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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Blackbird Singing In The Dead of Night

Fourteen years ago, a slim memoir with a simple but perfect title came into the world and created a storm of media: praise and scorn. A sales rep at Random House had sent a copy to my husband with a handwritten note: Great art? Maybe. Provocative? Definitely. The book was The Kiss. The author Kathryn Harrison, a novelist with three books to her credit at that point, was being taken to task for, among other things, revisiting material from her fiction for this memoir, particularly her incestuous relationship with her father.

I turned away, but not because she was continuing to mine her life for her writing (a ridiculous charge on any level), but because I was insanely jealous. As a young editor working on memoirs, I envied the tidal wave of attention hers was getting. But even more, I was jealous as a writer. She had moved a boulder. She had found prose as stark and terrifying as the incident she was writing about. She found the words, and she hit a nerve. I couldn’t touch it.

Years later, I met Kathryn Harrison when we were both on a publishing  panel. I went home that night and found the copy the rep had sent. Interestingly, I had never sold it off over two moves; it still had the note. I think I read the memoir in one or two sittings. It was actually the mother daughter story that initially captivated me. I read it a second time, more slowly, how did she find the control and composure, how did she level her gaze, how did she pin each sentence down?

I received a reissue of The Kiss this week from the publisher. I thought I’d just read a few pages, but I reread the entire book having been captured by the earliest lines which brilliantly telegraph the entire story, “standing against a sheer face of red rock one thousand feet high; kneeling in a cave dwelling two thousand years old; watching as a million bats stream from the mouth of a Carlsbad Cavern into the purple dusk…” It’s all there like Goya’s Caprichos and Van Gogh’s blackbirds let loose over a tragic land. It’s also worth getting for the afterword by Jane Smiley and the Q&A with Kathryn Harrison if you’re interested in memoir or are writing one.

If you could ask Kathryn Harrison a question, what would it be?

54 Responses

  1. JANE “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is better than Huck Finn” Fucking SMILEY?

    OK, that said….. You are so very correct. It is a brilliant, priceless book, one of those books like Heart of Darkness or Lolita or anything at all by Beckett where you ask: how did you DO that? But then, the publicity machine she was put through by her publisher/agent was appalling and destructive to her and the book — the book still suffers from it, is distorted by it — and I cannot imagine why she didn’t tell them to go fuck themselves. One sensed that it almost destroyed her. That publicity run was what convinced me that the very best and smartest thing an author can do is never show his face, never ever answer the phone. Terence Malick gets away with it, why can’t we?

  2. Q and A: Jesus.

    Actually that it’d be good, a Q and A at the end of the New Testament, with Jesus.

    Q: Did you always know you ‘d be crucified?

    A: I knew i was going to be involved with wood. My father was into wood. I learned a lot from him.

    Q: How come you said it was okay for the vintner to pay the men he hired at the end of the day the same as he paid the men he’d hired in the early morning?

    A: Look, a lot of these stories have to stand on their own. If I went around explaining all of them no one would have to read the book or think for himself, right? The vintner is, you know, a soft guy. He likes wine. That’s the main thing: as I saw him, he really liked wine.

    Q: Did you ever sleep with your mother?

    A: Fuck no. Believe me, if I had, it’d be in the book. And I’d be a richer man.

    Q: But you were her date at the wedding at Cana.

    A; Well someone had to go with her. My father is much older than she. His feet bothered him a lot. I took her around quite a bit in those years. She partied.

    Q: What are you writing now?

    A:; End times. It’s big. I can’t really talk about it. I don’t like to talk to about my work before, you know, every i, every t…. you know.

    Q: If readers are curious about you, your family, do you have a website.

    A: Oh boy do I have a website. It’s called Google Earth.

  3. Well, I don’t know what I’d ask KH, but I’d give her a big fat smooch for enduring the shitstorm.

    It is a fabulous memoir. As is The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch (full disclosure, she’s in my writing group). They both dive into their lives and race unflappably into the wind with the aching grace.

    • (Oops, there was more to that sentence, but I spilled my wine just now…)

    • “The aching grace” beautifully describes Kathryn Harrison and her writing. I had a chance to speak with her once, and instead of asking a question, I thanked her for her writing and for the way she has conducted herself after publication and on and on. She is not afraid to speak about the impact of the shit storm she endured and continues to endure because of “The Kiss.” She is my heroine. I have continued my fourteen-year journey to write my memoir following her example to put the truth on the page. Now if only my prose could be “stark and terrifying.” Onward.

  4. i wouldn’t ask her any questions. she’s a woman who has asked herself some serious questions, over and over, and who needs to add to that pressure. i’d probably say “i’m sorry” for the circumstances she faced, notably the desertion of her mama and manipulation of her father. i might ask her if she’s found ways to have fun in her adulthood because, let’s face it, she has had to parent herself almost her entire life.

    i fucking hate the stats on abuse. i really do.

  5. Present tense why did you choose it? Did you agree with
    Faulkner?? “There is no such thing as was–only is. If was existed there would be no grief or sorrow.” Do you still?

  6. I haven’t read The Kiss but I know something about fathers who go missing and children who are left to fantasize about them. If she didn’t already do so in her memoir, I would ask her if she could ask her father one question, what would it be?

  7. Kathryn, Why are you so emotionally dishonest and do you give a shit about your children?

    • How dare you judge another person?

    • How do you know it’s emotionally dishonest?

    • um, that’s two questions.

    • I haven’t read this book but why oh why do you call her emotionally dishonest? And then you bring her kids into it. What? Do you know her? Let’s hear the juicy details. Um, I think you might be a mechanized emotional reaction to anything that isn’t pure and simple. You might have a dreamer’s world of how the world should work. Should is the key word, of course. And then ask yourself why you have the luxury of what some call judging but I call insulting, for some god-awful reason. Why would you say something like that? You must know her. Let’s hear the juicy stuff. back that shit up. Slander is so much un-prosecuted in the U.S. I guess that’s one of the things that makes us so great. You can say whatever you want. But in order to not look like a skank, tell us the details of your one sentence.

  8. I think I’m too late to the party to ask a book-related question – but might ask if she’d like to have lunch at my favorite patio bistro where she (and I) could just enjoy a meal and an hour without scrutiny.

    After this particular week, I sure could use it!

  9. Are you ever sorry that you published the book? Or maybe “How has your life changed after publishing ‘The Kiss’?”

  10. well now i have to buy “the Kiss”. Yes, i am writing my memoirs..going on 6, 7 , 8 years and now finally getting a handle on it and how, and yes first person is powerful. i did worry about the ‘daddy’ bit in my life, as if it can be just a a bit, I now know that i have to write it all and then decide what to do with it. But hasn’t the world had enough of incest? And why was KH persecuted?

  11. I loved this book — her courage and the stripped down prose — when it came out. The mother/daughter part of it just a compelling as the fathers ‘kiss’ part, but I remember that critics didn’t mention it much. They were too busy lashing her to the post and miss it, I guess.

    This book came up last night. It was my month to host book club, and I was kind of dreading it. I’d made 12 women who don’t read memoir read Mary Karr’s LIT and I figured if anyone hated it I would have to toss them out and never speak to them again. Surprisingly, they all (except one) thought Mary was brilliant.

    Then I got more of what I expected. I’d placed some of my favorite memoirs on their plates at the dinner table — THE KISS being one of them — hoping to loan the books to anyone who’d take one. But when it came time to talk about THE KISS, I could see all of them, every single one, recoil at the idea of reading it. I read them the first 2 pages, sure that they’d see what I see. They didn’t. “Dear god, why would I want to read that?” “I’m kind of sick of reading about people’s fucked up families.” “If this happened to you, tell your therapist. Why do you need to publish a book about it?” “She’s lucky her father didn’t sue her.”

    So in the end I guess I got what I expected.

  12. Was her father still living when she wrote the book? If so, how was she able to be so open?

  13. @Um….
    Kathryn happens be one of the most wonderful mothers I know. Her children are intelligent, emotionally secure, open-minded and proud of their mother. A shame you think that someone cannot heal from tragedy and give to their own children something that they themselves never had. Judge not. Perhaps it is the brutal honesty of her book that scares you the most?

    • (from the voice of experience) Rather the children have the chance to truly know their mother (and the mother accept her life story) than live with the terrible unease that something-isn’t-right-and-we-won’t- discuss-it.

      Secrets and denial are soul sapping. Trust me.

  14. I was privileged to attend a recent event at Housing Works Bookstore where Anne Roiphe and Kathryn Harrison spoke with Emily Nussbaum, and I found her to be deeply insightful about memoir, memory, and the publishing process. She spoke with great admiration about Jane Smiley’s afterword (why Jane Smiley? Because of A Thousand Acres).
    The Kiss has been an important book for me and so many other writers I know. I think my question would be, “Can I bake you some banana bread?”

  15. [redacted]

    • oh come on, Shanna, spit it out

    • The [redacted] was a joke for Betsy, and now I feel compelled to say that I’m a huge fan of Kathryn Harrison’s work–her fiction, her nonfiction and her memoir(s)–especially Exposure and The Mother Knot.

      And she was also very kind and real to me at the NY Summer Writers Institute a couple of years ago, in an emotionally charged situation when many other writers were not.

  16. I don’t know. I’m a bit conflicted over the subject matter and why anyone would want to expose a very private situation to the whole wide world. Perhaps I just don’t get it, but I don’t know to what effect writing and publishing such a disturbing book would be? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the drill and could spout it ad inifnitim. Okay, so maybe it helps those who have had similar scenarios to heal or find closure, or catharsis, or something…or does it really? It just seems smarmy to me no matter what lipstick you put on it…People are responsible for their own actions. Incest, no matter what excuse or spin you put on it is just…sick. So what if there’s great writing, brilliant insight, raw emotions captured, blah blah blah in a memoir addressing it? Frankly, I wouldn’t care to wallow in any of it. But if it’s your cup of tea, have at it and sip deeply.

    • It’s so easy to be responsible for your own actions when you’re Anonymous.

    • Anon,
      Isn’t that the point though? “great writing, brilliant insight, raw emotions captured” is the reason for all of it, no? Why else do what we do?
      Take Lolita, grotesque subject matter. But was the book not despite that?

      (And in case my tone doesn’t come through, I’m genuinely curious, not berating you)

      • And I wasn’t trying to offend in my comments. As I said, I am conflicted. And, yes, I can appreciate your comments. But wading through something dealing with that subject matter just resonates the wrong way with me. As the father and grandfather of four daughters and four granddaughters the subject matter just turns my stomach. My thought would be that a man of God as Ms. Harrison’s’ father is/was? should have had his balls cut off. If he’s departed this mortal coil it is to be hoped he received his just reward. So, admittedly, the problem lies with the baggage I bring to the table on this one. Didn’t mean to offend anyone who feels differently. I’m pretty liberal and believe in different strokes, etc. This books just isn’t for me.

      • Lyra, I’ve been trying to get people to read this book for years. It’s a favorite of mine for so many reasons — the structure, voice, not naming names, and stripped down language are just brilliant. But I always find it’s a tough sell. Which is too bad. To not read this is to miss out on a writer in her finest form.

      • Anonymous, I’m glad I’m not one of your daughters or grandaughters. At best your attitiude says I don’t want to know, keep that smary stuff to yourself. At worst you insinuate its the victim’s fault.

  17. “Will you blurb me?”

  18. I have always admired this stunningly memoir and have read it twice. I am curious about her husband, but I don’t really need to know. The story is complete in itself.

  19. Thank you, Mme Pearlman. Personal references don’t have a lot of value and shouldn’t be required in order to persuade one of the literary value of a book. The question posed here was what question would l we like to ask KH. And my question remains, as above, about emotional dishonesty and does she give a shit about her children being forced to know that she made these choices in her life, among them, publishing this book and telling the world about these alleged events so insistently.

    SO not interested in how my question is judged here by the wannabe peanut gallery plus close personal acquaintences sent here by KH herself (who emailed her list about this post).

  20. I have corresponded with Kathryn, she is one of the finest human beings I’ve ever been in contact with. She has done the world a great service in having written The Kiss. It is hard for me to believe the handful of negative or nuetral comments I have read here. Reading is growing and understanding. Understanding is standing together in unity, the answer to a troubled and divided world. We should all take for granted the right to share our stories and find support. Imagine how many people, after having read Kathryn’s book, found the courage to come out with their own experiences and perhaps bring some peace into their lives. I am so glad The Kiss is being re-released and being brought to the attention of a new audience.

  21. Kathryn, I will forever be in awe of your courage to tell this story. And, yes, it is important the telling of this very personal story – because it is. It matters not what one blow -hole by the pseudonym of “um” states – she’s not my cup of tea.

    thank you

  22. My initial reaction of Kathryn’s controversial memoir was a feeling of embarrassment and, at the same time, a mixture of disgust and empathy for the author. I did not finish reading “The Kiss,” but, occasionally, I’d lift a few pages every time I saw it on my book shelves. I can’t continue reading in one setting because I feel guilty, as a former spiritual counselor, for a couple of young women that I used counsel with the same experience. I was not mature enough, then, to deal with this sensitive issue. Besides, to talk about it is a taboo in our culture and I had no appropriate words on what to say to my counselees at that time.

    In the case of Kathryn, whether her intention of publishing her memoir is propelled by ‘entrepreneurial sensationalism’ or emotional release from guilt is not an issue. This kind of personal story has to be revealed as a reference and reminder of the dark part of man’s familial relationship, morality, and culture. In any incestuous relationship, a woman is always a victim and Kathryn, despite the ramifications of her decision to publish her memoir, is courageous and heroic enough to tell her own story to liberate not only herself, but also other victim women so that they can also move on with their respective lives.

    A woman’s dignity is invincible. She may be beaten, abused, and abandoned, but she’s always capable of putting herself back together, nursing and nurturing her broken soul with self-esteem and meaning.

  23. Some books you just read. Great books you experience. This book is an experience.

    This memoir is a harrowing journey and I’ve struggled for years to find the words to describe the state I found myself in at the end of the book. I’ve now found them in the previous comments: “aching grace.”

    The Kiss is by far the most stunning piece of writing I have ever read. I can’t speak to whether it offers catharsis to other victims of incest, but for me it took me to emotional places that I never would have imagined. The story is deeply disturbing, no doubt, but the stark, controlled writing turns what might have been a tawdry, exploitative treatment into a moving journey from darkness to light.

    In the years since it was first published, there have been other controversial memoirs, some charting some of the same territory as this book, but The Kiss stands apart from all of them as a work of art. All the rest are gratuitously shocking, simplistic, and voyeuristic to read.

    Kathryn’s achievement in this book as that she holds the reader so close that we experience what she experienced rather than simply react to the story.

    As others have said, I’m in awe of her fearlessness in even attempting to write this book and in her unflinching steadiness in guiding us through it.

  24. “The Kiss” is the bravest book I’ve ever read. It reminds me of a reporter who goes to a dangerous place to get the truth- knowing that many people will not want to hear it, even after he/she has risked their life to do it. I think nothing is more important than turning a light into the darker corners of human existence, so we can see and learn and prevent in the future. And what a plus that Kathryn Harrison not only has the courage, but the words- her writing is beautiful and never defensive or overdramatic. What a gift this book is to both the literature on incestuous families, and to literature in general.

  25. My girlfriend brought The Kiss home for me today. I’ve only flipped through it, so far. Two things: Love the type set. and the first two pages—Beloved 1942-1985. And “We are, all of us, molded and remolded by those who have loved us, and though that love may pass, we remain none the less their work—a work that very likely they do not recognize, and which is never exactly what they intended.” And then the author of those words. That is beautiful. I’m looking forward to this book. Thanks, Betsy!

  26. I would ask Kathryn Harrison how she can so authentically and sensitively separate her writing self from the self of the memoir.

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