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Zhara Jaffrey

English 391W

December 20, 2010

Final Paper

                                    Kathryn Harrison- A Trustworthy Autobiographer

            The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison is an autobiographical memoir. An autobiographic memoir is written by a person themselves; it is a record containing intimate knowledge of them and is based on their own observations, it is the truth. Autobiography is a very new genre in writing and it is thus questionable, what one can and cannot consider a part of this genre. Some critics claim that Harrison’s autobiography was not published for the correct reasons, while others also claim that Harrison should not be considered to be a reliable narrator nor trustworthy. Both of these criticisms can be considered to be true but, once one takes a closer look at some of these claims they can also oppose this idea and say that because of the manner in which Harrison writes she a reliable and trustworthy narrator.

            I will argue that critics are wrong in making claims that Harrison is an unreliable and untrustworthy narrator, and that her reasons for writing this autobiography were wrong. Harrison includes many fairytale aspects in her autobiography; this does not mean that her story is a tale. The fairytale aspects in the autobiography are not necessarily included to show that the writing was properly thought out and for fame but, in order to represent how she feels about certain events in her life. They are the ways in which she wishes to see life and wishes that life was, but unfortunately it is the opposite. Another reason for the fairytale aspects being in the novel is the fact that Harrison loses much of her childhood in the deprivation of love from her parents, the fairytale aspects are a way to regain some part of her childhood that may still be with her.

            Eakin writes that there are three laws which need to be followed in order to be a reliable autobiographer, according to him the first is telling the truth, the second is “infringement of the right of privacy [and the third is ] failure to display normative models of personhood.” These laws are what Eakin makes the claim off of, that Harrison is breaking some of the laws. If the rule of truth telling is broken there is no autobiography because the “truth telling” is part of the definition of autobiography.

 The second rule is the infringement of the right of privacy; “damage to one’s reputation” as Eakin defines it. In The Kiss this is one of the first laws that the reader observes to be broken, although, as Eakin mentions is comes at odds with truth-telling. (Eakin,114) Harrison’s telling of this truth about the sexual abuse that she experienced with her father in order to receive love damages his reputation and thus breaks the second rule. She not only exposes her father but, also her children, her step mother and step siblings. As Eakin tells his readers, Harrison was praised for her honesty but, at the same time criticized for victimizing her two children to the truth and horror of her past. Harrison broke this code of law and is thus considered unreliable but, because she broke this law she should be considered more reliable. Critics claim that she was a sophmore at college thus she should have had power over herself, but she shows herself as a victim. They make the claim that she “manipulating” the reader by breaking the law into making herself seem to be the victim.

            The final rule of  “failure to display normative models of personhood,” is also considered to be broken by Harrison. This is due to the taboo topic that Harrison writes her memoir about; incest. She fails to display a normative natural lifestyle. The lack of her parents love and affection to her, the fact she only sees her father twice before their liaison begins and that her mother does not acknowledge her, “If I wake her, she doesn’t talk to me. She stalks around the room as if enraged, a wild astonished look on her face. I make myself small”(8). He mother ignores her, avoids her, and her father only enters into her life once she has developed and only wants one thing from her. Although it is considered that Harrison fails to show normative models of personhood because of the fact that there is a taboo incestuous relationship that is the focus of the autobiography, Elizabeth Marshall says “one of America’s most popular misconceptions, especially in the white middle-class family, is that father-daughter incest is rare occurrence. The crime of incest often goes unreported and unpunished in part because of a cultural silence” (College English,403). Harrison’s inability to show her live in a normative manner is another reason she is said to be unreliable, but in order to follow the first law of truth telling it was necessary for her to break the latter two, because she breaks these rules she should be considered to be reliable. She is not constricted within any boundaries and tells the complete truth.

Lisa Alther makes the claim: “Telling the truth about what one has undergone—whether in therapy, to a friend, on the written page, or in confessional—is one way people struggle to recover from trauma, and The Kiss bears the hallmarks of just such attempted exorcism” (Alther, 34). From this claim one learns that in order to recover from a trauma one needs to either, go to therapy, write it down, give a confession, or confide in a friend, in Harrison’s case she decides to take the risk and write it on paper and have the world learn about her secret. Alther’s idea allows one to confirm that although in order to write an autobiography there are rules that need to be followed, in order to tell the truth if one needs they can break some rules, and that writing an autobiography can also be considered a healing process.

            Another reason that Harrison is considered to be an unreliable or untrustworthy narrator is because critics believe that she uses ideas from fairytales in order to tell her story. It is true that Harrison makes allusions to fairytales, but this does not necessarily mean that her story is a fictional tale, it can also mean that it is the manner in which she sees her own life. Using the combination of the fairy tale and personal narrative Harrison does an amazing job to show her life of sexual abuse. Fairy tales may show a daughter spending her adolescence in servicing the evil step mother like in Cinderella, where Cinderella does all the chores for the step mother and step sisters as though she is their servant. The princess may be waiting for a prince in a glass coffin or in an isolated space like in Rapunzel when she is locked in a tower and needs to wait for the prince to climb up via her hair and save her, but Harrison spends this time of adolescence in the hands of her father. Incest is not put into western fairytales and thus although there are fairy tale like aspects in this autobiography, which may make it seem to be fiction there is the truth about the promiscuous relationship she and her father have that is not shown in any western fairytale the we are familiar with. The fairytale aspects are can also be said to be a part of her childhood which she never truly experience because not being acknowledged by her parents. Another reason the fairytale aspects are in the autobiography is that psychologically Harrison does not grow up and nor does she go through the regular stages of sexual development because she does not have her father in her childhood, now that he comes back to her life this is her time to grow up and go through what girls feel when they are younger. She is developing her sexuality later in life. (Hodger-blackburn)

            Harrison says “Is there a way to tell a stranger that once upon a time I fell from grace, I was lost so deeply in a dark wood that I’m afraid I’ll never be safe again?” “Once upon a time” is the manner in which most fairy tales begin and the end with “Happily ever after,” in Harrison’s memoir she does say this line but in the end of her memoir not at the beginning and “Happily ever after is nowhere to be found. Being “lost” and in the “woods” is also an allusion and sounds fairy tale like, but because of the place in the memoir that we read it at, it seems to be her true state of mind. She is lost and does not know where to go, her head are the dark woods, the unknown paths that she needs to go down and her future are all the dark woods. This is the manner in which she is looking at her life in.

            Sleep is another very interest symbol in the memoir, it is the mask that her mother hides behind and one that she later also learns to hide behind. Initially it the mother that is continuously sleeping and Harrison trying to awaken her in order for her to notice that she has a daughter and give her some attention but, this does not happen. Once her mother does arise she is not a calm grateful sleeping beauty but, an enraged one. “Smoke arrises from her mouth, her hand. It slowly, dizzily, swaying back  and forth like a snake charmer’s flute. Her eyes, when they turn at last towards me, are like two empty mirrors. I can’t find myself in them” (9). She does not see herself in her mother’s eyes, does not see acceptance, love, nor acknowledgement. Sleep reminds me of sleeping beauty, nothing is to wake her up except for her “true love” whereas when Harrison sleeps it is to get away from the violence and abuse of her father, it is to coop with what is happening to her. She is acquiring the attention of the father but, not in the same manner as that she should. Harrison also sleeps when she is talking to her father on the phone (Minok,232).

            Harrison describes the first sexual event between the father and daughter as the first kiss that occurs when she goes to drop him to the airport.

“As I pull away, feeling the resistance of his hand behind my head, how tightly he holds me to him, the kiss changes. It is no longer a chaste, closed-lipped kiss. My Father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn…I am frightened by the kiss. I know it is wrong, and its wrongness is what lets me know, too, that it is secret…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…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. (69-70)

Harrison first describes what happens and how the kiss occurs she then she begins to tell the reader about her feelings about the wrongness of the kiss. The important part about the quotation that I have taken out of Harrisons memoir is the fact that she feels it as a sting, it is a narcotic that spread from her mouth to her brain and thus causing her brain to sleep and surrender to her father for him to do as he pleases. The kiss has a fairytale like idea of a poison, which is to destroy the princess so that evil step mother or queen has her way. Here Harrison places her father in that role of an evil rapacious monster that poisons her. He seems to give her this poison many times as it is that Harrison clearly says “Oh, I know the facts, but I can’t remember what it felt like. I’m Anaesthetized: I think I’m not ready to face it” (Contemporary Criticisms, 249). She remembers the occurrences but does not remember her feelings, she claims she is paralyzed, is this emotional paralysis. A fairytale aspect here would be that the father’s kiss is a spell that becomes cast under, this is the spell that destroys her until she is able to come out of it which happens when her mother dies.

            Although memoir’s are a very trusted source there is a question to how much one can trust of another’s memory or even of their own. Paul Eakin in Narrative Identity explains that “Consciousness is not a neutral medium in which memories can be replayed and the past repeated intact… ‘Recollection is a kind of perception… and every context will alter the nature of what is recalled’.”  Even if one thinks they truly remember something some part of it will be distorted depending on the context. It is definitely safe to assume that every autobiography may have some small detailed misplaced but nothing that would be large enough to misplace the whole of the autobiography. If critics say Harrison may have had the ability to ignore her father’s advances then she may really have but, she like any child was starving for the love of her parents and this was the only way she felt she could get it. Harrison is reliable because she tells her story in the manner that she remembers it. Eakin also puts a quotation from Strawson saying “the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk from moving away from …the truth of your being.” Here Eakin clearly puts forth the idea to take all of the details given with a grain of salt. So that one may say she can be somewhat unreliable with minor matters but, definitely not with the whole story. She is a trustworthy narrator because she is writing about herself through breaking rules, in order to tell the full truth.

            As the story goes on  Harrison’s grandfather dies, which is cause the first realizations of what Harrison has been doing, in herself. She begins to show a concern for education , which means she will possibly go back and finish her college education,   Marshall explains this occurrence to be the beginning of an awakening from the poisonous kiss. She also says “it is her mother’s death that finally breaks her father’s spell.” When Harrison’s mother passes away Harrison can freely touch her body without any boundaries and restrictions this when her father spell finally breaks on her.

Harrison’s long hair is also a fairytale object which is incorporated into her autobiography. It represented her sense of self (Hodgeson-Blackburn,147). “Having my hair cut off and then giving it to my mother is a complex act, one with layers of meaning. There are things I need to tell my mother before she dies, before she leaves me; and I speak, as  I always have, with the body she gave me, the one she carried inside her,” (195). Harrison cutting off her hair for her mother before she died was a way to let her mother know that the incestuous relationship that she and her father had had ended. Harrison confesses that she used her hair as a safeguard from her femaleness. After Harrison cuts off her hair she feels the ability to control her own life and her future. Initially Harrison uses her hair to hide her body from people once she had started menstruating; her hair is not only a symbol of sexuality but also one of innocence.

A critic, Brooke Allen, claims that the central figure in the novel is Kathryn’s mother, who she as a child loves obsessively but, her mother does not pay attention to her until the very end of her own life. Harrison’s mother gets married, has a child, and then cannot take care of Harrison and so her grandmother steps in and raises the child. Allen makes the claim that the autobiography is dedicated to the mother not with love but, to show her rage towards her mother. This in many ways does not seem to make sense because the last dream that Harrison depicts for the reader is that she and the mother meet and express their love for one another. Another reason that Harrison cannot hate her mother is because she cuts off her hair for her mother in order to show her that what was sexually wrong with the situation is not there anymore. She shows the mother that the hair which was her sense of self can be eliminated but, the mother daughter love, bond and relationship cannot be taken away.

Harrison writes that her mother took her to the doctor a number of time when her menstruation ceased. She also tells her readers that her mother had the doctor put in a diaphragm although Harrison was still a Virgin. Here Harrison says “The doctor deflowers me in front of my mother…I lie on the table, a paper sheet over my knees, my hands over my eyes.” According to Nicci Gerrerd because the daughter was technically deflowered by her mother, or by the doctor because of her mother, and her mother watched this occur, she lost her virginity in a way to her mother who caused the initial act. Then her father was the first “person” she had sex with and thus she lost her virginity to no other then her parents. This is first the symbolic rape by her mother and then the literal action that her father commits is the actual rape done.

According to Hodgson-Blackburn, Harrison has written this novel to come to terms with the loss of her father, it is the mourning process during which a daughter re-evaluates her role in the family. Harrison’s family represents an unstable, chaotic, torn family unit in which in order to attain love which she finally sees in her father’s eyes she is paralyzed by him. Harrison shows that she wanted to acquire her own self-identity and in the process of doing so there was a necessity to go through the steps that other women had gone through during girlhood. Her father only begins to show interest in the wife and daughter he leaves behind when she is sexually developed. These details show the things that were going on in Harrison’s life and sort of give her thinking some logic to why she did and acted the way she did. The writing of this autobiography is purely to deal with the injury she herself had to face.

Many Critics make the claim that Harrison is an unreliable and untrustworthy writer because she publishes her autobiography for the wrong reasons, which according to some such as Wolcott are only to acquire fame and money. Other critics claim that she has exposed her two young children. Harrison shows herself as the victim of an incestuous relationship with her father, but critics make the claim that she was twenty at the time the relationship started and lasted four years. Harrison should have been able to take a step and get out of the situation, this is true, but one has to take into consideration the background information Harrison gives the reader. Such as, the fact that she was always trying to acquire her mother’s attention and love, and she had never had her father’s love, she was abandoned by both parents and when she saw love in her father’s eyes she drove straight for the attention not truly knowing what it entailed. She never mentions any names and does not expose the whereabouts of her father, if she was trying a get rich quick scheme she would have more than likely given names, or whereabouts of certain people.

Harrison is criticized for writing such a memory and occurrences in her life in an autobiography because they deny private and public spheres (Gilmore). Harrison has a different way of writing her memoir in the sense that she does not show herself as a victim nor as a villain but instead as “a subject coming to terms more with the mystery of her agency than her injury” (Gilmore, 719). She is basically coming to an understanding about what happened and how she herself reacted in the situation and not to her injury and her feelings about the occurrences, one of the most important points that proves Harrison is a trustworthy writer.

Alther in Blaming the Victim claims that “the difference between memoir and fiction lies primarily in the contract with the reader.”  This is to say that a reader is the one who has the ability to judge whether a writer is telling the truth or fiction and similarly Gilmore says “Harrison [has] truths to tell, but who we are and where we are when we listen depends also on which jurisdictions have mapped us” (716). Only the reader can truly decide whether the writer, in this Kathryn Harrison, is telling the truth, and whether she is unreliable or reliable. In my personal reading of Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss I felt she was a truly honest and trustworthy person in what she has written for the reader, although she has used fairytale symbols such as hair, poison, kiss, and breaking of a spell and psychologist have proven that memory is distorted based on the context that one tries to recollect a memory in. Gilmore  says “trauma injuries not only the person but also the person’s sense of time, splitting it into before and after, hypostatizing the traumatic contents of the past in flashbacks, and disordering memory”(712). This quotation makes the claim that Harrison has gone through a traumatic event because of which she continuously seems to shift the reader back and forth through time, her own personal trauma has not yet hit her and thus even the reader seems to have a delayed effect. One cannot make the claim that Harrison is unreliable or untrustworthy because she breaks rules nor because she uses fairytale fictional aspects in her telling of her autobiography, but one can definitely make the claim that Harrison is a trustworthy and reliable narrator because of all the information she gives the reader, because of the rules she breaks and because of the truthful manner in which she does not seem to hide anything from the reader.

















Works Cited:

Allen, Brooke. “Devouring Love”. New Criterion. Volume 15. No.9. May 1997. 64-69

Alther, Lisa. “Blaming the Victim.” The Women’s Review of Books. July 1997. 33-34. Print

Eakin, Paul John. “Breaking Rules: The Consequences of Self Narration.” Biography. Winter

2001. 113-127. Print.

Eakin, Paul John. “Narrative Identity and Narrative Imperialism: A Response to Galen Strawson
          and James Phelan”. Narrative. Volume 14, No. 2. May 2006. 180-187. Print.

Gerrard, Nicci. “Father, We Have Sinned”. Observer. April 1997. 17

Gilmore, Leigh. Jurisdictions: I, Rigoberta Menchu, The Kiss, and the Scandalous Self-
           Representation in the Age of Memoir and Truama. Signs Volume 28, No.2. Winter 2003.     
           695-718. Print.

Harrison, Kathryn. The Kiss-A memoir. New York. First Bard Printing, 1998. Print.

Hodgson-Blackburn, Jacqueline. “Kiss and Tell: ‘The Writing Cure’ in Kathryn Harrison’s The

Kiss.” The Feminist Review. Summer 2001. Print.

Kaveney, Roz. “Fate in Frocks”. New Statesman and Society. Volume 8. Number 363. July 1995.

Marshall, Elizabeth. “The Daughter’s Disenchantment: Incest as Pedagogy in Fairy Tales and

Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss”. College English Volume 66,Number 4. March 2004. 403-

424. Print

Minok, Dan. “The Kiss, and: Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You”. Fourth
        Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Volume 2, No.1. Spring 2000. 231-232.

Parker, David. “Counter-Transference in Reading Autobiography: The Case of Kathryn
           Harrison’s The Kiss”. Biography. Volume 25, No. 3, Summer 2002. 493-504.

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December 21st, 2010 at 3:19 am

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