I see the bravado required to be funny and beguiling when what you really are is old and aching and breathless from congestive heart failure, when what you really are is afraid.
Kathryn Harrison is such a tricky author. A writer of quietly powerful, serious talents, her nonfiction can be uncomfortably confessional, and is deeply personal to the point of being self-obsessive or sometimes neurotic.
And she doesn’t always come across as likable in describing her choices and behavior, but it’s clear that neither does she intend to. In anticipation of reading her upcoming memoir On Sunset, I played catch-up and read this collection of memoir-in-essays from 2016. Despite its title it has nothing to do with true crime, beyond the ones she’s doing penance for in her own mind.
It’s also the first of her nonfiction I’ve read since her infamous 1997 memoir The Kiss, which details the incestuous relationship, I hesitate to call it consensual, she had with her absent father after reconnecting with him at age 20. So it goes without saying that there’s a lot to unpack in her personal storytelling and the emotional and psychological issues she’s grappled with throughout her lifetime.
These issues also include her abandonment by her materialistic, shoe-obsessed mother to be raised by her grandparents, who although they seem loving and best-intentioned (their lives structure the content of On Sunset) are unable to fill the void left by her dysfunctional parental relationships.
I liked The Kiss when I read it, deeply disturbing as it is, because it’s actually not as icky-squicky horrifyingly unusual as it may seem: it illustrates the phenomenon of genetic sexual attraction, when close blood relatives who didn’t previously know each other meet as adults and begin a relationship. If you like reading about experiences outside the norm, it definitely fits the bill.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still repulsive and Harrison’s father undoubtedly took advantage of her personal insecurities, her constant longing for her absent parents, and a myriad other psychological issues that had long been plaguing her to conduct the relationship. And I’m confident I wouldn’t get as much out of it reading it now more than a decade later, but it broadened my horizons in terms of topics I could stomach and what memoir is capable of, so for that it’s significant. I also think Harrison can be a brilliantly talented writer, and when that comes across in any of her work, it’s sublime. Unfortunately her writing can be less compelling in other moments, and that goes for her in any genre.
Anyway, that’s to establish the person who’s writing these stories, which I think is important in deciding whether it’s a book for you. This is someone so comfortable with confession that she wrote an entire book about that relationship with her father, and another about coming to terms with the demons on her mother’s side. She’s no stranger to turning herself inside out and spilling it all over the page and I respect that kind of bravery when the end product has literary value.
And she really can be an exquisite, eloquent writer – she makes the grating confessional personal essays on sites like Salon and xoJane seem that much more juvenile and shlocky in comparison. Though I didn’t get much out of her novels I’ve read (Thicker Than Water, a fictionalized version of The Kiss, and Exposure, which I don’t remember at all) I find her nonfiction more absorbing. It’s the combination of topics – uncomfortable aspects of human nature, love and relationships, revealing dark, ugly feelings or compulsions – told in her rich, smart, and sometimes surprisingly funny voice, that I love. And it takes a little emotional instability, a little anxiety about life, health, relationships, some uneasiness in your own past, to connect with her stories, I think.
With the exception of a piece describing an amusing research trip she took for her biography of Joan of Arc, the topics covered in True Crimes are family-centric: life with husband and children, an illness of her own and the one that claimed her beloved father-in-law, issues of aging and mortality as her grandmother gets older and unable to live alone, that deep, troublesome love for parents who don’t care for you like you need them to and how you try to rectify those mistakes with your own children. It’s heavy stuff, sometimes too weighty. It’s best read tempered with something sunnier in between essays.
Harrison hints in the title piece at the maybe-abuse and definite manipulation she experienced with her father, finally realizing a connection between it and the lurid true crime stories and books she obsessively reads. She bluntly admits considering suicide after the relationship with him, seemingly irreparably horrified at herself but deciding to keep going despite the brokenness: “I put the gun back on the shelf and let what was left of me live.”
But she keeps hurting and punishing herself in other ways, and she must have a wonderfully understanding husband:
Didn’t I realize I was punishing myself? my husband asked me. Once he sensed intent behind what I believed was accidental, he began to challenge my insistence that I was just clumsy, that was all. After years by my side, he saw what I could not. There were only so many ways of mining my comfortable married life for penance.
But Harrison has no issues mining her interior life, her thoughts and emotions and aspects of her relationships, for writing material. She tells one story of letting loose a family dog that was driving her crazy, a story that makes her seem particularly unlikable but somehow at the same time, oddly relatable in her frayed emotional state; others that rang sympathetically were about her grandparents, and were a good introduction for her new memoir. I liked the stories that delve into her life with them best, as they seem by far the most positive influences on her and were quirky and worldly themselves.
These stories are very much a mixed bag. The weightiness of the subjects sometimes leaves you with a feeling almost of struggling for air, elsewhere Harrison’s incredible ability to describe, so thoroughly and vividly, how she felt, or how an experience felt, is extraordinary. When that kind of descriptive ability is paired with familiar topics – deaths of loved ones, guilt, complicated relationships – it’s like peeking into someone’s head as they confess during a therapy session, and even reading it feels oddly cathartic.
Some excellent writing, some uncomfortably close examinations of complicated emotions and bad behavior, and a “family album” certainly unlike any other I’ve paged through. 3.5/5