Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

Years later, a woman relates the affair she had with her father

Kathryn, the accidental child of two teenagers, is raised by her elderly grandparents. Her immature mother makes a point to display her resentment. Her father, asked by the grandparents to disappear, fails to see Kathryn for years on end. When Kathryn is at college, her parents reconnect for the weekend, a weekend in which her father grows besotted with his daughter’s grown up blonde beauty, so like his own. Kathryn also realizes her parents have resumed their sexual relationship. At the airport, her father, a Presbyterian minister (!), sticks his tongue in her mouth. This is the eponymous kiss. She drops out of college, accompanies him to his parents’ house. That night, he enters her room, lifts her nightgown, and performs oral sex on her. He pesters and pesters her for coitus, and finally she agrees. For four years, their affair continues. He is sexually possessive and eventually brings her to live into his house with his wife and kids. Finally her unhappy mother dies of cancer, crystalizing Kathryn's disgust at her participation in the relationship.  The affair is over.

This short slight memoir read like a horror movie, impossible to put down. The dread, the compulsion. The tongue kiss at the airport is like the scaly monster appearing from behind the bedroom door. The story, which took place long in the past, is narrated in present tense, heightening the narrator's passivity, the lack of thinking things through. Most characters are depicted as horrid and there is not the slightest hint of humor. What seems a little unbelievable is Kathryn’s complete lack of agency in a four year sexual affair, but I accepted that an emotionally abandoned young woman could be fascinated by a longed for father’s fascination, and also that her father seduced her, in the old fashioned usage of the word. Led astray. Like a trick.

The structure is more than a little by the numbers, a kiss at the beginning, a kiss at the end, a journey into darkness. The structure is necessary, I think, because the material is so dangerously hot. Rich with symbols. The long hair, the fat body, the thin body. It’s all about mortification and a teenage girl’s masochism. Dad is definitely presented as creepy, or at least an excellent candidate for character assassination. It would have been interesting to get his point of view.

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