Kathryn Harrison's book details a tumultuous incestuous relationship, that lasted for four long years.
“Appalling, but beautifully written.” That’s how the New York Times described Kathryn Harrison’s story. And, to be fair, the observation isn’t far off. The story, wrapped neatly in a memoir titled The Kiss, is appalling as the titular kiss she refers to is one between her 20-year-old self and her 37-year-old father.
For most of Kathryn Harrison’s life, her father was not present. Her parents married when they were just 17, and her father left shortly after. Harrison’s mother also walked out, five years later, leaving her in the care of her grandparents.
“I remember seeing my father only twice as a child for brief visits,” Harrison recalled, in an interview with Oprah about her book. Her grandparents had told him that if he left quietly, they wouldn’t pursue child support. He did as he was told, and only stopped by once or twice as his daughter was growing up.
“As I grew up, I invented a father who was larger than life — stronger, smarter, more handsome and even holier than other men,” she said. “Having been abandoned by my mother, I was sure I was unworthy of such a father’s love.”
When she was a junior in college, enrolled at Stanford University (“I was the good girl who never needed disciplining, who made straight A’s”), her father appeared out of the blue, for a weeklong visit. He’d gone to college, become a minister, and wanted to meet his daughter.
“Here he was, at last, the father I’d invented for myself,” she said. “The one who knew exactly what to say, that all the years I’d loved and wanted him. He, too, had loved and wanted me.”
The visit went smoothly, as the two got to know one another as father and daughter. Then, as Harrison drove her father to the airport, things changed. As she was saying goodbye, her father leaned down and kissed her.
“He forced his tongue into my mouth and then he just picked up his bag, waved goodbye and got on the plane,” she said, describing it as “wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn.” “I stood in the airport for I don’t even know how long with my hand over my mouth.”
She goes on to describe the depression and paralyzation that followed the incident, and how it affected her schooling. Then, however, the tone changes and Harrison is suddenly a woman rationalizing the kiss.
“I remained uncomfortable about the kiss, but I kept saying to myself, ‘Well, maybe it wasn’t so bad.’ Or, ‘Maybe you made it up yourself,'” she said. “I think at that time in my life I was somebody who had a hard time turning down love in whatever form it was offered.”
For the next four years, the two would engage in an incestuous relationship. The two would spend nearly every day on the phone or writing letters to each other and later spent time traveling together.
“We meet at airports,” she said, at the beginning of the book. “We meet in cities where we’ve never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us. These nowheres and notimes are the only home we have.”
Eventually, upon the deaths of her grandparents, the relationship ended. As the two parted ways, her father told her that her life was over.
“It’s too late for you,” she said he told her. “You’ve made your choice. You’ve had sex with me, and no man will ever have you. You won’t be able to keep the secret, and you’ll always be alone.”
Over the years, Kathryn Harrison proved him wrong. She is now married with three children, and a successful novelist. The Kiss is her third novel, the third one which explores her incestuous relationship with her father, but the first that appears in a memoir format.
Upon the release of her book, the story was picked apart by book critics from around the country. Critics of Harrison’s claim that she used her experience to sell books, and that the descriptions were likely highly dramatized. Supporters call her a survivor and have commended her for her bravery in coming forward with her story.
Kathryn Harrison maintains that the story is as appalling as it sounds, but that every word is true. Since the two ended their relationship, Harrison has not spoken to her father and says she has no plans to.