wife, p. 37.
Sunday Times, November 7, 1999, "Postmodernist Homage," p. 37.
Time, May 29, 1995, p. 71; March 10, 1997, p. 90.
Times (London, England), May 6, 2000, Christina Koning, "Shanghai Surprise," p. 22.
Times Literary Supplement, May 12, 2000, Ruth Scurr, review of The Binding Chair, p. 21
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 17, 1994, p. 8; June 4, 1995, p. 3; December 10, 1995, p. 1.
USA Today, May 25, 1995, p. D4; March 13, 1997, p. D4.
US Weekly, May 29, 2000, Melanie Rehak, review of The Binding Chair, p. 51.
Vanity Fair, February, 1997, pp. 54-58.
Village Voice, May 16, 1995, p. 82.
Wall Street Journal, March 4, 1997, p. A16; May 12, 2000, Gabi Taub, review of The Binding Chair, p. W8.
Washington Post, June 9, 1991, p. 11; June 16, 1993, pp. B1, B4; March 5, 1997, p. D2.
Washington Post Book World, March 7, 1993, p. 7; April 30, 1995, p. 9.*