Life With Father: Incestuous and Soul-Deadening
By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
Published: February 27, 1997
By Kathryn Harrison
207 pages. Random House. $20.
Why do human beings commit incest? In her appalling but beautifully written memoir, ''The Kiss,'' Kathryn Harrison, the novelist, isn't primarily concerned with analyzing what happened between her and her father. She interweaves a series of dire events that occurred during the first 25 years of her life, jumping back and forth in time yet drawing you irresistibly toward the heart of a great evil.
Her narrative is spare and stark, written in a present tense that perfectly conveys how her experience happened ''out of time as well as out of place.'' ''We meet at airports,'' she begins, plunging the reader straight into the hell of the incestuous affair. ''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.''
Then she goes back to the start of her experience, when she first meets her estranged father as an adult. ''My father looks at me, then, as no one has ever looked at me before.'' Having not seen her since 10 years earlier, when she was 10, he is enthralled by her resemblance to him. When she drives him to the airport, he kisses her goodbye and ''pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn.''
She writes: ''In years to come, I'll think of the kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. The kiss is the point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralyzed. It's the drug my father administers in order that he might consume me. That I might desire to be consumed.''
You read on, for once dreading instead of looking forward to the inevitable consummation. You are stunned by the author's imagery of despair: the cockroach she traps under a glass the last night of her father's first visit, when she discovers that he is sleeping with her mother. The ''dim, drowned light'' in the basement apartment she rents when his obsessive attention forces her temporarily to withdraw from college after her junior year. The Polaroids her father takes of her naked: ''The expression on my face, flat and dispossessed, is one I see years later in a museum exhibit of pictures taken of soldiers injured during the Civil War.''
The reader's defense to this onslaught can only be to try to understand. And Ms. Harrison, 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.
She writes: ''From a mother who won't see me to a father who tells me I am there only when he does see me: perhaps, unconsciously, I consider this an existential promotion. I must, for already I feel that my life depends on my father's seeing me.''
But if any single emotion lies behind what happens, it is rage. The author feels rage at her mother's coldness, and avenges herself by possessing what her mother claims still to love. Her father feels rage at having been banished from his marriage, and avenges himself by possessing what survives of it.
''The greatest blindness we share, my father and I, is that neither of us knows how angry we are,'' she writes. ''It's perhaps because I cannot admit my fury that I don't see what he hides from himself. And he, long practiced in self-deception, doesn't see my anger either.
''Whatever passions we feel, we call love.''
What remains inexplicable is how Ms. Harrison survived not only incest but also rejection by both her parents as a young child, which led in turn to bouts of anorexia, bulimia and suicidal depression. How, given such a history, could she have become an academic star, a successful novelist and a wife and mother? How could she have survived at all?
Knowing that she did survive, one grasps at hints in ''The Kiss'' that her mother's parents, with whom she lived, gave her the necessary love and security. Yet she characterizes her maternal grandmother as a selfish, manipulative woman, and she writes that her grandfather rejected her when she reached puberty. In the end, the mystery of her healthy survival remains a flaw in her memoir.
Still, ''The Kiss'' is a powerful piece of writing, a testament to evil and hope. You wonder only if its power is too concentrated. In it Ms. Harrison has reworked the material she treated as fiction in her first two novels, ''Thicker Than Water'' and ''Exposure.'' At the end of a praising review of ''Thicker Than Water'' published in 1991, the novelist Scott Spencer asked astutely if that novel's autobiographical elements hadn't overwhelmed its art. ''Are we witnessing the beginning of a brilliant career or a bleeding soul's attempt to bind itself in a tourniquet of words?'' he asked. ''Can a novel ring too true for its own good?''
In ''The Kiss,'' Ms. Harrison effectively reverses the terms of this question, and makes you wonder if a memoir can ring too artistic for the truth.
Photo: Kathryn Harrison. (Joyce Ravid/Random House)
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